Review: Practicing Greatness

510mUv9YclLMcNeal, Reggie. Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. 192pp. $18.43.

J. Oswald Sanders begins his classic, Spiritual Leadership, with two clashing texts: “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition. (1 Timothy 3:1, NEB),” and, “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. (Jeremiah 45:5, [NIV])” (Chicago: Moody, 2007, 11). I expect a similar tension in pursuing greatness, where self takes the form of a servant, and God’s greatness becomes paramount. Since “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9), and conscience alone is an inadequate judge of motives and character (1 Cor. 4:3-4), Practicing Greatnesshad to grow on me. When the first three “disciplines of extraordinary spiritual leaders” are self-directed (Self-Awareness… Management… Development), is a person’s heart adequately qualified to address these areas? And am I really expected to aspire to greatness, including spiritual greatness (5)? Who ultimately decides if something or someone is great? These questions were not significantly addressed; yet, they may not be the best questions to ask when assessing this book.

McNeal packs an amazing amount of material into several chapters. For example, “self-awareness includes: self-knowledge… self-mindfulness… self-vigilance… self-consciousness… and self-alertness” (10). I could chew on these for quite a while, but the chapter barely addressed them. Principle #2, self-management, considers a slew of personal issues, such as feelings, expectations, health, temptation, and money. What areas do I, the reader, face? Where should I start? And what should I do? The chapter on decision making not only presents “six key elements when making decisions” (101) but also seven debriefing questions for “getting adequate feedback… to monitor the impact of the decision” (115). Because of the volume of cases and situations, it might help to chew over the contents with a colleague or two. The “What do you think?” interaction within a small group would sift through and prioritize the scenarios. We might even lay down a few applications and hold each other accountable, and thereby make a greater impact than a mere cursory reading.

I greatly appreciate the multiple faceted and step-back interactions McNeal makes with several principles. Not only does he address his premise, but he also looks at the negative angles and anticipates objections. After encouraging self-development, for example, he cautions against burn-out, and spends several pages discussing how to grow through failure (76-80). (I especially enjoy his closing quip from Mark Twain: “He died at thirty; they buried him at sixty” [80]). He returns to “learning from mistakes” in decision making (118-120). A final plate of wisdom deals with the “enemies of aloneness,” “a wrong view of God,” and “an unattractive self” (153-160). This strikes me as someone with experience who knows how to deal with people and their complicated circumstances.

If there’s one area that leads me into the heartbeat of a younger generation, it concerns the “quantum variety” or “a complex network” of relationships within our modern world (123). I long to see our fellowship become more missional by “strategiz[ing] ways to connect with people who are not a part of [our] congregation” (124). We need to “operate within the quantum universe, emphasizing connectivity, belonging, and community” (ibid.). The older generation doesn’t always feel the need to connect with strangers or newcomers. Extended family, children and grandchildren, seem to max their time and energy limits. Hospitality appears to be a lost art, but is this myopia a subcultural experience in southern Ohio, and how do our leaders grasp the importance and impact of opening their homes, especially to a younger generation? Would we be more effective if we had younger families reaching their peers rather than expecting the 60+ crowd to continually stretch their comfort zones? Earlier today, seven baby boomers attended a seniors luncheon and concert at a Christian campground. While I had hoped to involve another twelve or fifteen silver saints, at least these seven enjoyed the adventure. 

I share a few beefs with McNeal’s terminology and assumptions. In an otherwise helpful discussion about belonging to friends and friendship qualities, I’m not convinced that “God wants friends,” or “God and the Son of God need friends” (128). There is no arguing that God calls Abraham his friend, and Jesus did the same with his disciples, but terms like want and need imply something is missing or imperfect. That God would call us friends is an honor he gives the recipient; friendship doesn’t fill a relationship hole in the Almighty and all-sufficient Lord of glory. In an apparent self-serving argument, “Jesus had to grow in self-awareness” (13). Granted, there is a touch of mystery about the development of the God-Man, Jesus, and he, too, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52, ESV). At the same time, I doubt Jesus had to come to the place of finding himself or his mission in life. If anyone needed to become more aware of Jesus’ identity, it was his parents, the Jewish nation, and the readers. 

Practicing Greatness involved more interaction and critical reading than the two other books I’ve read to date. While McNeal introduces greatness with character, the capacity to deliver, and the attitude of service, I would rather be “passionate about God and about helping other people experience the life God intended for them to enjoy” (8) than to pursue greatness. However, to be fair, Reggie McNeal isn’t asking anyone to pursue greatness, even as the Lord doesn’t want Baruch to seek greatness for himself (Jer. 45:5). McNeal simply invites us “to choose to practice greatness” (ibid.), and then he explains what that looks like throughout the book. I not only can live with that, I should practice it.

David Kelly is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Wellston, Ohio. He is a graduate of Lock Haven State in Pennsylvania (BS) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM).

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