Leadership refreshment: a course for leaders

News on a 6 part course for Christian leaders: get in touch if you’d like to know more.


‘Refreshing your Leadership’ is a six-part course intended for groups of Christian leaders. It is designed primarily with church or mission/ministry leaders in mind (though it can be adapted to Christians leading in other fields). Ideally there should be at least 5 people in the group. The group could consist of a church leadership team, the staff or leadership team of a mission, a local group of pastors and ministers, or a gathering of missionaries.

Who leads the course?

The course is led by Dr Alan Wilson. Alan is a visiting lecturer at the Irish Baptist College in Moira, an associate tutor at Belfast Bible College, and part of the adjunct faculty of the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin. He has over 20 years of pastoral experience in Northern Ireland and Switzerland. His doctoral workexplored the theme of ‘crucible’ experiences in shaping Christian leaders.

How will the course run?

The material is organised in 6 sessions (ideally of two hours each, though they can be condensed) and there is flexibility in how these might be arranged. For example it would be possible to run the course over a series of weekday evenings, as an intensive weekend event or as a series of day retreats for a team.

As well as the teaching content, the course allows time and space for personal reflection, not least the opportunity for leaders to reflect on their own leadership journeys.

How much will the course cost?

The cost will depend on the size of the group and the group’s ability to pay: suggested donation is between £450-800, plus travel costs.

What does the course cover?

Part One: The Leader’s Journey (Moses)

The first two sessions will explore the concept of a leadership journey and we will be making use of the story of Moses as a template to help us explore our own stories.

  • Introducing the story of Moses. Moses is one of the most significant figures in Scripture’s story line, and his own story is one of the most dramatic in the Bible: it is rich in insights into how God works with a leader.
  • Introducing the concept of the leadership journey timeline. The narrative of Moses’ life falls neatly into three distinct: formative years, exile years, and leadership years. The course encourages leaders to reflect on their own leadership timeline, highlighting ways in which they have been shaped and lessons they have learned along the way.
  • The leader’s formative years. The first stage of Moses’ life helps us to reflect on the people who have influenced our development, and to think about key decisions that have shaped the direction of our lives.
  • The leader in exile. While the biblical text gives us few details about the middle stage of Moses’ life, it is a stage that opens up the theme of exile or wilderness when the leader’s aspirations and the reality of their actual circumstances are quite different.

Part two: The Leader’s Journey, continued

  • The leader’s calling. This session looks at the debate between Moses and the Lord: when Moses is finally called to lead the Hebrews (what he wanted to do 40 years previously), he has decided he’d rather stay in obscurity and leave the work to someone else: what excuses do leaders offer to avoid God’s call?
  • Leadership challenges. Moses’ experience reminds us that strategic spiritual leadership is no easy task. In this session we explore some of the tough challenges that confront Moses and other leaders.
  • Leadership opportunities. While the leader has to face challenges, spiritual leadership also brings great privileges: we will think about the importance of a leader being secure in the love of God.

Part Three: The Leader’s Task (Nehemiah)

In sessions three and four, the focus is on the leader’s task and we will be using the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem to structure our thinking as well as referring to more general leadership ideas.

  • Introducing Nehemiah and his times. This session sets the scene and reflects on the important theme of living in exile. As Nehemiah prays for Jerusalem, we ask what it means for a leader to pray ‘Your kingdom come’.
  • The leader’s vision. What was happening in Jerusalem was so wrong that Nehemiah knew it had to be put right. As he prayed, God put a plan in his heart. What does it mean for a leader to have a God-given vision?

Part Four: The Leader’s Task, continued

  • The leader’s team. While the role of the leader is important, leaders’ effectiveness is limited if they are not surrounded by a team who will join them in the vision and plan. Nehemiah’s story is the story of a host of otherwise largely unknown people who rolled up they sleeves to rebuild Jerusalem.
  • The leader’s resilience. Nehemiah’s leadership takes place against the backdrop of opponents who attempt to hinder the rebuilding task. What are some of the issues leaders face – both in terms of their work and personally – where perseverance and resilience are called for?

Part Three: The Leader’s Model (Jesus)

In sessions five and six we reflect on the life and teaching of Jesus as they relate to our thinking on leadership. It’s been pointed out that there is a lot more in the gospels about a call to follow than about a call to lead!

  • Jesus, the Leader. Biblically, leadership starts with God and in this session we will explore how Jesus led, focussing on the concept (which has become popular in general leadership thinking) of servant leadership.
  • The leader’s testing. Again we turn to some of the challenges that leaders face. This time we reflect on what we might learn from Jesus’ testing in the desert: what happens when leaders are tempted to go it alone relying on their abilities more than on God, or when they are tempted to take short cuts?

Part Six: The Leader’s Model, continued

  • The leader’s life. In this session we will focus on Jesus’ teaching in John 15 where he talks about the disciples’ relationship to him (‘abide in me’), their relationship with each other (‘love one another’), and to to the world (as witnesses).
  • The leader’s call to follow. For all the talk in this course about leadership, leaders need to remember that their primary calling is not to lead but to follow. We’ll explore Jesus’ conversation with Peter in John 21 and think about what it means for leaders to be faithful followers.

Michael Green – The Making of a Christian Leader

While this is not part of the Leadership Journey Podcast series, it’s on the same theme: a fascinating interview with Michael Green on his leadership journey.

It’s well worth a bit of your time!

The Making of a Christian Leader: Michael Green in conversation from Highfields Church on Vimeo.


Leadership 101: Call, Character, and Competence (2)


This is a follow on from the post that began discussing the call, character and competence of a leader. There is one more part to come in this triad.

That there should be a discussion of the character of a Christian leader should hardly be surprising, given the significance of the theme of character in Scripture and the Christian tradition.

James Lawrence offers a simple definition of character (‘who you are when no one’s looking’) and suggests that it is most clearly seen in small, day-to-day things, when the leader is under pressure, and when the leader is in private. Among the reasons why character matters is that ‘without credibility … a leader will have no one to lead’ and that it is character issues that most often lead to derailment.

Then there is this – from Os Guinness:

As traditionally understood, from the Hebrews and Greeks onward, character is the inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is – whether a person, a wine, or a historical period. Thus character is clearly distinct from such concepts as personality, image, reputation or celebrity. It is the essential “stuff” a person is made of, the inner reality and quality in which thoughts, speech, decision, behavior, and relations are rooted. As such, character determines behavior just as behavior demonstrates character.

It has been suggested that much of the Old Testament account of the ancient Hebrews could be viewed as ‘a story of character and character formation’. Both Old and New Testaments exhort the people of God to be obedient and holy. Special application was made to the OT kings who were to be on their guard against the temptations of wealth, horses and the accumulation of wives. In the New Testament, alongside Jesus’ general teaching in places such as the Sermon on the Mount, specific qualities are highlighted in relation to spiritual leaders.

Yet both biblical and empirical evidence remind us that while we might be disappointed at contradictions in leaders’ character, we should not be surprised. While many of the OT kings are condemned for their character failure, there is also a recognition that essentially good leaders can also be flawed.

The biblical record has a lot to tell us about the tests of character: whether it’s Joseph and David, two leaders who meet sexual temptation with contrasting responses, or Jesus himself, whose faithfulness in the face of desert temptation contrasts with the failure of his ancestors at the time of Moses.

Both adversity and prosperity reveal a leader’s character and draw attention either to strengths or to weaknesses that will have to be addressed.

Bill George noted that some of the leaders who get derailed during the course of their leadership journey are not necessarily bad leaders: they get caught up in their own success. I spoke to a leader who shared (with searing honesty) about a phase in the early days of his ministry when his public stock was soaring, but his home life was threatening to derail him.

It seems that success can be more dangerous than failure!

There are several ways in which character has a shadow side. For one thing, as Parker Palmer puts it, a leader can project either light or shadow and leaders need to pay attention to their shadow side, something that calls for a degree introspection that is not always present in leaders. Failing to understand our own failings, according to Palmer, leads us to find ways in which we can make someone ‘out there’ the enemy and so we become leaders who oppress rather than liberate.

Another, perhaps more subtle problem is that our strengths sometimes have shadow sides. For example, resilience can easily become stubbornness; discernment can become judgmentalism. Yesterday’s reflection on calling noted that a strong sense of call can have a shadow side when it means that a leader is so committed to the task of leadership that spouse and family are neglected.

Samuel Rima observed that,

The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.

In talking with several leaders in the course of my research I noticed some specific examples.

  1. The self-reliance that can lead to the vital quality of resilience can also make it challenging for a leader to relinquish control. The leader may become stubborn or controlling.
  2. The ability to confront (not always a comfortable task) allows a leader to deal decisively with issues, but its shadow side can become harshness.
  3. Similarly, passion gets things done. It is those leaders with passion and drive who are likely to break new ground or thrive in challenging situations, but the shadow side is the risk of burnout or the risk of collateral damage caused to others on the team.

There is this, from Leighton Ford:

Every leader has a ‘shadow’ side, like the dark side of the moon – areas that are disguised, or perhaps explored but unrecognized. I am convinced that our leadership will be stronger and the dangers of collapse lesser if we become aware of these dark areas and bring them into the light early.’

I think the best leadership is that which flows from who the leader is: in that sense it is authentic leadership. I use the term with a degree of caution. There is no doubt that people (perhaps especially younger people) are drawn to authenticity. But its shortcoming is that its reference point appears to be internal while the reference point to character is external.

So perhaps I should say that the best Christian leadership is that which flows from the authentically God-shaped character of a leader.

Which means that all of us ought to be on a constant growth trajectory.

A young church leader asked me once if I thought a lot of Christian leaders have a gap between their public persona and their private life. It was a great question and while I can’t quantify the answer, it has to be some kind of a yes!

Those of us who have some kind of public persona, whether as leaders or preachers, often come across as those who have it all together. According to our persona, we never worry (because we roll our burdens onto Jesus), we are patient and kind, our wives worship the ground we walk on and are so grateful to be married to such wonderful people, we never get angry, all the prayers we pray in our rich prayer lives are answered, we never have any doubts, questions or fears. The calm conviction that we express so eloquently from the pulpits we grace characterises every waking moment.

Whereas if only people knew that our wives sometimes despair of us (I’m reminded of the incident which Paul Tripp recounts – against himself – where he told his wife that 95% of the women in his church would love to be married to a man like him: she declared herself in the 5%!); or that some of us struggle to pray, that we don’t always find our souls nourished by our Bible readings, that our private spiritual lives may not have the vitality everyone assumes, that we get anxious, that we feel guilty, that we may lie awake at night fretting over one thing or another, that we get more angry over some things than we should, that the fruit of the Spirit is not always evident in our lives, that we have questions about unanswered prayer, that we have regrets, that we sometimes get more wrong in our leadership than we get right, we experience moments of self-doubt and self-loathing, that when we cut we bleed, that we sometimes struggle to forgive, or that we have times when we even wonder if we should really be doing this stuff.

In short – we are not perfect, nor will we be until we see Jesus and we are made like him.

None of this should be an excuse for hypocrisy, or for inattention to the cultivation of spiritual character. It should be an incentive for growth.

Ministry and leadership are a gift and a privilege but should not be understood as a ‘get off the hook’ pass in terms of the need to grow in character.

We’ll get to the third ‘c’ (competence) in next week’s post.

But don’t rush to get there just yet – not least if you are a younger leader. Character matters. Failure to pay attention can result in leader derailment with all that entails.

Leadership 101: Call, Character, and Competence (1)


In his book on staying fresh in Christian leadership, Paul Mallard starts by reflecting on how Psalm 78 refers to David:

[God] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skilful hand.

He notes these three things:

  • Conviction – the awareness that David had of being called and chosen by God;
  • Competence – David led with ‘skilful hand’;
  • Character – he shepherded the people with ‘upright heart’.

For the purposes of this post, I’d adjust Paul Mallard’s terms slightly, preferring ‘call’ to ‘conviction’.

James Lawrence, in Growing Leaders, also highlights the importance of discerning God’s call, developing Christ-like character, and cultivating competence.

All of the leaders I interviewed in my recent research referred in some way to calling. Ruth Haley Barton highlights the profound significance of being called by God: ‘it is a place where God’s presence intersects with a human life.’

Of course the most fundamental call is the call to believe in Christ and follow him. But within that call, one can find the seeds of a subsequent vocational calling. Some people have such dramatic conversion experiences that all of life is reoriented, a new direction and new priorities are set, and it can lead to a path of vocational leadership. The seeds of a call to leadership can be found in their conversion.

Often the call to leadership comes later. Sometimes it can be in the form of a ‘gradual awakening’ to one’s life purpose, though it can also happen in a moment of crisis, say in response to a stirring appeal.

Os Guinness has helpfully distinguished between two kinds of calling: what he calls an original, ‘ordinary’ calling, and a later, ‘special’ calling. The first is a sense of life purpose that comes in response to God’s call to follow him and its implications are lived out even if there is no direct, even supernatural, communication from God about a special calling.

He suggests that this latter ‘special’ calling has to do with tasks and missions given to individuals through some specific communication from God. Reggie McNeal says that ‘the call is the leader’s personal conviction of having received some life assignment or mission that must be completed’.

Much of the biblical narrative reflects the theme of God’s call. From the voice of God addressing the fugitive Adam and Eve in Eden, through the call of Abram to leave the familiar for the unknown, to the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation, Scripture is the call of God to his people.

There are remarkable stories of individuals being summoned to a specific role in serving God. Think of Moses and his dramatic exchange with God at the edge of the Midianite desert. Or Isaiah and his life-changing vision of God’s holiness in the Temple. Or Saul who became Paul: the persecutor turned pioneer preacher.

But are these stories meant to be paradigms for today’s leaders? Can a Christian leader lead without having experienced the drama of a Moses- or Isaiah-like call? How might a leader sense the ‘call’?

Traditionally, within the evangelical world at least, there has been what you might term a tri-partite view of the will of God. Which means that God has a sovereign will – his plan for the universe, a moral will – how wants his people to live, and a specific will – his plan for an individual’s life. According to this understanding it is important to discover this specific aspect of God’s will: what is God’s plan for my life? The answer, it is suggested, lies in being able to line up several signposts so they are pointing in the same direction – the bullseye of God’s will. Typically these signposts will include elements such as Scripture, an inner sense of guidance, the advice of others, and, perhaps, circumstances. Mind you circumstances can be tricky things. For every divinely orchestrated open (or closed) door, one needs to remember that the circumstances were pretty conducive for Jonah in his escape from God’s call!

A few decades ago Gary Friesen suggested that some of the traditional evangelical understanding rests on shaky foundations and that an overly subjective sense of calling is hardly enough when it comes to surviving the heavy seas of ministry.

However it remains true that many leaders do experience a subjective sense of call, and find this sense of call a source of stability and confidence when they experience the turbulence of leadership. For example, a high profile leader told me that ‘there’s a real sense in which when I ever go through difficult times, the Lord has nearly always provided me with such a dramatic call to a particular role that I think, you can’t gainsay that, that actually happened.’

McNeal again: ‘Christian leaders certain of their call allow it to become the center of gravity for their life experiences.’

Perhaps the subjective sense of calling, for example as it’s expressed in Frederick Buechner’s famous comment about vocation being at the point where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness meet, needs to be balanced by a proactive involvement on the part of the Church and its recognised leaders. Have we grasped the implications of the Holy Spirit’s voice in community in Acts 13?

What is your view of calling? Have you a clear sense of conviction that you are doing what God has called you to do?


Leadership 101: What, exactly is leadership?

leadership-bannerIt was none other than Machiavelli who suggested that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in a new order of things.’

But what, exactly is leadership? One count I saw had the number of definitions running act around 1500. It’s been suggested that, like the ancient proverb of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, leadership has many aspects and none of them by itself appears to be an adequate definition. Warren Bennis suggested that it’s like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it!

The understanding of leadership has developed across the centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the focus was on leaders themselves, with Thomas Carlyle’s claim that the history of what has been accomplished in the world has essentially been the history of ‘the Great Men who have worked here’. It’s possible to trace the roots of the Great Man theory all the way back to Aristotle and his belief that social rank was determined through one’s superior virtues which, in turn, were the result of one’s birth.

Not unnaturally Great Man theory evolved into the Trait era (although the idea of traits is an ancient idea). The basic quest of students of leadership at this time was the attempt to identify which specific traits separated leaders from non-leaders. If people who became leaders were different from everyone else, what made them different?

The theory ran aground somewhat (at least for a while) when it was suggested that there was no consistent set of traits that distinguished leaders from non-leaders and, significantly, that just because someone is a leader in one situation does not make them a leader in another.

Trait theory never quite went away with some scholars suggesting that attempts to discard it have been too sweeping. Even if it is not possible to establish a definitive list of distinguishing marks, there appears to be evidence that there are some traits that make a significant contribution to a leader’s success.

Nonetheless, the focus of study shifted next to leaders’ behaviour. From one study emerged the idea that there were two dimensions to leadership: some leadership had a strong focus on the people it was leading while other leadership focussed more on the task at hand.

However this was not enough as people came to appreciate that no single style of leadership was universally the best style, regardless of the specific situation or environment. An understanding of leadership needed to take account of the situation in which leadership was being exercised.

Studies and theories continued to develop: from transactional leadership to transforming (and transformational) leadership, and from servant leadership authentic leadership.

Even if we’re unlikely to come up with a single, ‘correct’ definition of leadership that excludes all others, it’s worth making some kind of attempt!

For writers like John Maxwell, it appears to be the irreducible minimum:

Leadership is influence. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s simple and quite memorable, but probably leaves too many issues unresolved. Is all influence leadership? Does the influence of a TV advertising campaign qualify as leadership? Is there a difference between intentional and unintentional influence? To be fair, Maxwell has also been somewhat more nuanced in his subsequent claim that ‘the true measure of leadership is influence’.

Maxwell is not alone in highlighting influence as a key component of leadership. For example, Peter Northouse defines leadership as ‘a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, while Howard Gardner describes leaders as ‘individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors and/or feelings of others.’ What’s interesting about this definition is that it allows Gardner to distinguish between direct leaders (think Churchill) and indirect leaders (think Einstein, whose influence was exercised through his ideas): leadership may be exercised by word and/or personal example.

I think these are all helpful, as long as we recognise the caution that has been noted by some scholars who have suggested that since few social interactions don’t involve influence, we’re not saying much when we say that leadership is influence!

David Starling suggests that ‘leadership is the act or task of making an intentional contribution toward the direction and motivation of a group in the framing and pursuit of a common purpose.’ He argues that good leadership is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself and promotes interests that go beyond its own.

It’s worth noting how his definition highlights both the element of intentionality and the idea of a commonly share goal towards which a group is moving.

Some of the writers I have mentioned are Christians, but it’s worth taking time to reflect on what makes Christian leadership Christian?

Carl Trueman suggests that trends in the culture have affected how the evangelical church has understood leadership. While accepting that Christian leaders can learn from wider aspects of leadership practice, he cautions that Scripture must determine Christian notions of leadership.

Albert Mohler, a fairly powerful leader himself, suggests that while an obsession with leadership in the contemporary church may be both necessary and understandable, this obsessive interest has nonetheless ‘served to distract the church from the nature of leadership as revealed in Scripture’, with Christians tending to draw lessons from various spheres of secular leadership rather than looking to the Bible.

James Lawrence calls for Christian leadership with these distinctives:

  1. It is founded in relationship with God as Trinity;
  2. It is rooted in the Bible and directed by the Spirit;
  3. It is marked by servanthood;
  4. It is shaped by the cross and resurrection;
  5. It is sustained by prayer;
  6. It is lived out personally as part of the community of the church.

‘Leadership,’ he says, ‘is a key factor in the spread of the gospel.’

There have been voices of caution both within the Church and more widely. Barbara Kellerman, a leadership insider who might be running the risk of biting the hand that feed her, critiques the leadership industry’s ‘leader-centrism’ with its implication that those who don’t lead don’t amount to much. It is not enough to focus only on the leader at a time when other factors, such as the rise of the follower, have gained significance, and leaders have less power than previously. In fact, she goes as far as to accuse the leadership industry of being ‘self-satisfied, self-perpertuting and poorly policed’!

David Starling, like Trueman and Mohler, warns about the tendency to swallow the secular concepts of leadership. He notes that for all the talk of ‘leadership’ in Christian circles, there are surprisingly few explicit mentions of the terms leader and leadership in the biblical text. However it is not that there are no leaders or that there are no other images associated with leadership tasks.

After all that, how should we define it?

I think that reaching a definition requires us to consider the relationship between the leader and the followers, the nature and means of the leader’s influence, and the establishment of the goal for which leadership is exercised.

Walter Wright (Relational Leadership) describes it as ‘a relationship in which one person seeks to influence the thought, behaviours, beliefs or values of another person’.

And here is my more clumsy attempt at describing a Christian leader:

A leader is someone who is intentionally influencing a group of people towards an agreed and beneficial goal: Christian leadership means doing that ‘Christianly’!

So what do you think? Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • How important is leadership? Is it possible to either overstate or understate its importance?
  • What factors need to be considered in understanding what leadership is and how it is defined?
  • How might you define leadership?

Leadership 101: Of writings on leadership, there is no end!

Quotefancy-1244279-3840x2160To borrow from an ancient preacher, ‘Of the making of [leadership] books, there is no end.’ Not exactly what Quoheleth had in mind, but doubtless he would have agreed.

Statistics from the publishing industry point to a relatively recent surge in interest in the subject. According to Barbara Kellerman, on average three books on leadership were published annually in the early 1980s; by 2012 the numbers were ‘somewhere in the stratosphere’.

No doubt the surge in interest reflects a more conscious awareness of the importance of leaders and leadership, concern, and a degree of handwringing at the apparent lack of good leaders, and all of it spiced up by the emergence of celebrity leaders across several domains.

Including the church.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the general interest in the subject is reflected in the culture. Of course, the relationship between ‘biblical’ leadership and more generally applicable principles of leadership can be complex. To what extent are Christians right to mine general leadership material for pearls of wisdom and to what extent is Christian leadership meant to be counter-cultural?

I’m planning to post a series of pieces on leadership over the next few months or so. Actually, I’ve got an idea (two, actually) for a book on leadership and I’d love it if some of you felt free to chip in on the various ‘Leadership 101’ posts as they appear.

Among the subjects I hope to feature are:

  • What, exactly, is leadership?
  • The making of a leader
  • Characteristics of effective leaders
  • Temptations of Christian leadership
  • The leader’s vision
  • The leader and the team

There will be other material on the leadership journey blog, but watch for the ‘Leadership 101’ posts on Thursday evenings – starting this evening.

The Leadership Journey podcast (LJP)

podcast1The idea of a podcast was first mooted some months ago. It’s been a slow project to get off the ground, but the wheels are starting to turn: in fact, the content of the first episode was recorded yesterday. The plan is to bank a few episodes before launching a weekly podcast that will be available on this website and (once we get the technicalities sorted) available for you to subscribe.

Each episode will be an opportunity to reflect on some aspect of the leadership journey. Some of the episodes will be me, talking (hopefully not just to myself!) but a lot of them will consist of interviews with a range of Christian leaders who will be reflecting on their own stories and things that have shaped them along the way.

Hopefully the first episode will be available for listening in the next few weeks. In it, I’m being interviewed about my recent research on crucibles of Christian leadership.