Essential Traits for Missional Leadership: Lifelong Learning
This is the first essay in an occasional series that I will be offering over the next few months.
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
Hall of Fame Basketball Coach
2 Timothy 4:13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.
What was Paul’s request from prison? A cloak”¦books”¦and the parchments. Even near the end of his life, Paul was committed to learning and growing.
As we seek to participate fully in God’s mission in our day and reach the world with the Gospel, we need to commit ourselves to a vigorous program of lifelong learning. In our fast-paced, rapidly changing world, we have little option.
What does a learning program look like for missional leaders today?
1) Here are my recommendations for a reading program:
Missional leaders stay in the Scriptures. As a seminary professor, I can tell you that biblical illiteracy is not merely a problem among the rank and file Christ follower. Astonishingly, growing numbers of future leaders are arriving at seminary without in some cases a rudimentary knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. More than ever, our generation needs leaders who are profoundly shaped by the Scriptures and continue to drink deeply from this wellspring of life.
Biblical Studies and Theology
Smart leaders keep a major work in biblical studies or theology going at all times. Recent titles that all missional leaders ought to read are Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God (InterVarsity, 2006) and John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology (the first two volumes are now available ““ both from InterVarsity, 2003 & 2006). I recommend works in biblical theologies because these sweeping studies help us to maintain the big picture in the Scriptures.
As the Western world continues its shift from a Judeo-Christian worldview, it is vital for missional leaders to equip themselves to reach a neo-pagan world. This shift can be daunting. The temptation is to go for quick fixes by reading “How to” books written by current practitioners. Invest your time instead into theoreticians who empower you to think missionally and contextually. This way you will learn to adapt your language and strategy to the context in which you serve. Get started by reading studies by my colleague George Hunter (e.g., The Celtic Way of Evangelism), missional thinkers Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (their Shaping of Things to Come is outstanding), or anything by Leslie Newbiggin.
Leading well is not easy. Stay sharp by reading books that enhance your capacity for creativity, team building, vision casting, and leading others.
Peruse book reviews to fill in gaps in your reading program. There are thousands of books published each year. If you have access to a library, you can read book reviews in the backs of periodicals in subject areas of interest. You may find it helpful to subscribe to a Book summary service. I think that the customer reviews on Amazon.com can be helpful. There are some good reviewers who offer well crafted summaries of essential content of books.
I subscribe to several magazines each year. I like to dabble in areas of limited expertise to stretch my mind and to become conversant in new areas. This will expand the scope of your illustrations for teaching and preaching. It also serves to help you engage the new people that you meet by expanding the range of your conversation skills.
I don’t read much fiction. This is to my detriment. When I read good fiction, I always grow in my understanding of the human condition and I gain insight into great writing. Read the classics. Allow Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain to serve as your mentors.
2) Think outside the box to craft a plan that works with your learning style. Read with a friend or colleague. Attend a seminar. Take a class (there are increasing numbers of good On Line programs available. Don’t neglect utilizing what leadership guru Zig Ziglar calls “Automobile University.” Many outstanding resources are available in an audio format. Moreover as MP3 players become more affordable missional leaders now have access to hundreds of free Podcasts. This literally opens up the world of learning to those who take advantage.
Bottom line: Do what ever it takes to grow as a leader.
Let me end with a couple of extended quotations from 18th century evangelist and theologian John Wesley. Wesley rode over 250,000 miles on horseback and delivered more than 40,000 messages during his lifetime. Yet his missional fire was fueled by a commitment to lifelong learning. He expected the same of his team of itinerant preachers. Listen in to some of his advice:
THE REV. MR. WESLEY AND OTHERS;
FROM THE YEAR 1744, TO THE YEAR 1789.
Q. 32. But why are we not more knowing?
A. Because we are idle. We forget our very first rule, “Be diligent. Never
be unemployed a moment. Never be triflingly employed. Never while
away time; neither spend any more time at any place than is strictly
I fear there is altogether a fault in this matter, and that few of us are clear.
Which of you spends as many hours a day in God’s work as you did
formerly in man’s work? We talk, “” or read history, or what comes next
to hand. We must, absolutely must, cure this evil, or betray the cause of
(1.) Read the most useful books, and that regularly and constantly.
Steadily spend all the morning in this employ, or, at least, five
hours in four-and-twenty.
“But I read only the Bible.” Then you ought to teach others to
read only the Bible, and, by parity of reason, to hear only the
Bible: But if so, you need preach no more. Just so said George
Bell. And what is the fruit? Why, now he neither reads the Bible,
nor anything else. This is rank enthusiasm. If you need no book
but the Bible, you are got above St. Paul. He wanted others too.
“Bring the books,” says he, “but especially the parchments,”
those wrote on parchment. “But I have no taste for reading.”
Contract a taste for it by use, or return to your trade.
John Wesley in a letter dated Aug 17 1760 wrote this to a preacher:
What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps by neglecting it you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way: else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross, and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you.
Â© 2007 Brian D. Russell