The Leadership Wisdom Of Robert Clinton

Ours is a culture that is drowning in information and starving for wisdom. J. Robert Clinton is a pioneer in the study of Christian leadership development and one of my leadership wisdom heroes. He has spent a major part of his life studying, writing, and teaching about leadership, especially biblical and ministerial leadership. His book, The Making of a Leader is a must read for pastors who are serious about developing their own leadership and that of others.

Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to both be a student in his classroom as well as interview him. Every now and then, I re-read my notes from those times and still find wisdom in his insights into leadership and pastors. Here are some of the highlights.

CC: What’s your definition of leadership? CLINTON: A leader is a person of God-given capacity and God-given responsibility to influence specific groups of people towards God’s purposes. In some sense all people are leaders as they use their gifts, but the difference in that and what I’m talking about is responsibility to God for the people. They have a burden for it and they’re going to answer to God for it. They influence. That’s the dominant thing, not their position.

CC: Based on your observation of churches that are doing an effective job of developing leaders, what are some common elements regardless of their denomination or size? CLINTON: One, they’re intentional about it. They have some way of finding out who are potential leaders. Most have some kind of training process…some sort of structure for doing it but in churches that are developing leaders, they can immediately put the training into application. In some, but not all, mentoring is important. They have personal relationships, small groups, sometimes mentoring in a group context or individual mentoring. That’s the dominant way that people are most effectively trained.

CC: What’s different now about skill sets for pastoral leaders than in the past? CLINTON: In the last 15 years, cross-cultural understanding is the major difference. Another one that leaders have to know something about is change. How can we implement change in our church? In the old model you just did it. You told people and they did it. Now, leaders have to know more about how to lead change and how to bridge into it, how to lead people into it so that when change happens, they can get ownership and less trauma. A third thing is to learn how to develop leaders. Senior pastors as the whole don’t develop their staffs. They have staff meetings. The staff has programs that they are running and report on. They pray together, love each other, but they don’t think about developing leaders.

CC: Why is it so hard for pastors to make the shift from a doer to a developer of people, an equipper of others? CLINTON: I think it is because of the models they are taught and have seen. People basically teach as they were taught and operate as they have seen others operate. Most were not taught about developing leaders. Pastors learned exegesis, homiletics, and philosophy rather than people skills.

EXPLORER: Are there skills that are essential to being effective in the future? CLINTON: This is not a skill but it is an attitude that will result in skills. It is adopting the concept of learning posture. If you don’t have a learning posture, you’re not going to make it because things are changing so quickly and you’ve got to be able to learn. What you learn isn’t as important as how to learn. People have to have a learning posture in order to be flexible about learning what’s needed as situations change. Also, leaders are going to have to learn more about how to operate in a participative team context without losing their ability to make decisions as leader.

CC: Say a little more about that. Sometimes, a pastor will talk team but they can’t build a team or lead a team. CLINTON: That’s true. I don’t think a consensus model is a good model because one person can control everything. Basically what you want is one among many, and the leader’s right to countermand decisions of the many sometimes. A wise leader will make decisions that generally flow with the team but there will be times when the leader will say, we’re going to go this way anyway. You need a combination of that but there has to be a sense of ownership and participation at both levels.

EXPLORER: What trips up most leaders? CLINTON: Few leaders finish well. The ones that don’t finish well predominantly lose it in the middle game, not in the end game. In looking at leaders who don’t finish well, I have identified six barriers that stop them. One is pride. There is a proper pride in recognizing who you are and operating out of what God’s done for you, but there is also the danger of an inordinate pride, a pridefulness. Abuse of power is another. It happens when leaders operate unjustly or unfairly with people or because of their position and they start taking privileges or they influence people wrongly. A third one is lack of integrity with finances. That includes everything you can think of, embezzling, using funds that were earmarked for something else, not good accounting. Family issues, all the way from divorce or dysfunctional relationships between husband and wife or children, are a fourth barrier. Sexual issues are the fifth barrier and I’m not talking about simply adulterous affairs. I’m talking pornography and other sexually related issues. The last barrier is plateauing. Some plateauing is good. If you’ve been through something intense, it allows you to take a step back but over the long haul, you’ve got to move on and off the plateau.

CC: You’ve said that one out of three ministers really finishes well. Why do you think so this happens? CLINTON: One thing is that leaders focus on their ministry and it consumes them. The concept of getting perspective on a whole life is basically not done very well in our culture and they end up doing whatever the culture shapes them to be.

CC: What triggers the recognition that perspective is such an important issue? CLINTON: It’s always need. If they have a need in their life which is brought on by a crisis or they’re not sure they ought to stay in ministry, that will drive them to want perspective. And if they can get perspective on their life and you can show them that things that are happening in their lives have happened to other people and God has used them, it can bring hope.

CC: Earlier, we talked about progressive call. You said that leaders experience a series of calls, maybe one major call and then “lots of yeses.” CLINTON: Frequently there will be some sort of committal, maybe a Lordship committal or a committal to do something, whatever God wants. There’ll be a committal in life, but along the way, there will be other little challenges that will clarify that committal, and frequently each of those new challenges will require another calling. Saying yes to that opens up something else on the way. So a lifetime ministry is not necessarily based on one call. It’s one call plus other calls that come along the way as God clarifies what that focused life is going to be.

Clinton has articulated the concept of a focused life in which life purpose, unique methodology and major role are called the focal issues. That is, they are the major ways God will reveal that for which we are designed. In a nutshell, life purpose is the driving force behind what we do; major role is the occupational position from which we accomplish that life purpose, and unique methodologies are the effective means through which ministry is delivered.

The framework for a focused life can be viewed both developmentally and chronologically. For leaders aged 30-40, the primary developmental task is to clarify their life purpose. For leaders aged 40-50, the primary tasks are to discover, clarify and establish the parameters of their major role and move toward focus. For leaders aged 50-60, the primary task is the increasing prioritization of their life activities around focus issues. They learn to say YES and NO to opportunities according to their life purpose. Theirs is not movement toward focus but focus itself. This can be a time of convergence, a melding of gift mix, role and influence. For leaders aged 60+, the primary task is finishing well.

See this chart for a visual of the framework for a focused life. Click to see chart

For access to more of Robert Clinton’s work on leadership, go to

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