Learning to Lead

Apr 21, 2005 |Marshall Allen

It's about a lot more than getting out in front of a group of people and shouting "follow me!"

Billy Graham is a visionary leader who has preached the Gospel to millions and trained thousands of indigenous Christian leaders throughout the world. He’s a man whose faith, integrity and wisdom are a testimony to people everywhere. Though I’ve only admired Dr. Graham from afar, I was raised in the presence of several pastors and youth leaders who were equally effective at the local level. Both examples inspired me.

As we enter adulthood, many of us strive toward leadership with ideas and expectations perhaps based on famous leaders or our local pastors. I never intended to become a Christian leader. But right after college God led my wife and me to Kenya for three years, where we served as youth leaders. My expectations of leadership, which were often based on what I had seen God doing through others, were not easily met. I frequently felt discouraged; I made mistakes and sometimes I questioned my calling. It was a fulfilling and life-changing three years -- but it wasn’t easy.

I wish I had known then about The Making of a Leader by Robert Clinton. A Christian leadership expert and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Clinton helps bridge the gap between the leadership expectations and goals we pursue, and the leadership we experience.

It’s an important book because, among many other things, it provides perspective. Too many times young Christian leaders – myself included -- have grand aspirations for influence or fruitfulness that, when not realized, lead to disillusionment. Or they encounter the inevitable conflicts that come with leadership and become discouraged. The Making of a Leader shows how God works throughout the length of a leader’s life – it’s a long process.

The Making of a Leader is specifically about Christian leadership, so it’s unlike any business book on the subject.

Clinton starts by defining Christian leader: a person with God-given capacity and responsibility to influence a specific group toward God’s purposes. Every leader is unique, with a distinct set of gifts and sphere of influence. The book is written for vocational and lay leaders alike, and Clinton emphasizes that rather than trying to mimic another person’s substance and style, “we should be what God intends us to be.” In my case, after five years in vocational ministry, I now consider myself a lay Christian leader.

Clinton says he based The Making of a Leader on the assumption that God cultivates leaders and intervenes in their lives to develop them for His purposes. His theory is that God uses events and people to impress lessons upon a leader over a lifetime. Personal reflection is central to the theory and encouraged in the book. It compels readers to consider how God is at work in their leadership development. “All leaders can point to critical incidents in their lives where God taught them something very important,” he writes. To this end, Clinton provides reflection questions at the end of each chapter for this purpose. For example, at the end of a chapter on maturation, Clinton asks the reader: “What is the most important practical ministry skill you have? How did God build that skill into your life?”

Clinton’s leadership development theory helps us look at our lives with a long-range perspective. He uses a timeline to illustrate the typical phases of development in the life of a leader. There are five development phases:

Phase I: Sovereign Foundations – God providentially works foundational items into the life of the leader-to-be.
Phase II: Inner-Life Growth – An emerging leader usually gets some kind of training, often informal, in connection with ministry.
Phase III: Ministry Maturing – The emerging leader gets into ministry as a prime focus of life.
Phase IV: Life Maturing – The leader identifies and uses his or her gifts and abilities with power.
Phase V: Convergence – God positions the leader in a place that matches his or her gifts and abilities, experience and temperament.

To demonstrate the phases, Clinton shows the timeline of Christian leaders like Dawson Trotman, founder of the parachurch ministry The Navigators; A.W. Tozer, a writer and pastor; and Watchman Nee, who founded indigenous churches in China.

Clinton says that during the first three phases – which encompass much of life – God is primarily working in the leader, not through the leader. “Most emerging leaders don’t recognize this,” Clinton writes. “They evaluate productivity, activities, fruitfulness, etc. But God is quietly, often in unusual ways, trying to get a leader to see that one ministers out of what one is. God is concerned about what we are.”

In the long run, God transforms the leader into the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29) as He prepares him or her for the final phase -- convergence. “His goal is a Spirit-filled leader through whom the living Christ ministers, utilizing the leader’s spiritual gifts,” Clinton writes. “The fruit of the Spirit is the mark of a mature Christian. The gifts of the Spirit are a mark of a leader being used of God.”

Interestingly, many leaders never reach convergence, according to Clinton. A leader might suffer from a lack of personal development, a limiting organizational structure, or in some cases, a premature death. Trotman, founder of the international ministry organization The Navigators, accomplished much but died before he reached convergence, according to Clinton.

Clinton goes on to highlight several significant pitfalls to leadership development. One is the problem of authority: a leader gets along with other leaders, subordinates and peers. The power for ministry is spiritual authority, which is delegated by God and not dependent on position or force, he says. Influence depends on relationships with people, so understanding authority also comes through relationships. Leaders who have trouble submitting to authority will usually have trouble exercising spiritual authority, he writes.

For it’s several shortcomings, this book provides context. Sometimes daily life is all consuming and we don’t reflect on the leadership lessons we learn, or the ways God is at work in our lives. Clinton separates Christian leadership into its many parts. He dissects leadership, albeit somewhat clinically at times, and demonstrates how the parts join together to form the whole.

Christian leadership development is a lifelong process. Leadership growth is not dependant on busying ourselves with more activity or fretting about fruitfulness. And it cannot be hurried. These realizations free young leaders from the burden of making it happen themsleves. We only need to be faithful to God, submitting to the Holy Spirit in all things. If we focus on fulfilling our design, effective leadership will come naturally.

Copyright 2005 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.

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