What does it look like to integrate faith and learning – faith and business?

brain-photoChristian Universities and Colleges face the challenge of educating future business entrepreneurs, pastors, healthcare practitioners, managers, church staff, technicians, and executives in a way that integrates faith and learning.   The depth of the challenge is described by Robert Dubin:

We live in a highly secular world. The morality of the Judeo-Christian tradition is no longer the consensual boundary within which practical decisions are taken in the operation and management of work organizations. Secular man, even though he is an executive and decision maker, is very much in need of moral guidelines within which to make his decisions…. Today’s rational organizational decision-makers avidly see moral justification for their actions and are only too ready to see the new morals in the scientific theories of the applied behavioral scientists.[1]

Dubin wrote to lament the adoption of simple philosophical ideals of organization that failed to validate themselves with the rigor of true scientific theory. His lament however, equally applies to the position Christian Colleges and Universities find themselves today. The loss of what David Dockery calls a Christian worldview from learning and teaching has developed a bifurcated and disconnected approach to education that experiences a loss of faith in specialized disciplines and a reduction to personal pietism at best and fundamentalism at worst in those disciplines. The problem did not arise ex nihilio. The history of theological education in the United States is deeply impacted by its social context and controversies. For example, the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies of the early twentieth century contributed to the divorce of faith from teaching and scholarship. The inadequacy of alternative perspectives such as the separatist pietism of American fundamentalism, the pragmatic pietism of William James, the common faith civil religion of John Dewey, or the ahistorical experiential religion of Harry Emerson Fosdick is evident in the irrelevance many place on faith.[2]

The bifurcation of faith and learning is clear in the pastoral students I see in the classroom over the last decade who, for example, often deny the need for critical thinking in learning and look askance at the suggestion that their participation in missio Dei is not confined to the walls of their congregational sanctuary.  The bifurcation of faith and learning is not limited to pastoral studies students. CEOs I coach in private practice are often at as great a loss to understand how to integrate faith and business as pastoral studies students are in integrating faith and learning. In the complexities and personally traumatic decisions CEOs make I am often queried on how they can apply or integrate their faith to their decisions.

Perhaps more troubling is that scholars such as Phil Zuckerman can so handily undo the claims of evangelical fundamentalism with a simple sociological study of secular society.

…I argue that society without God is not only possible, but can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at countering the claims of certain outspoken, conservative Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral, and prosperous societies.[3]

Zuckerman addresses and rather convincingly defeats the argument he cites. The problem is that the argument he addresses is poorly framed and theologically deficient – a product of the very lack of integration between faith and learning that this paper seeks to discuss. Zuckerman’s functional definitions of immorality, evil, and depravity are soteriologically (and narcissistically) not cosmologically grounded. Zuckerman seems argue against spiritualized Gnosticism masquerading as Christian thought. This is not to fault Zuckerman’s argument but to lament that the only objection he has faced from his students to secularism is a self-absorbed soteriological view.

I am drawn to Dockery’s argument (citing Abraham Kuyper) that the dominating principle of Christian truth is cosmological not soteriological. Moving from a soteriological to a cosmological ground is the inherent challenge of moving today’s Christian education toward a true integration of faith and learning.  A cosmological ground respects the sovereignty of the triune God over all spheres visible and invisible and thus avoids the error of spiritualized Gnosticism or the equally deficient perspective of pure materialism.  Framing the argument for the integration of faith and learning on a cosmological foundation does not reduce the universality of the claim that salvation is only found in Christ, it amplifies it raising it above the popular formulations of pluralism (that consistently minimize divergent cosmological and epistemological perspectives to find common ground) to engage an exploration of truth that, “… recognizes that all scholarship, all invention, all discovery, all exploration – which is truth – is God’s truth.”[4]

Learning is an Integrative Process

Christian education that builds learning or builds discipleship delivers facts to students while simultaneously providing them with a way to structure knowledge so that it becomes transferable rather generating information that remains siloed in curriculum specializations and personal pietism. At its essence learning is a developmental exercise that results in changes in behavior and perception. Science defines learning as a development through ascending levels of abstraction including description, explanation, and theory. A learning centered environment in the Christian University must present meaningful structures in knowledge that allow the student to: recognize problems using underlying principles and relevant concepts; efficiently use information to decide a goal oriented outcome; stay flexible in their self monitoring through the process; and present a principled and coherent explanation.[5]

The ability to present a coherent explanation as a result of learning includes an ability to integrate faith and reason in Christian education. That is students should be capable of identifying their assumptions, values, and frame and to critique the conclusions of others from the perspective of a Christian cosmology. It has been argued that the differentiation between Christian education and education generally speaking is the cosmological foundation from which Christian education works.  Peter said it this way, “…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”[6] There is no discipline that does not wrestle with the reality of God’s sovereignty. Either directly through deliberate theological reflection or indirectly through an active rejection of the reality of God – the cosmological foundation of Christian education has, and should exert, a voice in the discussion.

What I hope to make clear is that faith integration is helped by possessing a definition of learning that moves beyond the memorization of facts. This definition is elaborated by Bransford, Brown and Cocking:

The new science of learning does not deny that facts are important for thinking and problem solving…. However, the research also shows clearly that “usable knowledge” is not the same as a mere list of disconnected facts. Experts’ knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts (e.g., Newton’s second law of motion); it is “conditionalized” to specify the contexts in which it is applicable; it supports understanding and transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember.[7]

What is especially important to leaning that occurs in Christian education is the fact that connected knowledge includes truth that is revealed as well as discovered and that this insight also organizes around important theological concepts such as Luther’s priesthood of all believers as well as Newton’s second law of motion. Connecting knowledge is a function of faith integration that starts with open dialogue between curriculums and ongoing dialogue between professors and programs that advance understanding of the applicability, complementarities, and contradictions between organizing theories and principles in the knowledge base of each specialization or program.  The pursuit of knowledge and truth is never complete – this includes the pursuit of theological or revealed truth. The epistemological position of the Scriptures is not naïve – it affirms the incompleteness of knowing. Incompleteness of knowing does not equate to unknowable. Scripture acknowledges that reality outside the human capacity to define and symbolically represent that reality exists and is knowable and discoverable however partial knowing may be. Consider Paul’s summation:

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away….For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.[8]

Possessing a cosmological commitment does not negate critical inquiry or learning. Instead it engages a critical epistemology that is aware of the concrete claim that truth is cosmological that avoids the extremes of spiritualized Gnosticism and materialistic metaphysic.[9] This premise forms the foundation for our claim that all truth is God’s truth regardless of truths revealed or discovered source.

Faith integration addresses the challenge every classroom faces, regardless of the subject i.e., how to strike the proper balance between automaticity of skills and promoting understanding. Automaticity in skills renders technicians who master formulas in the closed environment of the classroom (e.g., church growth principles, business analytics, theological concepts, accounting methods, marketing principles, etc.) but who fail to transfer their knowledge to life settings.[10] As a result for example, pastors hide behind pronouncements and are seemingly incapable of the critical thinking needed to do theology in context. Or in another example, business students face competitive pressures and ethical decisions like deer standing in the headlights of a truck – apparently incapable of ethical thinking that renders decisions that advance missio Dei.

Finding a Common Ground in Curriculum – Ethics

In addition to holding and exploring a commitment to a cosmological foundation in Christian Education, there are curricular intersections that offer a direct opportunity for students to explore what it means to live out this cosmological conviction. Every leader faces ethical challenges and while it seems that the study of ethics has fallen from favor in some Christian Universities it certainly has not lost its significance.  It is evident in church management, business management, the social sector, entertainment and others that an ethical crisis faces society and by extrapolation also faces Christian education.  Johnson describes the crisis in equally universal terms:

The modern landscape is littered with fallen leaders. Wherever we turn – business, military, politics, medicine, education, and religion – we find leaders toppled by ethical scandals.  Nearly all have sacrificed their positions of leadership and their reputations. Many face civil lawsuits, criminal charges, and jail time. The costs can be even greater for followers.[11]

Framing ethical thinking as a point of faith integration represents a movement from cultural imperialism to cultural intelligence in international business and a movement from Greek dualism to a kingdom theology in the church that is capable of avoiding the trap of secular/sacred distinctions so ingrained in the culture of the West.

Ethical thinking requires that leaders make explicit the assumptions on which they operate to define the way their moral norms interact with the particular judgments, rules, principles, and convictions that make up their ethical decisions. These layers of ethical reasoning depend on a way of defining the world in which decisions are made. Business works on assumptions about capitalism and mission (assuming a Christian is engaged in commerce) that both need to be clarified to offer definition of faith integration.

The business models used in western enterprises depend on capitalism as an economic framework. Capitalism may be defined in various ways. One definition that aligns with the objective of faith integration describes capitalism as that mechanism by which new solutions to human problems occurs. Capitalism provides, “…incentives for millions of problem-solving experiments to occur every day, provides competition to select the best solutions, and provides incentives and mechanisms for scaling up and making the best solutions available. Meanwhile, it scales down or eliminates less successful ones.”[12] This view of capitalism defines business as the process of “…transforming ideas into products and services that solve problems.”[13]

In contrast business may also be defined in a limited sense as the maximization of shareholder value. In this view business makes the maximization of shareholder value their primary aim and assumes that the maximization of economic efficiency will itself offer a basis for social welfare.  The challenge to this view however is that emerging economic theories do not support the view that consumers maximize utility in their decisions in a move to efficiency in the allocation of resources. Instead behavioral and experimental economists observe that people do not behave rationally and financial markets do not always act efficiently. The assumption behind maximizing shareholder value i.e., that capital is the scarcest resource in an economy, contributes to a myopic focus and decline in long-term investments of the type that generate creative new solutions. This reality was clearly evident in the recession of 2008 – a view toward increasing shareholder value gave way to self-serving profiteering confirming the worst of all fears about the inability of business to think beyond its own self-preservation and enrichment at the great expense of society.

In order to illustrate the possibilities of faith integration in Christian Education with regard to business it will help to define what I mean by mission. Possessing a definition of mission is necessary for determining the flash points in which faith integration might occur most obviously. Starting with a definition of mission also supplies a foundation for understanding the ethical decision-making that makes up so much of the business landscape operationally and relationally to achieve a profitable position in highly competitive markets. My definition of mission starts with a theological frame that accepts the historical/particular quality of the biblical narrative and the prophetic strands of Scripture which proclaim that God acts in and on behalf of human experience. Add to this the influence of a Pentecostal perspective that further acknowledges the role of the supernatural and the current need and legitimacy of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Mission is that activity of God into which we have been commissioned by faith in Jesus Christ who introduced the now and future reign of God that is: reconciling (John 3:16; Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Corinthians 5:19); refreshing (Luke 4:18-19); concrete (Luke 4:21, Galatians 5:19-26, 1 Corinthians 2:4, 5); and eschatological (Mark 1:14-15, 1 Corinthians 2:9).

Using the definition of business supplied above, Table 1 compares the aims of both mission and business in particular those points of overlap and those points of tension. In dialogue over curriculum and student development the interactions between mission and business offer a basis for faith integration and illustrate the challenges in ethical reasoning and decision-making. The integration of business and faith (like the integration of faith and learning) has a strong foundation in the Scriptures:

Beware lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commands and His ordinance s and His statues…lest when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have build good houses and lived in them, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…He led you through the great and terrible wilderness….that he might humbly you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end.[14]

Addressing the arrogance of success ensures that just distribution remains the fundamental mandate of economic ethics. The theme of just distribution repeats itself through hundreds of Old Testament passages which seek to prevent and finally decry distributive economic injustice.[15]

  • Distributive justice: the justice that is concerned with the apportionment of privileges, duties, and goods in consonance with the merits of the individual and in the best interest of society.[16]
  • Distributive justice: the nature of a socially justallocation of goods in a society. A society in which incidental inequalities in outcome do not arise would be considered a society guided by the principles of distributive justice. The concept includes the available quantities of goods, the process by which goods are to be distributed, and the resulting allocation of the goods to the members of the society.[17]

Table 1: Mission and Business Contrasted – A Starting Point for Faith Integration

Integration diagram

At first blush it may appear easy to outline the ethics of business or corporate management for the simple reason that the law outlines such a vast swath of behavior in business.  However, as pointed out by Tarintino and Hynes (2012), “…law and ethics will overlap: what is perceived to unethical will also be illegal. However, in other situations, law and ethics do not overlap – and, in fact, they may even be far apart. In some cases what is deemed to be unethical will be legal and in others, what is illegal may be perceived as ethical.”[18]

So what is the challenge? Meeting the requirements of the law is not only insufficient to the current business environment it can function in way far removed from the cosmological foundation of Christianity.  Preparing students to work in the seams created by business law is the direct charge of Christian education whose ends include the development of leaders capable of working with a personal awareness of the kingdom of God.  As pointed out by Sheller,

Legal and ethical considerations create risks for businesses, and these risks must be avoided, minimized or managed. A practical understanding of law and ethics has thus become a critical element in business decision-making and strategy. Businesses cannot rely exclusively on outside counsel or in-house legal staff to manage all risks. Managers need an understanding of the legal and ethical environments in which they operate.[19]

The development of leaders in Christian education presents yet another opportunity to find common ground in curriculum design for faith integration.

Finding a Common Ground in Curriculum – Leadership

Servant leadership is an orientation to leadership that owns a transparent moral imperative, exercises personal awareness of the impact of leadership behaviors, recognizes the contribution potential of employees, and builds a culture characterized by modeling, mentoring, development, discipline, and fun. Servant leadership engages the essential business activities of vision, structure, profitability, and benevolence in an accessible way to employees, board members, stakeholders, and stockholders.  Interestingly enough the development of servant leadership in the business world did not emerge from Christian Colleges or Universities – it emerged from thoughtful leaders who inherently exercised a Christian cosmological foundation.

Like the practice of ethics, the practice of leadership is exercised in business and the church (non-profit) with equal significance. This makes the subject a significant faith integration point in curriculum and in practice within the academy. Because the concept of servant leadership started with an assumed Christian cosmological foundation its development as a leadership concept and the research conducted in and around its practice provides a rich venue for continued exploration and definition.

Recent scholarly studies on Servant leadership offer a variety of definitions from which to apply servant leadership in practice and to continue research into its viability as a leadership approach.  Consider:

Greenleaf (1977) states that the focus of servant leadership is on others rather than self and on understanding the role of the leader as servant. The servant leader, according to Russell and Stone (2002), takes the position of servant to his or her fellow workers and aims to fulfill the needs of others. Page and Wong (2000) define servant leadership as serving others by working toward their development and well being in order to meet goals for the common good. Another definition that is evident in the servant leadership literature describes servant leadership as “distancing oneself from using power, influence and position to serve self, and instead gravitating to a position where these instruments are used to empower, enable and encourage those who are within one’s circle of influence” (Rude, 2003 in Nwogu, 2004, p.2). Servant leaders trust followers to act in the best interests of the organization and focus on those followers rather than the organizational objectives (Stone, Russell & Patterson, 2004).[20]

Anecdotal evidence confirms the positive impact of servant leadership on organizational success. Alan Mulally, former president and CEO of Ford Motor Company took the helm of the Ford Motor Company in 2006. At that time Ford was losing billions of dollars and was on the brink of bankruptcy. After Mulally stepped in, Ford posted a profit every year since 2009.  When asked about his leadership style, Mulally responded,

At the most fundamental level, it is an honor to serve—at whatever type or size of organization you are privileged to lead, whether it is a for-profit or nonprofit…. Starting from that foundation, it is important to have a compelling vision and a comprehensive plan. Positive leadership—conveying the idea that there is always a way forward—is so important, because that is what you are here for—to figure out how to move the organization forward. Critical to doing that is reinforcing the idea that everyone is included. Everyone is part of the team and everyone’s contribution is respected, so everyone should participate….A big part of leadership is being authentic to who you are, thinking about what you really believe in and behaving accordingly. At Ford, we have a card with our business plan on one side and the behaviors we expect listed on the other. It is the result of 43 years of doing this.[21]

When Ken Melrose (former CEO of Toro) stepped into his role at Toro the company was losing money with sales plummeting from $400 million annually to $200 million annually. The perspective Melrose took to the assignment was one of servant leadership.  Melrose believed in people. He states, “You have to grow good people to be even better people. It’s like growing fine turf. You need to feed (train) them, pull them up in time of need (nurture and motivate them), and basically give them room to grow (empower them). Toro has great people, which makes for a good work environment.”[22]

The changes Melrose initiated at Toro started with a significant reduction of force and a reduction in perks (servant leadership does not mean avoiding difficult realities – conversely it means facing them squarely). Everyone shared the burden of the circumstance including the executive suite. Melrose intentionally exercised servant leadership and created a company culture in which employees know they work for the customers and everyone is empowered to serve the customers.  Did servant leadership work?  Near the end of his service sales at Toro hit $1.4 billion!

In addition to demonstrating servant leadership’s contribution to business success, the theological foundation to servant leadership is easily established. The encounter Jesus had with the ambition of John and James in Matthew 20 sets the stage for understanding servant leadership as the model Jesus encouraged.

Jesus’ response refocused their ambition. James and John were not rebuked for their ambition. Instead they were given a challenge that transformed their ambition from self-serving to serving a purpose in line with the intention of God. In Jesus’ view, leadership was not a means of acquisition, but of stewardship. Jesus was also clear about the cost of leadership, (i.e., “drink the cup”). It is a rare ambition that pictures sacrifice as part of accomplishment. More often our ambition foregoes sacrifice in favor of pursuit of prominence, power, and pleasure. However the formation process of servant leadership includes sacrifice.[23]

My thesis is that without a deliberate focus on the development of a servant leadership model the University inadvertently contributes to the pursuit of prominence, power, and pleasure on the part of graduates who find themselves better prepared in skill and knowledge than their peers to step into leadership roles in business or the church but who may lack a model for effective moral leadership. The ethical question faced by the academy is, what kind of graduates and leaders are we developing? The knowledge trust inherent in the academy summons this kind of stewardship perspective. Additionally, the fact that we are a Christian University beckons an even greater sense of responsibility do everything in our power to help students emerge as men and women who live faith integration in every aspect of their lives.

Developing a curriculum and a cultural practice of servant leadership within the academy goes a long way toward supporting the development of students who are capable of (1) transferring learning to action and (2) acting in a way that indicates faith integration to their values and assumptions.

Next Steps

Others more familiar with the inner working of the academy may have better suggestions for next steps than what I provide below. Regardless I offer these as beginning points to a process of change.

  1. Design/provide a platform for thought development among the faculty. Breakthrough concepts in how students learn as well as faith integration concepts will lead to changes in how course work is managed and engaged. With the multiplication of new learning platforms faculty need input in keeping their educational skills as well as their professional knowledge current.
  2. Adopt a learning centric and faith integration perspective from which department learning outcomes, course syllabi, and student assessments may be critiqued and developed. Given the fact that all knowledge is partial, it should not come as a surprise that constant review of the University’s products should occur. Like number one above this means engaging professors in the University in a way that encourages and provides for much greater collaboration in curriculum/course design and execution.
  3. Review curriculum offerings with the goal of identifying those points of intersection (like ethics or leadership) between programs where greater emphasis may be made in creating common learning and faith integration outcomes.
  4. Review student practicum courses for the degree to which they encourage the development of a learning and faith integration mindset among students. Design new ways to assess student development in faith and learning.

Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

[1] Robert Dubin. “Theory Building in Applied Areas,” Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Marvin D. Dunnette ed. (Chicago, IL: Rand McNally, 1976, pp. 17-39), 22.

[2] David Dockery. “Integrating Faith and Learning in Higher Education.” (The Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, September 20, 2000). Source:  https://www.cccu.org/professional_
; Accessed 3 February 2015.  Dockery tracks the impact of a pietistic view and its impact on education i.e., the ultimate bifurcation of faith and reason which he insists are not in contradiction to one another but in proper tension with one another.

[3] Phil Zuckerman. Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 4.

[4] Dockery 2000.

[5] John B. Miner. Theories of Organizational Behavior (Hinsdale, IL: The Dryden Press, 1980), 3. See Miner’s discussion of the nature of scientific theory.

[6] 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NASB)

[7]  John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000), 9.

[8] 1 Corinthians 12:10 (NASB)

[9] Naive realism: naive realism holds that the view of the world that we derive from our senses is to be taken at face value: there are objects out there in the world, and those objects have the properties that they appear to us to have. As plausible as naive realism may sound, it has serious problems, among which is the problem of the variability of perception.  Differences do arise that are clearly related to the experience and the cultural view of the perceiver. Critical realism: Critical realism theory states that the theory of knowledge, or epistemology, is different form a theory of being, or ontology. There is a reality which exists independent of its human conception. Critical realists believe that there are unobservable events which cause the observable ones; as such, the social world can be understood only if people understand the structures that generate such unobservable events. This is important in the experimental context, because it allows the scientist to distinguish between the event and what causes it.  Of the views this one most matches 1 Corinthians 13:9 of knowing in part. Agnostic realism: any position involving either the denial of an objective reality or the denial that verification-transcendent statements are either true or false. The problem with this view is it cannot itself be validated or verified. It is pure subjectivism in which the construct of the perceiver is the final word on existence since reality is non-verifiable in this view.

[10] Bransford, Brown and Cocking 2000:139.   See the discussion on knowledge centered learning environments and the necessity of providing organized cognitive activity and a structure for knowledge in the learning environment.

[11] Craig E. Johnson. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casing Light or Shadow 3rd. ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2009), xv.

[12] Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer. “Redefining Capitalism” in McKinsey Quarterly (September 2014), 6.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Deuteronomy 8:11-16 (NASB)

[15] Glenn H. Stassen and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). See the discussion by Stassen and Gushee, 420.

[16] Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/distributive%20justice; Accessed 18 November 2014.

[17] Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributive_justice; Accessed 18 November 2014.

[18] John A Tarantino and Katy A. Hynes. “Truth in Ethics: Law v Ethics,” AP&S Ethics Seminar Presentation, May 10, 2012. Source: http://www.apslaw.com/media/article/41_2537_001.pdf; Accessed 18 November 2014.

[19] Source: http://scheller.gatech.edu/degree-programs/undergraduate/courses-curriculum/curriculum-lawethics.html; Accessed 18 November 2014.

[20] David E. Melchar and Susan M. Bosco. “Achieving High Organization Performance through Servant Leadership,” The Journal of Business Inquiry 2010, 9, 1, (http:www.uvu.edu/Woodbury/jbi/volume9), 74-88.

[21] Rik Kirkland. “Leading in the 21st Century: An Interview with Ford’s Alan Mulally,” McKinsey & Company, November 2013.

[22] Source: http://nasba.org/features/ken-melrose-being-a-difference-then-and-now/; Accessed 4 February 2015.

[23] Raymond L. Wheeler. An Inconvenient Power: the Practice of Servant Leadership (Claremont, CA: Unpublished Manuscript, 2013), 11. Also see John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 38. A similar affirmation of the centrality of service in leadership occurs in Matthew 22:25ff. Here Yoder comments, “In none of the accounts where this word is reported does Jesus reprimand his disciples for expecting him to establish some new social order, as he would have had to do if the thesis of the only-spiritual kingdom were to prevail.  He rather reprimands them for having misunderstood the character of the new social order which he does intend to set up.” My observations regarding the events surrounding John and James’ request is similarly understood. It is not drive (ambition) that Jesus seeks to correct as much as it is the character of that ambition. That men or women in leadership roles possess a drive to make a difference is universal what is not universal is their understanding of how Jesus wants to reshape their drive around the values of the Kingdom of God so that both their approach to leadership and their ethical decision-making are transformed.

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Leadership – it depends on what you mean

starting pointSome of what people write for or against the concept of leadership suffers from the same malady – they assume rather than define the term “leadership.” I read a series of posts between friends of mine this weekend that illustrate the point and prompt me to write my own thoughts.

One group argued that the term leadership is a tired and overused concept that did more damage than good. They contended that efforts to train leaders undermined the necessity of getting things done in an organization. They preferred to train ministers whose character exhibits clear and growing virtues and whose behavior demonstrates the ability to name and address problems and opportunities without being directed to do so. Their argument inferred that “leaders” are little more than prima donnas whose only real aim is the consolidation of power and the exercise of privilege. Not only does their argument hinge on a straw man assumption of a negative view of leadership it fails to define their new term “minister.”

The other group argued that leadership was critical every organization. They contend that the failure to train “leaders” undermines an organization’s innovative drive and diminishes its execution. They prefer to train leaders who are capable of identifying and addressing problems, empowering and mobilizing people around specific goals, developing new capabilities in others, and recognizing new opportunities without being directed to do so. Their argument infers that without developing leaders, positions of power in the organization become dominated by self-serving political hacks whose concern is the consolidation of power and the expansion of privilege.   This too relies on a straw man argument that fails to define terms.

Both sides of the argument get at the same point – prima donnas, power mongers, hubris dominated stuffed shirts, and political hacks undermine morale, diminish employee engagement, and dilute the organization’s ability to perform.

Defining terms is important because of the variety of insights leadership studies seem to generate. One author lamented that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are people writing about it. I suppose this lack of uniformity in nomenclature might suggest a failure to define what leadership is. Or, it may show the situational influence that is part of defining the real work of leadership. Organizations exist in a variety of: development stages, market stages, demographic situations, and cultures. Given the wide number of variables and the required emphasis needed to discuss them effectively the definitions of what leadership looks like will vary.

I have found several definitions of leadership helpful in bringing clarity to discussions like the ones I see my friends engaging. Northouse (2008) attempts a definition of leadership that is often helpful. For him leadership is (a) a process, (b) that involves influence, (c) occurring within a group context, and (d) involving goal attainment.

One of my mentors defines leadership in a church context as: (a) with a God-given capacity and (b) a God-given responsibility to influence (c) a specific group of God’s people (d) toward God’s purposes for the group. (Clinton 1989:20)

The Apostle Paul offered his own word for leadership: προїστάμενς; nom. sing. masc. part. pres. mid. προῒστημι, met., To set over, appoint with authority; to preside, govern, superintend. Includes the idea of protection, care, and attention toward those for whom one is responsible. (Paul—Rom. 12:8)

Anderson at the University of Chicago gives an even broader definition for leadership i.e., the capacity of a human community to shape its future – a collective versus person.

Your organization does need leadership. So, before attempting to reinvent the wheel spend time thinking about how to define the deficiencies you see in human behavior.  A role of power does not equate to a de facto exercise of leadership. In my opinion once we decouple the idea of leadership from the roles or positions an organization uses to describe its coordination and control functions it frees itself to reconsider these functions in a way that leads to more effective behaviors. More importantly taking the time to define your terms will help you avoid the pendulum swings of popular thinking and their inherent waste of resource. Organizations need leadership. Leadership is not the only need an organization faces.


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2014 in review – Thank you for Visiting

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Curiosity still leads me – so I started a company to engage it

whySomeone recently asked me why I started Leadership Praxis. I started Leadership Praxis because I am curious about what makes leaders effective. Leadership is a tough job – I know, I have led administrative departments, sales divisions, operations, congregations, international programs, and regional church planting efforts. The challenges are the same for leaders in any field of endeavor.

My curiosity led me back to school and in the process started a company that allowed me to encourage and coach leaders as a trusted advisor.  I get to think about, research, and observe leadership from the front row of life. I get to integrate and synthesize faith, organizational development and leadership development.

This is why the word praxis is part of the name of the company. The word praxis signifies ethical action in a political context, or purposeful human conduct, or behavior guided by purposes, intentions, motives, morals, emotions, and values as well as the facts or science.  Praxis implies a duality in action: (1) of consciousness and reflection and (2) of action and commitment. Praxis is far more than reflexive or mechanical response that so often characterize modern management theory – it is conscious, reflective, intentional action of the kind that characterizes highly effective leaders.

The ideals of the word praxis capture the character of service that is so important to leadership. In my view serving others is the proper domain of leadership and of leadership development.  Servant leaders use power, influence, and authority with awareness that avoids the trap of toxicity.

I am married to Janice. We are celebrating 40 years together. We have raised a family.  Work/life balance? I understand those tensions as well and know that the challenge is not answered in trying to balance life and work (something that is impractical) but in remaining present and attentive.

I have authored some great failures and successes.

I love working with leaders.

I understand the pressures, challenges, opportunities, risks and motivations.

I wanted a coaching company that synthesized all my experience in leadership and life in a way that provided other leaders with a safe place to be transparent and gain clarity and focus.   So, I started a company designed to do just that and so far the adventure has been rewarding, challenging, and enriching. I love what I do.

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Do You Act Like a Leader or a Hamster?


Activities that Characterize Servant Leaders and Amplify Team Potency[1]

John stood at the door of my office, “Ray, how are you doing?”

I let out a sigh that I had not meant to express. “John, I am stressed. I am not sure that I am being effective. I am so busy I’m overwhelmed,” I confessed. I really felt like a hamster running on a wheel going nowhere.

“I see,” said John. “You are working like a jack of all trades.” After an awkwardly long pause he concluded, “And master of none.”

Impotent expressed how I felt that day and John, one of our board members, had observed this in me. John’s real question for me that day was, “I see you working hard, but are you doing the right work?”

I had no way to answer John’s question that day. As we talked it became more clear to me that the act of leading required that I turn insight, moral commitments, and ethical decision-making into measurable action that inspired others to engage planning, execution, and reflection to carry out specific ends and create a healing community in which people experience team potency.

Team potency is the collective belief the team can succeed that influences a team to start action, exert effort to reach goals, and sustain their effort over time. Team potency is the result of authentic leadership like that exhibited by servant leaders.[2] Servant leaders build an environment where people experience self-determination, security, and trust, enabling them to focus their time and abilities on accomplishing goals and on creatively solving problems and responding to opportunities.[3]

Some leaders, like me the day John dropped by, are so absorbed in the stuff that has to get done they fail to do the work that only they can do. So how do leaders amplify the team potency of their people? How do they avoid developing unhealthy leader/follower relationships or unhealthy dependencies that undermine delegation and true team potency? The answer rests on focusing on those activities that contribute to sustained effectiveness and not the flurry of activity many leaders get caught in that look more like a drowning man flailing in the water than a champion swimmer working toward a gold medal.

People rightly expect servant leaders to support the personal and organizational margins needed to sustain effectiveness. Servant leaders recognize that they work in three spheres of activity: (1) actions internal to the leader; (2) actions that involve the follower; and (3) actions engaging the servant leader and the follower.

These activities help leaders rejuvenate, refresh, and review what they are doing in a way that keeps them focused. They define the way a leader spends his or her time.[4] These activities are especially important aspects of the leader’s life when he or she engages the tasks inherent in leading an organization. Without a clear guide to healthy action leaders run a greater risk of task saturation, weariness, and burnout.  So what are these critical leadership tasks?


Withdrawal is the ability to exercise systematic neglect i.e., the ability to differentiate between the important and the less important and the urgent from the important. It is sometimes referred to metaphorically as going to the balcony. The ability to withdrawal is often the best way to “changing the game” in situations where conversation has disintegrated to a war of power or fixed positions.  I start with this activity because without the commitment to withdrawal leaders often find themselves blindsided by political posturing, competitive pressures, and changing customer preferences they would have seen if they had taken the time to reflect. Why is this important?

The first rule of organizational power is that the person with the greatest power wins.  Servant leaders who experience conflict with their boards or an influential stakeholder in the organization must learn to change the game or face the loss inflicted by someone with more power.  Servant leaders in business who experience conflict with their boss or another department must also learn to change the game or face termination because they don’t have the right combination of power.

Changing the game is not a one-time effort but a series of repeated efforts that begins to turn the pattern of behavior away from a win/loose orientation to a joint problem-solving exercise. [5]  It is a necessary skill of leadership and one continuously practiced by Jesus cf., Matthew 14:23 and Mark 1:35-37, where Jesus withdraws from the crowd to pray; Matthew 21: 23-27 where Jesus reframed the question of authority.  In all of Jesus’ interactions with hostile groups a wealth of information exists describing how to change the game. It behooves all servant leaders to sharpen their political skills.


Foresight emerges from the ability of the leader to understand the lessons of the past (both historical lessons and lessons from his/her own experience), the realities of the present and the likely consequences of a decision in the future.  Many leaders do not want to look at the unvarnished present.  However, without a clear view of the current realities, future thinking may dissolve into hubris and a quixotic pursuit of fantasy and not hope. Other leaders remain ignorant of the past or have failed to reflect on the past.  The foresight of a servant leader can have the prophetic insight expressed as intuition. This ability to understand consequences and see opportunity brings courage and confidence to followers and helps them accepts responsibility for their own actions.


Awareness looks two directions; it is self-awareness (the leader’s awareness of their own strengths and needs and potential stress points) and situational awareness.

In situational awareness, it is the leader’s ability to sense, see and analyze what is going on around him or her with different frames. By frame I mean the mental models by which people make sense of the world around them. When the servant leader assesses the organization the use of four different frames helps to limit blind spots in the servant leader’s assessment and perspective. The practice of seeing through each of these four frames is a way to exercise moral reasoning and strategic thinking.[6]  These frames include:

  • Structural: an understanding of how social and organizational structures work as a whole system. What are the hierarchies of power and tasks needed in the organization?
  • Relational: an understanding of how interpersonal relationships often work together, such as in family systems theory.
  • Political: an understanding of how power is used and valued within an organization or social group.
  • Symbolic: an understanding of the meanings assigned inanimate objects that are used to short-hand a groups’ relationship to important values, such as the way buildings are decorated or in symbols of authority like academic regalia or boardroom decor.

In exercising personal awareness the servant leader seeks to know how he or she approaches different aspects of relationship. Everyone has three layers to who they are: their visible and usual behavior, the need that must be met for their usual behavior to be useful, and the stress that results when needs are not met.  Aware leaders use their stress points to recognize when their needs are not being met and then exercise vulnerability to discuss those needs to support their most effective self and to avoid the knee-jerk responses that emanate from stress that end up damaging relationships with others.


The act of listening allows the leader to find the needs of the group and the true barriers the group experiences in the movement toward accomplishing their aims. Listening keeps the leader from seeing situations through their own bias and thus acting prematurely, disproportionately, or erroneously.  The activity of listening is asking questions until one understands the intent of the communicator.  Listening helps clarify values, fears, and needs while uncovering new perspectives.

Listening is also an act of prayer – when used in prayer listening spends deliberate time remaining silent toward God with attentiveness to God’s still small voice that is God’s intimate communication with friends.


Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. It is clear in the life of Jesus and precedes many of his miraculous works.  Empathy is visible in the phrase, “…and being moved with compassion.” For example:

Mk 9:22; the demonic father’s request for compassion (sometimes translated “pity”).

Mt 15:32; Jesus announced his compassion for the hungry crowd.

Mt 20:29-34; Jesus had compassion on the blind man.

The list goes on.  The simple fact is that servant leaders act because they love people.  There is a great joy in loving others as well as a significant vulnerability to pain and disappointment. Servant leaders embrace both joy and pain.


Servant leaders have a profound opportunity to heal follower’s hurts, disappointments, and brokenness resulting from being around toxic leaders.  Healing is making people whole and does not happen overnight.

Rita, a manager in one company I worked with, had become trapped in psychologically and spiritually in an affair with one of our department heads. She told me one day in tears that her promotion to manager was a quid pro quo result of an ultimatum to have sex to advance in the company or be terminated for poor performance. As a single mom termination was untenable to her. The warping that occurred in Rita’s life was painful to hear. After reporting the offense and after the proper investigation and response by the company Rita remained in our employment. Rita and I had many long conversations that helped her over time begin to untie the Gordian knot of shame and guilt and to step up to her need for training and development so she could actually succeed as a manager. Part of the challenge for Rita as she became healthier was the need to re-approach authority and leaders with  a new sense of self and not the whipping post her former department had induced fear, shame, and guilt.


Conceptualization is the ability to see the big picture and to act on more than the day-to-day realities that engage people’s energies. The ability to conceptualize sees threats and opportunities in the long-term and uses this orientation to keep short-term decisions moving in the right direction for the health of the organization.  It is the ability to name core principles (values) of operation and structure that allows others to also frame their daily events in the big picture. It is the ability to see the future of the group or organization in terms of an inspiring picture of the future and to invite people to contribute to this preferred future by their actions.  Conceptualization sees a future of promise and possibility and lays hold of that promise to influence and bring change to the present realities.


Persuasion is the ability to convince others of a decision or action or show a previously unseen need so that people accept an idea as their own. It is the opposite of coercion. Questions are a significant tool in persuasion because questions, properly framed, can help others understand that their current views may not be adequate for the future far faster than trying to describe inadequacies. Stories also help. Nathan persuaded David to repent for his sin with Bathsheba with a story (2 Samuel 12:1-7).  Steve Jobs persuaded his early partners at Apple to work like slaves for a vision of the future (he also manipulated and threatened – neither quality is one that can be used with effectiveness over time). While not a paragon of servant leadership Jobs’ ability to inspire by story far outstripped is technical expertise and on his better days out shined his manipulation. Persuasion happens with groups or people. Persuasion is an ability every servant leader must humbly develop.


Execution is the link between vision and results. It is the ability to align actions in such a way that the group achieves what they set out to do. Execution is the ability of defining a course from a series of options (seeing what is, what is not and what could be), leading to a specific goal that maintains a competitive advantage or overcomes specific opposition, to successfully meet an end.  Part of defining a course of options rests in knowing what outcomes should characterize the work of servant leadership. Jesus described what to expect in servant leadership when he said;

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to Preach the Gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”[7]

Characterizing the aims of execution either in the church or in business can start with Jesus’ description and then move toward how to apply this to specific settings. Servant leaders keep three things in mind:

  • Execution is a discipline and integral to strategy
  • Execution is the major job of the servant leader
  • Execution must be a core element of the organization’s culture

If we dare to execute on what we really believe all heaven could break loose. To encourage a culture of execution in my last pastorate, I had small placards made for everyone’s computer monitor that read, “Just do it!” Some people thought I had borrowed the slogan of the Nike Company when in fact I borrowed Nike’s slogan to point the team to the epistle of James who wrote, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”[8]  Every leader understands two things about execution.  First it is far easier to direct and develop people who have hope for the future of the type Jesus aims at in Luke 4. Second, that it is far easier to direct and develop others who already have a bias toward action like that described by James than it is to redirect or develop people who have become accustomed to inaction and blame shifting.

Building Community

A community is a group of people with a common characteristic or interest in living together within a larger society.  The servant leader works to build a sense of community at work or in the congregation.  It is community that characterized the church of Acts and drew people to the church (Acts 4:32-5:6).


Servant leaders show the ability to influence or command thought, opinion, and behavior. They do this from a place legitimized by those who follow them because followers see leadership character and actions that end in clarity, healing, mission and flourishing. This is the essence of authority.

Servant leaders put their values (virtues or ethical decision-making) to work in actions that are internal to themselves, actions that involve followers and actions that engage the leader and the followers. Servant leaders understand that it is the application of values in daily activities that make up work and thus build something great that stands the test of time.

  1. Rate your use of the activities of a servant leader. Are you engaging the right activities in the use of your time and resources? Think about: withdrawal, foresight, awareness, listening, empathy, healing, conceptualization, persuasion, execution and building community.
  2. In what ways have you nurtured authority in your life when exerting power would have been faster or easier?
  3. Think about how people legitimize your leadership. What specific observations about you have they made?
  4. If you cannot answer number 2 ask some of those who follow you to give you feedback on what you are doing well as a leader and what you might improve.
  5. In light of the insights you glean from either question 2 or 3, how to you feel about the affirming words or in what way does affirmation help you develop as a leader?
  6. In light of the feedback you have received what help do you need to ask for from others to continue to grow as a servant leader?

[1] This article adapted from Raymond L Wheeler. “The Servant Leader’s Unique Authority – Focusing on Influence not Power” in An Inconvenient Power: the Practice of Servant Leadership (Claremont, CA: Unpublished Manuscript, 2013), 56-80. Used with Permission.

[2] Arménio Rego, Andreia Vitória, Ana Magalhães, Neuza Riberio, Miguel Pina e Cunha. “Are Authentic Leaders Associated with More Virtuous, Committed and Potent Teams?” The Leadership Quarterly 24 (2013):62

[3] Rego et al, 65.

[4] Greenleaf 2002, 32. Greenleaf identified many of these same behavioral characteristics. I have adapted his work and added my own research to the descriptions of these traits as well as later synthesizing them with the leader’s tasks see Chapter 4.

[5] William Ury. Getting Past No (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1993), 13.

[6] Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership 3rd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 12-19.

[7] Luke 4: 18-19 (NASB)

[8] James 1:22 (NASB)

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The Practice of Servant Leadership is an Ethical Exercise

It All Started With a New Friend

questionAn attractive young woman, Samantha, started attending Sunday services in my first congregation. I noticed her one Sunday in our second service – she appeared deeply engaged in every aspect of Sunday morning. She asked questions of those around her – exhibiting deep curiosity and deep pain.  She was searching.  She attended for several weeks and then she indicated that she wanted to meet Christ.  Those who had journeyed with her made this introduction and her response to Christ deeply moved the entire group.

Several weeks later I noticed Samantha on my appointment schedule but did not recognize who she was.  “Becky,” I called out from my office into the lobby, “who is Samantha on the appointment scheduled for ten o’clock?”

Becky walked into my office and said, “You know that attractive young woman who started attending several weeks ago and then met Christ?”

“Do you mean the woman with the long brown hair who was so earnest in her search of faith?” I asked.

“Yes,” Becky said, “that is Samantha. She has some questions about what it means now to be a Christian.”

The time came for the appointment and after introductions I asked how I could help. Samantha talked about her search for meaning, how she happened to meet some people in the congregation and arrived on a Sunday to investigate.  She described meeting Christ personally in faith and she seemed to light up with joy in talking about her new sense of purpose, release from the pain of her past, and hope for the future. I was thrilled until she came to her question – then I was dumbfounded.

“So,” she transitioned, “now that I know Christ, do I have surgery again and return to being a man or do I remain a woman?”

I was not ready for Samantha’s question. I found myself floundering in my own biases, ignorance, and convictions without a way to structure and organize a response much less find the root of my struggle.  Was I even asking the right questions in my mind?  I relate this experience in every class on servant leadership when I talk about how leaders grapple with ethical reasoning.  I ask the students what they would say to Samantha.  What would you say?  What kind of ethical reasoning would you use? Is the model you use the most effective for the issues involved?  Does the model you use result in direction for the question Samantha raised?  Does the model you use effectively bring you and Samantha closer to Christ and the image of God?  Or are you unable to even frame a model? Remember that leadership capacity directly correlates to a leader’s awareness of his or her mental/theological models, biases, experiences, and cultural points of view.

Samantha’s question illustrates the impact of the preserving and purifying effect of God’s grace – she entertain new questions about her future as a result of engaging Jesus as savior and Lord. Samantha’s question also pushed me to step up in my ethical reasoning. Leaders cannot ignore moral issues. As Northouse writes:

…leadership is not an amoral phenomenon. Leadership is a process of influencing others; it has a moral dimension that distinguishes it from other types of influence, such as coercion or despotic control.[1]

Ethical reasoning and decision-making address moral issues. Ethical reasoning and decision-making depends on the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior and define right and wrong.  Generally speaking, there are three approaches to ethical reasoning.  These approaches divide into two domains namely guidelines to conduct and guidelines to character.  Ethical models offer a way of talking about the character and conduct of leadership in something other than esoteric terms.

Guidelines to conduct include:

  1. Teleological Theories e., working from consequences or ends
    • Ethical Egoism: an individual should act to create the greatest good in himself or herself i.e., do what’s best for yourself.
    • Utilitarianism: an individual should act to create the greatest number of good for the greatest number of people.
  2. Deontological Theories, working from a sense of duty or moral law. Deontological theories subsume egoism and utilitarianism under the necessity of fulfilling moral law.

Guidelines to character includes:

  1. Virtue-based Theories focus on who the leader is as a person. The leaders strive to live out core virtues such as:
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Self-control
  • Honesty
  • Sociability
  • Modesty
  • Fairness
  • Justice
  • Substitute Galatians 5:22-23 for this list of virtues.

I Just Do What the Bible Says – Really?

Ethical models are attempts to explain in simpler terms the complex dynamic of human behavior and thus aid in decision-making. Often students in my leadership courses reject these ethical models as though they were somehow anti-biblical. Their response to Samantha’s question is, “I simply do what the Bible says.” What becomes clear as I ask questions of what the students mean by, “doing what the Bible says,” is that they are treating complex situations through an ethical lens, but are unable to explain or define the lens they used. The problem with this is twofold.

First, an inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision typically results in blind spots stemming from aspects of a decision or situation rooted in the leader’s unconscious frame of reference. Blind spots contribute to poor decisions and it is poor decisions that set up inconsistent and toxic behavior by leaders.  In the Samantha story my students typically want to debate the merits of gender identification and gender surgery.  Typical, they missed Samanatha’s question because they did not hear it. Their inability to show the basis for their convictions results in tirades against moral collapse in the nation.  Such responses are not helpful nor do they give leadership.

Second, the inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision makes it non-reproducible. How do new leaders assess the situation to arrive at an outcome consistent to the work of God and the greatest good?  If a leader cannot train others in how to think then they will not develop leaders; they will develop super followers who do what they are told and nothing more. Leaders must have an ability to manage complexity in decision-making and in analysis. The need for ethical reasoning in a story like that of Samantha is clearly evident. But what model?

A deontological model would be like closing the gate after the cows got out. A deontological model asks her to repent for actions already committed – which by the way she had.  But now what? Is it ok to shift one’s physical attributes to match one’s gender identification? Is the way we define gender in the first place ethically and theologically sound? I often have students create a list of male and female attributes. I then have them share their lists.  I teach in a university that is broadly diverse culturally speaking. The discussions become intense at multiple levels as differing cultural views play out. But, what shakes my students up most is that I have them take that same dimorphic list and mark the characteristics that describe Christ. Consistently to their great surprise Jesus demonstrates characteristics they assign as both male and female. What is right in the discussion? Where does your answer start? Perhaps Samantha’s challenge would be completely different had she met Christ before her surgery. But even then, what kind of ethical reasoning would have helped her think about her gender identification?

A virtue model could shed light on how to live going forward. What kind of character should she show as a believer?  But this also does not answer her question about surgery. Is it possible that she could live a spirit-filled life as a woman who has come to know Christ? What is at issue in a virtue model is how she decides to move forward and the degree to which her behaviors reflect the character of Christ.

A teleological model might explain why the future held promise for Samantha. She was not rejected by Christ but grafted into the body of Christ with the gifts and talents that are hers by creation and redemption. Regardless of how she decided to act or not act on surgery she gained a purpose in life and meaning in life in her encounter with Christ. Does her existence as a woman (formerly a man) rob her of the imago Dei that makes us human? No.

Grappling with what being a disciple looked like for Samantha used all three models of ethical reasoning.

Ethical Models in Biblical Case Studies

What if we apply these models of ethical reasoning to biblical case studies? What do we learn?

Character or virtue ethics works off the notion that good people make good decisions.  The strength of this approach is its ability to consider various situational factors in determining what makes for a good decision.  The ambiguity leaders often experience requires an approach to ethical decision-making that takes account of the situation.  For example: while the Jewish Scriptures are very clear about not worshiping other gods, the prophet Elisha faced an interesting cross-cultural ethical question from Naaman after being healed of leprosy and made a confession of faith in the God of Israel. While Naaman committed himself to only worship the God of Israel, he was often required to go with the king in idolatrous state rituals. Elisha apparently recognized the shift in Naaman’s perspective and acknowledged that Naaman’s position could fulfill this role without compromise to his faith.[2]

Elisha used character ethics in sending Naaman off to live a different kind of life and leadership expression than he had prior to his meet with the living God.  Naaman’s healing from leprosy would not be unnoticed. It placed him squarely in a discussion about the reality and efficacy of God’s works. From the stand point of the law of Israel (a deontological view), there was no room for Elisha’s response.  But notice, Naaman had already committed to worship only the God of Israel. Naaman had to deal with the complexities of living in a culture that had no frame of reference to the law of Israel other than Naaman’s own character.

Elisha does not express a use teleological ethics specifically.  However, we can analyze the text from this perspective as well. The ethical end in this situation was the placement of a living witness to the power of the God of Israel in a culture in which God was not yet known as God was in Israel. From a teleological perspective Elisha’s blessing infers a teleological utilitarianism in that a concern for the impact of Naaman’s life changing encounter on the populace around the king’s court was in view.  If Naaman’s question was motivated by mere teleological egoism, Elisha certainly could have counseled against participation in idolatrous rites.

Virtue ethics allow for situational flexibility. Situational flexibility or consideration is helpful in many cases even though it can lead to relativism and subjectivity. How is this weakness avoided?  Virtue ethics requires a guide to decide vice from virtue. Aristotle first evaluated actions or virtue as the mean between excess and deficiency.  Admittedly, this does not escape the problem of subjectivity or moral relativity. Aristotle used the mores of society to anchor his definition of virtue.  Obviously, social standards slide sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency on earlier positions (just think about how we define vulgarity today versus how it was defined in the 1950s).   However, using Aristotle’s model is still helpful if we allow a relationship to God to be our starting point.  For Aristotle, a virtue expressed excessively or a virtue expressed deficiently, ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice.  For example, what if a parent refused to discipline a child out of a claim of love?  Would we say that love ceased to be a virtue in this instance and became a vice because it became excessive?  Or we could say that discipline ceased to be a virtue and became a vice because it was deficient?

Second, Aristotle observed a variety of situational impacts by describing voluntary and involuntary acts.  Voluntary actions are those a person chooses to do.  Involuntary actions are something a person is forced to do by some outside coercion. For example; murder is a vice.  But what if an individual was forced to commit some vice to save their friends and family be killed in front of them?  Would the vice then become a virtue because it resulted in a greater good in sight as an involuntary action?

Look again at the case of Naaman – the king coerced his participation in ritual idol sacrifice yet Naaman did not compromise his faith. Contrast the situation of Naaman with that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego who faced a furnace for refusing to take part in ritual idol worship.[3]  What are the differences between the situation Naaman faced and that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego?  How did their situation impact the decisions they made?  The context of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego is different. Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego lived within the covenant community of Israel in exile. This exile was the result of a failure to stay in relationship with God. In this situation, the test of covenant integrity summoned a deontological declaration that the core values of covenant with God cannot and would not be violated.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego used a deontological foundation for their decisions. The strength of deontological ethical decisions is that they work to simplify right and wrong – deontological perspectives help to clarify complex situations and give a starting point that avoids the slide into subjectivity. The Decalogue (e.g., the Ten Commandments) provides an illustration of a deontological foundation.  Laws and regulations for example offer a deontological starting point for decisions in business.

The law provides some guidance but cannot anticipate every situation so that even in the clarity of the law people must still make moral decisions supplemented by something more than a deontological commitment.

Aristotle noted that involuntary actions must be qualified as meeting some greater good, such as avoiding a worse evil to be considered a virtue not a vice, or if not a virtue a pardonable act and not an unpardonable one.  Before we dismiss Aristotle as being simply an ancient Greek out of touch with good biblical reasoning, we need to consider another well-known event in the Scripture.  Mordecai’s destiny words to Esther are often quoted without regard to the fact that in Esther’s case she was involuntarily placed in the Harem of Ahasuerus. Her presence in the harem and the favor bestowed on her after her courageous confrontation of Haman and his plan for ethnic cleansing is considered a virtuous act of faith and is celebrated in the feast of Purim.[4]

The case of Mordecai and Esther also illustrates a proper use of a teleological ethical egoism (an individual should act to great the greatest good in himself or herself, i.e., do what’s best for yourself). Consider that upon her entry into the harem of Ahasuerus, Mordecai counseled Esther to keep her ethnic identity secret.[5]  Had Esther not done this, it is unlikely that she would have lived to be in the place she was to expose Haman’s plot of ethnic cleansing.  Mordecai understood the banal character of evil.  Discussions of ethical decision-making are often derailed by the inability to acknowledge the reality of evil. Mordecai could have held a firm line and told Esther to reveal everything about herself out of a misguided definition of integrity. Esther never denied her identity – however it turns out that the timing of her admission meant the difference between death and salvation.   When the time came to declare her ethnic identity and act for forestall Haman’s genocidal plot Mordecai used a teleological ethic to encourage Esther’s intervention. Look at how Mordecai framed the situation,

…Do not imaging that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?[6]

Mordecai not only appeals to a teleological ethic but emphasizes the need for Esther to take responsibility as a leader to serve her people. Reviewing stories like that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego or Mordecai and Esther illustrates how the use of theological reflection.

Sound Ethical Reasoning Consists of Three Interactive Components

The point is that a model like Aristotle’s is helpful yet limited in that it does not reflect the impact of God’s revelation which serves as an anchor to limit moral decision-making from devolving into an exercise in subjectivity. The exercise of ethical reasoning by servant leaders attentive to God’s self revelation requires a leader’s self awareness in three interactive components: theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience.

Theological reflection is the anchor that continually refocuses and sharpens the moral reasoning of a servant leader so that she or he avoids the trap of subjectivity and the haze of situational overload. Theological reflection assumes that the use of the Scripture requires decisions about the mode of ethical discourse contained in Scripture. In other words, when we read the Scripture it is important to differentiate whether the text has:

  • Rules: direct commands or prohibitions (deontological approach).
  • Principles: general frameworks of moral consideration e.g., Mark 12:28-31(teleological and virtue approach).
  • Paradigms: stories or summary accounts modeling exemplary or reprehensible conduct (blend of approaches).
  • Perceptual categories: symbols by which we interpret reality e.g., nature of human condition or character of God or kingdom reign of God.

These various categories of literature each offer a different kind of biblical warrant that function authoritatively in making moral decisions. A leader’s formation as a servant leader requires utilizing a mode of appeal and sources of authority.  (A warrant is a justification for an action or a belief).

Worldview. Consciously or unconsciously people formulate a grid by which they make particular ethical decisions that blend their cultural perspectives/traditions. A worldview is how a person sees or understands the world in which he or she lives. Servant leaders work to make their worldview assumptions, allegiances, and values explicit. Servant leaders understand that the process of discipleship is a process of transformation and learning and that some of their deeply held cultural values or perceptions may in fact work against the kingdom of God. Assumptions, allegiances, and values of a worldview defined:

  • Assumptions: a fact or statement taken for granted. For example many in the western world, “…assume that the only personal beings in a given room are the ones we can see, we are following a worldview assumption taught us as we learned our culture.”[7]
  • Allegiances: the loyalties that define what is important for example: family, job, friends, country, organization, and etc.
  • Values: something intrinsically valuable or desirable and useful and important for example: freedom, loyalty, high mobility, interpersonal competitiveness or interdependence.

Personal experience generates the practice needed to refine or develop. Personal experience includes: the conceptualization of self, experience of social change, family history, and lessons learned or avoided in the consequences connected to decisions and actions. Personal experience does something with the feedback generated by action. Feedback accepted creates a learning cycle. Feedback rejected creates a gap between behavior and the consequences of behavior as illustrated in Figure 1.

Engaging ethical reasoning with a conscious awareness of the interaction between theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience expands a leader’s capacity to manage complexity. When a leader exercises awareness the possibility of change through learning occurs. The way theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience interact provides a mental model for interpreting situations. A mental model is a unique and personal generalization, mental picture, or image that influences how one understands the world and takes action. The importance of defining one’s mental model rests in the fact that learning does not take place without a conscious awareness. See Figure 1.

In Figure 1 the mental model (the interaction of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience) results in a moral decision. When the process of ethical reasoning is conscious a person moves from decision to recognizing the outcome of their decision. The outcome allows responsible reflection to decide whether the outcome was desirable or undesirable. It is important to see that regardless of the outcome the feedback loop illustrated by the solid line process results in learning. Learning results in a realignment of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience to account for new data.

Figure 1: Ethical Decision Making Grid

Wheeler Ethical Decision Model

Conversely if the process of ethical reasoning is unconscious, the chance of working out of bias and blind spots amplifies and the risk of becoming a toxic leader grows. Figure 1 illustrates the risk of blind or unconscious action in dotted line loop titled, “externalized loop.” This process avoids analyzing the outcome of a decision and results in a failure to learn. Instead of accepting responsibility for the outcomes generated by one’s decision or behavior this person fixates on events outside themselves as either the reason for success or failure. A leader in this situation would simply condemn Samantha and leave her with few options to move forward in her life other than existing in some second class state.

A person who lives in a disconnection between their mental model and the outcome of their own behavior and decisions creates a learning gap. This gap contributes to the process of denial and the development of a mental model that effectively insulates the leader from the consequences of his or her behaviors and decisions in their own mind. Notice the gap between the dotted line loop and the mental model in use represented by the three interactive boxes (theological reflection, personal experience, and worldview). This illustrates how a leader can insist on the same ineffective action or perspective repeatedly despite a negative result obvious to those outside that leader’s mental model.

For servant leaders the ethical decision-making process always results in reflection about the outcomes of decisions and behaviors as well as the process that generates the decisions and behaviors in the first place. As is clear in Figure 1 the outcomes of any particular decision or behavior either confirm and/or challenge our mental models. Hence, feedback is extremely important.  Feedback, whether positive or negative, is the essence of a learning process that sees the outcomes of decisions in an exercise of intentional reflection. Reflection considers how the servant leader made a decision in the first place, and the degree to which it is consistent to one’s ethical commitments and the degree to which Scripture forms one’s ethical commitments.

Feedback is also important to recognize because it represents cultural, familial or organizational norms. The summons to live together as resident aliens even within our own cultural setting is a summons to engage the world around us from the perspective of God’s working. This perspective can set up cross-currents with the moral assumptions and value choices of our own culture or of our organizational culture.  But more importantly, the summons to live as resident aliens allows us to use a wider perspective in our ethical reasoning.


Making moral and effective judgments based on a process of ethical decision-making is unavoidable in leadership. But more, ethical decision-making provides a means for early intervention to forestall either personal or organizational disaster.

Ethical decision-making is a process of responsible action based on explicit moral imperatives and values requiring that servant leaders be capable of explicitly defining the basis of their ethical reasoning.

Samantha did not answer the question of whether to have surgery or not in our time together. She did understand that the reconciliation she experienced with God was contagious and provided a basis for her to hope she could be reconciled to her parents. She returned home and began to work through what it meant to be a believer reconciled and transformed by the grace of God. How do you make ethical and moral decisions?

[1]Peter G. Northouse. Leadership Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 313.

[2] 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[3] Daniel 3:1-30 relates the incident of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego and their refusal to worship a golden statute set up by Nebuchadnezzer.

[4] Esther 4:14.

[5] Esther 2:10.

[6] Esther 4:13-14 (NASB)

[7] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 11.

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Start Here: Where Does God Fit into Your Thinking as a Leader?

starting pointI got together with a new friend the other night – we met recently at an event and decided to get together and explore the possibility of friendship (you know that dance that occurs when you meet someone who seems interesting and you decide to spend focused time with them to check your first impressions). In the course of our conversation we talked about how we came to faith in Christ. Both of us came to faith from different directions, he had no family connection to church but stumbled into an encounter with some vibrant Christians who demonstrated God’s love.  I grew up in the church and stumbled into an encounter with Christians who showed me how to know God personally.

In my journey I didn’t really have a quest toward a specific faith – I had questions. I was in the first grade when I asked a question that set a tone of how I approach faith. The teacher described the miracles that occurred in the life of Elijah the prophet. The story intrigued me.  I asked, “Why don’t these things happen today?”

The teacher obviously flustered said, “Raymond, wait here until I get the pastor.” (Adults used my full name as a sign of their elevated agitation level, an insight I learned from my mom who usually followed the use of my full name with a litany of my offenses and in ultra serious violations a promise that she would recite my offenses to my father who would then deal with me accordingly.)

Knowing I had not done anything more than ask a question and not understanding the agitation I saw in the teacher I simply waited for the arrival of the pastor who could apparently answer my question.

The pastor arrived and pulled me aside from the class to the doorway, “Young man,” he said, “What did you say to your teacher?”

I remember being surprised at the intensity of his question.  I repeated the Bible story of the day and my question, “Why don’t these things happen today?”

The pastor got the same flustered look the teacher had and said, “You wait here until I get your father.”

I was really surprised by this response and thought, “my dad knows?” We had never discussed this at home but my dad was a knowledgeable guy – a scientist and engineer so I waited for dad to arrive.

Dad looked agitated, that was not a good sign.  He marched up to where I was standing, now in the hallway, and said, “What did you say to the pastor?”

I repeated the Bible story and my question, “Why don’t these things happen today?”  At that point my dad heeled around toward the pastor and they engaged in a lively discussion the nature of which was over my head as a first grader. The net result was that we left that church never to return and went to another.  On the way home from church that morning my dad attempted to answer my question with an explanation that I didn’t quite follow – but at least he engaged the question.

Why do we as leaders stop engaging the question?  I get it, really I do. Life throws reality at us in a way that feels like a little league player put into the batter’s in front of Clayton Kershaw’s 97 MPH fast ball.[i] It’s not a pitch it’s a missile. As leaders we end up with a litany of barriers, obstacles, and disappointments all of which lead to the conclusion that not much is going to happen – the conclusion itself seems confirmed by our situation.  This kind of confirmation bias leads men and women down a rabbit hole of mediocrity.

Consider a statement the apostle Paul made to the Ephesians:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV)

So here is the question, do your questions engage the possibility of God’s work or do you limit your questions and hence your actions to a scope you can both generate and manage yourself?

The discussion with my friend reminded me of my childhood question. Paul pushes me to ask it again as an adult with all the depth of my experience and education. What I have observed in working with pastors and Christian leaders over the years is that those who risk beginning their thinking from the starting point of what God does see a depth of engagement and results that others never see.  On the other hand those pastors who begin their thinking on the basis of their situation or experience consistently fail to see what they hope for and begin to talk like they are victims of a circumstantial conspiracy to rob them of success and significance.

Starting one’s thinking from the what God does is not an exercise of denial about obstacles, setbacks, barriers, or disappointments – Abraham, Isaiah, Elijah, David, Nehemiah, Paul, Peter, Ruth, Esther, Naomi, Huldah, Mary, and etcetera illustrate that faith instead sees the circumstance with crystal clarity. However, these same people started their thinking from the perspective of God’s promise.

Do your questions engage the possibility of God’s working or do you limit your questions and hence your actions to the scope of what you can generate and sustain?  Perhaps it is time to renew your relationship to the undomesticated God of the Bible in a fresh way and to begin asking new questions.

[i] 2014 MLB Player Pitching Stats. Source: http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/pitching/_/order/false; accessed 7 August 2014.

1 Clayton Kershaw LAD 18 18 128.1 92 26 26 17 157 13 2 0 0 5.4 0.85
  1. 82


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