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Leading With Our Lives

The profession of the ministry – including campus ministry – is often compared with the two other professions of law and medicine. Or so campus ministry should be, if it is not. When I am asked to speak to groups or when I am consulting individually with people, I regularly say, “We lead with our lives.”

In making this claim, I typically draw a contrast with folks in the other two professions, medicine and law. If you can keep it together, functioning on the job according to those professions’ standards, what happens in your personal life is of little or no account to your work. (There are some obvious exceptions, but just go with me, for a moment.) But if you’re in the ministry and your personal life is in the pits, sooner or later it will show with adverse effects.

No disrespect at all to doctors and lawyers, of course. Likewise, this is not the time for me to meddle in your personal/private life. And I am not suggesting that we have to achieve some degree of near flawlessness to be effective in the ministry. We are all flawed, sinful people. God’s grace is truly sufficient for all our shortcomings.

But the best leadership in campus ministry requires a degree of personal transparency that makes the difference between effective ministry and merely filling a slot.

Example: I’m teaching on the discipline of prayer. How do I assess the quality of my prayer life? Time and again I hear people in various ministry venues confess that they’ve gotten so busy with the ministry that their prayer life is suffering, sometimes almost non-existent.

Now, everybody goes through seasons of dryness. We get off our routines and we have to work to get back on them. I’m not talking about the normal ups and downs of busy lives and ministries. We struggle with the flesh every day. Rather, I’m pointing to the problem of hypocrisy: carrying on as if everything is hunky dory when it is not and being unable and unwilling to get transparent with trusted, wise fellow pilgrims who can pray, support and hold us accountable, so that we can be transparent with those with whom we have pastoral responsibility.

(Important side bar: neither am I suggesting we hang out our dirty laundry for all the world to see. Transparency does not mean blabbing to anyone within earshot [especially in sermons] about our crud. Leading with our lives means we deal with our stuff in a godly and appropriate way. Finding a way to let people know we have to deal with our stuff just like they do and showing how we do it is part of the transparency.)

Strangely, perhaps, the best analog for leadership in ministry is the life of an athlete. And I’m getting this picture not just from thinking about sports, but also from the monastics, particularly a fourth century monk, named Evagrius. The life of an ascetic (the Greek word is askesis which also was used for athletic training) calls forth commitment, discipline, self-awareness and willingness to undergo the personal stress and correction of training just the way an athlete does. People in campus ministry need to be athletes of the soul.

Why? Because we lead with our lives. To push the analogy one step further, maybe being a campus minister is a little like being the quarterback of a big-time college or pro team. (If you hate sports, I apologize for going for the easy example.) The quarterbacks who lead the best are the ones who have fully won the respect of their teammates. They won that respect by showing that they can take the hits and persevere. They can act cool and function well under pressure. They make mistakes, but they don’t let the mistakes get them down. In short, at least within the framework of the game (and I would suggest, even outside it: remember Ben Roethlisberger), they must lead with their lives. They must walk the walk.

There is no method for what I’m talking about. There is only the moral courage to do it. Not flawless achievement, but humble transparency. We lead with our lives.

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Stephen (Steve) Rankin is Chaplain and Minister to the University at Southern Methodist University. He has worked in higher education since 1995 (formerly at Southwestern College in Kansas) and before then served as a local church pastor. His book, Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life is due out later this year. He also blogs spasmodically at “Rankin File” ( and at Email Steve at

  • Becky Motley

    Well said, Dr. Rankin!  I believe you do!  😉