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Lessons in leadership

Andrews University professor's book mines Bible for insight into being a leader

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Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2014 6:00 am

BERRIEN SPRINGS - What makes a good leader?

It's a question Skip Bell, professor of leadership studies and director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Andrews University's Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, has pondered more than most.

Bell, who is also founding director of the Christian Leadership Center at Andrews, has traveled the world speaking about leadership, proudly proclaiming that he has taught the subject on every continent except Antarctica. About four years ago, however, Bell began brooding about the literary void on what the Bible actually says on the topic.

"There is this sense (in the Bible) that leadership is always best expressed, learned and developed in community, not as lone rangers," Bell says. "I wanted a book to reflect that."

So Bell set out to create a text of his own. "Servants and Friends: A Biblical Theology of Leadership," edited and compiled by Bell was released in May by Andrews University Press. The book features 20 contributors - 13 from Andrews University as well as scholars such as Jon Paulien from Loma Linda University, Leslie N. Pollard from Oakwood University, and Bernard J. Sauvagnat, an Adventist pastor from France - all examining the topic of leadership through a theological lens.

Their conclusion? Popular ideas of leadership have been getting it all wrong for a very long time.

"The culture that we experience, with its developed habits, reflects a shared world view and determines how we understand leadership," Bell says. "We came to feel that was an inadequate foundation for forming an understanding of leadership that would best serve community. ... Throughout all the history of Christian scripture you see God inspiring an idea of what his community can be and what mankind can be rather than controlling mankind. ... The formation of leadership doesn't happen through skilled training. It happens through transformation of character in the person."

Bell began organizing the project in 2010 by bringing together a group of seminary colleagues with specialties in various areas of biblical studies and systematic and applied theology. They envisioned a book that would closely examine biblical language and concepts - section by section - selecting some of the major narratives and characters for deeper study.

"Fortunately, they caught a sense in their soul of this vision and it became this shared burden," Bell says. "We each began with a serious theological inquiry, reflecting on liturgy and experience and ethics and pastoral care and literature as well as inspired text. All three major religions of the world - Christianity, Judaism, Islam - have inspired texts in which they believe God endeavors to communicate an understanding of who he is to mankind. ... As Christian scholars we approached that question - What can we learn about God as he relates to humankind? - through Christian scriptures."

Bell says he and his colleagues repeatedly found biblical examples highlighting themes of community and shared leadership that "inspired vision, rather than selling vision."

"We discovered an incredible focus of leadership being relational - God's reaching out beyond the separation of divinity and creature, spanning that expanse of distance, moving to be a part of humankind," he says. "In the creation story, just the phrase 'Let us create man' reveals something about the nature of God. Even the idea of the Trinity, which has been central to orthodox Christianity, is very community oriented. 'Let us create man in our image.' That idea of decisions being approached in community fashion has survived through centuries of time even though our ideas of leadership - through monarchies and despots - was anything but community oriented."

Although the book, which is 450 pages and contains 21 chapters, is specifically useful as a textbook, Bell says it is assembled in a way that is accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject. Each chapter concludes with a reflection section that provides helpful questions for applying the content to the reader's personal life as well as situations in organizational leadership.

"The book is meant to be far more than an interesting examination of Biblical theology, it's meant to change the way we go about living," Bell says. "Leadership is everybody's opportunity. Everybody is engaged in leadership in some way or form. ... The most controversial position of the book is confronting the idea that culture shapes leadership. Purpose of life should transcend culture.

... That's why we included those reflection sections. How is this going to change the way you do that?"

Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio

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