‘For reasons both ancient and new, the church today has an insatiable appetite for the study of church leadership. A vast avalanche of books, seminars, videos, and web sites has swept over the landscape in response to that appetite. Some of it is good and helpful, but overall much of it is very weak or even misleading in ways that should trouble the church leaders consuming it.’
Thus wrote Lew Parks in a journal article some 16 years ago. He went on to describe a vision of Christian leadership that takes seriously the Scripture, the Church’s theology, and solid interaction with the best secular leadership thinking.
I think that’s a reasonable way to introduce a very recent book on leadership that’s been written as a joint project between two American professors. Justin Irving is a professor of ministry leadership and Mark Strauss is a biblical scholar (who serves on the translation committee of the NIV). Together they have produced ‘Leadership in Christian Perspective’ (Baker), in which each contributes to an approach to leadership that they call ‘empowering leadership’. They describe this approach as being about empowerment more than control, about a process more than being an event, and about shared goals and vision more than a leader’s goals and vision.
There are three major components to their model of leadership (the first points to the leader, the second to followers, and the third to the organisation’s mission) and these correspond to the three main parts of the book:
1 – Beginning with authentic and purposeful leaders;
2 – Understanding the priority of people;
3 – Navigating toward effectiveness.
Each section comprises three chapters as they break down the major components of their model, and each chapter consists of a three-pronged approach. First, the chapter theme is addressed from the perspective of biblical teaching; second it is discussed from the perspective of contemporary leadership, with reference to Irving’s research; and finally the authors aim to provide an example and encourage reflection on the particular leadership skill demonstrated in practice. Chapters also include a series of practical ‘next steps’, and a short list of relevant books for further reflection.
The first section (Beginning with Authentic and Purposeful Leaders) deals with three leadership practices:
- ‘Modelling what matters’: in which they discuss the importance of leaders modelling what they call for in their followers.
‘Modeling what matters is a primary tool for leaders working to lead through influence rather than control.’
- ‘Engaging in honest self-evaluation’: in which they introduce the concept of ‘humble self-efficacy’ and discuss self-leadership.
- ‘Fostering collaboration’: in which they reflect on Paul’s letter to Philippians and on team work.
The second section moves the focus from the leader to the followers:
- ‘Valuing and appreciating’: which includes a character study on Barnabas, and call on leaders to lead from love not fear, and to appreciate people both for who they are and for what they contribute.
- ‘Creating a place for individuality’: in which they explore the biblical concept of gifts as an expression of unity through diversity, and the importance of leaders nurturing their followers’ uniqueness and creativity.
- ‘Understanding relational skills’: which includes this –
‘People matter. Leadership, at its heart, is about relating well with people inside and outside your organization.’
The final section then completes the model by reflecting on leadership practices that focus on the mission of the organisation:
- ‘Communicating with clarity’: which discusses aspects of communication theory and calls for leaders to communicate a clear message.
- ‘Providing accountability’: in which they discuss the importance of setting expectations which are not only clear, but shared (would you prefer your followers to be owners or renters?).
- ‘Supporting and resourcing’: which reminds us of our resources as Christians, and discusses what it means to support and resource your team.
So much for the contents: what about the book’s strengths?
I think the principal strength of the book lies in its unique approach of combining the expertise of two authors from different disciplines. Given Parks’ observation referenced at the start of this review, there is value in combining the efforts of contributors who know both the world of the biblical text and the world of contemporary leadership studies. Readers who are familiar with one field more than the other have an opportunity to ‘beef up’ their awareness of the gaps. I hope it is not a form of chronological snobbery, but a book that includes references to other recently published, or recently updated work ticks some boxes for me.
Irving demonstrates his familiarity with many of the currents in secular leadership thinking: not least in the way he draws from the ideas of both servant leadership and transformational leadership. Along the way, there is also material on self-leadership and the related concept of emotional intelligence.
From the biblical perspective, Strauss covers a range of biblical themes and texts (generally from the New Testament, which is his focus of study). His contributions include a discussion of how Paul modelled leadership qualities, and a simple, but rich character study of Barnabas: some of these might serve to prime the pump for anyone wanting to develop their own biblical reflections on aspects of leadership.
At the same time, one suggestion I’d make about the book would be to advocate a wider use of the biblical canon. It’s doubtless a personal bias since much of my own reflection on leadership has tended to come from OT characters Moses and Nehemiah. But I think that here and there, the biblical content section might have benefitted from delving into the OT texts.
The empowering leader model is presented in an appealing and accessible way and I think that combining the focus of servant leadership on the welfare of followers, as well as focusing on the positive aspects of transformational leadership is important. Nonetheless, students of transformational leadership should be aware of some of the recent critique of the model from Denis Tourish.
Another positive is the fact that the book is applicable to all kinds of leadership situations, and is not limited to church or other specifically ‘ministry’ settings (at least as understood in its narrowest form). Indeed, many of the practical illustrations of the various leadership practices are drawn from the world of business leadership.
I’ll be encouraging my students in leadership classes to read the book and I’d also recommend it to current leaders in need of some help to think through a positive leadership model that is evidence-based and biblically grounded.