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Every year during May, I update my Facebook profile picture to one where I am dressed in my doctoral regalia. I do this as a way of honoring my current and former students, friends, and family members who are graduating during this particular time of the year. As I follow this personal ritual, I give thanks for all of these students who are reaching important academic goals, and pray that God may continue to bless them in their journey.
Along with this yearly tradition, it has also become customary for me to remember former students, past graduations, as well as related occasions in which I have been invited to speak (either as a preacher in a senior chapel or as a commencement speaker). I have cherished these events for multiple reasons. They have offered me the opportunity to celebrate with graduating candidates and their loved ones, and share some pieces of wisdom that I consider foundational for life and ministry/work. In addition, while preparing to speak, I have the chance to silently evaluate myself in order to see where I am in relation to these wisdom pieces, and what changes I need to make to be a better person and leader.
Throughout the years, I have identified several of these foundational principles, but for now I will share only two of them: Spirituality and integrity (perhaps writing about the other principles may become another May tradition for me. We will see next year). These principles are important not only for graduating candidates, but for all Christian leaders.
Spirituality. While most of my readers would affirm the importance of staying connected with our triune God, they would also acknowledge that many times, we tend to neglect our spiritual lives. The reasons are many, and probably some of them are good ones, such as “I am serving long hours in God’s work.” However, if we continue this trend, eventually we will burn-out. As leaders, we need to remember what Jesus said in John 15:5 when he discussed the vine and the branches: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Thus, if we are going to make it (and here I am not talking only about survival, but about thriving as leaders) we need to cultivate our spirituality on daily basis.
Now I recognize that this is a challenge, at least for me, because it seems that there are not enough hours during the day. However, I also know that if I do not nurture my relationship with God, I am more vulnerable to burn-out because I am disconnected from the source of life. I am more vulnerable to losing my vision and mission as a leader because I have lost my focus on God. I am more vulnerable to making mistakes because I am relying on my own wisdom, instead of God’s wisdom.
But nurturing a good relationship with God should never be approached in a utilitarian way, where we invest time and energy with the objective of obtaining excellent results as leaders. No, the true goal of this relationship is the blessing of enjoying the presence of God. Matthew 6:33 invites us to set the right priorities: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all of these things will be added to you.” Thus, it is a relationship motivated by the joy of connecting with God, and additional benefits are only a consequence of the relationship.
Integrity. If spirituality provides us with the right vitality and perspective to move ahead in our life as leaders, integrity gives us the authority and credibility to do so. Integrity has been commonly defined as what we do when no one is watching. Integrity shows the real person that we are. Many men and women who seemed to be on the path to a great legacy have lost it due to an integrity issue. A key passage for me as I work in developing and protecting my integrity is: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
But integrity also involves the way that we relate to others. The more that I consider this aspect of integrity, the more that I appreciate the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) that indicates that we need to treat people the way we want to be treated. This has become my rule of ethics. Now, this rule is very easy to apply toward people that we like, but it gets harder when we try to apply it to our difficult boss, annoying coworker, or some people in our church, especially that deacon who is giving us a hard time. However, this is not an excuse to act inappropriately. They are responsible for their behavior, and we are responsible for ours. If you want to be treated with compassion, love, justice, and peace, then that is the way that you treat the other person. If you want people to listen to you in a respectful, caring way, then you must listen to them in the same way as well.
Finally, integrity involves a good work ethic. We need to be intentional in remembering that we work for God, not for human beings. Colossians 3:23 mentions: “Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly as though you were doing it for the Lord and not merely for people.” Of course, we all have earthly bosses, but if you remember that ultimately you work for God, you will do the right things because God deserves the best.
This is important, too, because disappointments will come. How many times have I felt disappointed with the outcome of a meeting or deal in the different positions that I have held? How many times have I been hurt in subtle and unsubtle ways? It always helps me to remember that I am there because I am working for God, and not for human beings. God put me there because God wants me there. I am accountable regarding my actions first to God, and then to human beings. If I follow this order, it is much easier to maintain the right perspective when things become challenging.
Many times graduations mark the beginning of a professional/ministerial life. Other times they open opportunities to take on new levels of an existent professional or ministerial position. As students celebrate their academic achievements, my prayer is that they may continue to nurture their spirituality and protect their integrity. If they do so, they will be on the right path to succeed as leaders.
As for the rest of us, there is always time for a new beginning. While it is true that graduations are visible marks of new beginnings, the reality is that new beginnings may start whenever we are brave enough to decide to make positive changes in our lives. Is today the day?