I’ve recently completed a series substantive interviews with fourteen vocational Christian leaders. The interviews are part of my research towards a professional doctorate.
A number of important themes have formed a significant part of the content of the interviews. I’d like to think of them as the contours of a leadership journey.
- Conversion. While all of the leaders I spoke to have had some kind of conversion experience, some of them talk about how radically life changing that experience was.
- Call. Not everyone has an Isaiah-type experience of call: but some of the leaders I spoke to talked about a dramatic call experience as they listened to a speaker at a conference; another spoke more of a gradual awakening and eventually coming to the realisation: ‘This is what I was born for.’ Others spoke of significant happenings that preceded invitations into particular leadership situations.
- Not unrelated to the first two themes is the theme of the sovereign providence of God. Sometimes leaders find that their steps are directed by an unseen hand, closing one door to open another.
- Character and personality. Obviously these terms are not exactly synonymous, but leaders need to be aware of issues around each of them. Some leaders display very clear leadership traits in the way that they are drawn to problems. Character development is important and the leadership journey may also be a journey of character transformation.
- Paradigm shifts. The average age of the leaders I spoke to was around 61. These leaders have lived and led long enough to experience a changing world and to undergo changes in how they view certain things, like, for example, the work of the Holy Spirit.
- Crises and challenges. Sometimes these are personal or family related, sometimes they are spiritual and sometimes they have to do with leadership and ministry. Of course a leadership crisis can become a personal crisis as the leader begins to question himself/herself. One church leader spoke of how he discovered that the answer to his leadership crisis was not better leadership technique, but greater dependence on Jesus.
- The leaders discussed a number of things related to their spirituality. For example, some talked about the love of God, some talked about their experience of the Holy Spirit.
- The influence of others. Reggie McNeal has written about the significance of Jethro-like characters that cross the path of a leader and the leaders in this research spoke of fathers, of youth leader, and of others who have had significant roles to play along the way. Interestingly two of the leaders (one 60 and the other in his 70s) said that they wished they had had a mentor. (Note that the photo at the top of this may be misleading in this respect: the guy is on his own!)
- Travel was not a frequent theme, but it was there. It could be negative, with the struggles that go with isolation and culture issues in a different setting; but it could also be positive – some of the leaders spoke of positive experiences as they spent time in other countries.
- Transitions and progressions. Some leaders spoke of how God uses one situation to prepare you for another. A couple of leaders sensed a widening sphere of influence as they progressed along their leadership path.
- Retirement is a ‘crucible’; while a retired leader can look back and see how God has been at work, the loss of structure can bring challenges and at the same time opportunities to experience new forms of spirituality.
In addition, it’s been interesting to hear some of the leaders talk about particular passions in a way that makes me wonder about the significance of life themes in leadership. And the realisation that it is not always possible (nor may it be wise) to segregate a ministry path from the rest of life.