Coffee chat with Christian giant

books-LeadershipProblems of Christian Leadership

John Stott

Intervarsity Press

John Stott, for many, hardly needs introduction. A globally respected pastor, teacher, author and evangelical statesman, Stott made profound contributions to the cause of global mission through his influence in the formation of the Lausanne Covenant (1974). On the occasion of Stott’s death in 2011, Rowan Williams said, “[Stott] will be remembered most warmly as an expositor of Scripture and a teacher of the faith, whose depth and simplicity brought doctrine alive in all sorts of new ways.”

Problems of Christian Leadership offers plenty of examples of this depth and simplicity. This book is a collection of talks addressed to campus ministry leaders in Quito, Ecuador, in 1985. It has the feel of a seasoned ministry veteran passing on life lessons, stories and advice to a younger leader over a cup of coffee. Stott offers practical, biblical wisdom in three key areas: dealing with discouragement, cultivating self-discipline and navigating difficult relationships.

Danger of discouragement

Discouragement, for Stott, is the greatest occupational hazard facing a believer and a leader. He identifies two potential sources for discouragement: our inability to generate results among the people with whom we minister, and the frailty that plagues our minds and bodies.

These cannot be overcome on our own strength; we simply must proclaim the gospel as “the God-appointed means by which the prince of darkness is overthrown and by which God shines into people’s hearts.” Stott invites us to take heart in the promise that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Self-discipline as antidote to lethargy 

Secondly, Stott calls for self-discipline as resistance to “staleness” in life and ministry. Stott worries that indiscipline is the root of this lethargy. Without discipline, “we begin to look like a stagnant pool instead of like a running stream.”

Going in a somewhat unexpected direction, Stott argues for the importance of rest and relaxation. He shares homely advice gleaned from his own experience: take more naps, develop a hobby, spend more time with family and friends. In each of these suggestions we gain insight into the inner life of a man whose commitment to the church and to the gospel needed these mundane but critically necessary supports.

From here, Stott steers toward more familiar evangelical themes of regular prayer and study of Scripture. He memorably describes his own Bible-reading schedule that took him through the New Testament twice and the Old Testament once every year. Stott laments that far too many pastors never do any additional reading, and suggests that all leaders should carve out at least an hour per day for this purpose.

Servant attitude in relationships

Stott also wades into the tricky area of relationships. He candidly admits (with obvious embarrassment) that there are people in his church whom he finds a great source of trial.

We are called, Stott suggests, to act in the name of Jesus as his representative and act in obedience to Jesus as his servant. He draws on Colossians 3 where we are called to do all things both “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17) and “as working for the Lord” (3:23).

Stott concludes this section with a timely piece of advice on the necessity of listening to people with whom we disagree. He shares openly about a heated written exchange with another leader on social action’s impact on evangelistic fervour and concludes that the conversation shifted when they met face to face and listened more intentionally to one another.

“Once we had listened to each other,” Stott recalls, “there was hope.”

Quarter-century cultural distance is instructive 

In reading Problems of Christian Leadership, I was struck by the cultural distance between 1985 and 2013 – and this distance is the book’s strength and its weakness.

On the one hand, Stott’s main concern is that young leaders overcome their insecurities about their age and develop habits that will sustain them through the ups and downs of ministry.

Though Stott’s passion is still relevant today, our most urgent contemporary questions seem to be in simply making a case for church or ministry leadership among young adults. In other words, Stott doesn’t feel the need to intentionally commend the work of evangelism and church leadership; he’s simply eager to resource young leaders for both. Many who work with young adults today would suggest that more preliminary work must be done before Stott’s encouragement could take maximum effect.

On the other hand, there is something very winsome and challenging about Stott’s easy assumption of stable evangelistic passion and commitment to the church. We live in a time when these are not “givens” among young adults, and the need for theological and identity formation is acute. In reading this book, we are drawn into the world of a simple but profound perspective where encouragement and endurance in service of the ministry of the gospel is the most obvious leadership development need.

The tone throughout Problems of Christian Leadership is tender and warm; Stott comes across as a kind, older uncle whose simple, practical wisdom conceals a depth and durability that could be overlooked by the casual reader. I would recommend this book warmly as a resource for any who are involved in mentoring or encouraging emerging leaders. I also see much in Stott’s advice that is directly applicable to the contemporary realities facing Canadian Mennonite Brethren.

—Gil Dueck serves as academic dean and instructor in theology at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask.

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