Thursday Review: Neil Cole on Organic Leadership

A review of Neil Cole, Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are, Baker, 2009 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

Neil Cole is the author of Organic Church purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and, as the title suggests, in Organic Leadership he takes the approach of Organic Church and applies to leadership and training.

Cole begins by suggesting that many leaders who sincerely desires gospel fruit in fact impede growth because what they do – and what they have been trained to do – is lead an institution. “What is consistent in both Organic Church and Organic Leadership is my belief that the kingdom of God is relational, spiritual, and natural – without all the artificial stuff we tend to use to prop up our ministries today.” (15) What Cole criticizes in his opening deconstructing section is “institutionalization, corruption of leader character, legalistic leadership, the monopolization of truth, the hierarchical chain of command, false views of reality, and parasitic ‘ministries’.” (30) “What we think of as being needed can in reality be our neediness … A drive to feel significant compels them and being needed affirms their sense of importance.” (39)

Cole then asks why, when many churches complain of a lack of leaders, other churches seem to have lots of leaders. The difference, he suggests, lies in whether your approach to finding leaders is recruitment or reproduction. “Recruitment is a practice in subtraction – taking people from one ministry to work in another. Reproducing leaders from the harvest and for the harvest is a practice of multiplication.” (134) The only biblical example of recruitment is Barnabas recruiting Paul in Acts 11:22-26. When in Luke 10 Jesus tells his disciples to ask the Lord of the Harvest for works the only place from those workers are going to come is the harvest itself. “If your ministry is struggling without leaders, do not re-evaluate your leadership development program. It is time to re-evaluate your disciple-making system. If you are doing next to nothing to reach lost and broken people, your leadership development system will yield very few results.” (139)

Cole challenges our image of leaders and our models of success. “As I read the  New Testament, I have found three things that Jesus views as crucial to the success of his followers. They are faithfulness, fruitfulness, and finishing well.” (154) “In choosing leaders we must look for character – not doctrinal integrity, preaching style,  or managerial skills.” (143) He emphasizes the importance of humility in leaders and leaders who give away power. “We don’t first find leaders and hope they take on the qualities of a servant. We need to find servants and let them be just that.” (204)

To develop leaders with character Cole urges us not only to teach and envision many people, but intensively to mentor a few – just as Jesus and Paul did. “If you can’t reproduce disciples, you’ll never reproduce leaders. If you can’t reproduce leaders, you’ll never reproduce churches. If you can’t reproduce churches, you’ll never see a movement.” (250)

Mentoring leaders involves more than simply increasing their knowledge. “From the way most leaders are groomed, evaluated, and selected in the church today, correct doctrine and the ability to communicate it appear to be the dominant measures of a leader.” (209) In contrast Cole says: “Most Christians in the West are educated beyond their obedience. More education is not what we need. We need more obedience to what we already know.” (208) It’s a provocative statement, but no more than the Spirit says in James 1:22-25. When Paul tells Titus to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (2:1), what follows is not sound doctrine, but “relational character lived out in real life.” (209) It’s not sound doctrine is unimportant, but even here the goal of mentoring is “instilling in people a hunger for learning and then teaching them how to discover good information.” (216) Again, Cole comes back to the need for obedience:

“There are some other principles needed in this arena, though. We must get better at not educating people beyond their obedience. The way we pour on the teaching without any regard for practice is atrocious. We simply do not understand the damage this causes in our disciples and emerging leaders. We actually teach people a subtle yet very tangible way that obedience is not necessary; simply knowing the truth is enough. We are, in effect, training people not to take God’s truth seriously and personally.” (216)

One at a time

Cole advises us to mentor people one at time in one thing at time.

“The best way to multiply leaders – in fact I believe the only way to multiply leaders – is to do so one at a time. So while you may cover a lot more ground with large groups of people, your training will not be reproductive. If, however, you train a few, one-on-one, you can make sure they are growing holistically until they too as training others one-on-one. This is how we reproduce as leaders, and the result can be exponential, rather than merely incremental, growth.” (234)

“One thing at a time. So often we teach more than people can learn. The results are ineffective learning. In my experience, if I try to teach just one thing to an apprentice and do well with it, the emerging leader is always learning something. If I try to teach three or four things, there is a good chance I will teach the person nothing. Our memories are just not that good.”  (234)

“Never teach a skill until there is a need for it … Never teach a second skill until the first one is learned … A skill is never truly learned until it is taught to another.” (240-242)

It becomes clear that mentoring one person does not mean you can only be mentoring person, but that you mentor people on their own – you don’t rely of group activities. Cole suggest 12-15 is the maximum number of people you can be mentoring at any one time.

“There is one principle that is extremely valuable in training people on the job. It is a principle that can save literally years of your life and keep you from untold frustrations. When it comes to investing your life into another, invest is what is proven, not in what is potential.” (244) “So to invest in what is proven, begin by presenting an individual with a small challenge.” (245)

Cole ends with a chapter on money in which he argues that in the New Testament the only people who have a right to receive regular money are apostles and widows. The “double honour” of 1 Timothy 5, he suggests, is an occasional honorarium. I’m not persuaded by his arguments here – and I speak as someone who doesn’t receive a salary from my church. But Cole’s central concerns are important. “If you’re not willing to shepherd the flock without pay, then you’re not qualified to do so for pay.” (286) He quotes Roger L’Estrange: “He that serves God for money will serve the Devil for better wages.” (280) “In the context of organic churching, where churches are intentionally smaller, more intimate, and rapidly reproducing, there is no need to pay someone to pastor. The bar for ministry is down low enough that it is easy to shepherd ten to twenty people without needing to be paid to do so.” (286)

In conclusion Cole suggests: “The reason the church sees such poor results when she calls for volunteers is because we are asking so little of people.” (294)

As with Organic Church, I found Organic Leadership challenging and helpful. It was timely for me as I have been reviewing my own leadership. Again, as with Organic Church the lack of biblical theology (not in the sense of being unbiblical, but in the sense of not tracing the christo-centric redemptive story-line through the Bible) makes the theology somewhat ‘thin’ and occasionally makes the exegesis doubtful. But overall this book is full of stimulation and challenge. It’s an important book for leaders who want to reproduce leaders.


6 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Neil Cole on Organic Leadership

  1. Thanks Tim for the review, it’s raised plenty more questions but I’ll leave you with just one: will you review and compare Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis and The Vine with organic leadership? Thanks.

  2. Thanks for another helpful review – seems similar in vein to ‘The Trellis & the Vine’ – so encouraging that there seems to be a real re-evaluation of ministry and discipleship and leadership going on all over.

    Would you consider ‘Organic Leadership’ a complement to T&V (does it have any extra practical helps, or ideas, etc) or overkill to have both?

  3. I think my frustration wiwith the ideas presented (which are GREAT in certain environments) is that it doesn’t address turning those who serve readily and willingly into those who LEAD. We have many people in our church that if asked specifically to serve, jump at the chance. However, they are not self-starters. They do not see the need and then respond. It must be pointed out to them. This becomes frustrating for the very few who are constantly in the position of having to evaluate everything and then seek out more people to serve when what is really needed is more people to lead. In our church of mostly young, low-income blue collar workers, this seems especially prevalent.

  4. I have been pestering Tim to write this review for about 6 months now. Tim got me reading Organic Church a while ago for NTI and since then I have become “A Neil Cole Junkie” and love what he has to say. It is very stimulating and challenging. In my mind Cole does a revamp of Roland Allen (Missionary Methods). I just love the way underpinning all he says is the idea that as leaders we should be trying to create independence not dependence – that people are equipped and empowered to lead themselves and we can move out of the way etc.

    Thanks Tim for a great review….I am going to hunt down your review of Organic Church now.

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