The Making of a Leader by Robert Clinton – A Book Review

This is a book about spiritual dynamics. Effective spiritual ministry flows out of being, and God is concerned with our being. He is forming it. The patterns and processes He uses to shape us are worthwhile subjects for leadership study. Those who study patterns and processes, and use insights from them in life and ministry, will be better prepared leaders. My students and I have studied hundreds of lives from three categories of leaders: historic, biblical, and contemporary. As we’ve compared findings from these studies, we’ve gained insights that are transferable to other leaders’ lives, including our own. (Kindle, 54-57).

With these simple words Dr. Robert Clinton begins The Making of a Leader, his landmark study of biblical leadership.

After intensively studying this book for the past month, I believe The Making of a Leader is an essential resource for anyone significantly involved in Christian leadership. Pastors, elders, deacons, small group leader coaches, seminary professors, and leaders of Christian nonprofits would all benefit.

To review a book is to focus attention on its value and importance. I want to make this book a priority  for you –

  • Because if you want to be a faithful leader, accountable to God for your talent and influence, then this book will clarify some of the lessons God is working to teach you.
  • Because if you want to better see God’s loving work in your life and those close to you, then Clinton’s big picture framework, and keen insights into each stage of leadership development, will give you greater self- and other-awareness.
  • Because there is a shortage of gifted Christian leaders with integrity in every sphere of life.

To put it another way, the book merits a high recommendation because it features:

  • Robust Biblical basis
  • Based on extensive research
  • Simple, clear, and logical structuring of concepts
  • Insightful definition and explanation of the processes God typically uses to develop His leaders
  • Interesting biographical studies of prominent Christian leaders
  • Excellent, useful application questions are provided after each chapter
  • Regularly points the reader to a deeper relationship with God

For instance, one of Clinton’s most useful definitions is that of ‘leadership’: “Leadership is a dynamic process in which a man or woman with God-given capacity influences a specific group of God’s people toward His purposes for the group” (Kindle, 60).

This definition stands in stark contrast to the self-help literature, reorienting us to the fact that the entire experience of leadership is by God’s grace, intended for God’s purposes, and directed as a service for others. In a technocratic, image-oriented, success-hungry culture, this is a very simple yet profound definition of true leadership.

Clinton’s book provides a detailed, six stage leadership emergence theory. The six stages are:

  • sovereign foundations,
  • inner-life growth,
  • ministry maturing,
  • life maturing, and
  • convergence.

Only a few leaders reach the final stage, which Clinton calls the afterglow stage.

This developmental paradigm yields a number of valuable insights. For instance, as Clinton assesses them,

The amazing thing is that during Phases I, II, and III God is primarily working in the leader. Though there may be fruitfulness in ministry, the major work is that which God is doing to and in the leader, not through him. Most emerging leaders don’t recognize this. They evaluate productivity, activities, fruitfulness, and so on. But God is quietly, often in unusual ways, trying to get the leader to see that one ministers out of what one is. God is concerned with what we are. We want to learn a thousand things because there is so much to learn and do. But He will teach us one thing, perhaps in a thousand ways: “I am forming Christ in you.” It is this that will give power to your ministry (Kindle, 223-228).

Another angle that is repeatedly emphasized throughout the book is the importance of submission to authority. This is most important, because only a leader who is willing to obey God’s authority actually has any spiritual authority. In the current glut of self-help leadership, I see a tremendous emphasis on ‘becoming a leader.’ But this is backwards. The humble, Biblical approach to leadership is not about seeking authority but about seeking God. To the degree that God has taught us to obey him, we are thereby qualified to lead others as God would have us lead.

After reading the book, I have been inspired and guided in how to update my own philosophy of ministry. In essence, this is the best way to apply the lessons of Clinton’s general philosophy of ministry, as reflected in The Making of a Leader, within my own context. By doing so, I will learn more from the experience God is giving to form me into the person He wants me to be. I will be able to obey God and serve others with greater clarity and usefulness. And it will train me to see God’s work in all the circumstances of my life. In his final chapter, Clinton strongly emphasizes that this practice is one of the secrets to finishing well, running the entire race on this side of eternity for the glory of God.

With gratitude for its critically valuable insights, I wish that Dr. Clinton had done more work to explain how leadership emergence takes place in different cultural contexts (either globally or across generations). Too much of his study is from the perspective of 20th century Western Christianity. But often, purely ‘Biblical’ paradigms are viewed quite differently from other cultural perspectives, and at least some reflection and engagement with this concern would strengthen confidence in his carefully researched thesis and conclusions. Clinton is obviously aware of this concern (see Kindle, 1703-1704, 2059-2060, 2365-2366, 2398-2399), so I find the omission of at least a chapter on this theme to be regrettable.

Similarly, proportional attention to how these general developmental processes are nuanced or affected for leaders in business, the arts, politics, and so on, would be a refreshing affirmation that God cares for leaders in every sphere of life.

Another quibble: the writing style is unnecessarily technical. A rewrite, translating the concepts from the vernacular of the academic context to the popular one, would give this work an even wider audience and greater impact.

Finally, some statistics need to be updated. For instance, Clinton claims that “Burnout among pastors and others in ministry is increasing. Many drop out after three to four years.” (Kindle, 802). The most recent research shows, rather, that “only about 1% of U.S. Protestant evangelical pastors are leaving the ministry for reasons other than death or retirement.”

In conclusion, as with any resource, a critical perspective is necessary to fully benefit from The Making of a Leader. Still, I highly recommend the book as an invaluable tool for developing – and applying – a Biblical understanding of leadership.