DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Faith restored in leadership research

Written by: on November 16, 2018

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.[1] 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%.[2] 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).[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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”.[7]

What caught my attention most usefully at this point was the role of leadership in ‘meaning making’.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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”.


[1] Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010).

[2] Association of Religion Data Archives. “Congregation Size.” Quality Data on Religion (2012): (accessed November 2018).

[3] James B Titchwell, Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College, Inc., And Museumworld (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). 47ff

[4] D. A. McGavran, “Church Growth Movement,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter E. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984). P.242

[5] “Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice”. 33ff

[6] Ibid. 55

[7] Ibid. 68

[8] Ibid. 69

[9] Ibid. 71

[10] Ibid. 71

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

4 responses to “Faith restored in leadership research”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    I pray your retreat went well and I hope you said a hardy, good luck to these new prisoners, I mean priests :). In all seriousness, I too (as you can see from my post that I know you will read) we are drawn to the meaning-making aspect of leadership. As believers, I think it is natural for us to gravitate to this portion but it was great to see a “business” focus also point this out. I’m not sure if this is as common in your homeland, but as you pointed out us Americans love to base success off of the “big boys” and thus create a false sense of hope that if you do this then you too will be “successful”. In essence, we tell the 99.99% (if my math is correct) that they aren’t doing a good job! I’m reminded of Jim’s presentation in Hong Kong about the middle leaders and how important and needed it is to speak to the majority of leadership (church in this case) about where they really are and not the false hope they may be seeking.

  2. Thank you Digby, Its always good reading your blogs and insights in different aspects. This issue of the Leader as the key factor in success has always been of interest to me, especially having my background in working in the corporate work for over 15 years and now running an Faith-based organization with more than 950 employees. I have read countless self-help and popular leadership books and always participated in the Willow-Creeks Global Leadership summit. There is no denying that the leader plays an important role in the organization, but there are many factors at play, both internal and external to the organization that should be considered. Leadership is contextual or situational. A leader may be successful in one context because the circumstances and opportunity favors the leader at that particular time, but his/her approach and style of leadership may not be applicable in another context or time. We should not therefore generalize and impose their leadership styles and approaches to every context. I believe leadership is a process that takes time and understanding of the context and is also dependent of other the resources at your disposal.

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby, Thanks as always for your brilliant breakdown of the source, the issues, and the questions. Yes, it is most frustrating that only pastors of numerically significant churches are perceived as having sufficient celebrity status to write books worthy of reading. They have never been helpful or applicable to the vast majority of church plants and churches. I found the leadership development section of our subject sources much more accessible and insightful, especially in providing the compelling case of transformative leaders inspiring followers to become transformative leaders. Thanks again for your scholarship and your experience. Blessings, H

  4. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hi Digby. Powerful post! I like your straight-forward comment about ‘success fantasies’ and appreciated your ‘stats.’ I am not a stats person, but I do know that stats add credibility to your point. And I also agree that mega churches often are led by a CEO style leadership with a vision. There is often a dream in place and a vision behind that dream to push it forward. But, as the author pointed out, this could be a fundamental attribution error. That is because although the leader has a vision, he still needs a solid group of ‘helpers’ to push that dream forward. Yet, it takes influence and charisma to ‘make meaning’ and help others to believe and follow the leader. Thanks for sharing, Digby.

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