Review: Kingdom Collaborators

kingdom collaborators

Kingdom CollaboratorsReggie McNeal. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2018.

Summary: An affirmation of kingdom-centered rather than church-centered leadership and a description of eight signature practices that characterize such leaders.

Reggie McNeal coaches Christian leaders. One of his greatest concerns is that many have a vision that is church-centric rather than kingdom-centric. He describes the latter as “kingdom collaborators,” because they are engaged in what God wants to do so that his kingdom would come in the world beyond the church walls, in every sector of society. He argues that church-centric vision comes from a vision of church as institution that is siloed off from other institutions–business, government, arts and media, the social sector, education, and health care. He argues instead for a vision of “church as movement” that encourages people to collaborate with God as kingdom agents in all of these domains, and outside the church building walls.

The book then argues for eight key practices that he sees kingdom collaborators demonstrating in their work:

  1. They practice a robust prayer life that helps them listen to and look for God.
  2. They foment dissatisfaction with the status quo.
  3. They combine social and spiritual entrepreneurship.
  4. They marry vision with action.
  5. They shape a people development culture.
  6. They curry curiosity.
  7. They call the party in their city for collaborative initiatives.
  8. They maintain an optimism amid the awareness that the kingdom has not yet fully come.

McNeal devotes a chapter to each of these practices, giving practical, step by step pointers in implementing these practices mixed with stories that exemplify each practice. I find his ideas incredibly helpful. He roots kingdom collaboration in a prayerful life. He talks about agitating to foment dissatisfaction in constructive ways rather destructive ways that lead to dismissal. He describes a combination of social and spiritual entrepreneurship that sees opportunities, that is willing to risk and fail and practices abundance thinking. His chapter on marrying vision and action has powerful insights into work with volunteers. One could expand his chapter on people development into a book. He talks about the essential character of leaders as people with a lifelong sense of curiosity, and observes how many of them are avid readers. He argues for how effective kingdom collaborators convene and collaborate with others.

His eighth practice of maintaining pain-tinged optimism speaks to the challenge of sustaining leadership over the long haul. If prayer is the foundation of the life of a kingdom collaborator, then the practices he commends to address burnout and compassion fatigue are the capstone.

He concludes with some tips for accelerating impact, whether as church leaders wanting to have kingdom impact, or those working in other domains. For church leaders, he argues that three things are necessary:

  1. Change the storyline.
  2. Change the scorecard.
  3. Change the stewardship of your organization leaders.

For those serving in other domains, he suggests that while you might be tempted to address other pressing needs, leading where you are is the starting place, then networking with other kingdom leaders. Especially, he urges people to “become better at being you.”

I can think of many “marketplace Christians” I’ve known over the years that I would have loved to give this book. Many were excited about the opportunities for kingdom impact in their sphere of influence, but felt guilty that this meant they could not do more in the church. Most found little encouragement for a “kingdom-centric” lifestyle. At worst, they often felt their work was denigrated, except for the money they could donate to the church. This book comes as a breath of fresh air for such folks, speaking a language and affirming practices many have already intuited.

It is also a critical book for church leaders who tend to measure impact in terms of what is happening within the church walls, or through the church’s direct efforts. As important as these are (and the author does not dismiss them), McNeal casts a vision for what people might be engaged in for the sake of Christ and his kingdom in all the hours they devote in other domains. And the eight practices in this book suggest areas where the church might serve to equip young kingdom collaborators for maximum impact (this is where his chapter on a people development culture is so important, I think). Wouldn’t it be a great vision to think about equipping people to be viral kingdom agents in the 40-50 hours many spend in their work, rather than for just a few hours a week in church functions? Reggie McNeal thinks so.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Self-Aware Leader

the self-aware leader

The Self-Aware LeaderTerry Linhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2017.

Summary: Explores the blind spots of one’s leadership and helps us become aware of the unseen influences that shape and hinder us, so that brought into the open, they can be recognized, addressed, and redeemed.

It hardly seems that a month goes by where we don’t hear the sad tale of some prominent Christian leader who must step down from leadership because of some personal failing. You probably can multiply these publicized stories a hundred times over with the unpublicized but painful stories of lesser-known leaders, and often, those they have led. We’ve instituted accountability groups, training, oversight–and yet the frequency seems as great as ever.

Terry Linhart would argue that part of the reason is a failure to address our blind spots in leadership:

“The phrase blind spots is regularly used in leadership circles to describe problems or patterns that lurk unseen and pose potential danger. For the last two decades I have been developing and equipping young adults to serve as ministry leaders, pastors, youth workers, missionaries, and managers. That process includes helping them reflect on what they may not notice—the areas of their life too personal or hidden to see easily—that may pose potential problems. The truth is that we all have such areas, even if we’re not that young” (p. 10).

Drivers learn where their blind spots are, and “clear” them when changing lanes or maneuvering. Linhart would contend that we need to develop similar practices of self-awareness for the blind spots in our lives. He uses an example of a cross country coach who called him out to run a better race than he thought he had in him, and in this book acts as a coach, helping us become aware of those blind spots that thwart running our best race as leaders for God’s “well done.” He explores seven area:

  1. Self. At best, leading out of the unique personality and gifts of who we are rather than competing or wishing we were like someone else. He invites us to take “selfies” of our reactions and reflect upon them.
  2. Past. All of us have developed “scripts” from past experience, sometimes deeply painful experiences, that unconsciously shape our behavior patterns. Often, others can help us recognize these and experience healing as we understand where they come from, and how grace brings healing to them.
  3. Temptations. He addresses the “big five” of seeking prominence, control, materialism (“shiny stuff”), inappropriate intimacy, and resentment.
  4. Emotions. He challenges us to emotional maturity through learning to “keep a sentry,” label our feelings, be aware of other emotions, recognize the intensity of emotions, particularly unusual reactions, manage emotions, learn from them, and submit them to Jesus.
  5. Pressures. Leadership is living with pressure. Understanding internal and external pressures and developing systems to address pressure is vital.
  6. Conflicts. Conflict, like pressure is a reality of leadership. It can be handled badly or well. He offers ten pointers to healthy conflict resolution and concludes with some vital insights on passive-aggressiveness.
  7. Margins. Leaders often lack margins in their days, weeks, months, and yearly patterns to listen to God, to grow and renew mentally, and to recover from intense periods of work. He describes the idea of “sprint-drift” that I’ve found so describes the life of ministry. The danger is we try to sprint all the time!

Each chapter includes “self checks” to apply concepts and concludes with questions “for greater awareness.”

This is one of those books I wish I had forty years ago! I think I’ve learned most of the lessons in here, mostly by making a ton of mistakes, and sometimes through the gift of insightful people who observed my blind spots and helped me become aware of them. And that brings me to a paradox in this book. We don’t become self-aware by ourselves. We may take initiatives to ask others how they see us, but the truth is that there are some blind spots we will only see through the help of another–a spouse, a supervisor, a coach, or those we lead.

Linhart is a good coach. He shares his own journey toward self-awareness, his own failings and then, sometimes gently, and sometimes more annoyingly, presses us toward our best self in Christ. I once heard a prominent leader observe that people love to be led well and that aspiring to lead is a noble thing. Sadly, this leader has experienced his own failure in leadership that may reflect a certain lack of self-awareness. But the observation stands. What Linhart helps us to see is that those who lead without ending badly are those who continue to search out the blind spots that may thwart or disqualify them. Perhaps the greatest danger to the leader is the vulnerability one thinks one doesn’t have or doesn’t know about. Linhart names them without shaming us and offers guidance without guilt. Like that cross country coach, he gives us hope that we might be capable of more than we think possible even as we become more aware of who we are.

Review: Deep Mentoring

Deep MentoringDeep MentoringRandy D. Reese and Robert Loane. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Deep Mentoring proposes that the development of Christian leaders of integrity is a lifelong, God-driven process that mentors play a crucial part in through attentiveness and focus on the spiritual and character formation of rising leaders.

We usually become aware of our need for leaders of spiritual depth, character and skill when we don’t have them. And far too often, our response is the crash, leadership course and filling positions with warm, and maybe willing, bodies–only for the whole thing to end in many cases with disappointment.

Reese and Loane contend that spiritual leaders of character and skill are developed over time through the deep work of discipleship and the attentive guidance of mentors. The book is broken into three parts. The first begins with “noticing God’s already present action.” Informed throughout by the leadership development work of J. Robert Clinton, they believe God calls leaders but that critical in the work are attentive mentors willing to engage in the slow, deep work of leadership development eschewing superficial, one-size-fits all, ends over means, hurry-up approaches. And what do mentors pay attention to but the stories of persons recognizing the three critical formations of character, skill, and strategy that are worked out in the course of our lives.

The second part focuses on four seasons of our life stories. These are:

  1. Foundation. In leadership development, consideration needs to be given to how God has been shaping a person from their earliest years and also the “family of origin” influences that shape us for good and for ill.
  2. Preparation. This ten to twenty-five year period is focused around growth in holiness while discerning and cultivating one’s gifts and the skills necessary to effective leadership.
  3. Contribution. If one has prepared well, this is the season in which character, gifts, and skill come together in service that has spiritual authority. It is the season of one’s maximum impact.
  4. Multiplication. In this final phase, the focus shifts from one’s own leadership to developing the leadership of others while continuing to grow spiritually.

Part three goes further with this last phase, which in some sense is involved in helping with the development of others through the four phases. It looks at how Jesus came alongside others in a way that was deepening, particularizing, hospitable and patient and then in the succeeding chapter how mentors might do the same.

Five premises serve as bookends to the book:

  1. Shape the person and you stand a much greater chance of shaping everything else.
  2. Discipleship and Christian leadership development are inextricably linked and together make a slow and deep work.
  3. Igniting a grassroots way toward renewal is possible. It doesn’t have to be top-down.
  4. A Christian approach to leadership formation requires a ministry of paying attention.
  5. Conditions can be cultivated in order for local communities to become significant places of learning and growth.

The book concludes with several appendices. “Lessons from those who come before us” is worth the price of admission as they discuss both why leaders finish badly and well. Three other appendices include one on lifelong perspective in developing leaders, observations from Clinton’s leadership emergence studies, and five practices to sustain long haul leadership.

I appreciated the book’s character-driven, developmental perspective and the practical counsel throughout for those mentoring or being mentored. Working in collegiate ministry where one often thinks of the academic year or the four to six years students are with us, the slow and deep perspective can be challenging. Two things seem of importance. One is to never neglect the dimension of investing deeply in people simply to get things done. In our work, we need to think how leadership activities not only accomplish goals but develop people, and make sure they do. Second is to realize that the most important things we do is lay down the preparation for a lifetime of leadership, and a contribution phase still to come.

This is a good book for anyone thinking about leadership development, but is far more than the typical leadership book in thinking of how leaders are formed and of the depth of attention required of those who engage in this work.

Review: The Steward Leader

steward leaderThe author of this book caught my attention in the third paragraph of his first chapter when he wrote:

“Here is the confession: in my roles as a leader I have been mostly wrong.”

He goes on to describe the trajectory of his career and reputation and observes that the point wasn’t a trajectory of greater responsibility and reputation. It was rather in following Jesus in becoming a leader of no reputation. Fundamentally, he contends that what matters most is transformed character through one’s encounter with God, where one’s greatest desire is to be accounted trustworthy by God, to be a steward of God’s trust. Then one is ready to lead.

The first part of this book lays the foundations for this steward leadership. He traces the work of the Triune God from creation of humankind as stewards of creation to the fall where we act as owners through our redemption and the call to godly stewardship.

He goes on to talk about the freedom of the steward leader, and this, I found, was one of the highlights of the book. Very simply, it is the freedom of trusting and obeying God in our relationship with Him, ourselves, others and the creation. An old chorus says, “Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.” Leaders who live like this are happy and free.

Finally he contrasts being a steward leader, which is about character with other theories of leadership including transactional, transformational and servant leadership. He urges docking the “ship” in leadership that focuses on practices and focusing on transformed character that results in trajectories of leading.

The second part of this book elaborates what transformation looks like in a leader’s relationship with God, oneself, others, and the material world. He then describes “trajectories” of leadership rooted in these transformations. He looks at both the implications for the people and the organizations one leads. Such leaders prioritize relationship with God and living out of one’s call and gifting and empower people and organizations to do the same.

One other critical idea that recurs through this book is that steward leaders are not owners and that the great temptation leaders face is to forget this. Owners are self-reliant and shallow, they consider a vision theirs and resist change, they use others, and exploit the creation.

This book proposes a new model of leading. The idea of a steward is comprehensive, addressing the leader in relation to God, self, others, and the world. The author also gives a number of examples from his own leadership journey to illustrate what it means to be a steward leader. At the same time the book seemed a bit conceptual. Perhaps the next step that would be helpful in developing this model would be to highlight organizations led by steward leaders and committed to developing them. I hope Rodin will consider a follow up book along these lines.

R. Scott Rodin proposes a new approach to thinking about leaders rooted in an old biblical idea–the steward. His focus on character rather than charisma, and on transformation rather than technique, is a welcome departure from bulk of leadership books.


Review: Protege’: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders

ProtegeIt would be an understatement to say that there is a super-abundance of leadership books in both Christian and general publishing. One wonders if it reflects a perception that there is a dearth of the real thing in our churches and culture, or that if it exists, it is often done very badly. So the question is, what separates Steve Saccone’s book (co-authored with his wife Cheri Saccone) from all the rest?

Very briefly, it is that it is more description, than prescription, of the work Saccone has done in developing leadership through his Protege’ Program, a two year leadership development program. This book is an attempt, without being a program manual, to distill the basic contours of his work.

Saccone begins with the question of what kind of culture leaders are to embody and establish. For him, these are kingdom cultures, cultures that reflect the character of Jesus lived out in churches, organizations, and entrepreneurial efforts.  This leads him to focus on five critical elements in his work:

1. Character. What is most striking here is that Saccone identifies four deadly sins that can bring down emerging leaders: envy expressed in imitating others rather than embracing one’s own unique call, self-reliance that emphasizes performance over a life of prayer producing fruit from the inside out, foolishness expressed in over-confidence rather than the seeking of wisdom, and greed which reveals itself in a spirit of entitlement. It is good that Saccone begins here, I think. I’ve seen few leaders really fail for lack of skill. For most, it comes down to questions of character.

2. Relationships. Here Saccone focuses on three tensions in relational leadership: overcommitment versus underdelivering on commitments, avoiding or evoking conflict, and overattaching versus detaching. There was much that was helpful here concerning learning to say no versus letting your yes be yes. His diagnostics for each of these tensions are very helpful to see where one falls.

3. Communication. This was a section that had some intriguing ideas of learning through everything from TED talks to poetry slams about effective communication in 21st century culture. He describes Learning Labs where he challenges people to give five minute talks (Five Good Minutes) and to practice improvisation.

4. Mission. To start, he sees mission not as something we do but something that flows from our relationship with Christ expressed through the uniqueness of each person in the context of local communities of believers in mission. He calls for several shifts in evangelism: 1) From inattentiveness to attentiveness, 2) From monologue to dialogue, 3) From invasion to invitation, 4) From individual conversion to communal conversion, and 5) From temporal understanding to eternal awakening. These last two call for a bit more explanation. Communal conversion is not whole communities coming to faith but the recognition that the community in which one comes to faith crucially shapes one’s life. Eternal awakenings happen when converts connect their lives to the big eternal questions addressed by the gospel–how the gospel lastingly changes everything.

5. Entrepreneurial leadership. His last section focuses on the quality of risk-taking and developing cultures where there is a freedom to fail, where the ultimate value isn’t control and where they develop new structures to unleash the gifts and creativity of those they lead.

Throughout, Saccone provides numerous examples and personal stories of how he works these ideas out in practice. At the conclusion of each chapter are ideas for mentors, and a mentor tip (not always directly related to the chapter content).

The only thing I might make more explicit in this book is that a crucial work of mentors is to help proteges become protege’ developers themselves.  Young leaders need to be coached to reflect on their own developmental process and to learn from it how they might in turn develop the next generation of proteges.

What Saccone has given us is a kingdom-oriented, character shaped, and missionally driven account of leadership development that offers, not a program, but a vision for the essential elements of any serious effort at protege’ development.