I got my first taste of leadership as a freshman in college. I was a new Christian looking for some brothers and sisters that I could lock arms with on my college campus, and as an athlete, I hoped I could find some on the football team. But after a few weeks of searching, I realized that wasn’t going to happen because I was one of only three professing Christians on the team.
Determined to change that, I invited my teammates to attend campus ministries and local churches with me, but no one was interested. So, I started one. We met on the field for devotions after every practice, and with the coach’s permission, I preached to my teammates at chapel every Saturday morning before games.
It didn’t take long to realize that I was in over my head. Not only did I need theological development, I also needed to get some leadership chops. But since I didn’t have anyone to mentor me, I started reading every leadership book I could get my hands on. By the time graduation rolled around, that ministry had grown from just three guys to more than 80 coaches and athletes sitting under the teaching of God’s Word. Teammates were converted, the team seemed to experience a genuine spiritual awakening, and some of those young men even devoted themselves to full-time vocational ministry.
That was 17 years ago. I’ve been in full-time ministry ever since, and I’m convinced that leadership is more important than it’s ever been, especially in the Church.
The Need for Leadership
Many well-meaning young men enter ministry with aspirations to preach and make disciples. They rightly understand the importance of theology in pastoral ministry, so they head off to seminary to acquire the appropriate credentials. And that’s a good thing! Anyone who aspires to shepherd God’s people should know how to “rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).”
What many young pastors and ministry leaders don’t realize, however, is that pastoral ministry requires much more than theological training. It requires leadership. Managing your schedule, making wise decisions, resolving conflict, overcoming hardship, and casting vision aren’t just theological issues, they’re leadership issues, and they require specific knowledge and skills.
More importantly, the many pastors and ministry leaders who have disqualified themselves from ministry over the years have not typically imploded because of doctrinal error. They’ve done so for moral and spiritual reasons. Ministry idolatry, ministry demands, poor boundaries, congregational expectations, interpersonal dynamics, conflict, character deficits, burnout – these are leadership issues as much as they are theological ones.
7 Leadership Books Every Pastor Should Consider Reading
There are tons of quality resources out there, but here’s a shortlist of my favorite leadership books to help you get started.
- The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller
This isn’t a leadership book per se, but I’m putting it at the top of the list for two reasons. It’s short, and it addresses the single biggest obstacle we all face in leadership – ourselves. The truth is, when it comes to leadership, the person who usually gets in my way is me. This book is essential for leadership because it helps you get over yourself so that you are free to lead others from a posture of humility and security.
- The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero
Emotions get a bad rap in the church world for some reason. It seems like people either idolize or demonize them. That’s a shame because emotions are a universal human experience. God hardwired them into human nature, and that means that we should value and appreciate this aspect of our humanity in the same way that we value and appreciate the intellect.
In fact, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the case that we are not primarily rational beings who experience emotion. We are emotional beings who use our intellect to rationalize our emotional impulses. In his famous metaphor, the rider and the elephant, he describes our emotions like a massive 10 ton elephant and our reason like the itty bitty rider. The rider can control the elephant with attentiveness and skill, but the elephant is the truly dominant one in the relationship. If there’s a disagreement between the two the elephant wins every time.
Peter Scazzero makes a similar case in his book The Emotionally Healthy Leader. His aim throughout the book is to help you understand the role that your emotions play in your leadership and ministry in the hopes that you will become more aware of what’s going on inside you so that you can lead more effectively for the long haul. I was skeptical of this book at first, but it’s been a game changer for me. I don’t agree with all of Scazzero’s theology, but the practices he suggests have proven helpful for me over the years.
- Managing Leadership Anxiety by Steve Cuss
You probably don’t realize this, but you struggle with anxiety. We all do. It’s just that it’s hard to detect because it doesn’t usually show up as a nervous feeling. In this wonderful book, author Steve Cuss defines leadership anxiety as anything that disrupts your ability to be fully present and engaged with the present moment. Anxiety is prevalent in you and the church or ministry you lead, and it’s likely undermining your leadership. The worst part is you don’t even know it.
This is one of the most practical and actionable leadership books I’ve ever read, and it will give you an entirely new category for leadership. If I could recommend just one book on leadership this is probably it. Go buy yourself a copy, now.
- Developing the Leader Within You 2.0. by John C. Maxwell
You can’t possibly mention leadership without mentioning John Maxwell. He is far and away this generation’s leadership expert. He’s written more than 70 books on the subject, and in my opinion, all of them are gold. I suggest starting with this one because if you want to take your organization or church to the next level, you need to first take yourself to the next level. This is an important book in your leadership library because, as one pastor put it, “everyone wins when a leader gets better.”
- Developing the Leaders Around You by John C. Maxwell
Those of us who live in the West are obsessed with the hero leader, the uber-competent, super-human, self-made leader who can do it all and needs help from no one else. He is self-reliant, self-confident, and self-motivated. But can we be honest with ourselves? The hero leader is an illusion. As much as that narrative speaks to the self-idolatry that lurks inside all of us, there is no such thing as a hero leader. It’s a myth, and it’s time we put it to rest.
The fact of the matter is, that every leader is supported and strengthened by a team. Whether that’s your family and friends, a pastoral staff, or a small band of church members, you are surrounded by co-laborers who need you to equip them for the work of ministry. John Maxwell’s book on developing leaders is a trustworthy guide to help you develop the people around you.
- The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
Have you ever belonged to a church or organization that lacked clarity? You know, the kind with no vision, too many “priorities,” poor communication, and sloppy programs. I’m sure you have. Those kinds of organizations are everywhere, and we’ve all been a part of them. And my guess is that your experience of an organization like that has left you frustrated.
The best organizations, on the other hand, create clarity. They have a clear vision, a clear mission, clear values, and clear strategies for accomplishing their goals. Everyone knows what they stand for and what it looks like to participate in the mission. That’s the argument business consultant Patrick Lencioni makes in this book. This is one of the first leadership books I read during those early days of ministry, and I saw immediate results. It’s accessible, inspiring, and actionable. Everything you could ask for in a book.
- Built to Last by Jim Collins
In this classic book, former Harvard business professor, Jim Collins, unpacks what it takes to build an enduring, great organization. His insights come from decades of research and application in real-life business settings, It’s a business book, but every single one of the ideas that he unpacks are transferrable to ministry. I love this book because it’s full of enduring principles and actionable insights, and I’ll never forget one of Collin’s big ideas – “your organization is not great if it cannot be great without you.” In other words, your job isn’t just to be a great leader. It’s to build a great organization that can continue to thrive and excel long after you are gone.
The other great thing about this book is that it can stand alone as an excellent leadership resource, but it also fits into the overall anthology of leadership books that Collin’s has written over the years – Built to Last, Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall (which he basically wrote by accident), and Great by Choice. Plus, Jim is a fantastic story-teller. You’ll walk away both equipped and inspired.
Your Leadership Library
There are dozens of other great books that could have been added to this list. I’ve chosen this combination not because any one of them is the best, but because I think that read together they provide the right combination of insight and perspective to get you moving in the right direction personally, interpersonally, and organizationally.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that these are the books that have been most helpful for me. I recommend them to you because they speak to some of the most pressing universal challenges that leaders face in this generation, but the truth is that each one was an important step in my development because of the way they intersected my experience, gifting, and personality.
My encouragement is to start creating your own leadership library by first working through the recommendations listed here, then consider what resonates with you. Consider your own personality, gifting, and experience. Pay attention to the insights and categories that seem to speak to your leadership season and find the mix that’s going to prove helpful for where you’re at in your journey.
What Makes a Leader by Daniel Goleman
Lead by Paul David Tripp
Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne
Designed to Lead by Kevin Peck & Eric Geiger