I teach New Testament. I also teach ministry leadership. In my preparations, I am finding that the bestselling contemporary books on the latter stand curiously at odds with much of the material in the former.
One of the most urgent points I make in Faith Without Illusions is that, like the prophets and apostles, we are called to engage the church with corrective voices. But our approach should be constructive and loving, not destructive and cynical. It is much easier to be a cynic than a “hopeful realist.” The call to avoid cynicism, however, is not a call to abandon the ever needed enterprise of (edifying!) prophetic critique.
So when we “criticize” at Hopeful Realism, this is the spirit with which we try to do it.
What I want to challenge in this post is the tendency in Christian leadership writings to universalize or normalize the exceptions.
I suppose it makes sense that the most successful leadership books are written by successful leaders. “Success” is a problematic word for Christians, of course, embedded as it is with the connotations of a complex system of values, some of which stand at odds with fundamental biblical ideas. But I get the fact that those of us in leadership need to be practical and not so “spiritual” that we cannot learn from strategies and practices as at home in the business world as the word “success.” Generally speaking, building, guiding, and organizing social structures are tasks studied much more carefully by managerial experts than by theologians (in other words, we have a lot to learn from each other).
But universalizing exceptions can be damaging and dishonest. One of the leadership books on my desk celebrates exciting rags-to-riches narratives about church growth, and about the author’s own personal successes. There are also multiple accounts of inspiring stories of God’s miraculous activities in the lives of those in his congregation.
I have been encouraged by these wonderful stories. The problem is that there are other stories not being told. And my guess is that those untold tales are more normal.
Not everyone will have a church explode into the thousands or tens of thousands. And that’s okay.
Not everyone will have their season of financial misery transformed into a season of undreamed-of financial boons. And that’s okay, too.
Not everyone will be healed. But when healing, growth, and success are viewed as undeniable signs of divine favor, then the cancer that does not go into remission, or a bankruptcy, or a decline in church attendance are by implication understood as signs of divine disfavor.
The reason successful leadership books by successful leaders succeed is because they tell the stories of the exceptional—no one would buy them otherwise. They also claim that you, the reader, need not be excepted. The exceptional can become universalized or normalized.
I think it is certainly true that the inspiration and practical steps provided in these books can be helpful, maybe even profoundly helpful. I am hoping my filters are not so rigidly drawn that I cannot learn from these books. What concerns me is that many of us are living under the pressures of a burgeoning and influential leadership culture that make us feel like failures because we are guilty of being… well, normal.
A final observation is that many of these leadership books promote an exciting, robust spirituality. But it is a spirituality that cannot accommodate normalcy.
We are a confused church if normal spirituality is simply the exception.