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He stood in my study at church, scanning my bookshelves. Suddenly he turned to me, pointed to a whole section of leadership books–both religious and secular–and said with a straight face: “I’d get rid of these. Throw ‘em all in the trash! You don’t need them.”

He was a seasoned pastor, two decades my senior, someone I admired and respected (and still do). A voice of wisdom who had often helped me navigate the turbulent waters of ministry as a young pastor.

This mentor’s counsel to me that day resonates with the counsel of another long-time mentor of mine, Eugene Peterson. As I’ve written elsewhere, no one has more deeply shaped my vision for the pastoral vocation than Peterson. And Eugene wasn’t shy about his warning to pastors: Be very wary of leadership books (especially business books)! They can lead you to compromise the holiness of your vocation and potentially do much harm to a congregation.

This warning is worth heeding. The proliferation of leadership books, podcasts, conferences and seminars abound. And so much of it can compromise the holiness of our calling (and not just for pastors), as well as seduce us with secular strategies and techniques that feed the ego and manipulate and use the people we’re called to serve.

But here’s my confession: I still have those leadership books.

Not all of them. On the advice of my mentor, I did get rid of many. But I’ve held on to others, and accumulated some more over the years. There are several I go back to often. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry by Ruth Haley Barton. The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation by Jim Herrington, Trisha Taylor and Robert Creech. Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs by Steven Cuss. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri Nouwen.

Right now, I’m slowly working through Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It’s brilliant and I’m absolutely loving it. Sacks contrasts influence and power. Judaism, he insists, has historically been critical of power (or at least the abuse of power). The task of leadership, according to the Torah, is to steward influence as an act of personal and moral responsibility for the good of society. “Leadership is not just what you achieve by it,” he writes. “It is what you become because of it. Leading forces you to develop muscles you did not know you had. It changes you” (p. xviii from the Introduction).

To even admit my intrigue with leadership books so publicly (in this post) creates internal tension. What would Eugene think? Is he rolling over in his grave? Am I betraying this deep vision of pastoral vocation that I love—to be an unhurried pastor who attends to God in Scripture, prayer and people?

After wrestling with this for years, I’ve come to a place where I am resolved to live with all that remains unsolved in my own heart on this (to borrow a line from the poet Rilke). I can hold this in tension and engage it with nuance.

I can be a pastor who lives into a “Petersonian vision” of ministry that resists the siren songs of a consumer culture and church growth propaganda that is all about bigger, better, faster, more.

And at the same time, I can be a pastor who seeks to nurture, develop and steward well the grace-gift of leadership that God has given me (Rom. 12:8).

Both are possible, even with sparks of friction between them—a friction that can be creative and generative.

And frankly, as I look around right now—in my own community and region, our nation, the wider world—we have a leadership crisis. We need healthier, better leaders. We need moral leadership. Leaders who don’t just know the right things, but who have the courage to do the right things and be ready to pay the cost.

In the same way that we, as Reformed thinkers, affirm God’s common grace in art, science, medicine, philosophy, politics and all manner of things that are part of this good (yet fallen) creation, so I’ve come to embrace how the Holy Spirit can work through leadership theories, strategies, tools, and skill-sets. I don’t ever want to embrace such things uncritically, and I need voices like Peterson to keep me honest and help me discern wisely. Yet I will continue to receive with humility and gratitude the gift of such resources.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by John Calvin:

“Whenever, therefore, we meet with heathen writers, let us learn from that light of truth which is admirably displayed in their works, that the human mind, fallen as it is, and corrupted from its integrity, is yet invested and adorned by God with excellent talents. If we believe that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we shall neither reject nor despise the truth itself; wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to insult the Spirit of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol 1, p.288).

(Pixabay/ Scott Warburton)

Might leadership books and resources be among those things that “admirably display” the light of God’s truth? What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Write a response in the comments section. Let’s have a conversation.

Here’s what I’d also be curious to hear: What leadership books, podcasts, and resources have you found most beneficial as you’ve sought to be faithful to God’s call and grow your own capacity to lead with wisdom and courage?

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Nick Baas says:

    Agreed. Of course, in order for pastoral leadership to do much of anything the system of the church needs to believe it needs to be led. Ironically, it seems that it’s structure is built for Christendom (rotating leaders with primary roles in care and mercy). Leadership boards tend to be consistent people to maintain vision and direction and tend to consist of more apostolic, prophetic, or evangelistic gifts. Structure and gifts one usually sees in a church plant.

    Ruth Haley Barton and Tod Bolsinger have been helpful for me.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent questions. Ironic that after all these books about leadership have been out, and for all areas of life, there is now such a paucity of leadership. The deeper issue is moral courage, right, leaders being willing to bear the cross? Last week Jonathan Capehart, on PBS, decried the lack of real leadership in the Congress. And yet at the heart of Nazi ideology was Das Fuehrer Prinzip, the Leader Principle, and Hitler’s title was “The Leader.” So while I certainly did profit from a couple of those leadership books, and think every pastor needs to be well informed and think hard about these issues, (so that a couple of those books are definitely worth keeping), the deeper issues are moral courage and a theology of Office. That latter topic, theology of Office, is terribly neglected among us, and is more critical, in my view.

  • John Haas says:

    I’m an academic, not a pastor, so I come at this differently. But a saying from George MacDonald has always seemed at least half right to me: “It is not in the nature of politics [or leadership] that the best men should be elected. The best men do not want to govern their fellowmen.”

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    That Calvin quote could be my life quote. I’m so very fond of those heathen writers.

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