Leading with Mo’ Soul: a ★★★★★ book review

It took me too long to get around to Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. I am a Ruth Haley Barton fan and I’ve read several of her books: Invitation to Solitude and Silence (IVP 2004), Sacred Rhythms (IVP 2006), Life Together in Christ (IVP 2014). While there are tons of authors who explore the realm of spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation, Barton has a special gift for combining an evangelical sensibility with contemplative spirituality. She is a spiritual director and the founder and president of the Transforming Center, an organization dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors, Christian leaders, and congregations and the organizations they serve.

4645So being a Barton fan, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (SSYL) had already been on my ‘to read’ list for several years, when a couple of years ago, a pastoral job I had imploded, and I was left reeling. Several friends and colleagues recommended this book and I made plans to read it. Though I never, until now, made it past my several false starts. I think I wasn’t in the right psycho-social-space to wrestle with this stuff.  Now in its second edition, SSYL frames the soul-formation of a leader with the life of Moses as her reference point (a page taken from Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses?).  Moses was a Hebrew raised in the house Pharoah, and his first attempt at leadership resulted in murder and coverup. The fear of being found out drives Moses to the wilderness. There, solitude begins to work on Moses’s Soul as he confronts his struggles with identity (who is he, learns to pay attention, and wrestles with vocation. When Moses emerges from the wilderness, there are other lessons he needs to learn about leading others, the gifts of the round-about-wilderness way, intercession, isolation, and sabotage, delegating, leadership community and detachment.

Barton is guided by the conviction, “what lies beneath the surface—of the ocean of our lives—really matters (39). Where we encounter and wrestle with what is swirling on our insides, is in submitting to the rhythms of silence and solitude. She writes:

God’s call to us is to find a way to do what Moses did—to leave our life in the complany of others at least for a time, to let go of all of our attempts to fix whatever needs fixing “out there,” to leave whatever hope we had of leading people somewhere, and to believe that what needs to be done in the deep interior places of our life is the most important work to be done right now. In fact, to try to press on without paying attention to whatever it is that is bubbling up from way down deep is the most dangerous thing we could do. (40).

So, each chapter weaves examples from Moses, from Barton’s own life, leadership and ministry, and examples from the lives of others who have thought to lead attentive of their inner life. Notable examples include Gary Haugen of IJM, who also wrote the forward, and Martin Luther King’s wrestling with the dangers of being a Civil Rights leader, and his detachment from seeing his work come to fruition (“I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve seen the promised land. . . I may not get there with you”).

The emphasis throughout is on practicing the sort of spirituality exhibited in the life of Moses. So each chapter closes with a practice designed to help us press into God and reflect on the character of our leadership. Often this is a moment in solitude. Listening to our breath, reflecting and listening in the quietness to what God may be whispering to our soul. A time to stop and attend to what is in us.

My exegetical, seminary-trained self, is occasionally critical with the way Barton uses episodes from Moses’ life as illustrative of spiritual practices, whether or not that is what the narrative is about. Moses didn’t run into the wilderness to pursue a life of silence and solitude and devote himself to prayer. He ran for his life because he was scared. He didn’t go there to do inner work.  Did the angel of the Lord cause the burning bush to burn and not be consumed because Moses was now ready to turn aside and pay attention? (60-61, chapter 4) This seems more pre-text than text. I wondered as I read if Moses story provides a canvas on which Barton simply paints the picture of spiritual formation she wishes to describe.

Yet, just as often, I found her insights into the story opened it up to me in ways that I had not previously considered. For example, Moses named his son Gershom because he had “been an alien in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22). Barton reflects, “this is a profound admission. It had taken a very long time, but finally, Moses was able to acknowledge what was underneath the behavior that had gotten him where he was. He was finally able to admit that all his life he had struggled with his identity and he was mad as hell about it” (47). The sense of identity dislocation and his feeling like an imposter makes sense of the young Moses’ life. Not only is this fruitful for understanding my own struggles with identity in leadership, but it changed the way I read Exodus 1-3. Similarly, the way Barton inhabits Moses angst and disappointment of seeing a promised land he would never enter was instructive and illuminative.

While this is the second edition, I didn’t notice any substantive changes in the main text of the book.  SSYL remain the same,  word for word, by my reading anyway, what it was in the 2008 edition. But included in this edition is a flexible group discussion guide (for a weekly group or meeting with a spiritual mentor) and an assessment tool for gauging the state of our souls as leaders.

Despite noting my occasional exegetical wariness, I can’t recommend this book enough. Barton names the issues that have swirled inside of me as I’ve pursued (and failed at) my pastoral calling (e.g. struggles with identity, clarifying calling, living within and recognizing my limitations, delegating, paying attention to God, etc). This would be an excellent book to read together as a leadership team or as guide for a lead-team retreat. I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars! -★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP 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.

A Blind Spot Taxonomy: a ★★★★★book review

In my last major leadership context, I wasn’t a particularly self-aware leader. I mishandled a couple of key relationships, missed some opportunities, and failed to execute some things I tried to do. I’m not beating myself up about it, whatever self-awareness I have has been hard won. Terry Linhart’s The Self-Aware Leader is designed to help leaders like me see where their blind spots are— the gifts, vulnerabilities, and opportunities—so we can lead effectively.

4480Linhart is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in South Bend. He has served in youth ministry, parachurch ministry, as a leadership consultant and has taught at Asbury, North Park, Hunting College, Taylor University and Alliance Graduate School. The Self-Aware Leader is chockfull of practical insights to help ministry leaders reach their full potential.

Self-awareness is a tricky thing.  We all have blind spots because of the demands of ministry and our natural capacity for self-deception. Citing Gordon Smith, Linhart argues that self- discerning people are “Conscious of their own capacity for self-deception and thus of their vital need for the encouragement, support and wisdom of others” (15).  Throughout the book, Linhart names each area he sees that has potential blind spots.

Chapter one invites us to self-reflection in seeing the ‘race before us.’ Linhart’s conclusion reminds us of the end-goal, the telos of the race—a lifetime of faithful service to Jesus. Between these, Linhart describes potential blind spots as we consider ourselves, our past,  our temptations, our emotions, pressures, conflict, and our ‘margins.’

One of the most helpful things about naming these areas of blind spots is how comprehensive it is (though probably not exhaustive). Leaders may be self-aware about one area, but inattentive to another. Linhart does a good job of naming the trees so we can see our way ahead. I also appreciate that he doesn’t see blind spots as wholly negative. “We may have a gift or opportunity that we can’t see that is plain to others” (26). By probing our limited visibility, we may be awakened to new opportunities.

. One insight that I found tremendously helpful was his observation that leaders ought to lead the charge in handling conflict well, in order to foster a community that is ‘warm, inviting and effective’ (143).  Linhart describes conflict as one of his own blind spots (as someone who tends toward conflict-avoidance). He offers sage advice on how to address conflict non-defensively, and communicate effectively.

This book is tremendously helpful. Leaders and leadership teams would benefit from reading this together. I highly recommend it. -★★★★★

<small> Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review </small>

Lessons For Bad Leaders (Hosea 6-8)

Hosea recounted what went wrong in Israelite society: bad leadership, idolatry, lies, institutionalized violence, and policies which enabled foreign encroachment. Hos. 1:1 tells us Hosea ministered during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 BC), but he continued to prophesy during decades of decline, before the nation’s fell to Assyria (722 BC). After Jeroboam’s reign, four of the six remaining kings were assassinated by conspirators (2 Kings 15:10, 14, 25, 30); ¹  yet Hosea remained vague about the realpolitik. Like God’s prophets before and after him, his words were non-partisan, critiquing all who failed to live in the LORD.

Hosea’s context is vastly different from contemporary North America; nevertheless, there may be hints about where our leaders have also missed God’s heart. I write this in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as our 45th president. What sort of president he will be, remains to be seen, but the missteps of Ancient Israel warn us of possible pitfalls. Part of Hosea’s agenda was to call the unfaithful leaders of Israel back to the covenant love of God. Hosea warns God’s people—Israel and us—to turn or burn, and reap the whirlwind:

Turn . . .


Hosea begins this section, imploring his people to return to God :

   Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”(Hosea 6:1-3, NRSV).
These verses describe Israel’s future restoration (with a strong Christological resonance of resurrection) and God’s abiding faithfulness. God wanted Israel to return to him with their whole heart. His presence remained with them and His appearing  was certain. He cared for his creation, watering it with springtime rains. Though Israel was an object of God’s wrath, if they turned to Him, He would heal them and bind up the wounds that His punishment had inflicted. Because of the faithfulness of God, Hosea spoke expectation and hope.
But this picture stands in radical contrast with the ephemeral faithfulness of Israel which evaporated like morning dew (6:4). Instead of being God’s priests mediating His presence to the nations (4:6), Israel betrayed their covenant relationship with Him(6:7). The cities of Gilead and Shechem were characterized by violence and lies (6:9) because adulterous Israel forgot their God (6:10). Their apostasy had put them on the road to ruin(6:11)2
The goal of Hosea’s prophecy was not simply to predict and pronounce judgement. The point was to dissuade Israel from the wide way of destruction and call their hearts back to God. Hosea didn’t mince words about their political and spiritual condition; He wanted them to return to the Lord.

. . .or Burn . . .


Israel was full of iniquity—lying and stealing (Hosea 7:1-2).  God’s anger burned against the nation and its leaders. Hosea gave three images of Israel’s spiritual and political state.  The first image describes  Israel as burning like a hot, baker’s oven:

They delight the king with their wickedness,
the princes with their lies.
They are all adulterers,
burning like an oven
whose fire the baker need not stir
from the kneading of the dough till it rises.
On the day of the festival of our king
the princes become inflamed with wine,
and he joins hands with the mockers.
Their hearts are like an oven;
they approach him with intrigue.
Their passion smolders all night;
in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire.
All of them are hot as an oven;
they devour their rulers.
All their kings fall,
and none of them calls on me.-Hosea 7:3–7(NIV).
The burning  passions of the royal court, led to decadence and adultery. The ruling elites chased pleasure and failed to execute their duties (e.g. the baker lets the oven fires rage, neglecting his duties). The hot-oven-raging-flame may also describe the outbreak of usurping violence as Israelite kings deposed of one another in rapid succession (7:16).
Secondly, Hosea describes Israel as half-baked:
 Ephraim3 mixes himself with the peoples;
Ephraim is a cake not turned.
Foreigners devour his strength,
but he does not know it;
gray hairs are sprinkled upon him,
but he does not know it. Ho 7:8–9 (NRSV).
Have you ever failed to flip a pancake in time and burnt one side of it? This is the image: a half-baked and burnt cake, because the person responsible for it (the baker) didn’t flip it over in time. This is leadership derelict in its duty. Instead of watching over the nation and taking responsibility for citizen’s wellbeing, the king and his leaders allowed its people to suffer harm. Such unvigilant leadership allowed foreigners to devoured Israel’s strength by overrunning it and consuming its resources. The unburnt side of the cake was covered in gray hairs—not like a crown of glory or anything but a fuzzy grey mold 4 The baker, negligent in its duty was unaware that his wares spoiled; however despite the damage done by her neglectful leaders, Israel did not return to their God (Hosea. 7:10).
With third image, Hosea switches the metaphor from the culinary to the avian. He describes Israel as a silly dove chasing Egypt and Assyria for help(7:11). Israel’s adultery was not just a religious promiscuity, they were guilty of political adultery as well. They sought the aid of foreign nations instead of calling on God (who they rejected and slandered). Kings and people in power who tried to curry Egyptian and Assyrian favor. In doing this, Israel’s leaders sow the seeds of their own destruction: derision in the land of Egypt (7:16), and exile at the hands of Assyria lay in their future.

. . .and Reap the Whirlwind.


Chapter 8 describes the enemy coming against this ‘silly dove’ like an eagle (8:1). Israel was in trouble, but they  rejected ‘the good,'(vs. 2) and their appointed leaders were illegitimate usurpers (3). Instead of worshiping Yahweh, they constructed a calf—a caricature of the One True God (4-6).  Wickedness, bad leadership and idolatry. Their attempts to stave off destruction reaped for them a whirlwind:

For they sow to the wind,
and they reap the whirlwind.
The standing grain has no heads;
it yields no grain.
Should it yield strangers have swallowed them up. (Hosea 4:7).

Israel followed the fertility rites of the surrounding cultures and lost their crops. They trusted foreigners but strangers gobbled up their material resources. Bad leaders let it all happen.

The rest of chapter 8 describes a loss of status for Israel. They were God’s chosen people, but they were swallowed up and became just one among the nations (8:8). They forgot their maker ( Judah did too) and the consuming fire of Divine wrath was coming (8:16).


Israel had failed to seek God, their bad leaders had led them astray and failed to protect them from foreign encroachment. But remember this section began  with a plea to return to the Lord and the promise of a future restoration.

When we consider our own context, I wonder what, if any, corollaries we see between ancient Israel and twenty-first century America. Do we trust our own strength and our ability to create transnational coalitions? Are our leaders elitist and neglectful of the people’s well-being? Are we as a nation characterized by lies and violence? Do we, as a nation, worship at the wrong altar?

Too often, the answer to each the above questions has been yes. At the changing of the guard, with the pendulum in full swing it remains to be seen how we shall answer these questions in the age of Trump. But lets hope with Hosea for a restoration of relationship between God and his people.

1. Richard Allan Fuhr and Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016, 77.
2. Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, vol. 19A, The New American Commentary, Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997, 165. Judah too, is named in this prophetic indictment.
3. Ephraim in the passage is a metonym for Israel
4. Garrett, 170.

Markable: a book review

There is a sub-genre of business and leadership books which I call ‘business fiction.’ Books like Who Moved My Cheese?, The One-Minute Manager, The Five Disfunctions of a Team each use a thinly-veiled narrative as a parable to impart managerial advice. The goal is to present the books contents in an engaging, storied manner. Some of these books are better than others, but because their purpose is solely didactic, they all tend to break the first law of good fiction: show don’t tell. The result may be sound business advice, but it will never win a Pulitzer.

 9780801018831Remarkable: Maximizing Results Through Value Creation by Randy Ross and David Salyers is a business fiction. It tells much more than it shows. The central character, Dusty Harts, is not happy at work. He is an executive at a call center company which despite doing well on all the metrics, has a disengaged workforce. He takes his 1968 Ford Thunderbird into a Classic Car Care repair shop owned by Fred Walters. Dusty discovers that Fred is a Harvard MBA and a successful business man himself and begins to pick his brain about the ‘clutch’ situation at work–a moment which will determine how much people will engage. The rest of the the ‘narrative’ is mostly Fred and Dusty sitting in coffee shops and writing equations and diagrams on napkins about how to move a work force for egocentric value extraction to a we-centered value creation. This helps Dusty lead his company to become more engaged (and therefore more profitable), improves Dusty’s family life and makes him feel more fulfilled. Everyone lives happily ever after and in the closing chapter, [spoiler] Dusty is now the sage imparting wisdom to a young executive at his own Classic Car Care location.

This is thin fiction. The characters do not live and breath, they are mere mouthpieces for the principles  which Ross and Saylers desire to impart. But hey, that is my standing critique of the whole genre. What of the principles themselves? For the most part I think the advice imparted is sound. There are four maxims of value creation: (1) We are designed to create value in life, (2) Authentic positivity is the byproduct of creating true value, (3) to continuously create value, leverage your passion and strengths to solve problems and (4) ownership empowers people to take responsibility for creating value (181). Ross and Saylers approach also advocates bringing value to every endeavor by making relational deposits in people rather than seeking simply to ‘extract value’ and getting what we can out of people. They make a good case for reflective and thoughtful leadership (thinking about the whys and making the ‘superior decision’) instead of reactive leadership and business as usual. There are lots of concepts and ideas  worth underlining.

So I can suggest this book to leaders of companies and organizations. Not because it is riveting fiction, but because it may spark your thinking about the character of your leadership, and because the book is markable. You can mark it up. Maybe more than once. It is re-markable.  I give this book three stars

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

Following Well in a Leadership World: a book review

Leadership is something of a cottage industry. There are books, motivational posters, podcasts, TED Talks, and conferences designed to help you grow your leadership and lead well. A smaller amount of literature exists on the idea of followership (mostly published by leadership experts). Allen Hamlin Jr. has worked in the non-profit sector, training, mentoring and consulting for multi-ethnic teams for a Christian non-profit. In Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture  he critically engages the literature and offers insight and advice on how to follow well (and nurture followership).

embracingfollowershipcovernew-202x300Hamlin explores the topic under six headings. In Part 1, he addresses misconceptions regarding followership. These include  both misconceptions  followers have about following (leadership is the goal of followership, following is for cowards, followers have no influence and lack dignity, and followership is for lemmings) and misconceptions leaders  have about followers(i.e. followers are unqualified to lead, following is the polar opposite of leadership, followers just follow to get ahead). He also discusses the  misconceptions followers have about their leadership (leaders are superior, that they must be perfect, hierarchy is inhibiting, and that followers don’t really need leaders). Against these misconceptions, Hamlin underscores the intrinsic value of following well, and the ways in which leaders and followers form a mutually beneficial relationship.

The concept of followership is sharpened in Part 2. In chapter five he describes the obligations of good followership such as participating, stewarding resources well, and honoring and submitting to leadership. Additionally, followers follow well when they have the right attitude and are committed to their own personal development (62-65).  Chapter six outlines the significant contributions followers make by giving credence to an endeavor, providing a network of support, helping provide guidance, and contributing the leader’s development. Chapter seven discusses the concept of ownership, where both followers and leaders feel invested in their organization and the task at hand.

Part 3 explores the obstacles to following well. These include internal challenges (i.e. the need to be original, the desire for acknowledgement, and the inherent difficulty in taking risks),  relational challenges (the break down of communication, personality differences, misaligned and unspoken expectations), and cultural challenges (organizational structures, labels and vocabulary, and cross-cultural differences).  Hamlin suggests several resources for overcoming these difficulties including tools like the Ennegram and MBTI (and other resources for understand personal and group dynamics), mentoring and coaching and training in cross-cultural awareness (Chapter 11). Followers also thrive when their vision and role are clarified (126-132) and there is space for healthy rhythms of work and rest (135).  The final three sections of the book explore the relationship with leaders (Part 4), other followers (Part 5) and what leaders can do to nurture good followership (Part 6).

Hamlin illustrates the book with personal stories and plenty of quotes. He provides a comprehensive and critical reading of the literature, mindful of dynamics and opportunities for good followership. One of the insights I came away with was the common charactersitics of booth good leaders and good followers. Good leaders and followers are both concerned about their personal development, are good stewards of resources, enact and support the corporate vision, and exhibit ownership. It is true leaders and followers occupy different roles and functions, but both of them are essential to the success of an organization.

Another overlooked aspect of followership that Hamlin shines a light on is the influence of followers. Followers have tremendous capacity to support and give legitimacy to a leader’s vision, and influence their leader and offer input into the over all vision (156-57). Every follower who buys into the corporate vision is also a small “l” leader, influencing their peers towards excellence (181-82).

As a Christian, followership is more fundamental to my identity than leadership. Hamlin shares my Christian worldview, as does his publisher (Kirkdale Press); however this isn’t a Christian book in the sense that only Christians will benefit from Hamlin’s insights. Hamlin’s context is the not-for-profit world, but his message is broadly applicable for non-profits, churches and businesses. Followers will find plenty of food for thought on how to pursue  vocational excellence wherever they are (or somewhere with a leader worth following). Leaders will find encouragement and insights for nurturing followers and the the environment of those they lead. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. Embracing Followership is available via Amazon or direct from the Kirkdale Press.

Create! a ★★★★★ book review

If I were to copy anyone, I’d copy Ken Wytsma. He is lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he teaches philosophy and justice), creative advisor for non-profits and founder of the Justice Conference. Additionally, he is the author of three great books. His latest, Create vs. Copy, digs deep into the theology and practice of creativity. So yeah, I’m overawed and would love to copy Wytsma. Only I couldn’t (and shouldn’t).

9780802413499Create vs. Copy doesn’t have much to say  about copying, outside its introduction and first chapter (SPOILER ALERT: don’t do it!). Wytsma’s focus is on creating. Creativity leads us to blazes trails, innovate, and try new things(14). Copying does not (although there is space for creative borrowing).

The book unfolds in two parts. Part one presents a theology of creativity. Part two explores the practices which bring creativity to life. Of course it isn’t quite that neat. Wytsma’s thoughtfulness about the ‘why’ behind the creative process underpins his practical suggestion; practice bleeds out of his theology.  The whole book is an invitation toward creative action.  Here is a closer look at what to expect:

Part 1

In chapter one, Wytsma quotes Genesis 1:27, observing the one aspect of God’s nature described in the verse is this: God creates (24). So Wytsma identifies creativity as part of what it means for us to bear God’s image. This means all of us:

Yes, artists, but also everyone else. While artistic ability is a talent few possess (and/or cultivate with time and hard work), creative capacity is something all of us are born with. Put another way, artists are skilled with unique talents, but creativity is part of what makes us human. (27)

Chapter two, “Continuous Creativity,” begins with Wytsma’s  reflections on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Increased Entropy) which states “All closed systems tend to move toward a state of greater disorder and dissipated energy” (37). Wytsma connects this with our experience:

This dissipation is familiar in nearly every area of life.  If not renewed, donor bases will erode over time. Congregations will shrink. Family dynamics will tense up. Relationships will fade. Leadership strategies become stale and ineffective. Even our bodies and minds lose their vigor (38).

But entropy characterizes closed systems and creativity is our means to crack them open to allow life back in (39). Wytsma links the work of ongoing, continuous creativity to our image bearing and Gods redemptive plan: God created the world, is in the process of creating, and will create a new heaven and a new earth (42-43); we were created as creative, are creating and are reaching forward with our creative potential. Wytsma closes this chapter with practices for incorporating creativity at home and work (48-52).

Chapter three gives shape to how creativity brings life to our decaying systems. A closed system leads to narrowing horizons, creativity is aimed at making space for life to flourish (51-53). The process is organic: a narrowing horizon is a fear-inducing-context or problem requiring a solution; by responding with intentional creativity (a pattern of life emerging from a nourished imagination) innovation occurs (67).  Chapter four describes the outworking of this theology of creativity and innovation in our globalizing world.

Part 2

In chapter five, Wytsma explores the ways imagination helps us see what is and what should be. As we age, our capacity to imagine possibilities is constrained by our culture and peer group (110).  Our creative impulse atrophies, but Wytsma contends, through its exercise, we can reignite our creativity (114).

Chapter six probes the role of imagination in creative process. The comprehensive imagination names our ability to understand the relevant data for seeing  current problems (120-121). Our artistic imagination helps us envision what could be (122). Our practical imagination helps envision and enact solutions which will work, leading to innovation (122-123). Wytsma also identifies challenges to our imagination (i.e. knowing what ideas to ‘prune’ and convincing people that imagination isn’t the purview of the few).

Chapter seven identifies the process of intentional creativity as both movement and alignment (136). Movement means doing something. “Our natural response to change is to buck against it, to dig in our heels, to wish things would stay the way they are or go back to the way they used to be” (136-137). But inaction leads to the dissipation of entropy, and our best ideas will come in the midst of our work. Drawing on Robert Epstein, Wytsma suggests we sharpen our creative skills by taking notes of new ideas, seeking out challenging tasks, broadening our knowledge, and surrounding ourselves with interesting things and people (138-140). Yet undirected creativity without healthy constraints won’t get you where you want to go (142). Our creativity is aligned when we  understanding our role in “God’s creative, redemptive work” (143). Wytsma observes, “When our values guide our whole creative process—imagination, intentional creativity, and innovation—something beautiful happens” (147).

The final chapter discusses ‘generous creativity’: the  ways in which creativity is collaborative, ‘in-processs’ and is aimed at relationship more than results. One example of creative-collaboration is how each chapter is punctuated with Paul Crouse’s stunning illustrations, making this book  practical AND beautiful. A brief conclusion summons us to creative action (don’t just be a copier or a critic).


I was predisposed to like this book. I am artistic and have read Wytsma’s previous books appreciatively. I also love the interactive aspects like the additional reading suggestions from Ken’s blog and reflection questions appended to each chapter. But this book  was also very helpful for me. Despite my love of creativity, my last leadership role was in an entropic system where I failed to lead a process toward vitality.  I didn’t know how to lead innovation. Wytsma gives shape to how the creativity makes space for life to flourish. As a rookie pastor this would have saved me a lot of grief (in a way  vision-casting exercises didn’t).

According to Wytsma, all of us have the capacity and ability for creativity; however he favors leadership in his examples. He states, “Those who create blaze trails, take risks, and try new ways. . . . They lead. . . .Copiers by definition, will always follow” (14). Creativity is defined as leading; copying means following. Maybe so, but not everyone leads (processes or people).  More ought to be said about creative following. For leaders and artists, creativity is explicit. It is what they need to do in order to thrive in business, art and life. In other vocations creativity is implicit. How does creativity play out in the lives of accountants (creative accounting isn’t good, right?), nurses, housekeepers, or whatever?  Creativity is essential to all our image-bearing,  so I wish there were more examples from ordinary lives.

None of this detracts from my enjoyment. This was a fun,fruitful read which pushed me to think and act with more creativity in ministry and life.  I give this five stars and recommend it for leaders, artists, innovators, and yes, copycats, followers and ordinary folk. It calls us to embody the spacious and life giving. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of Create vs. Copy as part of the launch team for the book. I was asked for my honest review. The book is slated for release on March 1, 2016 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon and can be ordered directly from the publisher’s website.