The Theology, Theory and Practice of Leadership: a book review

I am sometimes critical of leadership books, as a category. I have zero credibility in this critique. I keep reading leadership books and I do recognize their value. What I dislike is the way that many Christians appropriate business leadership principles uncritically (and then write books about it). The marketplace has its own telos and so the practices of business leadership do not necessarily map directly onto leadership in a Christian context. There is overlap, but there are also differing concerns and objectives. Organizational Leadership: Foundations and Practices for Christians does a phenomenal job of synthesizing the best insights from leadership literature. As a multi-author project (under the editorial eyes of John S. Burns (who contributes three chapters), John R. Shoup (who co-writes two chapters), and Donald C. Simmons Jr, this book is remarkably cohesive in its vision and execution. This book is not just a practical manual but puts leadership in a larger theological frame.

The three sections of Organizational Leadership describe Christian leaderships theological foundations (part 1), its theoretical foundations (part 2) and the practices and skills appropriate for leadership (part 3). Part one consists of three chapters.In Chapter one Timothy Dolan describes the ‘call of the leader’ placing leadership within the framework of God’s call to serve the church and the world. He also examines the essential characteristics of Christian leadership (character and integrity, self awareness and self discipline, people skills and spiritual maturity. Gayne Anacker and John Shoup explore the relationship between Christian leadership and worldview in chapter two. They observe that a peculiar Christian understanding of the world has a direct impact on any leadership that can be called Christian. In Chapter three, Rick Langer suggests a biblical theology of leadership through examining the common and different types of leadership found in the Bible. Langer gives weight to the concept of leadership in the Bible to fulfill God’s purposes with his people; however, he does allow for plurality of leadership practice.

Chapter four and five comprise section two of Organizational Leadership and are both written by John Burns. In chapter four Burns examines the ‘leadership river’ and describes the historic emergence of Leadership Theory. This takes us on a journey of understanding of leadership from power and ‘Divine Right’ models, to Industrial and post industrial models where the understanding of leadership moves from management and ‘best practices’ to a ‘transformational understanding.’ Christian leadership builds on the insights of the ‘leadership schools’ that went before, but the purpose of Christian leadership is different from secular understandings. Burns gives this working definition of Christian Leadership, “Christian Leadership facilitates the transforming and sanctifying journey of individuals and organizations from X¹ to X² in both material and spiritual ways (119).” Chapter five looks at Christian Leadership in the ‘sea of complexity’ and draws on the insights of quantum physics and chaos theory, to help leaders think systemically about their leadership and leadership processes. This section delves deeper into thinking about leadership, but Burns is always careful to ground this within a Christian framework.

Section three delves into practical considerations. In chapter six, Ronald Pyle explores the dynamics of (good) communication. In chapter seven, Burns talks about the skill of conflict resolution and negotiation. Shoup and Chris McHorney examine the central significance of decision making for leadership in chapter eight. In chapter nine, Scott Rodin explores the importance of financial integrity in leadership. Finally Dolan (who wrote the first chapter) closes the book by describing the practices which will sustain Christian leaders for the long haul (i.e. Sabbath, mentoring, spiritual direction, etc).

This is not a fluffy leadership book written by motivational speakers and mega-church pastors. This book has substance and any Christian leader will find their thinking challenged and enlarged by enaging seriously with the book. This would be a great book for pastors, ministry leaders and students. It may be more academic, in places, than popular leadership books generally are, but it is helpful for setting Christian leadership in the larger scheme of  the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless I see two small limitations to this book. First, every contributor to this volume is male, white, and has a career teaching in higher education (at a college or graduate level).  The remarkable cohesiveness of this volume is great, but I could help but wonder if a person of color, a woman, a grassroots leader would round out the picture of Christian leadership as something more than just a WASP-y enterprise. Second, the list of issues and skills are not exhaustive. I appreciated Rodin’s chapter on financial integrity in leadership, but I have see Christian leaders fall from moral failures as well. Dolan, Anacker, Shoup and Langer all point out the importance of the ‘character’ of a leader, but perhaps there could be more space to unpack character formation of leaders.

These limitations withstanding, I found this an engaging read which wrestled with the concept of Christian leadership and the issues leaders face. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

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