“Clem,” Lesslie and J.R.W.: Examples to the Flock

In a congregation with a group of clergy recently, I said something I say often: “We (pastors) lead with our lives.”

Our culture places much emphasis on competence and skill. Please, God, let us clergy show competence!  But, let us also do more. 1 Peter 5:2 and 4 say that elders are to “shepherd the flock of God…being examples to the flock.” So, let us be examples, with transparent, vulnerable witness.

Really? Examples? Do I mean it? Here’s an even a more audacious instruction: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1) Yes, when we start noticing, the scripture quite consistently calls for this sort of transparent witness in leadership.

Which prompted my thinking about some of the people who have influenced my life. One I know personally, the other two through their writings, but also their widely-known reputations.

Robert E. Coleman (he goes by the nickname “Clem, though I’ve never brought myself to call him that) “is known by many for his book, The Master Plan of Evangelism. Billy Graham said of it, “Few books have had as great an impact on the cause of world evangelization in our generation.” It was first published in 1963 and has been translated into dozens of languages. I still recommend it. It is deceptive in its elegant simplicity. It is easily misunderstood as a method with sequential steps.  If you read it, and I hope you do, don’t make this mistake and don’t draw hasty conclusions.

I want in this post, though, to talk about the man, not the author.  I studied with him.  On occasion I traveled with him to a meeting or conference.  Joni and I enjoyed the warm hospitality of Dr. Coleman and Marietta many times. For years and years, they have met with students for prayer and encouragement – for discipleship. Dr. Coleman (with Marietta) has lived “the Master Plan.” We students got to see his life. We listened to him pray. Most of those prayer sessions would end with the hymn, “I will praise him. I will praise him. Praise the Lamb for sinners slain. Give him glory all ye people, for his blood can wash away each stain.” Dr. Coleman sings that chorus with un-self-conscious abandon in a slightly gravelly voice worn from thousands of preachings.

We also spent one on one time with Dr. Coleman and he asked questions. Probing, challenging questions. Personal questions regarding steadfastness and struggle. Probing, but always supportive.

I recently had the honor of writing a chapter for a festschrift for Dr. Coleman, which provided the opportunity to ponder the importance and power of leading with our lives.  He has set a wonderful example and has left an enduring legacy.  And though he is up in years, he is not finished.

I have also benefitted much by reading Lesslie Newbigin’s works. The two that stand out the most are Foolishness to the Greeks and The Gospel in a Pluralist Culture.  Newbigin served as a missionary bishop for the Church of South India for a long time, then returned to his native England and continued as a lecturer and pastor.  He was also a major leader in the World Council of Churches.

Two things stand out for me as I think about Newbigin (he lived from 1909 to 1998).  First is his churchmanship.  He faithfully served with unassuming authority.  Admittedly, I never met Newbigin, so I don’t know what he was like in church meetings or in conflict.  But I have read his biography and the sense I get from it and from his own writings is that of a man deeply in love with the Triune God whose life was wholly dedicated to serving the church.  A real saint.  A humble leader.  And though he could criticize with sharp analysis, he never drifted into judging motives or attacking character. Second is the content and style of his writing.  He did not write with the abstruse technical expertise of the specialist, but he also demonstrated firm grasp of complex subjects and wide knowledge of sources.  This is a gift: to show so clearly the practical importance of sound theological thinking.  Most importantly, he wrote as a witness, thereby illustrating the power of the ideas he conveyed.

Then there is John R.W. Stott (1921-2011). I first encountered his writings in college when I read Basic Christianity. Over the years I have read other books across a range of theological and biblical subjects. A few days ago I devoured The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling. It’s a spare book, Stott’s valedictory, filled with the wisdom of one who has stayed the course. He literally wrote it while in hospital. There is a postscript titled “Farewell!” that begins, “As I lay down my pen for the last time…at the age of eighty eight…I am grateful for your encouragement, for many of you have written to me.”  Still writing at eighty-eight!  (This point reminded me of another exemplar, who at eighty-eight, was still in the work, though not long for this world.)

Stott was an exemplary expositor of the Bible. He wrote with an understated and engaging style, always with plenty for the reader to digest. Like Newbigin, Stott’s knowledge was extensive, but delivered in a pastoral way. Also as with Newbigin, I never had the privilege of meeting Stott, but I do know people who did and who knew him rather well. Stott was a gracious, gentle, firm witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, an able apologist, a man who embodied his ordination as an Anglican priest – to preach, teach and defend the faith. Reading this his last work challenged and moved me.

I aspire to be like these men. Obviously I could mention others, men and women, but for now, these three have my attention. I stand on their shoulders. I learn from them. I hope, no, I pray, that in some small way, I lead with my life as these witnesses have led with theirs and continue to do.

May all of us in pastoral leadership be examples to the flock, whatever part of that flock we’re called to shepherd. And when the Chief Shepherd appears…

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. I think my 25+ years of pastoral experience ruined me for academia. Thinking about leading/teaching/influencing out of personal relationship, rather than as a disembodied dispenser of information not only sounds more appealing to me, but comes more naturally. Phillips Brooks famously described preaching as “truth through personality;” that’s how I feel (for one who is an INTP I have no trouble using that word “feel” here) about what my teaching ought to be as well. My life and the way I live it, particularly how I live it with and before others, matters.

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