Leading Change Through Learning Change: a book review

How do we effect change at a congregational level? What does it take to transform community? Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor provided leadership to Riddler Church Renewal, a personal and congregational transformation process out of Western Seminary, working with pastors and congregations in the Reformed Church of America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA). They developed a transformational model which is based on organizational theory, family systems, adaptive leadership, neuroscience, and biblical principles. In Learning ChangeHerrington & Taylor, along with seven pastors who participated in the Riddler Church Renewal Process present the insights they’ve gleaned from their research.

Learning ChangeHerrington and Taylor’s co-contributors include: Michael DeRutyer, pastor of Midland Reformed Church in Midland, MI; Drew Poppleton, former pastor of Heartland Community Church in Lafayette, IN and current Ph.D. candidate at Fuller; Nate Pyle, pastor of Christ Community Church in Indianapolis, IN; Chip Sauer, pastor, Community Reformed Church of Charlevoix, MI; Jessica Shults, pastor of Standale Reformed Church in Grand Rapids; and John Sparks and Brian Stone, former co-pastors of Haven Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

Learning Change: Congregational Transformation Fueled by Personal Renewal unfolds in four sections.  In part one, they outline their approach and make the case that transformation of a congregational system starts with personal transformation in the life of its leader. Poppleton writes, “In the beginning, I looked outward and assigned blame to the congregation. As it turns out, the problem was not them. I was waiting for others to change and complaining when they failed to do so. I needed to stop worrying about the speck in their eye and focus more on the log in my own eye. I needed to focus on the only person I could change: me”(47). This focus on personal development is explored throughout the rest of the book. The contention of Herrington & Taylor, et al. is that it as a leader begins to change, the congregational renewal they long for becomes possible.

In part two, they outline four core values for leaders to work on: Integrity, Authenticity, Courage, and Love. It is as leaders learn lifestyles of Integrity (conformed to God’s design), share our true selves, take risks and commit to loving those in our charge that communal transformation begins to happen. Part three discusses mental models which enable us to shift our thinking about discipleship, personal responsibility, the power to change, problem-solving and systems thinking. Finally, part four provides ‘additional tools’ for personal leadership development.

There is a lot of good insights this book, and the authors draw on a huge range of resources from sociology, organizational leadership, discipleship, spiritual formation, and systems thinking. The leadership books I appreciate most are all focused on personal development, which is front and center here. The chapters are organized for leaders’ and lead teams’ use. Each chapter closes with suggestions for practice and reflection and links to resources from Riddler Church Renewal for going deeper (plus chapter bibliographies for additional resources).  The contributors each illustrate their chapters with anecdotes from their own ministries. but they speak with a unified voice about how personal transformation.

This is a really solid approach to personal and corporate transformation. As I read this book, I was confronted with areas I still need to grow in, in my own leadership. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic & Ministry in exchange for my honest review.

For When You are Bleeding Like a Stuck Church: a book review

9780801092480Churches, like all institutions, go through stages when they feel stuck. Leaders try everything—programs, strategies, worship styles, staffing changes, new haircuts, but when you’re stuck, you’re stuck. Chris Sonksen is a personal coach for more than two hundred churches, impacting thousands of leaders. In When Your Church Feels Stuck, he helps church leaders get unstuck by facing seven critical questions every leader must answer.  The questions are:

  1. What do we do? (What is our mission as a church? Why are we here?)
  2. How do we get it done? (What is our strategy?)
  3. What are the guiding principles we live by? (What are our values
  4. How do we measure a win?  (What are our metrics?)
  5. Do we have the right people in the right seats moving in the right direction? (Do we have team alignment?)
  6. How do we match what we say is important with what we really do? (what services do we actively provide?)

If you read leadership books, which I do occasionally, none of these questions are terribly surprising (some cribbed directly from leadership literature). Sonksen helps pastors and leadership teams clarify their purpose, strategy, and impact on a community.  I certainly see how a book like this may be helpful and certainly clarifying the answers to each of these questions would help churches and other organizations do what they want to do. As a pastor, I can readily see how asking these questions of our church leadership at key moments would have been helpful.

Unfortunately, I find the questions more helpful than the content. A lot of it is rehashed leadership you can get anywhere and Sonsken’s definition of unstuck is simply numeric church growth. He uses a fictionalized example of Pastor Jeremy throughout the book. Pastor Jeremy has tried everything but his church is stuck and he can’t get it to grow higher than 250 members. The questions and conversation Sonsken has, helps Jeremy and his team move past their stuckness into growth.

I don’t have anything against church growth per se, but it seems like Sonksen’s expertise is growing multi-staff churches. For example, when I read his chapter on metrics, I knew going in that churches often measure success by the three B’s (bucks, bricks & butts). I saw the value in asking how do we measure a win? because I know a church that is involved in community partnerships to impact the neighborhood and cultivates deep fellowship may not have the same kind of tangibles. Unfortunately, Sonksen’s metrics don’t look appreciably different than any denominational spreadsheet (123).

I do appreciate what Sonksen is trying to do, and I think he probably would be fine with me taking his questions in a different direction if it helps clarify my leadership vision of church, though I kind of bristle at the content. I give this book 2.5 stars.

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

Leading With Your Style: a book review

There are two problems with many leadership models. Some are simplistic and formulaic, presenting a one-size-fits-all approach. Other authors on leadership list too many  ‘leadership qualities’ to be of much practical use to someone seeking to sharpen their leadership (Think John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Al Mohler’s twenty-five qualities of a leader in Conviction to Lead or Mark Cuban’s 50 Qualities of a Successful Leader)David Olson’s new book promises an approach to leadership which is simple enough to be useful for leaders, but deep enough to be worthwhile. Simple does not need to mean simplistic!

Discovering Your Leadership Styleapproaches the topic of Christian leadership as a three-legged stool. The legs of the stool are Spirituality ( our relationship with God), Chemistry (our ability to connect with others) and Strategy (fulfilling the mission of God). Leadership is the ‘seat of the stool’–where these three legs are integrated and put to use by each leader.  An free online assessment at sixstyles.org  accompanies the book, allowing readers to identify their strong leg, their intermediate leg and their weakest leg. The unique combination of strengths, has allowed Olson to uncover six leadership styles which he explores in the book.  There are additional reports and team resources available for purchase at sixstyles.org.

The six leadership styles are: (1) the Sacred Leader who is strong in Spirituality with an intermediate leg of Chemistry,  (2) the Relational Leader with a strong leg of Chemistry and an intermediate leg of Spirituality, (3) the Inspirational Leader strong in Chemistry and intermediate in Strategy, (4) the Building Leader strong in Strategy and intermediate in Chemistry, (5) the Mission Leader strongest in Strategy, second in Spirituality, and (6) the Imaginative Leader who is strongest in Spirituality and whose second leg is strategy. Olson’s purpose is not to present a leadership hierarchy, but to honor the unique makeup of different types of leaders. There is a correlation between leadership styles and personality (like Myers-Briggs) or other resources (i.e. Strength Finders, spiritual gift inventories, etc); however leadership style isn’t reduced to a set of gifts or personality. Olson explores the needs, desires, the gifts and the blind spots inherent in each of the leadership styles.

Olson is a religious researcher, church-planting leader and a leadership coach who serves the Evangelical Covenant Church. Part of my own interest in this book, is I have been seeking a pastoral role in that denomination and was eager to see what he had to say. Admittedly the book was a slow-burn for me. I am not sure what I thought of the assessment tool. I took the 48 question test twice and came up with the same results (although as a much stronger leader the second time around). I am a relational leader. As I read that profile I certainly identify with much of it, but I find it odd that an assessment like this would name ‘strategy’ as my weakest leg when Gallup’s Strength Finders names Strategy (and several other elements from the thinking domain) as my greatest strength. I think I agree with Olson’s assessment but because of my unique shape,  I defy his categories a little bit. I also am wary of short online assessments for naming ‘who I am’ as a leader. Reading through the profiles I did see elements of my leadership in other profiles,  but I am not quite a ‘balanced leader’ by Olson’s definition (a leader who scores 60% or above in each category). I can see areas of growth, and the gifts I bring to the leader’s task.

Despite not fitting his profile to a ‘t’ I found Olson’s research interesting and helpful. I think that this would be a great book for Church leadership teams to use because Olson illustrates well how different leadership styles complement each other. He also encourages leaders to develop in all three areas (their strength their weakness and their intermediate strength). Jesus provides the quintessential model of the balanced leader. I give this book four-and-a-half stars


Thank you to IVP for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Storified Missional Revolutionary Leader: a book review

One of the biggest buzzword in the Christian publishing world is ‘story.’ There are countless books which help us connect our stories to God’s story of redemption as described in the Old & New Testaments. Evangelistic books tell us how to ‘share the story.’ Self-help books alá Don Miller which commend to us a purposeful, exciting story of a life (read Miller’s Million Miles in a Thousand Years or attend his Storified conference). There is the Hauerwasian indictment of those of us in post-Enlightenment late modernity, “As people who have no story except the story we had when we thought we had no story.” There are narrative approaches to ethics, preaching, theology, personal finance, etc. Who doesn’t love a good story?

There are other popular buzzwords out there: missional, revolution, leadership, life. Henriët Schapelhouman has managed to write a book with all of these key terms: The Story Lives: Leading a Missional Revolution.  Schapelhouman has a masters in global leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the founder and president of Semper Vita Institute, a complany which utilizes Myers-Briggs and Strength Finders to help buisness leaders ‘discover and develop their personal wiring.’ Besides her current professional ventures, she draws on twenty years of experience as a ministry leader.

In The Story Lives, Schapelhouman weaves together her own story and other contemporary real-life stories with God’s story. She is theologically rooted. She also wants to help people to thrive doing some serious good in the manner that God has wired us, to connect in community, to live a meaningful life, to partner with others for the greater good, to lead well (helping others thrive in their story), and to tell our story in a way that invites people into a deeper more meaningful life.

This is a book which is one part personal growth, and one part ministry/mission minded.  Occasionally I wondered who the intended audience of this book is. Sometimes Schapelhouman seems to be addressing a broad, Christian audience. At other times, she hones in on those in leadership (especially in the last  couple chapters). I appreciated Schapelhouman’s ability to draw people into a deeper faith, and more ‘missional engagement’ with the people in the neighborhood. My favorite part was her chapter on partnering between churches and non-profits serving the community (see chapter eight).

This book is solid, but was not a ‘game-changer’ for me. Schapelhouman says many great things which accord with other writers on the missional  church; yet she does it well so I commend her book. Schapelhouman will help you live a compelling (missional) story. I kidded above about the ‘buzz words’ but I think that she does a masterful job of encouraging us toward a more inviting and nourishing spiritual life. There is great stuff here! Her ‘revolution’ is less about a ‘call to arms’ than it is about changing our comfortable life to a risky faith which dares to care for others (she even tells a story about her son working to share his paycheck with a homeless couple challenged her own lack of faith and commitment. I found my self challenged and compelled well reading this book. I give it four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection I received this book from the publisher or author via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.

Doing Church (Leadership) as a Team: a book review

Joseph Hellerman is a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot. He also serves as a copastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Sungundo, California. The dual vocation of Bible scholar and pastor has allowed him to delve deeply into the Bible and ancient literature and discover implications for ministry. In Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today, Hellerman takes a look at the dynamics of power in the Roman culture of Philippi and Paul’s counter-cultural message in Philippians. He then discusses the implications of Paul’s words for our contemporary ministry context.

The three parts of Hellerman’s book delve into the reality of power relationships. In part one, Hellerman examines the reality of power, privilege and class in Roman culture.  There were the cultural elites, but a hunger for glory and status from non-elites meant that non-elites also patterned their life after elite culture. This is evident in Philippi. the only place in Paul’s missionary journey that Luke identifies as a Roman Colony (Acts 16).

In part two, Hellerman unfolds Paul’s counter-cultural message from his letter to the Philippians.  While there does not appear to be a crisis in the church of Philippi which Paul is addressing, he does go to great pains to give an alternative view of leadership, power and status.  Unlike other Epistles, Paul does not stress his apostleship, but uses the sole designation of slave, a status which had a fair degree of shame attached to it in the first century (123-6). He also urges the Philippians toward greater unity, humility and service.  The Christological hymn of Phil. 2 demonstrates how antithetical to Roman-business-as-usual, the gospel was. Jesus had status, came in the form of ‘a slave,’ and suffered death by crucifixion on our behalf (141, ff).  To a culture organized around gaining glory, status and power, this was a radical departure. And yet Paul called the Philippians (and us) to follow Christ’s self-emptying example.

Part three draws out  the implications with an eye toward current church leadership structures. While Hellerman does not mandate a particular approach to church governance, he does question models of church leadership where a sole, senior pastor has absolute and unchecked authority.  He includes a number of stories from students which illustrate where church power structures go awry (especially chapter 7) and illustrates the importance of examining the social context of ministry and argues that the ‘team leadership model’ is more consistent with the New Testament.  This allows for greater accountability, shared wisdom, and less division between clergy and laity. Hellerman shares what this looks like in his own context, part of a team of pastor-elders at Oceanside.

Hellerman builds his case well, and I loved how he combined a close reading of First Century Philippi and Paul’s epistle with its implications for church ministry today.  By beginning with ‘ancient history,’ Hellerman is able to illustrate how Philippians speaks both to its context and our own. This focus on history will be daunting for some readers, but the payoff is worth it.  I absolutely loved part two (his reading of Philippians) and copiously underlined several sections.

I am lucky enough to be a part of a church with healthy leadership, but I have lots of friends who I have seen chewed up and hurt by their churches. I think that this is a valuable resource for recovering a more communal and humble approach to leadership. Especially for those who are starting out on their journey in ministry and developing convictions about leadership.  I highly recommend it. 5 stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Kregel Ministry for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.