Book Review: Wisdom in Leadership

Wisdom in Leadership
The How and Why of Leading the People You Serve
Craig Hamilton
Matthias Media, 2015.

Ever since I started in parish ministry I have wrestled with the question of how best to do the work. Where is the best investment of time? What of all the activities I could undertake will yield the most gospel benefit? How is the best way to go about those activities? Being in local church ministry leadership often leaves you with freedom to shape your priorities, your week, your day, but using that freedom well requires wisdom and discipline. Being in church ministry leadership requires learning quite an array of skills and developing quite a set of capacities. In this it is not unique. For example, the skill and discipline of managing yourself – observing yourself; setting priorities, planning and organising yourself; doing and then reviewing what you planned to do – is something many workers have to master. There are also the skills and disciplines of  working with others, whether as a subordinate, a colleague, a supervisor or a leader. Lately I have found it useful to read some books to help me get better at these things. Some Christian authors are processing the thinking from secular writers and trying to present the best of it for Christians generally and ministry leaders in particular. I read What’s Best Next, by Matt Perman and scoffed a little at chapter sub-headings like “Why knowing how to get things done is essential for Christian discipleship”, but by the end of the book I made significant, lasting changes to my work habits that decreased my daily anxiety about getting my stuff done. I went on to pick up some of the secular literature Perman mentioned, and listened to a few useful podcasts.

So when Craig Hamilton’s book Wisdom in Leadership came to my attention with a friend’s recommendation, I was keen to sample it, and I must say I have enjoyed immensely Hamilton’s short, punchy chapters on good topics. This substantial book (495 pages!) has 78 short chapters divided into four sections: Leading Foundations, Leading Yourself, Leading Other People and Leading the Ministry. Further to that there are subsections in sections three and four that aim to address those who lead teams of leaders. Chapter titles are maxims like ‘Character is King’ or ‘Stop Listening to Yourself’ or ‘Waiting is doing something’ that are then expounded over 2-3 pages. Often there are cross references to related chapters at the chapter’s end. The book is well designed and produced, and you could read it from front to back (there is a progression and development in its structure), or you could dip in an out according to need or interest. It is good to read a thoughtful Australian voice on topics that often come to us in an American idiom.

Hamilton (a self-described Bible and-theology guy) takes thee approach that there is a lot of wisdom to be learned about working with people in groups that will prevent frustrating and foreseeable problems arising in the work of Christian ministry. This wisdom can be learned by careful observation of the ordered world God has made (even in its fallen partial disorder). Hamilton’s basic approach to developing the material in the book reflects that conviction: he read leadership books and exercised his curiosity in careful observation when he met with people in groups. You can see both his sources and his own reflections showing through at various points.

Hamilton writes for those who want to get better at leading people, and are willing to work at it, and suggests that the book could be used in meetings with staff teams, or church councils, or any church leadership groups. I agree with this. The book is not a theological vision of church, ministry or leadership, nor a programme for building or reforming church ministry, but it is full of stimulating, instructive, varied and practical material that I can imagine would kick off worthwhile discussions for individuals and teams. It is a book about people, and about living with them, loving them and loving them in particular by leading them. You might think differently at points, and this book is not the key to ministry, but Hamilton is simply trying to help ministers avoid avoidable frustrations to make leadership, not easy, but easier. As these arts and skills are not taught in theological college (and can’t be, really – they need to be mastered on the job), and as they take time to develop in medias res, books like these are a real help to those who do want to get better at managing themselves and leading others. Hamilton has done us a service in bringing this grist to the mill.

Ben Underwood, Shenton Park, WA