HOW IS SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP FORMED? | INKLINGS ON TOLKIEN’S “RIVENDELL”

The Hobbit is a Window into Spiritual Reality.

Reading the Hobbit makes me tired. It is one battle after another… with seemingly little respite. Yet the story Tolkien portrays is one of inexperienced and fearful hobbits becoming courageous champions of a cause that they believed would save the world. With a little vision and encouragement from Gandalf, they were on their way, not knowing what would happen to them. Tolkien’s story is replete with lessons on spiritual leadership.

Similar to Gandalf’s conversation with Frodo, when Jesus took his young disciples up on a mountain before he ascended to heaven, he also made his mission intent clear… that although they may be afraid and the world seemed like a field too big to plant the seeds of the Gospel (see Matthew 28:19-20), he was sending them anyway… ready or not. He knew they would become courageous as they went. And so they did.

A Church Full of Hobbits

Hobbits like their tea and biscuits. They like their schedule, their comforts, their routine. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf really stirred things up when he sent Frodo away from the Shire. Tea and biscuits would now be fewer and far between. Yet if he hadn’t sent him on this mission, Middle Earth would have suffered for it.  People today face a complex world of poverty, religions, violence and clashing civilizations, much like the fictitious world we see in the Hobbit.  And many of us are just like the Hobbits who have a tendency to put our head in the sand and stay in the Shire.  Yet just as Gandalf didn’t allow that possibility for his Hobbit friends, Jesus still pushes his church outward on a mission to spread the seeds of good news to all peoples.

Gandalf’s Character Begs Two Questions

  1. Gandalf was focused solely on saving Middle Earth. In light of his example, what unnecessary activity needs to be pruned out of your schedule to free you up to prepare the types of “Hobbits” who will leave your Shire (church) and go out to change their city, nation, and the ends of the earth? People don’t just naturally leave the Shire, they need to be sent.
  2. Are you a courageous leader who sends out others into the all important work of the Great Commission, or do you leave that up to somebody else?

Don’t Tell Me, Show Me!

Tolkien’s trilogy does not tell us “how” leadership was formed in Frodo and his clan of brave Hobbits, it shows us. Similarly, young people in particular are not interested in hearing their pastors or leaders “talk” about how spiritual leadership is formed in a person, rather they are more interested in observing their leaders being spiritually formed. For example, Gandalf formed leadership in his onlooking band of followers as he stayed the course on his mission to the point of putting his life on the line at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm as he stood between his followers and the evil Balrog. This scene has echoes of Jesus’ stand on the Cross at Golgotha like no other non-fiction scene in literature.

Stanley Grenz, describes a trend in postmodernism that supports my claim that leaders need to “show” more than “tell”. He observes a shift in what postmoderns “expect” from their teachers:

Postmodernism poses certain dangers.  Nevertheless, it would be ironic—indeed, it would be tragic—if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of the now dying modernity….  Scholars disagree among themselves as to what postmodernism involves, but they have reached a consensus on one point:  this phenomenon marks the end of a single, universal worldview.  The postmodern ethos resists unified, all-encompassing, and universally valid explanations.  It replaces these with a respect for difference and a celebration of the local and particular at the expense of the universal.[1]

Gandalf’s Character is the Antithesis to Today’s “Busy Pastor”

Gandalf, was a pipe-smoking, carriage-riding, visionary leader who lit fireworks for the enjoyment of the neighborhood kids. He is the antithesis to many of today’s “busy” pastors who have to outsource disciple-making so they have enough time for administration. In contrast, I really think that to form the caliber of spiritual leaders who are equipped to leave the Shire and live a Great Commission lifestyle, the church needs to first encourage their leaders to become deeply spiritually formed.

Today’s “busy pastor” is as much a sign of the church’s lack of understanding of herself, as it is a lack of understanding of what the primary role of their pastors and leaders need to be–i.e. spiritual guides and directors.  To turn our “Hobbits” into world-changers, like Gandalf did, we need to provide young people especially with a spiritual guide or spiritual director who is willing to discuss the specifics of their soul in order to help them gain the confidence and competence to step out, leave the Shire, and be a life-long a spiritual leader.

The Church as a “Rivendell”

J.R.R. Tolkien, provides keen insight toward understanding the vital role of spiritual directors in the journey of making apprentices for mission.  In The Hobbit, after finally reaching Rivendell on his journey to Lonely Mountain, Bilbo Baggins encounters a hospitable family of Elves that were able to give him and his companions rest, renewal, counsel, and vision for the journey ahead.  Rivendell is an Elven outpost in the fictional realm of Middle-earth.  It is referred to in The Hobbit as “The Last Homely House West of the Mountains.”[2]  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins and his Hobbit companions also journey to Rivendell where they, through Bilbo’s influence, decide on the fate of the Ring, and commit to their vital mission.[3]

In essence the church can (and maybe should) be a Rivendell—a place for people to be tutored by true spiritual leaders who will take the time to prepare them for the next stage of the journey. Rivendell was not a place to stay forever, like the Shire was.  Rather it was like a covered-wagon to provide shelter, warmth, and rest for pioneers as they pursue the mission to spread the Good News.

Comparing the pastors and leaders of a church to a family of Elves is a bit of a stretch, but the analogy works as a possible model for the role that a church might play in a community. We offer rest, renewal, counsel, vision, and skill development to disciples so they can be sent out to fulfill the Great Commission.

Rivendell, Gandalf, So What?

Would you say your church has some “Rivendell” qualities? What would it take for your church to become more like, “The Last Homely House West of the Mountains”, the way Tolkien describes it? If you are a busy pastor or Christian leader, are there qualities you see in Gandalf, and Elrond (the chief elf at Rivendell who is known for his leadership and wisdom) that challenge you to rethink your role as a pastor or leader? Are you teaching your “Hobbits” to stay comfortably in the Shire (your church), or are you modeling for them a life of “leaving the comforts of the Shire” for a greater purpose: to spread the Good News to the Lost?

One thing is for sure. We can’t just “tell” people they ought to pursue spiritual maturity and go out in mission, we have to show them how. This generation will not respond to us telling them what it means to be spiritually formed, they need us to show them by first being spiritually formed ourselves.


[1] Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 11-12.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), 46.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), 265.

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