The inside job of Christian leadership
Steve Smith says before we can care for others, we must care for our own souls
Steve Smith works with leaders who want, as he describes it, to get off the hamster wheel. After a long career in ministry, mostly in the Southern Baptist Convention as a pastor and missionary, he and his wife Gwen co-founded Potter’s Inn in the mountains of Divide, Colo. The 35-acre retreat has a lodge and cabins where ministry leaders who have burned out or blown up can come for healing and restoration. In some cases, they come to Potter’s Inn to prevent that from happening. Smith has also written a number of books on how leaders, who often have few people they can turn to for their own spiritual care, can attend to what Smith calls the “care of the soul.” In an era when ministry leaders such as Mark Driscoll, Bill Gothard, Josh Duggar, Tullian Tchividjian, and many other apparently successful and gifted leaders are in the news for significant moral and ethical failings, the message of Steve Smith’s latest book, Inside Job: Doing the Work Within the Work, is particularly relevant. I had this conversation with him at the Potter’s Inn in Colorado.
Tell me about one of the central ideas of your new book, the four quadrants of a leader’s heart. Just like the human heart has a physical four quadrants, … I’m using that as a metaphor to help leaders understand. That first quadrant is like you and I meeting today for the first time. We’re on the surface, telling each other about our wives, about our children, where we’ve lived. We’re both from Charlotte, N.C. We have some connections. A lot of people live in that first quadrant of their life. That second quadrant is really devoted for a larger sphere of people. It’s work colleagues, people you go to church with, people you interact with, people you’re playing sports with. You go a little bit deeper. The third quadrant of the human heart is really reserved for only a very, very few, a sacred few. It might be your spouse or your best friend, where you’re telling some secrets. You’re telling your whole story or a part of it. It’s an edited story, but you’re really trying to do the right thing. You’re trying to be vulnerable. You’re trying to be truthful. You’re not trying to withhold information.
The fourth quadrant is that quadrant of a leader’s heart that people get tripped up in. It’s a secret. It’s a dark place. … It’s exactly what Jesus [meant] when he said, “From within the heart come all these things.” Leaders are often times unaware of the things that are going to trip them up in life. They think they’re climbing the ladder. They think they’re on the road to success, but because they’re not paying attention to [what I call] their inside job, they’re really unaware. I was unaware that I had an inside job. I was unaware that I had a fourth quadrant. I was just charging the hill.
You deal with leaders who come to you in crisis, confessing things they could lose their jobs for. That’s exactly right. It could be moral, it could be an affair, it could be some ethical violation, an issue of integrity, or many times, an issue of character.
That is a Catch-22, isn’t it? The way to healing is confession, but that confession is dangerous for leaders within the church. The modern evangelical church doesn’t know what to do with confession. We don’t even do it. We say the Lord’s Prayer, and we think that’s the blanket to cover us. We ask for forgiveness, but confession is really looking at that person in the mirror and admitting who is in the mirror.
When people come to Potter’s Inn, or when we work with people around the world wherever we are, we’re really listening to their story. We’re helping connect some dots from their childhood, their relationship with their fathers, their first job. Where did you get this drive? Your giftedness? We’re helping them connect the dots because the most sacred thing we can do, Warren, is listen to someone’s story. That’s what Jesus was so good at. He listened to the story of the woman at the well. He didn’t shut her down. He didn’t give her a tract. He listened to her. Leaders need to be listened to. They’re telling so many things. They’re giving and giving and giving. But Potter’s Inn has a philosophy of really giving back to the leaders.
We say very succinctly that those who give must be given to. Leaders in the marketplace and doctors and businesspeople and small-business owners and CEOs need to be given to. I think this is a failure of the local church because the local church often just hooks up a hosepipe and says, give to us. Give us your money. Give us your power. Give us your position. We offer a safe place for leaders to unpack their story and to receive the care of their soul.
When leaders come here, what do you do? Our model here is we do a private retreat. A doctor and his wife, a business owner and his wife, a schoolteacher and her husband would come here. It doesn’t matter what you do and your role that you’re in. We’re on a five-day journey. It’s like … a 360-degree walk around someone’s heart. How’s your marriage? How’s your parenting? What are your longings and desires? Where are you on the vocational journey? Are you experiencing what we call vocational convergence? We talk with every person here about that. So many of us have been so job-focused. Our jobs and our work ethos for the modern American man and woman—and now we’ve exported this all over the world—is such a heavy thing. That’s all we know. We work well, but we’re not doing the work within the work. … Here, we really partner with the beauty of Colorado. You and I are sitting at our retreat center right now. It’s a 35-acre ranch. You’re cocooned and you’re safe and it’s beautiful. We partner with God through nature. We just find it’s a healing balm here.
What life experiences led you to realize the importance of doing the “inside job?” I was born and raised in Charlotte, N.C. I was fortunate to be born into a Christian family. My father also was a workaholic. Many of our fathers are. He was of that generation of World War II vets. They built this country. Often times, I grew up seeing the back of my father’s head leave the home. I actually grew up with seeing my dad on television. I had breakfast with him, but I was watching him play with his brothers on a country music radio station.
Your uncle is Arthur Smith, who was a legendary musician. He wrote “Dueling Banjos.” Your dad is his brother. They did the weekly radio station show with WBT there in Charlotte. I grew up where love was assumed. I wasn’t told. My dad was 80 years old before the first time I asked him, here in Colorado: “Dad, there are three words I need to hear before you die, before you go to eternity.” He said, “What are they?” I said, “Dad, I need you to tell me that you love me. I know you do, but would you tell me? Would you tell me that you love me?” When you’re raised in a home like that, that verbally, you assumed that you’re loved, I began to get on the hamster wheel. I’ll show you that I’m lovable. I’m going to work hard. And so I worked hard. I worked my butt off to be loved. I transferred that kind of drive, Warren, into my work ethos. It made me a workaholic.
What job were you working in? I was a pastor. I was a leader. I was leading hundreds and thousands of people across North Carolina and over in Europe. I’m trying to do what I thought was right. Because I didn’t know there was an inside job, because I didn’t pay attention to my story, it all caught up with me. It caught up in a real interesting way. Gary Chapman, the author of The 5 Love Languages, had just written his book. I was a megapastor in North Carolina and I invited Gary to come and speak.
He came and spoke, and my oldest son, Blake, was 10 years old. He heard him speak, and then I went home just to kind of throw some father-dust on my children before the 2:30 deacon meeting. We were going to announce a multimillion-dollar plan. I wanted to do the right thing. I was torn. I just showed up. I said, “Blake, do you have any idea what your love language is? You heard Dr. Chapman.” I was trying to do the Christian father thing. He said, “Dad, I do know my love language. My love language is time. You never give me any.”
That was one of my anchor points that got kicked out from under me. Blake, my son, became the Nathan who came to David and said, “You are the man.” Blake, my own son, was confessing to me at 10 years old, you’ve laid me on the altar of your success, Dad. He couldn’t say it in those words. Now he can say it. He’s 35 years old. It became my undoing. I couldn’t hear it from anybody, but when my son came up and said that, it was like a wake up call I never wanted to have.
What did you discover about yourself after that? Gwen and I weren’t doing well. When I look back on my 30s, I gave the best years of my life to my work and the leftovers to my wife and my four boys. Now, I look at other people that are behind me and I say, you’re doing what I did. You’re drinking that elixir. You’re drinking that dangerous cocktail. You’re drunk and you don’t know it. You are intoxicated by your work ethos, your drive to be successful, and you’re going to have an implosion. Potter’s Inn was really birthed at the moment of Gwen’s and my crisis. Where the world that we had built was coming shattering down. I turned to Dallas Willard at this time and went out to a Roman Catholic monastery in California. As a Southern Baptist boy, that was the unthinkable. You just didn’t do that. I was desperate. Dallas took me under his arm and helped me understand a better way of living. A deeper way of living than all this crazy busy-ness. …
Dallas was the one, like a prophet, who said, “It’s your heart, Steve. You’ve got to guard your heart. These four quadrants, God made them. The fourth one isn’t evil, he made it. Let’s just move toward redemption. Come and live with me and walk with me in this way.” It was like hearing the gospel for the very first time.
What can keep megachurch leaders such as Mark Driscoll and Bill Gothard from derailing spiritually and taking their churches down with them? I think we have developed a fetish-ness, over the outer markers of success. When I look at these young, amazingly charismatic, omni-gifted leaders, I have great concern. I’m old enough now not to be impressed. I’ve seen so much and I’ve heard so many sad stories. … I think leaders who are emerging in the megachurch need a Peter. They need an older voice. Somebody that’s been broken, somebody who’s drank that cocktail and yet withstood it. Understand sometimes to say, there is a deeper and a better way to live and to lead. … I say in the book, the most important question a leader can ask is what’s it like to work with me? … When I asked Gwen that question, I wasn’t prepared for her answer. I thought, oh, it’s awesome. I love you, this is the ride of my life. She said, “Oh, it’s really hard.” I just thought, what? Hard? What can be hard about being married to me? Isn’t it a privilege? Isn’t it a pleasure? That hardness that she was feeling was my own inside job that I hadn’t paid attention to. She was getting the wake of my big boat coming behind her, washing over her. …
John Calvin was so wise when he said, “The greatest way to know God is to know yourself.” I wish leaders who were megaleaders and small pastors and missionaries and businesspeople would camp out right there in the opening pages of John Calvin’s [Institutes of the Christian Religion] where he says, “The greatest way to know God is to know yourself.” That’s a virtue, that’s doing your inside job. Helping leaders know themselves, that’s what Potter’s Inn is all about. That’s my life and it’s my legacy. It’s the greatest work I’ve ever been a part of.
To a lot of conservative evangelicals, this feels a bit mystical to them. What would you say to someone who’s coming out of that background? The Bible says, in Psalm 139, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. What do we know about that? … We have emotions. We have anger, we have joy, we have passion, we have drive. What do we know about that? “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Really honoring yourself is not contrary to the gospel. It’s really the whole gospel. It’s not in competition and it’s not opposed. I think sometimes, especially in American Christianity—I’m a product of this—we just love Bible studies. Nothing is wrong with Bible studies, but telling our stories is a rich piece of that to see where God has been working, sometimes behind the scenes. …That brings a richness. That brings us around the table. We’re not just so brain-driven. We can be heart-driven, too.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full interview with Steve Smith on Listening In.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.