Monthly Archives: November 2005

“Courageous Leadership”

Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervans, 2002) 253 pages, paperback.

This book is written from the heart. Bill Hybels packs into these pages key lessons and good advice about pastoral leadership that he has learned and continues to learn through his involvement with the Willow Creek Church and its Association. He is convinced that the local church is the hope of the world, but it needs courageous leaders. “[L]ocal church leaders have the potential to be the most influential force on planet earth. If they ‘get it,’ and get on with it, churches can become the redemptive centers that Jesus intended them to be”[12]. So after thirty years of ministry, Hybels shares what in his opinion this kind of church leadership is all about.

With many personal illustrations Hybels walks us through the various dimensions of ministry leadership. He centres his discussion in the fact, function and potential of the local church. But then argues that “the outcome of the redemptive drama being played out on planet Earth will be determined by how well church leaders lead”[27]. For this reason church leaders must take their role seriously, be committed to developing their gifts and abilities fully, and then be willing to act courageously for the good of the Kingdom. However, the bottom line remains “the Acts 2 church” [27].

In the course of his book Hybels considers the singular importance of vision and its implementation. Team ministry ranks high in his estimation. Both financial and personnel resource development must be priorities. And then the most important element, a leader’s self-development, occupies the last six chapters. Personally, I think these last six chapters are the best in the volume because they draw readers into deep reflection upon their own leadership journey and challenge them to be very intentional about this. If ministry leaders neglect self-development, they risk losing everything God has called them to be and to do.

A key component to the courageous leadership that Hybels encourages is the defining vision. Hybels states that “when a church needs a God-honoring, kingdom-advancing, heart-thumping vision, it turns to its leaders. That’s because God put in the leader’s arsenal the potent offensive weapon called vision” [31]. He defines vision as “a picture of the future that produces passion” [32]. I wonder how Hybels would distinguish between vision and calling? A vision is bound up with a leader’s very life. “That’s why God made you a leader. That’s your unique calling”[37], he claims. But are vision and calling the same?

I think Hybels would agree that every believer in Jesus has a calling. If this is so, then logically all believers should also have a vision for how that calling should find expression in their lives. So what makes a “leader’s vision” different? Or perhaps that is not the right question. Perhaps we need to ask whether the ministry leader’s function in a local church is to help the whole body discern how to integrate their personal callings and visions and direct them towards building an Acts 2 church. If we operate on the assumption that only the ministry leader sees the vision and then has to communicate this vision to the local church, are we in fact eliminating from the equation the very resource the Holy Spirit has given to the church to produce the growth of the church, namely the whole body?

Vision development in the local church must be seen as a community function. To try to cast vision from the top down makes the local church vulnerable when ministry leaders move. Such a process may work in a corporation, but when applied to the local church it fails to embrace the richness of perspective and the significant role that every member should play in vision development. Yes, ministry leaders must take responsibility to ensure that the process works and they certainly will have a very influential part to play, but the vision cannot be only theirs.

Calling relates to our position in Christ and the natural and spiritual endowments that He gives to us. Vision, perhaps, seeks to define in specific times and spaces how that calling will be lived out.

I found it intriguing that from time-to-time in his book Hybels mentions the elders of his church. He certainly honours them and consults with them. However, it is very difficult to discern exactly how his spiritual leadership integrates with their spiritual leadership. It seems that his ministry team is far more significant for the building up of his local church than the elders. Does he consider the elders as part of the ministry team? I am sure he would answer in the affirmative. However, such a perspective, while perhaps implied, is not stated.

How then do ‘courageous leaders’ in local churches relate to their fellow elders? Are elders truly spiritual leaders who carry the responsibility for the spiritual nurture and health of the local church? Hybels spends considerable time talking about the qualities he looks for in new ministry leaders, but does not discuss the question of selecting elders. He describes the importance of working carefully and wisely with ministry colleagues, but has nothing to say about his work and relationships with his elders. Perhaps this will be the subject for a subsequent volume.

This silence about the elders’ role begs the question whether ‘courageous leadership’ in a local church has any necessary connection with the elders’ team (however this may be defined). Finding good processes to integrate the respective contributions of the elder’s team and the ministry leadership team in a local church has to be an essential priority for the lead pastor if there is to be harmony, vitality, and growth.

Finally (and here I let my bias show more explicitly) Hybels does not appreciate the courageous leadership development that happens in seminaries. On the one hand he has good things to say about the influence of Dr. Bilezikian’s teaching in his life during college days. On the other hand his characterization of teachers seems to be quite one-dimensional. “[O]nly leaders can develop other leaders and create a leadership culture. Teachers can’t do it. Administrators can’t do it”[122]. I wonder what Hybels thinks motivates many seminary teachers to devote their lives to such vocation? Could it be that they have a passion to develop good ministry leaders? Could it be that they have significant ministry leadership experience and giftedness themselves and discern the seminary context as being a primary means by which to fulfill their calling to multiply ministry leaders? Could it be that seminaries consider as central to their mission the development of godly ministry leaders who can do the job effectively? Seminaries by and large seek to involve good ministry leaders as faculty for the development of the next generation of ministry leaders. I am undoubtedly defensive about this because of my involvement in seminary ministry. However, I do think Hybels’ characterization does not do justice to the passion and ability many seminary faculty bring to the daunting task of participating in the formation of the next generation of courageous ministry leaders. Undoubtedly it will require all of the resources of the church – local church, seminary, and denominational leadership – to get this job done well.

The questions I raise should not deter you from buying and reading Hybels’ book. You will enjoy it and be challenged.

November 2005.

“Ascent of a Leader”

Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, Ken McElrath, The Ascent of a Leader. How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999): i-xiii, 1-203

The three authors are all involved in various aspects of leadership development, building primarily upon experience in the corporate world, but with a commitment to following Jesus. As they say in the preface, they are exploring the definition and foundations of influence as the key to good leadership practice. Relationships and the environment in which we experience them are the key elements in developing good leadership. Their worldview is expressly Christian, although they seek to write for a larger audience, one that does embrace a relationship with God as significant.

The fundamental premise of their book is that “character – the inner world of motives and values that shapes our actions – is the ultimate determiner of the nature of our leadership. It empowers our capacities while keeping them in check.”(p.1). The goal is “to become the kind of leader whom others want to follow”(p.1). They write for people who desire to be leaders and to achieve their leadership potential. In their view, this cannot be accomplished merely by one’s own personal abilities, but is dependent upon “a certain kind of environment in which to live and work” (p.1) and relationships “to help you become more than a leader” (p.1).

They contrast two ‘ladders’. The first is a ‘short ladder’ that commonly is the focus of leadership development. They call it the “Capacity Ladder” (figure 2.1). It exists in environments of “mistrust and ungrace [sic]” (figure 4.1) and within relationships of “power and leverage”. This is the ladder that most people try to climb in order to become successful leaders, using their capacities and position to achieve potential. The authors reject this ‘ladder to success’ because it is fundamentally flawed by selfishness and has no centre of virtue.

What they put in its place, or rather seek to integrate with the ‘capacity ladder’ is the ‘Character Ladder’ (figure 10.1). People ascend this ladder by creating environments and relationships of grace. They have a deep trust in God that allows them to embrace humility, submission, obedience, and suffering/maturity, while being willing to “choose vulnerability”, “align with truth”, and “pay the price” in order to “discover (their) destiny”.

The authors believe that “our culture [i.e. American culture] is ready for leaders who climb a different ladder”(180). They have had enough of leaders who strive for their destiny purely on the basis of the capacity ladder. Their vision is for leaders who will pay the price to climb the ladder of success that integrates character and capacity (figure 10.2). Only leaders of this kind can truly help us shape and develop environments of grace.

The authors incorporate some stirring examples of people who, in their view, have demonstrated the values intrinsic to the character ladder. There are also times when they do reflect on the teachings of Jesus as foundational for their argument. As well, they encourage all people to consider themselves to be leaders in some respect and context.

The focus upon character as essential to good leadership, particularly good leadership in the church, is certainly welcome. For too long leadership has tended to be seen primarily as a toolkit of techniques and skills. Paul’s outline of ministry leadership qualifications such as is found in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 certainly focuses upon character, but character that is empowered and shaped by the Holy Spirit.

The idea of environments and relationships filled with grace also merits serious consideration as a way to conceive of family, church, and corporate contexts. Here again a fundamental biblical principle gets woven into their argument. They urge leaders to ‘align with the truth’ and again we applaud this biblical mandate.

In the midst of these positives, I think there are at least three cautions that have to be expressed. First, the symbolism of the ladder carries connotations that jar, in my view, with the vision of Christian leadership. In the Gospels discipleship tends to be symbolized by a journey, following Jesus, and in this posture expressing God’s calling to love others through sacrificial service. Ladders convey a sense of hierarchy. In the business and professional world people do conceive of their progress as climbing the corporate ladder or getting to the peak of one’s discipline. However, in the context of Christian ministry, these are not helpful metaphors because they tend to be self-focused, power-laden, and expressive of ambition. I do not think the author’s desire is to express these things through the symbol they chose, but regardless these are inherent dangers. The picture Paul gives us of the Messiah in Philippians 2:5-11, as he carries out God’s will in human history, is a downward journey, like descending a staircase. There is no ascent until after the resurrection.

Second, although the authors seek to ground the development of character in religious experience, how valid is this premise? Yes, we can agree that religious instinct can motivate diverse people to altruistic service. However, it can also move people to acts of incredible hatred and hostility. I think Paul has it right when he argues that without love, all of our efforts lack worth and lasting value. In Paul’s view this love is God’s love poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Good ministry leadership that is selfless and loving has to be the product of the Holy Spirit’s incredible work in our lives. The ideal the authors put forward cannot be achieved without the continual work of God’s Spirit in the lives of individuals and communities.

Third, the authors have a very specific view about the way virtue works in a human being.

The heart – the inner life, shaped primarily by trust – molds our motives. Our motives establish our values. And our values govern our actions. What we believe about ourselves takes root and is nourished in our hearts. And it’s from the heart that our destiny — our ultimate influence and value – flows.(63)

The authors do expand on what they mean by trust. However, the concept of ‘motive’ does not receive much explicit attention in their volume. The word is not listed in the index. I could not find any definition of it in their work. Yet, it sits at the most crucial juncture – between heart and values. Unless we are clear about our motives, our ultimate loyalties (i.e. to love God, to serve God, to advance God’s purposes), we will not be clear about our values or our actions. Perhaps the authors feel they have addressed this, but in different terms. If so, a clearer connection needs to be made.

The authors offer an interesting discussion of the complex relationship between capacity and character (or competency and spirituality). Sometimes the call of God, our destiny, is not to the pinnacle of power, but rather is to the humiliation of a cross. If this is so then leadership in Christian terms must be our descent to humble, suffering service as our only ascent. It is this paradox that Jesus expressed in his words to the apostles – “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43).

Reviewed November 1, 2005.