Many of us have read books on biblical leadership in which the author dazzles us with his own amazing leadership accomplishments. These leaders are inspiring in the same way Gulliver inspired the Lilliputians—we want to be bigger and better than we are.
Peter Lillback, president and professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is a man who could write a Gulliveresque leadership book, given his impressive educational and administrative credentials. Instead, Lillback wrote Saint Peter’s Principles: Leadership for Those Who Already Know Their Incompetence, a book that makes the reader feel like Lillback sees himself as one of us. How? By drawing principle after principle (128 to be exact) from the life, writing, and example of the apostle Peter, the pro exemplar of Christian leadership failure and success.
Each of the 128 principles are a few pages in length and include questions for meditation and discussion. These are grouped in general categories, such as formation of the leader, the art of leadership, a leader’s relationships, integrity, and many others. The format feels like “Chicken Soup for the Leader”—and there is a lot of soup between the covers.
Acknowledging Pastoral Failure
Lillback’s greatest strength is his humility as he writes about his own struggles with the demands of spiritual leadership. His starting point is human weakness, which he calls “incompetence,” and then he moves to divine leadership redemption. Turning the well-known leadership principle on its head, he asserts that “a leader doesn’t just rise to his highest level of incompetence, but begins with incompetence and seeks to learn wisdom in the midst of that incompetence” (14). This plays itself out in Peter’s life as he went from Peter the Boaster/Denier to Peter the Apostle/Martyr.
This approach to leadership is honest, refreshing, and relatable. For many years, the staff at my church has both joked about and considered hosting a pastoral conference on failure. Few of us can relate to the pantheon of mega-pastors in their amazing successes, but how many thousands of pastors could helpfully relate to guest speakers in their failures? Lillback seems comfortable in this space of inadequacy. Yet, rather than wallowing, he looks to Peter’s incompetence as a basic model for the humility required for any leadership success:
In this comprehensive handbook, Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary, uses the apostle Peter’s life and writings to guide men and women through the details and daily challenges of leadership in any arena. Readers will think through their relationships, productivity, management style, communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, integrity, and more. Practical spiritual exercises help to put the lessons of each short chapter into action.
The incompetence of a leader here is seen in the narcissistic impulse that lurks within to believe that it’s all about us. We all have the built-in hubris to confuse the offices we occupy with ourselves, just as followers have a tendency to confuse the message with the messenger. (102)
Embracing Servant Leadership
Lillback’s call to humble acknowledgment of our shortfalls allows him to speak graciously into our leadership struggles. Like a coach ever at the ready to help, Saint Peter’s Principles is filled with philosophical and practical guidance. The more I read this book, the more I was blessed, and the more I liked it. Here are a few more gems:
This, then, is the beginning of leadership success, according to St. Peter. It is when a man, knowing his incompetence, nevertheless seeks to meet his deficiencies through God’s gracious gift of wisdom found in his Word. (8)
The St. Peter’s Principle here recognizes that leadership necessarily uses power to serve someone, but that the power of leadership should be used to serve others. Power wisely used is a tool, not an idol. (100)
The plethora of leadership quotes and stories along with the insights from Peter show an astonishing depth of leadership thoughtfulness from this seasoned spiritual leader. Any leader, spiritual or otherwise, would benefit from Lillback’s wisdom. The length of the book (around 600 pages) will likely intimidate many, but the format provides a fork for those willing to eat the elephant. While reading I was regularly brought to conviction and confession for failures in my own leadership. This embrace of my “incompetence” was cathartic and had its inspiring effect as the apostle Peter and Lillback pointed me again to competence flowing from gospel humility and servant leadership.
Like most other pastors, I’m more committed to the theory of servant leadership than proficient in the application. This book inspired me biblically while directing me practically. This is a rare combination, and I suspect Lillback himself to be an exceptional mixture of the two. This countercultural leadership book will be relevant for as long as leaders stumble, struggle, and fail. In other words, until Jesus returns.