In the early nineties, I was shepherding a small Baptist church in rural New Brunswick, Canada. As a single man in those days, I lived with various families in the community. One family, who owned a meat production business, graciously allowed me to stay with them for a couple of months. I helped prepare various cuts of meat as part of my room and board. I will never forget the importance of having a sharp knife. In fact, even if the knife appeared only a little dull, it just wouldn’t cut it!

If you and I are going to be all that God wants us to be, we have to experience regular, personal, and spiritual sharpening through close interaction with iron-men and iron-women.

I can still picture this husband and wife team pulling out the sharpening rods every few minutes. I watched sparks fly as their knife and rod collided in an almost rhythmic fashion. I have never witnessed such incredible sharpening skills! The ancient wisdom of Proverbs 27:17—“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”—sparks a vital truth for us today. If you and I are going to be all that God wants us to be, we have to experience regular, personal, and spiritual sharpening through close interaction with iron-men and iron-women. In other words, we best grow when we most glow.

There are four essentials for casting a network of iron-friends that include building an inner circle of support, expecting critics and receiving criticism well, engaging with a like-minded community of learners, and connecting in prayer with our Lord every day. Each of these essentials can serve as God’s refining instrument to keep us sharp and effective for ministry leadership today and into the future.

Build a Support System

First, build an inner circle of support. It is vital to have a small group of trusted confidants—spiritually mature family and associates who walk with the Lord, pray for you regularly, and have your best interests at heart. These iron-friends know your story and see God’s fingerprints in your life. Lean on them. Seek their counsel. Give them permission to ask the hard questions and to journey by your side. I’m not sure where I would be without my wife, Debbie. Time and time again I lean on her for wisdom, feedback, and perspective.

Several years ago we were involved in a major church transition. With all the relational heat and friction mixed with my touch of a messiah complex, I felt completely worn down. She approached me with both graciousness and boldness, “Honey, you are not God. The world and all of its problems do not revolve around you. You are not that powerful!” Although hard to hear, she hit the nail on the head. God was in control, and I needed to move forward and trust him to help us ford the seemingly uncrossable river. Debbie’s support as an iron-friend and confidant honed my perspective and spurred me forward.  

Criticism is an Opportunity to Grow

Second, expect critics and receive their criticism well. Clashes with faultfinders can certainly cause all kinds of pain. However, it can also provide a powerful tool and even an iron-friend to make us better. In Leading Your Church through Conflict and Reconciliation: 30 Strategies to Transform Your Ministry, Fred Smith rightly noted that “criticism properly given and properly received accounts for much of the progress in a person or an organization” without which can lead to either dullness or lack of productivity. 

Nonetheless, we also know that unbridled criticism can cause destruction if not contained. Charles H. Spurgeon winsomely advised his students in Lectures to My Students: Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College to limit criticism by having “one blind eye” and “one deaf ear” to disparagement. “To go about the congregation ferreting out disaffection, like a gamekeeper after rabbits, is mean employment and is generally rewarded most sorrowfully.”

“When someone criticizes you, stop and look in the mirror. If it is true, make the changes that are needed. If it is not true, then they must be talking about someone else.” ​

I especially cherish the advice passed on through family from a seasoned pastor who experienced his share of disapproval over several decades of pastoring the same church. “When someone criticizes you, stop and look in the mirror. If it is true, make the changes that are needed. If it is not true, then they must be talking about someone else.” 

Keep Learning from Others

Third, engage with a community of learners. Foster an insatiable thirst to keep learning from those around you. Attend a seminar, take a seminary course, join a Bible study group, mentor a young person, listen to a sermon podcast, ask questions, be curious. Learn and grow. Excel as a student of God’s Word and his world to keep refreshed and razor-edged for the work of the gospel ministry. 

One of the many things I love about the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program is participating in the various general course and cohort-based learning communities. It is transformational to watch sparks fly as faculty mentors and small groups of students engage in robust dialogue around Scripture. Real-life ministry challenges the goal of spiritual and organizational enhancement. And all of this is at the heart of forging godly servant-leaders worldwide.

Cultivate a Relationship with the Lord

Fourth, connect in prayer with the Lord every day. Jesus cultivated a close and abiding relationship with the Father through prayer. When Jesus was about to experience his greatest agony, he demonstrated his greatest act of love. Through prayer and communion with the Father, he found clarity, strength, and determination to say, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In humility, Jesus loved his disciples to the end (John 13:1)—even to death on a cross (Phil 2:8). Jesus’s garden prayer was answered as he, in obedience to the Father, chose the path of loving self-sacrifice over fearful self-protection. Christ—the ultimate iron-friend—calls us to imitate his way of life. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

Never underestimate the importance of having a network of iron-friends. The influence of your inner circle, your raging critics, like-minded fellow learners, and Jesus himself can be used by God to serve as a refining instrument keeping us sharp and productive for his glory, our good, and the work of the gospel.