Learning to Lead: The Making of a Christian Leader in Africa

Written by Richard J. Gehman Reviewed By Chris Howles

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to witness the perseverance and zeal with which so many African pastors conduct their local church ministries tend to disagree with the old adage that the African church is ‘a mile-wide and an inch-deep’. Nonetheless, rapid numerical Christian growth across sub-Saharan Africa has highlighted the urgent need across the continent for more local leaders of godly character to shepherd such growing flocks in Christ-honoring ways. In pursuit of this goal, Richard Gehrman’s book, Learning to Lead: The Making of a Christian Leader in Africa is a valuable contribution toward developing local, African leaders and meeting such needs.

Having been sent from the US to serve as a missionary in Africa, Gehman spent 36 years in Kenya. Most of his ministry was devoted to theological education. Shortly before his retirement he visited and interviewed over 170 of his former students serving in ministry across Eastern Africa. He recounts these travels and interviews in a section entitled the ‘sweet and sour of leadership’, as he records stories of struggles and successes in pastoral work (p. 4). This book beneficially blends these personal testimonies with extensive Biblical examination to call African church leaders to a leadership founded on Christ’s work, rooted in God’s word, and transformed inwardly by the Spirit’s activity.

Conscious of so many moral failings in ministers across the continent—including some he taught and trained (p. vii)—the primacy of a pastor’s godly character is a crucial theme throughout the book. Since this focus on pastoral character resonates outside of Africa too, readers outside of the African continent will benefit as they reflect on Gehman’s reflections about the importance of integrity, humility, and purity. The abundant Scripture references across almost every chapter demonstrate overt trust in the authority, necessity, and relevance of the Bible that characterises so much of the African church today. Sadly, this is a feature that stands in a contrast to some Western Christian leadership texts today that seem more overtly premised on dialogue with management theory and sociology.

Learning to Lead contains 40 chapters of 5–10 pages each, with carefully framed application questions at the end of each chapter. As such, the book lends itself to a 40-day commitment to personal study, or several months of weekly group discussions with leadership peers. Gehman acknowledges that the setting and focus of this book is explicitly African. However, the general leadership principles derived through the extensive biblical analysis are of course widely applicable, and I want to emphasize the fact that Western readers will likely find themselves pleasantly refreshed, rebuked, and roused by the diverse testimonies, perspectives, and applications from African believers which they would not find in books from and for their own context. Indigenous tales such as the tracker who so exaggerated his own role in the kill that his fellow hunters abandoned him to drag the heavy carcass alone back to the village communicate aspects of leadership (in that case, humility) in fresh and fun ways to global leaders perhaps weary and wary of leadership anecdotes from Western business settings (p. 83). Gehman’s discussion of how far traditional African chiefdom serves as an appropriate contextual model for local church leadership is not only crucial for African pastors but also provides an illuminating and relevant challenge to Western leaders who may have similar questions concerning status and authority but couched in different terminologies and constructs (pp. 97–102).

Despite these praiseworthy strengths, there is an unfortunate lack of extensive discussion on the implications for church leaders of patron-client relationships and social capital. Such an omission misses an opportunity to consider how these fundamental components of many African cultures affect leadership in African churches. Similarly, my seminary students in Uganda would benefit from more extensive and deeper engagement with questions of spiritual warfare and fear-power dynamics in pastoral leadership. Some discussion from Gehman on how his work fits into the emerging field of African leadership studies would make the book more academically significant for those using it as part of formal theological training. Despite these critiques, I use the book profitably in my teaching, and others involved in Christian leadership training across Africa in any form would particularly benefit from engaging deeply with this book alongside their students.

Themelios readers may be surprised to find here a review for a book published 15 years ago from and primarily for an African setting. However, given its ongoing publication and widespread use across the continent, its contemporary relevance, its distinctive contextual setting, and its unashamedly biblical approach, there is little reason why the book shouldn’t be enjoyed by Western pastors as a fruitful and fulfilling activity in itself. Indeed, biblically based and culturally appropriate models for leadership development deserve a greater place in global training curriculums. Perhaps giving attention to this volume can contribute to encouraging local believers in other majority world contexts to lend their voices to this vital aspect of biblical training. Furthermore, reading it would enable these Western pastors to learn about some of the leadership issues being discussed in an African context. This knowledge can help them to pray more specifically and informedly for pastors of the African church that will soon contain 40% of the world’s Christians. Indeed, these are the brothers who will be leading and shaping global theological conversations in the coming years. Given the growth of the church across sub-Saharan Africa, it is in the best interests for all of us in God’s global church to understand, pray for, learn from, and partner with, African Christian leaders.

Chris Howles

Chris Howles
Uganda Martyrs Seminary
Kampala, Uganda

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