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Preparing Leaders to Face Crisis:
The Role of Theological Education

By Robert H. Tribken
February 16, 2011

Only by trust in God can a man carrying
responsibility find repose -- Dwight D. Eisenhower


No one can predict the future, but we seem to be moving toward a period of crisis that will put unusual burdens on leaders. Cultural and institutional changes (and in many cases failure) will call for leaders grounded in a broader, deeper perspective -- what we might call a theological perspective.

The reader can pick his or her most likely scenarios for the future. Mine include the insolvency of major governments and with it sovereign debt default, currency fluctuation, and the possible end of the entitlement state; the emergence of a radically larger middle class in emerging and developing countries, with all this means for global trading and cultural patterns; and the loss of credibility by many of our cultural elites and institutions. War, technological breakthroughs, or other unforeseen events could easily overwhelm all of the above and create new and greater stresses.

Some readers will reject aspects of these scenarios, but most of us can agree on at least one point -- that our organizations, whether public or private, will experience a degree of crisis and restructuring not seen in many decades. The challenge of leadership, and the social cost of ineffective leadership, will be magnified. This could put all aspects of leadership at risk; to be successful, leaders will need to find a way to act with wisdom and courage in the face of fear and uncertainty, maintain and reinforce moral and relational values despite the temptations to do otherwise, and provide hope and meaning to potentially dispirited organizations.

Some people are at their best when facing extreme stress and turmoil, but most of us respond poorly. Even otherwise competent leaders can become dysfunctional at the very time that people in their organizations have the greatest need for effective leadership.

The depth of perspective the leader brings to a crisis could be the critical factor. A leader who cannot see beyond the immediate crisis, and is blown off course by short term pressures, is more likely to fail; a leader who can see beyond and maintain a deeper understanding and sense of purpose is more likely to succeed.

Theological reflection can help us develop this deeper perspective. Leaving aside the particular content of our theology (important but beyond the scope of this discussion), theology by its nature focuses our attention on transcendent reality and our relationship with and within it. Theological reflection connects us with issues of meaning, identity, and purpose that both transcend and inform our immediate situation. Theology can also provide support for spiritual practices (such as prayer, reflection, and community) that can help us to think clearly and to act with purpose.

Theological education should be able to play an expanded role in this process. Seminaries can, of course, train pastors to minister to the spiritual formation of leaders within congregations. But our seminaries also have an opportunity to bring their theological resources to bear by engaging leaders more directly, if they are able to develop outward oriented vehicles that can link the theological resources of the seminary with the actual needs in the market. This requires that seminaries develop an appreciation and respect for the context and challenges faced by leaders and not limit themselves to being mere critics of contemporary culture.

Fuller Theological Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership might provide one example. The De Pree Center is based within Fuller but has an outward orientation; its mission is to use Fuller’s theological resources to encourage healthy leadership and effective organizations. Other seminaries might also play an important role by developing other approaches. The challenge in any case is to make seminary resources available to leaders and future leaders in ways that are appropriate for the challenges they face.

This is a more natural role for seminaries than might be immediately apparent. The Bible after all is full of stories and insights about leadership, many of which were developed during times of extreme crisis. Think of the great Elija in the wilderness finding strength and courage in the face of exhaustion and fear; of the virtuous David becoming a powerful leader, committing great sin, and finally groping his way forward towards redemption; or of Ezra, Nehemiah and the later Isaiah leading their people through the challenges of rebuilding a ruined civilization.

Or think of Jesus facing the ultimate existential crisis and in the process launching his previously fickle followers on a radically new course.

Successfully meeting the oncoming challenges of crisis and uncertainty will require deeply grounded leaders. Developing a more theological perspective could prove to be the critical factor in the formation of these leaders. How the institutions of theological education respond to this challenge will be important.

Tribken is a California based business owner and a member of the board of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is also the founder of the Center for Faith and Enterprise (www.faithandenterprise.org).






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