Review: Courageous Leadership

419ITrP3FVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. 288 pp. $12.33.

Courageous. Type A personality. Opinionated. Church culture shifter. Intimidating. Small town ministry disconnect. I read—I taught this book to a men’s Sunday school class a dozen years ago, and my memorable take-away continues to challenge my life purpose: “The local church is the hope of the world” (12). When my small town church experience in Maine ended suddenly and unexpectedly, I held onto this memorable claim, and devotions in Ephesians bolstered my faith… and hope in the local church. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to re-read Bill Hybels. His mostly autobiographical work displays passion, self-disclosure, and spiritual devotion.

Hybels understands the power of a story, and he tells them well. When discussing the feeling of a vision, “after [nearly thirty years], the passion isn’t fading. On the contrary, it’s growing in intensity” (34). In the next paragraph, he shares the testimony of a woman from a Willow Creek Association church in Canada. “By the time she sat down, I was a basket case.” As the chapter concludes, “we looked into each other’s tear-filled eyes and just sat there for several minutes in blissful silence…” (50). I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit how compellingly these narratives combine his insight and instruction. I also appreciate the passion implied with creating “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals” (BHAGs) as described in Built to Last, by Jim Collins (57). What both surprises and challenges me, however, is the accompanying emphasis on setting goals “that would keep us on our knees. After more meetings and late-night prayer sessions…” (57). The humorous side of BHAG, which is challenging enough as it is, faces a compelling balance with united, fervent prayer. 

At the same time, I failed to conquer my impression that we’re living on different planets. Metropolitan areas like Chicago involve significantly different demographics, population, education, income, and social networking needs than anything I’ve experienced in small-town USA. I can’t imagine setting an attendance goal of 20,000 seekers, or dreaming of gathering 20,000 small group leaders. The population of Piscataquis County, Maine, where I served for eighteen years, barely reached 17,500 people. If there’s one mountain I would like to climb, it would reflect Hybel’s passion for small groups. This vision calls for fellowship, practical Bible study, outreach, and service outside the walls of a church building and central to the church’s mission. In my experience, the Baby-boomers rarely express a need for small groups; yet, Gen-Xers and the Millennials supposedly thrive in that setting. I’m not convinced that churches of 130 or less already practice a small group presence. Sunday school classes or Wednesday night Bible study and prayer can’t offer the same intimacy and fellowship atmosphere of a living room with coffee tables, open Bibles and dessert squares. Willow Creek’s start up ministry worked outside the box of traditional church structure, and small groups was not an option. Insisting on Sunday and Wednesday night services seems to squeeze small groups out of the schedule, especially when deacons, trustees, finance, missions, choir, and children and teens need their own slots.

I whole-heartedly agree that the members of one body must be “going in the same direction, pursuing the same goals” (63). But while large churches utilize staff with sub-ministry plans, small churches utilize a volunteer army, who have to adjust deeply rooted values, own a fresh vision, and achieve new goals. One chapter is dedicated to “building a dream team,” which could be translated as “staff.” While I agree completely with the three “Cs” of character first, competence, and chemistry (81), in small churches, we work with whomever God leads to us. Nearly all are volunteers. (Oh, how I miss having a secretary!) At the same time, we can’t afford to make blanket announcements from the pulpit for VBS teachers or youth workers. We may get what we ask for: any warm body regardless of character or competence or chemistry. By working through spiritually gifted volunteers who exhibit the 3 Cs, small church volunteers still can maintain a clear vision with well-stated goals and move in the same direction.

Two chapters, “A Leader’s Prayer” and “A Leader’s Pathway,” didn’t seem to fit the direction of the rest of the book. What had started as a one-day journal entry off Lake Michigan turned into sketches about some of Hybel’s favorite Bible characters (199). While some of these strengths are creatively challenging, others seem rather random. I appreciate the observation about David’s optimism (200), Joshua’s decisiveness (204), or Peter’s initiative (210); but I’m not so convinced that Nehemiah’s key characteristic was “his commitment to celebration” (209). (I suspect a misprint: “Like Jeremiah [sic], help me to remember to celebrate” [ibid.].) In a similar light, “A Leader’s Pathway” draws from the work by Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways (217). As far as pathways are concerned, Bill Hybels has significantly more experience with staffing and leadership than I’ll ever know, but I don’t connect the dots between walking with Christ and walking a particular personality pathway, particularly avenues that are contemplative, activist, or creation (read, “tree huggers” [224]). I’m not willing to say, “Let’s just accept the particular pathway that brings us close to God and be thankful for it” (228), without having more clearly defined, biblical support. The pathways read more like spiritual gifts or personal preferences than different legitimate walks of leadership.

Bill Hybels challenges and at times intimidates this reader, especially in the areas of vision, goal setting, teamwork, and leadership development. His personal story leaks everywhere, and it’s not hard to see how God has used him in leading a culture of contemporary church ministry. I cannot ignore his influence, even if I can’t always identify with the dynamics of Willow Creek. Experiencing a long-term ministry has its perks: Bill Hybels, who was nearly sixty when he wrote this book in 2002 (245), had founded Willow Creek fresh out of college (18). Thirty years of biblical integrity in one ministry, even if it develops mega-churchly, provide amazing life-narrative experiences and insight that can challenge and strengthen anyone in the Lord’s service.

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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