I have just returned from leading a retreat for people who will be ordained in our denomination this Saturday. They will be Priests ordained to lead and care for the people of God. The themes are always centred on spiritual formation, self-awareness, prayer and so on. Invariably we do a session of leadership, and this time was no exception. Because I have been on retreat most of the week, reading Nohria and Khurana’s Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice has happened in brief moments between teaching sessions and individuals having time to reflect. Having been in pastoral ministry for many years and living through various movements of church life, I have often wondered how precise leadership theory and popular practice is, especially concerning the presupposed outcomes that leaders believe will occur. Perhaps one of my great concerns has been how much emphasis is placed on the significance of specific individuals in relation to the apparent success of a particular church. Does it hinge on them and their skill? Despite much of the rhetoric that has poured forth from American Mega-Church industry, I have become less convinced. Before I make a comment about the book under consideration, I wonder if some statistics might set the scene for a reasonable understanding of how I found this edited book.
When I work with new Priests, I find it helpful to remind them that success fantasies about church ministry are just that, fantasies. They have all manner of glossy images of how their ministries might look. The stats tell a very different story. In the USA alone 75% of all churches are under 100 people. 85% of all churches are under 250 attendees. Over 1000 people and those churches make up less than 2.5%. Those stats are from 2012 and, as Barna and ARDA both point out, those numbers are shifting rapidly as general church attendance declines in America. When extrapolated to a global context, the numbers are even more revealing. If you are in a church of 200+ people, you are in the top 4% worldwide. If a church is 1000+, then it is almost statistically irrelevant at 0.1%. Doing the research is useful because it reminds us that leadership models must be dynamic, wide-ranging and honest. In truth, most leadership books that are popular among church leaders are written by leaders in the top 0.1%. And, after 30 years of reading them, I am unconvinced of their actual efficacy for the vast majority of church leaders.
As a consequence, much of the research for churches and corporations alike is often focused on the large as a symbol of success (Harvard’s history of observing of Willow Creek and Saddleback is typical of the proforma leadership perspective). Apart from the usual attribution of success to organisational skill, structure and micro and macro adaptation, perhaps the most common area of interest has been, the importance or significance of CEO style leadership. (what New Zealand insurance companies have referred to as “Key Person” insurance). Since the mid 20th century, the emphasis on leadership has exponentially increased alongside the steady growth of industrialisation, globalisation and cities worldwide. The church has not been immune. In the mid-1960’s new ministry leadership requirements became main stream as a result of church growth theory from the likes of Donald McGavran. Church pastors and priests were unceremoniously taken from the well-known base of Spiritual formation to the violent launchpad of business leadership theory and systems management. As an aside, it was around this time that Doctor of Ministry programmes began to appear.
Nohria and Khurana’s Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice confirmed my anecdotal concerns but at the same time realigned those questions to a more positive critique. In the section, A Contingent Opportunities View of Leadership, they unpack both the multivariant contexts in which leadership occurs, but also a more reasoned observation of just how effective leadership is and what role it plays in relation to outcomes and effectiveness. The chapter goes on to reveal that CEO effectiveness is limited by factors well beyond the individual and their skills. The scarcity of resource, the requirements of bureaucracy, the complexity of context, and the skills base of colleagues, all have a larger bearing on the effectiveness of organisations. And in many cases, the percentage of effectiveness variation between one CEO and another can average between 5-14%, which is not enough to determine the comparitive usefulness of one good leader against another, considering all possible factors.
Likewise, they also point out that research shows that the assumption that high performance organisations must have key leadership is not always the case and is a “fundamental attribution error”.
What caught my attention most usefully at this point was the role of leadership in ‘meaning making’. The point being, that exceptional individuals had the capacity to align actions and meaning in such a way that they were symbiotic. John Calvin’s ability to help people understand that worldly activities could take on religious value, thus reconciling wealth with the requirements of capitalism, is a simple example. At the heart of this kind of leader is a charismatic personality. The capacity for these charismatic leaders to ‘make meaning’ is observable, however it requires a removal of the common restrains of scarcity and organisational structure. Ironically, however, the greater the number of people affected by charismatic leadership, the greater the structures required, which invariably leads to the failure of Charismatic leadership.
Later in the book, the final chapter by Avolio looks at authentic and reflective leadership that pulls together context, resource, personnel and skills and views them honestly. It considers meaning, development and authenticity as the basis of questions leaders must ask, especially around the nature versus nurture of leadership – are they born or grown?
I only scraped the surface of this book. It’s too dense to knock off in a few days without seeming disingenuous. However, its research has restored my faith in leadership thought and its focus on more than outcomes, personalities, style and “how to”.
 Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010).
 Association of Religion Data Archives. “Congregation Size.” Quality Data on Religion (2012): http://www.thearda.com/conqs/qs_295.asp (accessed November 2018).
 James B Titchwell, Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College, Inc., And Museumworld (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). 47ff
 D. A. McGavran, “Church Growth Movement,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter E. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984). P.242
 “Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice”. 33ff
 Ibid. 55
 Ibid. 68
 Ibid. 69
 Ibid. 71
 Ibid. 71