I must admit to being a little suspicious when I saw the promo for Staying on the Leading Edge—Without Killing Yourself by John Gray. The title and the cover photo reminded me of the many ‘real men’ books I’ve seen lately. I was worried that it would be a ‘Rambo Theology’ for pastors; a ‘you can conquer the world if you believe in yourself’ manifesto. Well, it isn’t. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. This book calls upon leaders to humble themselves before God and to apply God’s Word in their leadership of God’s church on God’s mission. This book is shaped by the Bible and applies God’s blueprint for leadership to the task of Christian leadership. There are many books out there on leadership in the church and this book deserves its place among them.
Gray has written Staying on the Leading Edge for three purposes:
“Firstly, I write to provide a framework for those who have an internal drive to lead.”
“Secondly, I want to contribute to the debate on a theology of leadership.”
“Thirdly, I write for those who are battle weary.”
I figure that this will engage most Christian leaders on each of the three levels. It’s important for us to be clear why we do what we do and how we should go about it. Most leaders I know who’ve been leading for any length of time, are feeling or have felt battle weary. Some may feel this way all the time.
Most books I’ve read about leadership stress the importance of the leader having a vision. We are told that the leader’s task is to present his people with a compelling vision of the future to strive for. The strength of this book is that it doesn’t rely on the leader to create the vision for the future, nor to decipher the specific vision that God has for this leader or this group of people. Rather, the vision for the future has already been given by God in his word. It is this vision that the leader calls his people to follow. Gray draws this vision from the Bible, quoting such wonderful passages as Isaiah 25:6-8…
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
He also quotes Napoleon as saying Leaders are merchants of hope. What a wonderful picture for the Christian leader to consider—to present people with a vision of hope. This is true to God as revealed in his word, for the Scriptures are a message of hope, and God is calling people to an eternal hope that nothing can destroy. I wonder how many pastors, youth leaders, Bible study leaders, chaplains or evangelists think of themselves as ‘hope merchants’. Not that we are selling the hope—it comes free and guaranteed by God himself. Hope is our message, and hope should shape our methods and goals.
This book addresses the character of leaders over and above their competency. Of course, both are required, but character is often forced to take a backseat to competency. Gray warns that:
“Churches are seriously burned, deeply hurt and even destroyed when leaders full of passion and vision lead with hubris.”
“Character is important for at least two reasons: it will keep a leader upright during the worst of storms and, secondly, it will provide a model of a life so irresistible that others will be drawn to it and, therefore, to Christ.”
We are warned against the risks of basing our leadership on personal claims to authority. There is no place for lording it over others or bullying people into responding. Rather, we are called to serve, to set an example, to love at cost to ourselves. Leading and teaching need to be more than propositions and words—they need to be accompanied by a godly example for others to follow. Jesus calls us to follow him. The apostle Paul called upon people to follow his example, as he followed the example of Jesus. The cynicism of our age and the poor track record of churches and their leaders makes this every bit as important as it was 2000 years ago—if not more. Gray writes:
“The longer we travel in a post-modern world, with an increasing emphasis on narcissism, the more crucial it is that people see evidence that the kingdom of God transforms lives. They are looking for a life that is worth living. If they could see it in the life of leaders, then they would follow it.”
Character and convictions must also be accompanied by competence. God is seeking skilled leaders who will lead his people well.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skilful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:72)
From the Pastoral Letters of Paul, two skills receive particular attention: the ability to teach; and the ability to lead others within the household context. These areas of competency are essential to good leadership. If people are unable to communicate clearly, then they won’t be able to lead people. If people can’t demonstrate leadership in a smaller setting such as a household, small business, small group, or community organisation, then they are not ready to be entrusted with a church. Gray argues that with increasing size and complexity in churches, greater skill must be demonstrated before people are entrusted with greater leadership. He describes the various New Testament windows into the nature of good leadership, and illustrates this with the following diagram:
“Leadership in the church, therefore, is a matter of:
- following and emulating the great servant, Christ;
- developing a godly and exemplary life which others can emulate;
- being able to teach sound doctrine;
- developing skills commensurate with church size and complexity.”
Necessary skill must be accompanied by appropriate character, lest the highly articulate and experienced leader succeed in leading people down the garden path, or somewhere a lot worse.
Gray is committed to encouraging leaders to keep at it for the long haul. He refers to stats that describe 12,000 ex-pastors in Australia who no longer lead their churches because something has gone wrong. This would remain a scary number even if it was only 10% true. His recommendations for equipping and encouraging leaders include drawing on the wisdom of:
- other leaders
He draws on Jethro’s wisdom to Moses to appoint leaders to help him lead well as the numbers of Israel grew. Moses then built an infrastructure of leaders who shared the load of caring for the people. They were instructed to bear the load unless it was too great for them, in which case things were passed up the chain to Moses. Gray has adopted this strategy in his own ministry with one notable and very personal change:
“I have added a piece to the “Moses model”. I not only ask the team to bring me that which is “too much for them”. I also ask them to pass on the celebration moments of life and the times when, unfortunately, a loved one passes away. As soon as anyone on the team hears about an engagement, the birth of a child or a passing of life, they get that info to me.”
He highlights the benefits he has discovered in reading widely on leadership. He draws from Christian and secular material to glean whatever wisdom will better equip him to lead.
Conferences can be a helpful source of inspiration. However, the danger is that we can simply become tossed around by the latest and greatest, thinking that the next conference will offer us the silver bullet for solving our leadership crises. I appreciated the idea of ‘do it yourself’ conferences that Gray describes. He speaks of regularly getting together with peers who are facing similar issues with their leadership, and being accompanied by a ‘grandfather’—someone older and wiser who understands the issues—and; a ‘pace-setting leader’—someone who is a few steps ahead of the rest of you, who can offer contemporary help in navigating the challenges.
He also stresses the benefits of having mentor figures that we can call on for advice and help at different times. He recommends keeping the contacts brief, perhaps offering to buy them a coffee or meal, or limiting time on the phone to 10 to 15 minutes. He urges us to value the time they give us by being well prepared in advance. They way to glean wisdom from them is to:
- “Prepare 2 or 3 questions ahead of time. Work out what you want to ask. You know what it is like to find time in a crowded diary. It is more difficult for a leader of a larger church. Preparing questions will say to another leader, “I value your time. I do not want to waste it.”
- “Be a good student. Take notes as you get answers to your questions. It matters not what media you take notes on, just take notes. When I take notes on my phone I always say something like “just want to let you know I am taking notes – not playing games.” This says to the leader I really do want to learn from you. I will not rely on my memory.”
- “Take only the time you need. Your pace setter may not be looking for a friend. They already have friends.”
Gray reminds leaders to continually draw near to God and rely on his strength. We are encouraged to go regularly to the Word of God—not only for the latest sermon preparation—but to be nourished by God. He recalls how Wayne Cordeiro, at a pastors conference, encouraged him to grab his Bible, a pen, a notebook, and some time—and how it turned out to be exactly what he needed to hear and do. He now follows this pattern:
Record the key verse from the passages you have read. This will be the verse that stands out most for you.
Summarise the text surrounding the verse you have written down.
Record your answer to this question: “How will I be different today because of what I have just read?”
Write out a prayer in the light of what you have read.
There are some excellent practical recommendations in Staying on the Leading Edge that will help leaders to keep their zeal while staying the distance. Running at a human pace is the goal. We are not God—whatever we may tell ourselves!
“If we are to lead (and keep leading) with the vision of the Kingdom of God fuelling us, if we are to stay on the leading edge avoiding burnout and the curse of the conservative middle ground, then there are lessons we need to learn.”
He discusses the importance of leading from a position of rest. This requires adequate quality sleep, regular days off, sufficient annual leave. It means refilling our physical, emotional, relational, mental, and spiritual tanks. He urges us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, to let him be our guide and pace-setter, and to draw near to him in our times of need.
Finally, I loved Gray’s ritual for welcoming new leaders onto his staff team. He gives them a single, long stemmed, red rose, and tells them that he wants them to make time to smell the roses.