Grow Others Spiritually

What it takes to Grow People Spiritually: Reflecting on Dallas Willard’s not so surprising strategy

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The late Dallas Willard gave this surprising answer to a question posed by a pastor as to how to help his people grow spiritually:

“You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.”

Willard was one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers of our generation. A trained philosopher, he was a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) for decades.

Willard Offered Advice on Spiritual Formation

Dallas Willard was not only a philosopher; he was a theologian with a deep passion for discipleship and spiritual formation.

Since his passing in 2013, several of Willard’s mentees have been sharing gems and nuggets they learned from him.

Notable among them is John Ortberg, a shining star among contemporary evangelical pastors. It turns out that he had access to Willard and is the pastor who posed the question.

Here is the full transcript of that brief exchange:

Ortberg: I would like for the people in my church to grow more spiritually —to be more spiritually formed. What do I do?

Willard: [Long pause] You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.

Ortberg: No, I’m not asking about me. I have all these people in my church who I want to grow.

Willard: I know, but when you’re involved in ministry, the main thing that you reproduce is yourself, because people are always looking at you, and the people who are closest to you see you the clearest. And if there’s a gap between what you teach and how you live, they will always move toward how you live, because how you live is the mental map of the way things really are.

Grow Your Own Relationship with the Lord

This is profound and insightful. Leaders, especially those in pastoral ministry, are to seek after the spiritual growth and development of those under their care, and the most effective strategy for doing so is to, first and foremost, be deeply rooted and growing in their own relationship with the Lord.

This isn’t to discount the many tried and proven resources designed to help Christians grow. Rather, this is to underscore the foundational nature of the leader’s own person growth.

The Main Thing You Reproduce is Yourself

Willard offers this as the basis for his assertion: “…when you’re involved in ministry, the main thing that you reproduce is yourself.” Of the leadership principles I’ve come across over the past 25 years, this one has sobered me the most. I first heard it from John Maxwell, who says it this way: “We teach what we know, but we can only reproduce what we are.”

That’s because people are always looking at the leader, and, as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s legendary tale of The Great Stone Face illustrates, they eventually come to resemble what they’re gazing at!

Followers See How You Live

Willard’s final line is therefore critical in this regard. When how a leader lives falls short of what he professes, those following him will be naturally inclined toward how he lives, because that creates their “mental map of the way things really are.”

A person’s mental map is their worldview, their conscious and subconscious beliefs and assumptions about the world around them and the way life works and doesn’t work. It determines how people behave and is shaped and colored by what is modeled by those whom they perceive has it together.

It therefore follows that the importance of a leader’s influence cannot be overstated. What leaders do really matters because “people do what people see.”

What leaders do really matters because people do what people see. – Whaid Rose Share on X

This invites personal introspection. Are there gaps between what we as leaders say and the way we live? What are we prepared to do to grow ourselves?

Practice Personal Discipleship and Spiritual Formation

The good news is that the Christian arena abounds with resources that can help us upgrade our leadership. But since this article highlights Dallas Willard, let me point you to the books left to his legacy: The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, and The Great Omission.

These bestselling books are wonderfully resourceful for personal discipleship and spiritual formation. For example, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, he helps us see how those practices such as solitude, prayer, meditation, and sacrificial service, often regarded as the stuff of Eastern religions and monastic lifestyle, are embedded in the biblical gospel and can help contemporary Christians deepen their walk with the Lord.

In Renovation of the Heart, he carefully guides us in harmonizing those key aspects of our human self —spirit, mind, soul and body — in a way that transforms us into happy and whole students of Jesus.

The Best Strategy for Growing People is to Grow Yourself

So, back to the main point: the best strategy for growing people spiritually is to first grow ourselves. In so doing we model the change we wish to see in them. This change results from the intentional arrangement of our days in such a way that we are “experiencing deep contentment, joy, and confidence in our everyday life with God.”

The best strategy for growing people spiritually is to first grow ourselves. – Whaid Rose Share on X

Speaking of the critical role which leaders play, especially during times of crisis, someone has well observed that “We tend to hang heavy weights on thin wires.”

That’s how John Maxwell’s popular quote—“Everything rises and falls on the basis of leadership”—makes me feel. But therein is the paradox of the leadership challenge. As Paul reminds us, the fragile nature of our clay jars is “to make clear that our great power is from God and not from ourselves” (see 2 Cor. 4:7, NLT).

Lead from the Overflow of Your Relationship with Jesus

It is this perspective, recognizing the thinness of our wires against the real source of the power, which should drive us to so order our lives that we can lead from the overflow of our deep and abiding relationship with Jesus.

When this happens, growth follows naturally, both in ourselves and in those we lead. And we shouldn’t be surprised because Jesus said it, “When a student is fully trained, he will become like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

And Paul could therefore confidently say to the Philippians, “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do, and the God of peace will be with you” (4:9, NLT).

So always remember—we grow others by first growing ourselves, because they are always looking at us, and they eventually become what they’re gazing at.

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Whaid Rose

Whaid Rose, former president of the General Conference, is dean of the Artios Center for Vibrant Leadership and pastors the Newton, NC CoG7. He and his wife, Marjolene, live in Denver, NC.