A seismic shift took place in my ministry recently. I changed roles, and I felt like I was no longer on solid ground. After years of preaching and teaching, I realized I needed additional skills to be able to effectively communicate, manage people, handle conflict, and assess missional alignment. I know God has called me to these new challenges, but the struggle of developing new skills after years in ministry has left me with insecurities and self-doubt that have affected my walk with God and my ability to rest.
To address these struggles, I’ve sought help by interviewing leaders, listening to podcasts, reading, and pursuing coaching. Scott Thomas’s The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning on Jesus to Shepherd His People was a catalyst for change.
Thomas outlines how a leader grows in humility and skill to the extent that he or she depends on Jesus and the truth of the gospel. Leadership books are often strong on corporate leadership principles or strong on biblical principles, but few integrate both and see the gospel at the core of leadership. Thomas’s book is different. He doesn’t lay a light gospel veneer over common leadership principles. No, with character and humility, he outlines a practical vision for character-centered shepherd leadership that embraces humility over celebrity.
Character-Centered but Practical
Many church leaders turn to secular models of leadership because they’re ravenously consumed with finding the next quick fix. Though these corporate models of leadership can provide some help, their value is limited because they’re bound by time and culture. What might work in a Western corporation isn’t necessarily going to work in the church—and definitely won’t help a missionary serving in a developing country.
The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning on Jesus to Shepherd His People
How do you grow as a leader in the church? Should you read church growth books? Take a few seminars? Or just wing it? Scott Thomas, former President of Acts 29, church planter, and pastor has a different approach. He unpacks how leaning on Jesus empowers not just your teaching, but also grows the humility and biblical wisdom you need to lead.
Through many years of ministry experience, Thomas has seen the importance of the “soft skills” of leadership—empathy, kindness, and listening—and how not developing those skills negatively impacts churches. Yet simply knowing the need for what the world calls “emotional intelligence,” doesn’t guarantee growth in these areas. But understanding and applying the gospel will bring transformation.
More important is the question of whether corporate models of leadership are even biblical. Thomas writes, “The world teaches that leaders must ascend, whereas Jesus teaches that leaders descend” (26). Leaders sacrifice for a cause.
The world teaches that leaders must ascend, whereas Jesus teaches that leaders descend. Leaders sacrifice for a cause.
This is a character-centered leadership book, and emphasizing this fact is important given the crises of leadership we see in the evangelical church—instances where incredibly gifted leaders have fallen because their popularity and influence surpassed their character.
In chapter 5, Thomas writes about the pursuit of integrity. He tells of scars he incurred when he failed to pursue integrity in his decision making and took the easy way out of conflict. These decisions made leadership more comfortable for him in the short run but were damaging to his flock over the long run. Thomas’s vulnerability helps us see the necessity of pursuing integrity in private before leading publicly.
Since the gospel results in a changed life from the inside out, integrity must be pursued. Thomas writes, “Church leadership is not a position nor is it a picnic. It is a spiritual war zone, and gospel-shaped leaders must come prepared with Christ’s mind (Phil. 2:1–5) and the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:3–11)” (3). The book makes this spiritual pursuit practical. Thomas works through a gospel grid that helps leaders grow in self-awareness, self-management, relational awareness, and relational management. Every area is tested by love: “Love is the verifiable characteristic that demonstrates our connection to Christ, the one who loves us (John 13:34–35)” (15).
Humility over Celebrity and Timidity
A gospel-shaped leader is marked by humility: “Whereas pride is self-centered, humility is others-centered, and helping others is ostensibly the aim of leadership” (106). With wisdom that’s been marinating over years, Thomas points out that a lack of humility can take different forms.
Sometimes it appears as arrogance that seeks celebrity and revels in prestige and worldly greatness. By contrast, gospel-shaped leaders are earthen vessels who strive through brokenness to reveal the treasure, which is Christ (107–8, see 2 Cor. 4).
A lack of humility can take different forms. Sometimes it appears as arrogance that seeks celebrity and revels in worldly greatness. At other times, a lack of humility appears as timidity.
At other times, a lack of humility appears as timidity. This too is a product of selfishness; seeking to avoid rejection or failure is merely pride cloaked in cowardice. Such leadership may come off as humility on the surface, but it’s like an overcooked steak that shows its true colors when cut.
Gospel Shaped Leader ends with a powerful left hook that exposes one timid deficiency in many Christian leaders. Thomas reports that 70 percent of U.S. pastors claim to have no friends. He then tells the story of how a close friend misused a confidential conversation as ammunition against him. Betrayals like this one can tempt leaders to avoid close friendships, but Thomas makes clear that this should not be the case (151). We must not let our vulnerable positions as leaders, or even our hectic schedules, excuse us from pursuing friends. Rather, we must see friendship as the fruit that gospel leadership bears.
Unlike many popular leadership books written for Christian audiences, Gospel Shaped Leader doesn’t read like talking points from a leadership conference but instead like a front-porch conversation with a seasoned shepherd. With great wisdom, Thomas makes clear that giftedness and followers aren’t enough to be a gospel leader. We don’t need corporate and celebrity models. To be ready for seasons in ministry when it feels like the ground is shifting, we need integrity and humility that bears fruit in missional alignment and deep relationships.