The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity

Written by Craig Van Gelder Reviewed By Gerald Hiestand

Craig Van Gelder’s edited volume The Missional Church and Leadership Formation results from the third annual Missional Church Consultation, hosted by Luther Seminary, and is the third book in Eerdmans’s Missional Church Series. In the words of Van Gelder, this book seeks to bring “further clarity to the word ‘missional’ and to contribute to the ever-widening missional church conversation by engaging the issue of leadership formation” (p. viii). Contributors are drawn primarily from leaders within the mainline tradition, including Richard Bliese, Sharon Henderson Callahan, Scott Cormode, Dave Daubert, Terri Martinson Elton, Kyle J. A. Small, Kristine M. Stache, and Craig Van Gelder.

The first section examines the relationship between theological education and leadership formation, with essays from Van Gelder, Small, and Bliese. The second section explores how “missional leadership formation can best be cultivated within and through congregations” (p. 97), with essays from Cormode, Callahan, and Daubert. The final section hosts chapters from Elton and Stache, seeking to answer the question, “What does all of this actually look like within real congregations?” (p. 173).

Rather than offering a detailed response to each essay, the following paragraphs highlight three notable aspects of the book.

A Mainline Conversation. This book is clearly situated in the mainline Protestant context. To orient newcomers, it will help readers to know that in many ways the missional church movement is to the mainline tradition what the emerging church movement is to evangelicalism, only in reverse. Whereas the emerging church movement is pushing evangelicalism toward concerns often championed by the mainline tradition, the missional church movement is pushing the mainline tradition toward concerns more in line with historic evangelicalism. The net effect is that the missional church movement and the emerging church movement tend to meet in the middle space between evangelicalism and the mainline tradition. Like leading voices in the emerging church movement, The Missional Church and Leadership Formation emphasizes social justice, Trinitarian theology, the importance of community, and egalitarianism (relating both to gender-issues and congregational polity). Those critical of the emerging church will find similar ground for critique in this book. And those sympathetic to the concerns of the emerging church will find much that resonates. However, The Missional Church and Leadership Formation lacks the disenfranchised, polemical tone often found in the emerging church literature; evangelicals are not the foil of this book, making it more palatable to traditional evangelical readers.

Regarding Theological Education. While the subtitle of the book is “Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity,” the first section of the book addresses the topic of theological education in the seminaries. Since the inception of the seminary, theological education and ministry training has often been characterized as not sufficiently connected to the local church. The mainline tradition has not escaped this critique, as the first section’s essays show. Van Gelder appropriately raises the question about the key focus of the seminary: Does it exist for catechetical formation, research, or professional training (p. 36)? The failure of a seminary to answer this question, Van Gelder argues, inevitably results in mission confusion for both professors and students. Small’s chapter distinguishes between wissenschaft (scholarship) and paideia (wisdom) as categories for orienting the focus of a seminary, helpfully arguing for the via media of “critical paidea” (p. 50). And Bliese rightly criticizes the “encyclopedic” approach to theological education that has come to characterize seminary training due to the influence of the German system (pp. 87–89).

While I find myself sympathetic with the critiques leveled by Van Gelder, Small, and Bliese—and correspondingly sympathetic with some of their solutions—the essays do not, in the end, offer a paradigm-shifting way forward. To be sure, the seminary must retain a robust place in theological education. But after nearly three hundred years of trying to dial-in seminary education, it is past time to acknowledge that leadership formation cannot take place fully in a classroom context, nor can theological scholarship be delegated entirely to the academy. The social location of the church and the academy are simply too far removed from each other. The pastoral community must once again become a significant theological voice in the church, and the local church the primary means by which the future leaders of the church are trained. I would have liked to have seen an awareness of this reality more fully reflected in the proposals offered by Van Gelder, Small, and Bliese.

Unhelpfully Abstract. The most disappointing aspect of this book, particularly as it relates to the last two sections, is its inability to speak concretely. For instance, one contributor observes, “Since culture refers to the whole social practice of meaningful action, then Christian theology has to do with the meaning dimension of Christian practices. . . . The cultural dynamics of an active view of God and discipleship as a way of life have at their core this issue of the meaning-making of Christian practices” (p. 194). This sounds, of course, especially significant. But what it actually means—in concrete terms—is difficult to say. On the whole, the book conveys more a theological sense than an actual plan. We must say more than “relationships are important in leadership formation” and “the congregation must be empowered for leadership,” etc. Everyone, of course, agrees that relationships are important and that congregations should be empowered. But what does this actually look like in real time? Does a focus on Trinitarian theology and its corresponding emphasis on relationships mean that a congregation should adopt small groups as its principle mechanism for leadership formation? Or that local churches should embrace a congregational polity over an episcopal structure? It’s not clear. Even the final two chapters, which attempt to provide a concrete “life on the ground” picture of leadership formation, fail to offer practical ways forward.

The essays in The Missional Church and Leadership Formation demonstrate theological sophistication and learning. But in the end, the book offers very little to critique, primarily because it fails to make enough concrete assertions. Readers looking for a book on leadership formation that terminates in concrete proposals will likely be disappointed.

Gerald Hiestand

Gerald Hiestand
Calvary Memorial Church
Oak Park, Illinois, USA

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