What Does Christian Leadership Look Like?

We live in chameleon times. We like to think of ourselves as decent people but don’t shake that up by shining a light on our daily lives. We say we believe in family values but don’t keep score of how many marriages or “significant” relationships we go through like popcorn. We want integrity in leadership of all kinds, at all levels but get angry if anyone probes our motives and/or priorities. We want leadership but wind up with reruns of hucksters in Armani suits, snake oil sellers, power junkies, high school cheerleaders and smiling media manipulators. What does leadership mean and what does it look like? Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and frequent media spokesman on behalf of evangelical Christianity, chips in on the question with The Conviction to Lead.

Not just another crossover microwave of business leadership theory, Dr. Mohler brings a voice tempered in the flame of major conflict. He assumed the presidency of Southern at a time of sharp ferment and redirection of the Southern Baptist Convention. His anecdotal recounting of this time has a poignant ring to it as he underscores the deep sense of inadequacy he brought to the task in the face of strong opposition. A man wrote a book on small group ministry and one of his readers wrote to ask some nuts and bolts things provoked by the book. The author replied, “Oh, I’ve never led a small group. The publisher just wanted a book on the subject and asked me to do it.” This is “seat-of-the-pants” stuff, road tested in crisis situations and ripened in reflection. But this is not a memoir; that may well be down the road another few years for Dr. Mohler.

Dr. Mohler desires to lay a new framework for spiritual leadership in Christian circles. He sees leaders at all levels sorting out into two broad camps – Believers and Leaders. Believers hold strong passionate beliefs, defend the faith, embrace the idea of objectively true truth and define themselves for their theological beliefs. But leadership eludes them. One deacon said of his pastor, “Oh, he knows a lot but he can’t lead a decent two-car funeral procession.” Leaders can’t stop thinking about leading; they read everything they can find, network online with like-minded peers and always look for new ways to cast vision. But they lust after every new thing, program and strategy with little undergirding of truth and knowledge of why that’s important. The hot new people whose names rise when the perennial topic of church renewal comes up fit here. Dr. Mohler wants iron to sharpen iron (See Proverbs 27:17.); he wants Believers to become Leaders and vice versa.

If leaders in any Christian setting want a book they can pick up, flip through and glean some nugget they can use tomorrow, they should pass this book by. Economist Thomas Sowell (cited in book) said, “We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them.”  Dr. Mohler gives sharp tight layouts of what worldview means and why it’s important. He discusses the idea (raised by Frances Schaeffer) of true truth and the power of thinking and leading based on it. I thought some of this could have been drawn out a little more; the volume might seem to be more of a primer, a layout of first steps for both Believers and Leaders. Actually this whole book greatly expanded would make a great magnum opus for Dr. Mohler at a later date. Throughout the book, the reader gets treated to a wide range of voices from history, politics, theology and contemporary culture (Schleiermacher and Larry King. I don’t think they’ve ever done coffee together but they’re in there.) As my blurb for this column says that I consider an hour spent with a book better than an hour spent with most people, Chapter 12 on reading made me smile in agreement. Dr. Mohler includes a few things I didn’t expect such as dealing with the media. In our telecommunications age, anyone in any Christian ministry setting will encounter the media. He provides some wisdom and savvy that could save public embarrassment.

Chapter 6 and 7 deserve some special mention. Chapter 6 describes the roots of genuine biblical passion. Our culture camps on “in” words and concepts, repeating them endlessly and often mindlessly into complete exhaustion, reducing them to intellectual mush. We did this with “compassion.” People, discussing issues, said they came down on the side of compassion. Aside from Somalian pirates, child pornographers and other more depraved species of the human gene pool, who comes down on the side of torture and atrocity? We’re currently doing the same with “passion.” Biblical passion doesn’t evaporate or sag like a balloon when the air has seeped out. It doesn’t ride the twin roller coasters of emotion or circumstances. It’s resurrection stuff; it gets up after getting knocked flat.  It burns in the belly with a long even heat that carries one through both crises and years. Dr. Mohler lays down some things worth thinking and praying about here that’s foundational stuff.

Chapter 7 deals with character. As a current scandal (Doesn’t there always seem to be one?) in the armed forces plays out, as a crippled economy wounded by corporate greed continues the struggle of recovery, as leaders in Christian circles drop like flies taking many down with them, a word on character seems due. In 34 years of ministry not only have I seen character lapses take down many, the fallen include some of the finest Christians I have known. Speaking of the Presidency, Peggy Noonan (cited in book) said, “In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant…he doesn’t have to be clever, you can hire clever…You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks. But you cannot buy courage and decency; you cannot rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.” Ditto Christian leaders and Mohler lays a good groundwork.

In a culture overlaid by the trappings of postmodernism, narcissism, materialism, a diminishing cultural work ethic, lusts for personal security and convenience, rising secularism, preoccupation with entertainment and the rule of emotion and feeling over both everyday life and major decisions, we could use a few good people who can stand in the rising winds of cultural winter. Dr. Mohler writes a nice primer for those who hunger to be one of those people doing that alongside Jesus Christ.

For more conversation on Christian leadership and Al Mohler’s new book, visit the Patheos Book Club here.

David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.


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