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Book Review: An Unhurried Leader

“I’m a recovering speed addict—and I don’t mean the drug. I’m talking about the inner pace of my life. I always seemed to be in a hurry. I was the guy who looked for the fastest-moving lane on the freeway, the shortest checkout line at the grocery store and the quickest way to finish a job. It’s probably pathological. But, like you, I also live in a hurried culture. I’m not the only one trying to get there more quickly and do things faster. In fact, there is little incentive out there to slow down. And the pace in the church doesn’t seem all that different from the pace in the world around us.”[1]

Those are the opening words in Alan Fadling’s first book, An Unhurried Life, where he explores what it might look like to live in a way that reflects the rhythms of work and rest that Jesus spoke about and embodied. It is an encouraging, insightful, challenging conversation about personal spiritual life, one that is well worth reading if you have not done so already.[2]

But as much as we might resonate with the desire to respond to the invitation to an unhurried life—one that is not characterized by rushing through God’s presence so we can get to our “to do” list for the day, but rather a life that flows out of a realization of God’s grace and how God is inviting us to live in response to that—when it comes to the idea of becoming “an unhurried leader,”  for many of us, things become murky rather quickly.

Embracing “the unforced rhythms of grace,”[3] in our personal spiritual lives is one thing, but thinking that this could also shape and define what it means to exercise leadership seems like quite another. Depending upon the extent to which we have come to associate leadership with assertiveness, taking charge, making things happen, and motivating people to get things done quickly, efficiently, and perhaps even at reduced cost, words like “unhurried” or “reflective” are not often the first that come to mind when asked to describe the qualities of an effective leader. They just do not sound very productive.

Even among church or religious leaders, on some level, there seems to be an assumption that the kinds of things that make for a rich personal spiritual life are still somehow not quite the same as, or perhaps even in contrast to, what makes us effective leaders. After all, while Mary may know what it means to sit at Jesus’ feet, it is Martha that knows how to get things done, and we are glad for those Marthas! Perhaps you have attended meetings of church leaders in which the unspoken flow of the meeting might be characterized as this: “Now that we have the opening devotional thought out of the way, we can now get down to the business at hand.”

We would, of course, never quite state it that way, but we might well operate as if we believed that while Mary may know how to receive, it is Martha that knows how to lead! I cannot even tell you how many times I have heard variations on that theme in Mary and Martha’s story, despite the reality that the text is not talking about the need to balance two different sides of the same coin but is affirming one way of being and cautioning us about the hazards of another.

This was illustrated in a recent podcast interview conducted by Alan Fadling with Doug Fields[4] in anticipation of the release of this book.  During the interview,  Fields described how he had been contacted in regard to a vacancy in a well-known major religious organization. The organization was looking for a president and had called looking for recommendations. When he suggested a name, the response he got was, “Oh no, that person is way too balanced.” The implication clearly was that the qualities required for effective leadership were in tension with those that reflect healthy, balanced living.

It is this idea—that the way we go about our personal spiritual lives, and the way we go about leading and getting things done, are fundamentally different or even at odds with each other—that is the premise this book effectively challenges. For those of us who have experienced the tension between what we desire to be committed to at the very core of our spiritual lives, and the way leadership is often structured or expressed, this book is long overdue. For those of us who may not yet have recognized the dissonance, it is imperative.

In the ten very accessible chapters that constitute the book, and in a manner that reflects the style of leadership the book describes, Alan Fadling shares insights from his own story and the pages of scripture; then he invites us to reflect on the implications for our own leadership. He describes a kind of leadership that is less about applying techniques in order to quickly and efficiently get measurable results and more about a commitment to the lasting fruit of daily influence. It is a kind of leadership that is focused more on transformation than production. It is a kind of leadership that is sustainable, being less about pouring ourselves into the lives of people until we are depleted and more about overflowing into the lives of others in ways in which we remain full. It is a kind of leadership that focuses less on motivational skills and more on the transforming power of influence. It is a kind of leadership that is less about signing up to work for God and more about responding to the invitation to come and work with God in places where God is already at work. It is a kind of leadership where prayer is not just a preliminary spiritual exercise to engage in prior to leading but the central and primary practice through which our leadership is shaped. And for those who cannot imagine a book on leadership that does not contain practical suggestions on how to implement the leadership concepts it describes, there are those as well.

But, as much as I have appreciated the insights shared in both of Alan Fadling’s books, perhaps even more significantly, I have also had the opportunity to know Alan and consider him both a mentor and a friend for nearly two decades. What he articulates so well in his writing, I have had the opportunity to see being lived out and have observed how it has given shape to his own life and ministry and, in some significant ways, my own. What Alan outlines in An Unhurried Leader is not just a Biblically solid, well-articulated, theory of Christian leadership, it is the fruit of a life that has been lived intentionally and with authenticity. It is from that unique vantage point that I find myself not only intrigued and challenged by what the book says but also grateful for the opportunity to have experienced a bit of how it has been lived and taken shape over the years—myself being a recipient of the very kind of leadership the book describes.

While this book is written for the Christian community in general, there are some particular ways that the Adventist community in particular might benefit from reflecting on what he shares. In addition to the rich scriptural insights and practical suggestions that would apply equally well to any Christian faith community, it may also point the way toward an opportunity to pause and ponder what leadership in our own community might look like if we were more intentional about leading in ways that reflect the rhythms of life and leading that we find in the ministry of Jesus and the New Testament writers.

There have been points of time in our history as a church where we have benefited from pausing to reconsider and re-calibrate. 1888 was one such moment, in which the church leders(not without some resistance to be sure) had the opportunity to look more carefully at how they had framed what they believed and the unique contribution they had to make to the world. It was at that time that the church began to shift from a stance that focused primarily on the law (the transcript of God’s character) as the pivot point around which everything turned to Jesus and His love and grace which fully embodied and reflected the actual character of God.

While it was a challenging transition for many, the richness and depth of who we were and what we believed that resulted in refocusing the core of our message, from being primarily about law and obedience to being more explicitly centered in the character of God and salvation through grace, was huge. The Sabbath, for example, instead of being limited to an arbitrary test of obedience became the foundation for a transforming pattern of living that celebrated, embodied, and gave expression to God’s grace, impacting the way we live, not just on one day of the week but through all the days in our lives.

The understanding of leadership that Alan Fadling describes in this book, if taken seriously, could point the way to a kind of leadership that could be similarly transforming. Instead of models of leadership that take their cues primarily from the often driven and sometimes anxious styles of the corporate world around us, imagine a way of approaching leadership that would reflect Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Matthew 11:29 in the Message where Jesus invites us to “walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

The style of leadership that reflects an invitation to work with, not for, that is about watching how Jesus does it, taking our cues from Him, and learning the unforced rhythms of grace is the kind of leadership that this book suggests. It is a kind of leadership that is equally effective in producing lasting fruit in the context of casual daily interactions, among local church leaders, and even at the highest levels of church governance, as it intentionally seeks to reflect and support the rhythms of life to which Jesus invites us.  It is something that is both well worth contemplating and pursuing!


Notes & References:

[1]Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, (IVP Books, 2013), 5

[2]  An Unhurried Life was Christianity Today’s Award of Merit in winner in  2014

[3] Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Matthew 11:29 in The Message 

[4]Doug Fields: Influence and Expectations, Unhurried Living Podcast, May 22, 2017.

 

Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.

Image Credit: ivpress.com

 

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