I did a 2011 podcast interview with Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about my biography of Patrick Henry. I’ve done a lot of interviews, but I cannot recall doing one more academically rigorous, or where the interviewer knew so much about my books. I bring this up because, for me, it validates several of the key points that Mohler makes in his new book, The Conviction to Lead. For Mohler, leadership — especially leadership in the church — requires broad intellectual engagement, and using that engagement to influence congregants, students, and a broader audience for biblical truth.
Mohler argues that the evangelical world is divided between Believers and Leaders; that is, those who have deep biblical convictions, but are less prepared to lead; and those who are dynamic leaders, but are less grounded in their convictions. Mohler wants to bridge the gap between these two groups. The best Christian leaders must understand both the great principles of leadership and be rooted in biblical orthodoxy.
Most any leader — but especially pastors and Christian academics — would profit from reading Mohler’s book and his 25 essential points of Christian leadership. But I found most intriguing those points which seemed to reflect most directly on Mohler’s own strategies for leadership. Key among those are reading and communication. For Mohler, disciplined leaders must cultivate “a constant flow of intellectual activity in our minds, and there is no substitute for reading when it comes to producing this flow.” He gives very practical advice for what to read and how to read, but we can also gather what Mohler reads from his podcasts and book reviews.
Recent episodes of Mohler’s Thinking in Public podcast, for example, have featured interviews with Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, Harvard historian Steven Ozment, and the Anxious Bench’s own John Turner (of George Mason University). By introducing these sorts of thinkers to his evangelical audience, Mohler models how Christian leaders can can engage with institutions and authors of what James Davison Hunter calls “high symbolic capital,” while maintaining robust orthodoxy. Doing so leads to greater influence and credibility for our evangelical witness.
Many Christian leaders could also take a cue from Mohler on leadership in the digital age. “If you are satisfied to lead from the past, stay out of the digital world” of blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, he says. No doubt a major factor in Southern Seminary’s influence is the strong online presence of Mohler, Russell Moore, Denny Burk, Dan DeWitt, Timothy Paul Jones, Patheos blogger Owen Strachan, and many others affiliated with the seminary and Boyce College, Southern’s undergraduate institution.
But, some may wonder, how does Mohler have the time? Remarkable personal discipline must be part of his success, but he also can do what he does because of the structures of his (atypical) job. How, we might ask, can pastors of smaller churches, or teachers with heavy class loads, maintain their reading, online engagement, and other disciplines, while attending to the many other pressing tasks required at church and at home? Does every Christian leader, for instance, have to blog? Those answers are less clear. Readers who start feeling overwhelmed may want to pick just a few of the 25 points on which to focus in the short term.
Some readers may also wish that Mohler would say more about his own experiences of leadership, especially following his assumption of the presidency at Southern in 1993. Mohler references this episode often in the book, but never addresses it fully. Anyone familiar with his role at Southern will know that his early tenure there was marked by major controversy, and the nearly wholesale replacement of the faculty at Southern. This was part of the broader turn within the Southern Baptist Convention seminaries to conservative theology.
Mohler’s critics, of course, might characterize his leadership by conviction in darker terms, so I would love to hear more from Mohler about how to balance conviction with the messy realities of leading people. How do you know when to make a conviction a hill to die on, and which convictions you may leave as non-essentials? Perhaps he will more fully address these matters in a later book or autobiography.
In any case, it speaks to the high quality of this book that many will finish it and simply want more. The literature on Christian leadership is large, and much of it is very helpful. But as Mohler demonstrates, studying the methods of leadership cannot compensate for an absence of biblical conviction.
This post is part of the Patheos Book Club conversation about Albert Mohler’s The Conviction to Lead.