Spiritual Leadership – J. Oswald Sanders

Spiritual Leadership J Oswald Sanders
Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence For Every Believer by J. Oswald Sanders
Published by Moody Publishers on July 4, 2017
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Over 1 million copies sold

What every church will always need
The need for talented, vigorous leaders in the church cannot be overemphasized. Such times demand active service of men and women who are guided by and devoted to Jesus Christ.
With more than 1 million copies sold, Spiritual Leadership stands as a proven classic for developing such leadership. J. Oswald Sanders, a Christian leader for nearly seventy years and author of more than forty books, presents the key principles of leadership in both the temporal and spiritual realms. He illustrates his points with examples from Scripture and biographies of eminent men of God, such as Moses, Nehemiah, the apostle Paul, David Livingstone, Charles Spurgeon, and others.
Featured topics include:
The cost of leadershipThe responsibility of leadershipTests of leadershipThe qualities and criteria of leadershipThe art of reproducing leadersThe one indispensable requirement of leadershipSanders holds that even natural leadership qualities are God-given, and their true effectiveness can only be reached when they are used to the glory of God. Let this classic be your guide for leadership, and watch how God works through you to do great things for His glory.

Spiritual Leadership was borne out of a series of lectures that J. Oswald Sanders delivered to the leaders of Overseas Missionary Fellowship in 1964 and 1966 as the organization—which had been known as China Inland Mission for a century—attempted to discover its identity in the wake of newly-Communist China expelling all missionaries. Sanders served as general director of the organization as it made this transition, leading the organization into a new era of faithfulness and fruitfulness. Those lectures were an integral part of that transition and remain relevant and useful to this day. Sanders’ ministry transcended a number of cultures and nations and now also transcends the generations with timeless advice based on his experiences, observations, and study.

Originally published in 1967, Spiritual Leadership quickly proved to be popular and beneficial. Even as leadership studies as an academic discipline began to flourish and other popular-level works on leadership were published, Sanders’ work continued to be revised and reprinted as each generation discovered his words of wisdom. In 2017, Moody Publishers significantly revised the work, updating the language for clarity and relevance to the contemporary reader, ensuring that Sanders’ insights were not lost amid generational changes.

Structural Overview

Spiritual Leadership has been broadly constructed into a sequential order that moves from the reason for the book—a need for strong spiritual leadership—to a concluding exhortation to persevere in such spiritual leadership. As the book progresses, the tone moves from exhorting individuals to leadership (chaps. 1-2), to training young leaders in leadership (chaps. 3-13), to encouraging established leaders to improve in leadership (chaps. 14-17, 21), to outlining how leaders can create new leadership (chaps. 18-20), then concluding with a case study of Nehemiah as an archetype of spiritual leadership (chap. 22).

Because of the book’s genesis as a lecture series, there are points at which Spiritual Leadership feels repetitious or seems superficially incohesive. For example, one chapter refers to Paul as lonely (143) while another says he had “a genius for friendship” (82). While not inherently contradictive, Sanders offers two contrastive views of Paul that, if originally written in a single work, might have been better reconciled. That occasional lack of definitional clarity is probably the book’s singular structural weakness. In one chapter, “every Christian is a leader” (131) but in another there is a dearth of Christian leadership (18). A careful reading can gather that Sanders means that there is a lack of qualified, willing leaders—a fact made ironic in the light that all Christians are called to be leaders—but more could have been done in the editing process to ensure greater precision and clarity for the average reader.

The positive aspect to the structure is that one is able to see how common themes and emphases emerge from various chapters. Usually, a single book is written in a singular context. This book, as a compilation of disparate lectures, gives readers a view of Sanders’ philosophy at different times and in different contexts. For example, two chapters focus on leadership insights from Paul and Peter, while the chapters that follow cover essential leadership qualities. As Paul and Peter have informed Sanders’ philosophy of essential leadership skills, there is some repetition in these chapters, but this allows readers to see how Sanders gets to the same principles through different perspectives, giving them a panoramic focus on leadership rather than through a single lens.

Strengths of Spiritual Discipline

Spiritual Discipline is a classic work that has meant a lot to many Christian leaders throughout the past half-century. Its big-picture view has helped it maintain relevance and allowed leaders to apply its principles to their specific contexts. There is much to commend about this book, but it is these three principles that ring strongest—both as core principles of the book and as vital lessons to remember today.

The Need for Discipline. The primary theme of Spiritual Leadership is that leadership requires a disciplined life. Sanders holds this quality of leadership as foundational to all the others: “Before we can conquer the world, we must first conquer the self” (60). Throughout the book, he builds on this theme, noting that this discipline is Spirit-led (40) and extends to all areas of one’s life. Too often, “discipline” is given a negative connotation and made into a synonym of “punishment.” This takes away from what can be positively gained by a life that is controlled, restrained, and guided by the Spirit. Sanders grasps the positive influence of discipline and returns to that theme continually. Above all, Spiritual Discipline is about creating habits of self-discipline or submitting to the Lord’s discipline through Scripture and the Spirit.

The Divine Ordination of Leadership. Sanders boldly claims that not all placed into positions of leadership are true leaders. Leaders are not “elected, appointed, or created by synods or churchly assemblies. God alone creates them” (18). This fits with Sanders’ assertion that leadership should not be sought for selfish purposes, but only as part of fulfilling God’s calling. By situating leadership as a divine calling, Sanders makes it clear that while the leader may answer to a board above him or followers under him, his primary obligation is to the Lord. This makes leadership more than just a vocation, transforming natural leadership into spiritual leadership (chap. 4). Sanders also ensures that his readers understand that spiritual leadership is accessible to anyone. Leadership is influence, and we all have influence over others in our particular contexts (131). Even if our leadership is not recognized by a job title, those whom God has called to lead must lead. Christians can be spiritual leaders without being in traditional leadership roles.

The Community of Leadership. While Sanders does not commit to this ethic entirely, the overall tone of Spiritual Leadership appears to view leadership within the context of community. The Kingdom of God is seen as a “community where each member served the others” (21). In another chapter, he spends some time talking about the value of friendship (82-84). When leadership is viewed as something in which the community participates, authoritarian power structures give way to a community of friends gathered in mutual service for a common goal. This is the leadership model exemplified by Jesus through his disciples (Jn. 15:15). Sanders illustrates this model by making liberal use of quotations, anecdotes, and stories from other leaders. The tenets of Spiritual Leadership are not Sanders’ alone, but part of a common tradition of leadership values—values shared by great Christian preachers and missionaries, with specific focus on those connected to China Inland Mission. Sanders preaches and models leadership based in community, servanthood, and relational connection. While all of these facets are at the forefront of modern leadership studies, this was not the case in the 1960s. Sanders, by offering timeless truths mined from Scripture and the Spirit, was truly ahead of his time.

Weaknesses of Spiritual Discipline

Though there is much to be commended about Spiritual Leadership, there are elements to the book that are a product of their time or are not given enough nuance and clarification within the confines of such a small volume.

Leaders Must Be Tired. In his chapter on the cost of leadership, Sanders states bluntly that “Fatigue is the price of leadership” (143). This is a dangerous statement. While leaders should be willing to work hard, we should not make an idol out of hard work or tiredness. Fatigue is not proof of success or evidence of holiness. Tiredness can leave leaders physically vulnerable to illness and spiritually vulnerable to temptation. It can impede our decision-making abilities, causing us to be less productive. Most of all, chronic work-related fatigue is evidence that God’s command to sabbath is not being taken seriously. Rest is holy (Genesis 2:1-3), yet while Sanders mentions work repeatedly throughout the book, the concept of Sabbath is not once discussed. While God may lead us through seasons of busyness, chronic busyness is a failure of leadership whether as a failure to delegate responsibility or a failure through taking on too much responsibility. Scripture says to “redeem,” (Eph. 5:16) not regiment the time. Allowing space for rest and living in the shalom of God is part of that redemption.

Leaders Must Be Better Than Their Followers. A second area of concern is the language that Sanders uses to describe the divide between the leader and the follower. For Sanders, “A true leader influences others spiritually only because the Spirit works in and through him to a greater degree than those he leads” (30). They should “outpace the rest of the church” (98) in prayer and have “strength and faith beyond the merely average” (18). This language separates the leader from the communal group of followers, creating a competition of sorts as it encourages the leader to evaluate themselves on the basis of their followers rather than their faithfulness.

Leaders Must Achieve Their Objective. Sanders concludes the book with an overview of the ministry of Nehemiah and, in the final sentences of that chapter, suggests that “The test of spiritual leadership is the achievement of its objective” (203). This seems to suggest that success is the metric on which spiritual leadership is measured, which is problematic without clarification of what comprises success. In context, Sanders is talking about Nehemiah and the earthly, tangible, immediate success of rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. Leaders who gauge their spiritual faithfulness around tangible successes (e.g. size of congregation, financial status) may find themselves feeling like failures. Sometimes God raises leaders who are faithful, obedient, and unsuccessful in their intended goals. William Borden, a one-time member of China Inland Mission, died of spinal meningitis before he could go on the missionary field. Was he a spiritual failure? Not at all. He was obedient and obedience to God is success, whatever the results may be.


In conclusion, a careful reading of Spiritual Leadership makes it obvious why it has endured while so many others books on leadership have come and gone. Though Sanders writes to a specific context and audience, he works hard to make his lessons universally applicable and treats leadership as an elementary spiritual discipline rather than a complex academic exercise. Spiritual Leadership is the result of a lifetime of leadership submitted to God’s calling. Decades after his death, J. Oswald Sanders continues to lead and grow the next generation of leaders.