John Ewart on Critical Abilities, Part 4

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John Ewart is Director of the Spurgeon Center for Pastoral Leadership and Preaching and Associate Vice President for Global Theological Initiatives. This is the fourth post in a series on Critical Abilities in Pastoral Leadership. 

Previously I have posted that the first two critical abilities a missional leader must possess are 1) the ability to understand the true mission and 2) to establish a biblical vision. With these in place, the tracks are laid; the train has been built and set into place.

Now how does the train stay on track and move forward? I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the question of how do new churches make decisions concerning what they are going to actually do. I was concerned with the “now what?” question. We have planted a church, now what do we do and how do we decide that in order to best move forward?

Over the years I have seen a plethora of churches that cannot make healthy decisions, do not realize they need to, and/or if they did, have unhealthy practices in which they make them. This inability has led to a lot of contextual chaos…bumper cars from a previous post, or a train wreck. They are either going in a million directions with no cohesive process or they are doing virtually nothing. If they continue, they often end up in reverse or totally off track.

So what can a leader do? The third critical ability of a missional leader is to build bridges of leadership. If there is no understanding of the true mission or a strong biblical vision, leaders will not be able to guide the church down the tracks in the proper direction or at the proper speed. But even with those first two abilities, it is absolutely critical to put in place the right leadership team with a proper understanding of bridge building.


A bridge connects two sides of a gap of some kind. Some bridges are designed for one-way traffic; others are for two-way traffic. Some leadership relationships are one-way while others are two-way. Let me illustrate just a couple of them.

The first leadership bridge a missional leader must build and cross is the leadership relationship between leader (himself) and God. This is a one-way bridge. Not the relationship but the leadership. I never lead God. God must always lead me. It is amazing how often pastors and church leaders need to be reminded of this basic truth. This is where it begins and ends. How is your total submission to the leadership of God? Are you trying to lead Him? How is that working for you?

Another bridge to build and cross is the leadership relationship of leader to leaders. Some may argue that this is a one-way bridge. I do not. In fact I am confident this is part of the problem sometimes. I believe this is a two-way bridge. Missional leaders recognize they can still learn from and at times be led by other leaders.

I always worked closely with the other key church leaders, both vocational and volunteer, as a pastor. We worked together in synergy, moving down the tracks as one. We met and communicated with one another frequently and learned to trust and love one another. We were friends and co-laborers. We were on the same page.

I am convinced that if this type of understanding and harmony existed among the leaders of churches, then the health of the church would vastly improve.

Remember a third leadership bridge. The leadership relationship of God to leaders. I actually believe that I do not own the market on discerning God’s will. God speaks to others through His Word as well. This is a one-way bridge for them just like it is for me. A wise man will seek wise godly counsel from God-led people and not attempt to lead alone.

How are you relating to and leading those with whom you serve? Once these initial bridges are built, there are several others to cross. These include leaders to congregation, God to congregation and congregation to the world. Understanding these connections and the proper way they fit together is critical for missional motion down the tracks.

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What Does it Mean to be a World Christian?

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I don’t read very many books more than once. One book that I’ve read several times in the past few years is Don Carson’s The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians, 2nd ed. (Baker, 2004). I recently had cause to read Carson’s fine book once again, this time with a Southeastern student and fellow First Baptist Durham member whom I’m discipling. The final chapter, an exposition of 1 Corinthians 9:19–27, is titled “The Cross and the World Christian.” In that chapter, Carson provides an excellent short summary of what it means to be world Christians:

Their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.
Their commitment to the church, Jesus’ messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to its manifestation on home turf.
They see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenship a secondary matter.
As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples (p. 117).

I appreciate Carson’s summary, which very much resonates with what I hope to communicate in my teaching and preaching ministry (however imperfectly). It also fits nicely with our ethos at Southeastern Seminary, where our mission statement is “Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission.” We want to be a “world seminary” equipping “world Christians” to make disciples of all peoples.

I think the only point I would add to Carson’s thoughts, and it’s a complementary one that I’m quite certain he’d affirm, is that being a world Christian begins by being covenantally united with a particular congregation, which is a local outpost of the one universal church that includes all Christians everywhere. Healthy local churches should be “world churches” that embody on a corporate level the priorities that Carson outlined above. It is through the local church that we learn to become and ultimately embrace all that it means to be a world Christian who lives, loves, and serves for the sake of the world that God so loves.

Balanced Ministry Preparation

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As a professor who spends a great deal of time with young people — and with others who spend time with young people — I get a lot of questions about life, God’s call, and preparation for the future. One of the more common questions comes from those who feel a call to vocational ministry and in particular to student ministry. The question has to do with preparation. How much formal preparation? How much experience?
What should be my next step?

I recently talked to a young man who had tons of experience in terms of interacting with and being in front of people. An ultimate fighter for a while, he fought in front of large crowds and met multitudes of people. After meeting Christ and spending time overseas doing missions his perspective changed. When he and I visited, I found him to be hungry to become better prepared. He wanted to be the best ambassador for Christ possible, so he asked a lot of good questions about ministry.

I gave him the standard line I give. I do not know who said it first, but it is good, basic counsel: you take care of the depth of your ministry and God will take care of the breadth of your ministry. I still believe that.

Let me elaborate. Both depth and breadth matter, after all. None of us want to be theological nincompoops, and we all would rather be more than less effective as we minister. Balance matters in terms of ministry preparation. Most young men I meet who feel a call to serve in a pastoral or other leadership role do value both depth and breadth. But I find that balance too often is not appreciated enough. In particular I see this in those preparing for ministry other than the pastor, such as worship leaders, or student pastors.

I meet plenty of extremely gifted student pastors who have a knack for relating to a younger generation. They move naturally into ministry opportunities and thrive around people. Many are also excellent communicators. And, I have met aspiring worship leaders who have a lot of musical ability but whose ministry ability – like basic interpersonal skills – of an aardvark. I have noticed a trend–while certainly not always the case, at times the more gifted and naturally capable demonstrate a corresponding lack of appreciation for formal equipping, including theological training and equipping in specific areas where growth is needed. Many times that comes from those who supervise them who would rather–unknowingly or not–get the most out of these gifted young leaders they can without something like education hampering them.

I have on occasion talked to gifted students who had a pastor seek to lure them away from finishing their education with the opportunity of a “great ministry” but one honestly more focused on filling an immediate need in the church than the long term best interest of the student. On the other hand, some young leaders figure they did not seem to need theological training to get where they are to this point, so why bother? Such a disposition sounds great on the surface but smacks of remarkable shortsightedness and hubris. These young leaders could use a little time with a hefty book on theology as they tend to overvalue their experience and undervalue their theological acumen.

There is another side: some are long on love for study and short on interest in actual ministry experience. Teaching at a seminary allows me to encounter more than a few who greatly value depth. They love theology, biblical languages, and many enjoy debate. All well and good, however, in some of these I see a lack of appreciation for the practice of ministry. These fellows need to get out of the library and tell somebody about Jesus. Or go to a nursing home and volunteer. Or something, just DO something.

So here is the advice I find myself giving more and more. If you are young in ministry and have had more than the normal opportunities to practice ministry, you need to give more attention to your education. Get that degree. Do not see formal education as a necessary hoop to jump through; see it as essential to your own discipleship. Take time to think long and hard about the long-term ministry you hope to have. The fact that some teenagers who cannot articulate a most basic understanding of the gospel think you are too cool for school should have no impact on your desire to serve Christ with all your mind (Romans 12:2). I have met enough young men who are emotionally passionate about Jesus but neither intellectually rigorous nor appreciative enough of discipline to be prepared for a life of ministry.

But for the young theologian who enjoys bantering about everything from Bart Ehrman to Wittgenstein, here is my advice: get yourself hip deep in a local community where you are investing in some ministry to the broken world that exists all around you. Get out of the library and into reality.

A professional seminarian is as unattractive as a theologically underdeveloped “youth guy.” So if you are young and seeking to follow Christ as a minister of the gospel, sign up for a class (we have great online classes at SEBTS), or go volunteer at a local student ministry. Just don’t stay where you are.

Just one final word: what I said above does not actually apply to a young minister starting in ministry, but for any follower of Christ. It also applies to those of us with years of service to Christ under our belts. Grow deep, reach wide, and be busy for the Master.

Note: originally posted at