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What Your Church Can Learn from These 4 Presidents

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This Christmas, I gave and received a great book.

Let me introduce it to you if you have not already found it: “Leadership in Turbulent Times” is the latest book by historian and leadership expert Doris Kearns Goodwin.

She builds on her earlier books about Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to present this current book about all four presidents.

Her point in the new book is that each man endured a very difficult season in life that led him to defeat and despair.

However, instead of camping out in this miserable crisis for the rest of his life, each man used the turbulent times of personal and political crisis to make him a better person and leader.

Her book describes the early years of each man when they showed great promise for leadership in their communities.

A second section of the book depicts the season of crisis that forged the leader into greatness.

In the final section, she shows how each man demonstrated a leadership trait that shaped the country and that can become a model for our leadership today.

As I read about each man, I was fascinated by their personal story of triumph on the other side of turbulence.

I also learned much from the leadership lessons that each man teaches us as they made a great impact on the nation they served.

Lincoln demonstrated “Transformational Leadership” as he “entered the presidency at the gravest moment in American history. His temperament and absolute determination helped win the war, save the union and end slavery.”

Theodore Roosevelt exhibited “Crisis Leadership” as he “guided his countrymen through a long battle designed to restore fairness to America’s social and economic life in the wake of the industrial revolution.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt portrayed “Turnaround Leadership” as he “delivered a sustained, reanimating energy to a nation suffering from the Great Depression and losing faith in democracy.”

Finally, Johnson showed “Visionary Leadership” as he “gained office in a moment of national tragedy. His legislative mastery galvanized a domestic agenda that achieved more for civil rights than any leader since Lincoln.”

There is a lesson here for churches who are trying to be healthy: Sometimes, the greatest strength in leadership comes on the other side of turbulence. It was certainly the case in the lives of these four presidents.

I see many churches struggling in turbulent waters today. Attendance is declining, financial resources are dwindling, buildings are aging, the culture seems to be ignoring the church, the polarization of our politics makes unity in the church more difficult each day.

By all measures, these are turbulent and difficult days to be leading churches. The question is, “Will we let this turbulence make us bitter or better?”

I was moved by the book that “tells the story of how they all met with dramatic reversals that disrupted their lives and threatened to shatter forever their ambitions. Nonetheless, they all emerged better fitted to confront the contours and dilemmas of their times.”

I pray that will be said of the church on the other side of our turbulent days.

How do we live through the turbulence of the church today so that we will one day be better fitted to “confront the contours and dilemmas” of our times?

My reading about the presidents took my mind to a character in the Bible who faced his own turbulence. The Apostle Paul called it his “thorn in the flesh.”

He prayed again and again for this trouble to be removed, but it remained. Finally, he realized the turbulence of the thorn was helping him to lean on the power of God in his own weakness.

It is at the intersection of his own weakness and God’s power that Paul found strength beyond what he had ever known. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

What if in these turbulent days of ministry in the church, we approached our thorn in the following ways?

  • Instead of focusing on tweaking outdated programs, we get serious about prayer that seeks God’s guidance into new forms of ministry.
  • Instead of expecting declining numbers of clergy to solve the challenges of the turbulence, we all take responsibility for the ministry of the church.
  • Instead of bemoaning the fact that our church budget is not what it once was, we dream about the possibilities of a reimagined budget that has been shaped by prayer and greater ministry engagement of all church members.
  • Instead of spending funds we do not have to maintain buildings we do not need, we dream about how to be the best stewards by redeploying the assets we do have.
  • Instead of believing that our best years are behind us as a church, we live with expectant hope that God’s work through us in the future will be greater than what we have ever known.

These are turbulent days for the church. They may just be the very best days of preparation for something new that God wants to do tomorrow.

How will the story be written for your church?

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches’ blog. It is used with permission.

David Hull

David Hull is the southeast coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches and lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. He was previously the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama