Cross-Shaped Leadership Review

John A. Berntsen. Cross-Shaped Leadership in the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2008.

John Berntsen is a new author to me, but this book is a real find for those who are tired of hearing about “church” leadership from Collins, Dupree & Maxwell. With an MDiv. from Yale and a Ph.D from Emory, he’s got an incredible pedigree and he writes well. Berntsen’s starting point is that qualification for leadership is not really about theological training or traditional leadership competencies (although those are still good things). Readiness for leadership in the church is connected to the cruciform rebirth of the true self. One cannot lead effectively until they have dealt with their ego or small self. He writes, “We fulfill our calling not only in what we make happen, but also in what we undergo, what we suffer.” If Richard Rohr wrote a straight forward leadership book, it would be like this.

In contrast to purpose driven or visionary leaders, cross-shaped leaders are “responsive” because they realize they work in the realm of the provisional, the contextual, and the fallible. He recommends a leadership which is committed to staying in one place for a long time, committed to resisting the temptation to overly specialize, committed to what he calls “paying the rent,” or the basic functions of preaching, teaching, visiting, and a modicum of organizing/planning/goal setting, and committed to contentment. Paying the rent is a novel concept for me. I can see that as one becomes more efficient as a minister – especially one who stays in place for a long time – the pastor can begin to develop his or her own passions in other areas which serve the church and keep the pastor fully motivated and inspired.

Berntsen writes about the concept of humility as an essential requirement to ministry. He defines it along the lines of refusal to manage one’s own image/reputation, refusal to compare oneself to others, and the understanding of your place/context and your own limitations. The leader abandons the need to be smart, to be right, to always know the answers. Bernsten writes an effective critique of what he calls the “visionary leader,” who always has a plan and seems to trust in their personal abilities more than God’s provision. He delves into some practical leadership skills which I’m not sure I’ve heard addressed before, such as the assumption that our churches, from top to bottom, will always be messy, or the use of humor as a theological enterprise.

This is an extraordinary leadership book. Over the past 20 years of ministry I’ve read enough pages from leadership books to wallpaper the white house. This book caught be completely by surprise and challenged, affirmed, bothered and comforted me in equal measures. It didn’t hurt that he consistently quoted some of my favorite authors: Nouwen, Merton, Parker Palmer, Luther, etc. His vision for church leadership resonates deeply with me and gives words to hunches and intuitions which have been formed in me over the years. I’m not that familiar with the Alban Institute, but I know that they do a lot with leadership training. Most of what I’ve run into with them has be positive.

Review by Tim Suttle // Dec. 11, 2009

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