Incarnational Leadership in Oxford

July 10, 2014 | by Blake Killingsworth

2014 Oxford Institute This past week, I had the privilege of helping to lead a group of DBU doctoral students on a study-tour of England. These 11 students are in their final year of course work, and the Oxford Institute serves as the capstone event for the program.

Along with Dr. Adam Wright, dean of the Cook School of Leadership, Dr. Sandra Reid, director of the DBU MBA program, and Dr. Jim Denison, founder and president of the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, we talked through issues surrounding globalization, intercultural connections, and the future of leadership in this incredible and historical setting.

The concept of “Incarnational Leadership” quickly became the leading theme throughout the trip. This is not a new term, and it is used in many Christian circles to help indicate a unique way in which followers of Christ can model the life and ministry of Christ as they lead in their own contexts.

While visiting Olney, we sat inside John Newton’s former parish church, St. Peter and Paul, and sang his hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Here we thought through the ways in which Christ redeems our brokenness and our failures, ultimately bringing Him glory, and how as leaders, we too should not only embrace the redemption that has come into our lives, but we should also look for ways to incarnate this aspect of Christ and seek to bring redemption in the lives of others whom we lead.

Touring Carey Baptist Church in Moulton, we recalled the story of William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions, and his sacrificial love as he gave of himself to share Christ’s message of hope to others in India. In this way, Carey demonstrated the heart of Jesus, who seeks to include the least of these into His Kingdom.

Standing in St. Mary’s in Oxford, we considered John Wesley’s 1744 sermon, “Scriptural Christianity,” which he gave at the church, and after which he was never invited back. In the message, he challenged the students and faculty at Oxford to abandon their love of the world and embrace a life lived toward Christ. The Oxford leadership at the time in turn rejected Wesley and his “enthusiasm,” preferring to maintain their established patterns of religion rather than embrace a vibrant life of Spirit-filled faith. Wesley’s boldness and singularity of vision challenged us to remain faithful to the mission and call of Christ, regardless of our vocational context and without a desire to embrace the praise of men.

The moments went on and on throughout the trip, whether it was visiting the Whitechapel Homeless mission in East London, the college of William Wilberforce in Cambridge, the halls of political power in Parliament, or the seat of monarchial power at Windsor. From the churches founded by King Edward the Confessor, to the war tunnels established by Churchill, leadership lessons emerged at every turn.

In looking back over the trip, here are three take aways from the experience:

  1. Leaders need to think in terms of building cathedrals, and not chapels. Chapels are good and necessary, but they are temporary. Cathedrals last for centuries, leaving a lasting impression on generations to come. Leaders should have the same long-term vision, seeing their time at the front as just a small part of a larger vision.
  2. Leaders must be willing to endure and fight for their cause when necessary. Touring the Churchill War Rooms in London, a series of underground offices, conference rooms, and sleeping quarters that Winston Churchill used during World War II to run the war, one is aware of the extent to which Churchill became the English bulldog to endure the horrors of war and maintain a singular focus until they secured victory. Leaders need to be willing to endure hardships and continue their fight for the cause, even when all seems lost around them.
  3. Leaders should never forget their mission. Seeing the passion for mission in the lives of Wilberforce, Wesley, and Carey, and even in a modern-day work of Tony Miller at Whitechapel Mission, reminds individuals to stay closely connected to their mission and not seek to be swayed with the winds of change. Leaders should always be relevant, but never compromise the essence of their mission.

The time in Oxford reminded us not only of the legacy of great leaders but also the need for great leaders today, tomorrow, and the years to come.

More than great leaders, though, the world is in need of individuals who seek to incarnate the Gospel of Christ into their spheres of influence, leading others as Jesus would, seeking to care for their needs while glorifying the Father in Heaven. Just imagine what the world would look like with more Wesleys, Wilberforces, or Newtons. Just imagine if a generation of incarnational leaders accepted the call to change the world. Just imagine.