Do you know the statistics of how many Christian leaders finish well? Only one in three.1 And this research done among thousands of Christian leaders has shown that there is a direct correlation between Christian leaders who finish well and their experience of periods of renewal throughout their lives.
I am defining a “leader” as one person who influences others—so all of us in Christian ministry are leaders. Renewal is a vital part of our ongoing Christian walk with God, and it is something we can experience unexpectedly as well as intentionally seek out.
I am defining “renewal” as: a meaningful encounter with God in which he communicates with freshness various things that we need at the time.
Periods of renewal can give us a new sense of purpose in our ministry—perhaps a new start, or a desire to rededicate and continue following God. While God is the main initiator in a renewal experience, we have the responsibility to create the space and the environment for these encounters. He can show up anywhere—and he certainly does! But leaders with consistent renewing encounters with God are women and men who prioritize intentional times of solitude, dynamic fellowship, and prayer.
We can learn from others who have experienced repeated, dynamic times of renewal and finished well. Abraham had numerous times of significant sanctification and renewal throughout his life. He was intentional in getting away and making space to listen and to respond to God. And his story reminds us that God sometimes just shows up in the life of a leader who has a specific need and through that brings renewed faith and hope.
Genesis 17 shows Abraham in mid-life, and in need of a revived heart (note this is the seventh renewal experience mentioned in Abraham’s life). God spoke to him audibly, pronouncing himself El Shaddai, or the God who is more than enough. Abraham was overwhelmed and fell down on his face. His life was forever changed by this renewal experience. He responded to God’s call for further purity. This was an experience that drove him deeper and further with his God.
Daniel is another great example of a leader who had frequent renewal experiences through his life. His relationship with God exemplifies renewal experiences where God serendipitously steps into Daniel’s life and brings new spiritual energy (Daniel 2, 4, 5, 6), as well as examples of where Daniel intentionally seeks renewal through spiritual disciplines (Daniel 9, 10). Daniel sought intimacy with God through prayer and thanksgiving, fasting, and the Word. And God responded to Daniel’s hunger, bringing numerous times of personal renewal.
Jesus’ public ministry was marked by being surrounded by throngs of sick, hungry, and spiritually thirsty people. But we see him intentionally taking time alone with his Father. I love the story of his transfiguration! God brought renewal to him and three close friends, empowering them for the task ahead.
Examples in Japan
Most of the revivals that have occurred here in Japan have sprung from gatherings of missionaries and Japanese believers who came together initially to pray and confess their sins.
One of my personal heroes is Irene Webster-Smith, an Irish missionary who ministered in Japan from 1916 until her death in 1971. In addition to Irene’s dedication to personal disciplines in her relationship with God, she became convinced of the importance of gathering missionaries together for ongoing revival.
One spring, during a gathering of missionaries when Irene was about 48 years old, the group that gathered experienced an unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit. After that experience, Irene became committed to creating opportunities for herself and other missionaries to experience corporate renewal, including annual spring retreats for missionaries and less formal gatherings and fellowship.
I love the story of Doug Birdsall, a dear friend, mentor, and former leader of our Asian Access mission agency. While on a two-day personal retreat in Okutama, he heard the Lord audibly speak to him in a vision that was to become his own personal mandate, and that of our mission for the next ten-plus years.
Examples from my own life
I have experienced new depths in my relationship with God when I have intentionally set myself aside to listen to him. I remember well numerous times of important decision-making when I set aside time to fast and pray. How faithful God has been to not only guide me through these decisions but to also draw me closer to him, encourage me and give me the light I needed for the next steps in my journey of faith.
Decisions about whether to accept a job offer to work for the CIA in Japanese intelligence (final answer: not a good option for me), dedicated times of prayer with my husband Eric about adopting each of our children (yes, yes, yes, and yes!), an ongoing six months of prayer as we sought confirmation about moving from Hyōgo to Ishinomaki (another yes!).
In each of these experiences the impetus for renewal was seeking the Lord for important decisions, but the outcome was much richer than the answer—I found more depth, love, and even surprise in how personally God loves to respond to me. My faith was renewed and strengthened. I’m thankful for our mission that recognizes the importance of corporate and private times for retreat, prayer, and fellowship, and builds these into our annual schedules.
It’s important for us as missionaries to be committed to being learners, no matter our age or experience. We have to continue adjusting our values, presuppositions, and understanding of God and culture. One missiologist writes that without this ongoing transformation, missionaries “become candidates for burnout.”2 Deliberate times of retreat are when we are most able to reflect, grow, and change God has our attention, and in our times of reflection we can find new meaning and depth in our relationship with God.3
Keys to finishing well:
Expect and seek repeated times of renewal.
Have mentor relationships throughout a lifetime.
Maintain a broad perspective over a lifetime: God is at work in my current ministry to fulfill his purposes for my life.
Practice discipline, especially spiritual disciplines.
Maintain a learning posture.
We all want to finish well in our Christian lives. Are we taking the necessary steps to move in that direction? One of Covey’s seven “habits” of highly effective people relates to the personal habit of renewal. People must have the habit of investing in their own physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being.4 We need to build habits that cultivate renewal into our busy lives.
Here are some questions for personal reflection:
- Do I need renewal? How are my spiritual disciplines?
- Are there areas where I need to cultivate more of a spirit of repentance or forgiveness?
- Do I set aside time for reflection and renewal?
- What do I need to change about my regular daily, weekly, monthly, annual habits that will better create space for experience of renewal?
- How have I taken advantage of my/our home assignments to find renewal and reflection?
- How do I encourage those who I’m leading? What am I modeling for them?
- How can I encourage revival in my various spheres of influence, e.g. church or organization?
1. I had the privilege of doing my M.A. and PhD studies at Fuller Theological Seminary under J. Robert Clinton. The foundation for this article comes from Clinton’s Leadership Emergence Theory and the research of Clinton and others of us who have studied with him.
2. Laura Mae Gardner, “Proactive Care of Missionary Personnel,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 15, no. 4 (1987): 308.
3. Mezirow, Jack, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991).
4. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).
Sue Plumb Takamoto and her husband Eric, missionaries with Asian Access, live in Ishinomaki, Japan and are partnering with Be One. Sue is overseeing the Nozomi Project.