In the introduction to his book on Christian leadership, Building Below the Waterline, Gordon MacDonald uses a very descriptive metaphor for what is most important and often missing in Christian leadership today.
David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.
In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline”.
The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline.
It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.
One of the most important below the water line pylons for anyone, but especially for a Christian leader is finding companions for the journey.
When the Apostle Paul was at the end of his life, he wrote young Timothy a beautiful letter, and towards the end of that letter he says,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. 2 Timothy 4:6-12
The word “quickly” in Greek is the word that we get our English word “tachometer,” a measurement of velocity. Paul is saying, “Timothy, come to me with velocity!”
Often, we think of Paul like Taylor Caldwell in her book, The Lion of God–strong, sure, self-sufficient. But here we see an old dying man who is lonely, in need of intimate fellowship.
Towards the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus climbed a mountain with three companions for his journey—Peter, James, and John. While there on that mountain he met with two other companions as they encouraged him about his “departure” —Elijah and Moses. Then in the garden, just hours before His death, His dying heart craved companionship. He said to those same three companions, “Can’t you watch for Me and pray even for an hour?”
If Jesus required companions for his journey, and Paul needed Timothy and Mark to come to him with velocity, you and I need companions for our journey.
Author Scott Sauls reminds us,
Almost every healthy pastor I know meets regularly with a therapist and/or spiritual director. Shepherds who lack shepherding risk being eaten by wolves. Even worse, they risk becoming wolves themselves.
Or as I sometimes say, “Every pastor needs a pastor. A pastor without a pastor is usually a pastor trying to be a messiah.”
A companion for the journey is an intimate, life-giving friend who helps me pay attention to God. They will orient you towards God by asking you good questions. For example, let me give you a few that I have found helpful. I call these Spiritual Orientation Questions…
Where are you? Genesis 3:9
What do you want? John 1:38
Can you drink the cup? Matthew 20:20-23
Do you love me? John 21:17
A sacred companion will say to you, “How is God speaking to you in this? How does God want to be at work in your life through this? And how are you responding to him?”
If you find someone you might want to be a spiritual friend, don’t schedule a lunch with that person and say, “I want you to be my spiritual friend. I want to meet with you and be shaped by you and be committed to you every day for the rest of my life.” Because if that person is healthy at all, they will run out of the restaurant. And if they’re not, you’re going to end up in worse shape than they are.
Go slow, be patient. Test the relationship by taking little relational risks. Move beyond polite conversation. Polite conversation is built on trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings. And that’s not a bad thing. Spiritual friendship is different. You might begin by disclosing some area of struggle, not the deepest one in your life, but a significant one. Is there a level of empathy there?
Do they listen well? Or do they only want to focus on talking about themselves?
Are they wise and discerning in their response?
Is there a judgmental spirit attached to them?
Do they honor confidentiality?
Do they gossip with you about mutual friends?
While I am a huge proponent of professional therapy and/or spiritual direction, sometimes a good companion for your journey can come from surprising places. A few years ago, I was going through a barren time in my professional life when a man in the church I pastored called and asked if I wanted to have coffee with him.
At my favorite hangout, we had the following conversation.
“How are you doing today, pastor?” he asked.
“I’m doing okay.”
“You seemed a little discouraged last Sunday,” he said.
“Yeah, no pastor spends hours preparing a sermon only to preach it to more chairs than people.”
“It was a good sermon, Joe. I needed to hear it,” he said.
My friend is about ten years older than me, maybe more than ten years. He has a shock of white hair, a soft and smooth face, and speaks with a deep and warm Texas drawl. He laughs often. It is easy to be in his presence. No posing, no pretense, and no pissing contests. Just the simple, quiet presence of a good man.
Later that evening I mentioned to my wife about the conversation and said how encouraging it was for me.
“What did he say that picked up your spirits?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
There are friends that you seek and cultivate. I have friends like that. I think of my friend Rob, Scott, and Cameron. I saw them from a distance and said to myself, “Joe, you would do good to have them as your friends.” And now they are great friends. Growing deeper as the months and years roll by.
But then there are surprising companions for your journey. You didn’t see them coming, but they showed up at just the right time. That’s the way it was with my coffee-drinking friend from Texas. He came along at just the right time. And I have to say that while I was deeply and darkly discouraged that day, my friend didn’t TRY to encourage me. He didn’t even buy my coffee. He just sat with me, listened to me, and laughed at anything remotely funny.
Sit. Listen. Laugh.
Pretty good ingredients for buoying a sagging soul. Every spiritual leader needs a companion for the journey. Sacred companions.