Theology, Leadership, and Ministry in Harmony


Theology is my first love, leadership is my field, and pastoral ministry is my calling.  This makes for trouble.   Don’t theologians doubt the theological rigor of pastors and don’t pastors scoff at the missional effectiveness of theologians?  Missionally effective pastors consume leadership conferences, blogs, and books, while theologians critique the foundation and faithfulness of the latest leadership tips and tricks proffered to get more people behind the celebrity pastor’s blazing trail.  Of course, none of that is fair, little of it is true, and less of it is helpful—unless you love theology, try to lead, and live out minist

This is the story of many Christian thinker-leader-ministers.  Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, and Bonhoeffer lived at the center of these triangulating forces.  Theology was not something to be applied; it was ministry.  Leadership was not a field; it was what they did.  That these folks just happened to be called to ministry of some sort is not serendipitous, but the nature of the Christian mission. Thinker-leader-ministers unite!

To reclaim the joyous story of one triangulated takes two confessions.  First, theology is queen of the sciences.  Pastor-theologian Peter Leithart, writes, “Theologians should…insist that all theology is theology of culture.”  Theology used to bring vision and light to the surrounding culture.  Theologians offered insight in physical science, politics, and philosophy.

And the second confession is like it.  Leadership is a science.  That is, leadership is an observable phenomenon, subject to forms of experimentation.  Both quantitative and qualitative researchers attempt to capture and describe aspects of reality.  That pop-leadership authors in the Christian realm have been able to digest scholarly work and leverage their personal experiences to write truly helpful tips and tricks while dropping scriptural references at just the right rate is not only an invitation to critique their theology, but to marvel at their ability to communicate the real science of leadership.

That leadership is a science and theology is its queen means that leadership is illuminated by theology and subject to theological engagement.  Leithart’s quote above contains a second half.  Not only does theology open to culture, but “cultural studies inevitably open out into theology.”  Leadership reflection simply is theological all the way down.  Putting these confessions together, theologians know that they have something to learn about leadership and leaders know that theologians have a candle or two to light in the dark corners of leadership.

Picturing the Relationship

But what of ministry?  How do these three relate?  Imagine the three—theology, leadership, and pastoral ministry—as an inverted triangle.  First, the bottom of the triangle is shaped by an invisible angle.  This angle creates the trajectory along which its sides run.  The triangle opens because of the angle and the angle’s acuteness or obtuseness determines the potential of the triangle.  This angle is theology.

Second, the sides of the triangle running out along the angle represent leadership.  Without the sides, the angle may exist, but the triangle lacks form and potential content.  These two sides can also provide running boards along which the angle can be studied.  Leadership study, especially in its pop-Christian form, then, is not immune from theological critique.  Instead, the sides of leadership run back to reveal theological commitment.

Ministry is the top edge of the triangle which determines the area covered by the angle of theology and the sides of leadership.  Leadership sides can run indefinitely along the theological angle, but without the ministry edge, there is no area of impact.

Triangle of Theology, Leadership, and Ministry

Applying the Triangle

As a pastor, I often see people doubt their ability to minister.  They worship faithfully; they listen to sermons; they understand mission.  But ministry is stuck.  Godly burdens stir in their bones, but spiritual behinds stick to the benches.

Two young ladies broke the cycle.  They could hardly stay seated in my office as they articulated a tension in their world: “Teenage girls are bombarded with messages about their bodies that just aren’t true; they aren’t from God.”  Aha, the theological angle!  “This is not God these teens are hearing.”  Something needed to be done!

How could this theological angle lead out into our church and our community?  The ministry that God had stirred in these young women was a combination of exercise training and small group mentoring.  They had professional skills and gifts in these areas, so the ministry would be productive and meaningful.  Thinking about the triangle, the bottom angle was set and the top-edge ministry was being drawn.  But how could they connect?

What would keep this ministry from falling flat?  Leadership.  Now, as pastor, part of my role was to help them connect the bottom sides of the triangle to the ministry top-edge.  The passion, thoughtful reflection, and focused target made me think of transformational leadership—leadership focusing on bringing change through personal consideration and intentional motivation of followers, along with thoughtful reflection and principled influence.  Being careful to avoid becoming too professorial, I made suggestions from this model as to how they could proceed: Make initial contact with specific teens who have available networks; role model personally what you have in mind; create individual value for each teen; stimulate your followers’ own emerging mission.  Yada, yada, yada eight weeks later theology had launched an idea, leadership had provided the means to its accomplishment, and a real ministry activity defined the area of the triangle.

It is not always so easy, but it is always so possible when factoring the triangulating nature of these three: theology, leadership, and ministry.  Pastors: You are needed as theologians, leadership teachers, and ministry coaches.  Create angles; extend leadership; guide the final edge of ministry.  Theology is my first love, leadership is my field, and ministry is my calling.  God, make it so for more of us.


Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry