Berntsen, Cross-Shaped Leadership


John A. Berntsen, Cross-Shaped Leadership: On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice. Alban Institute, 1999.

Referenced in: Pastoral Theology Summary

In the introduction, Berntsen says, “This book is an essay on the vocation of the leader. It is a theology of the vocation of leadership for parish practice. It is written from the standpoint of what Christians call theology of the cross.”

He continues:

Theology of the cross is not a theory that explains anything. It is knowing God in the midst of suffering and brokenness and creaturely limitation. …We can do only one of two things about the cross: flee it or die on it—and if the latter, then when we have been raised up, we can proclaim the cross, so that it does its saving work.

Of course the cross is an event in history. But it is also an event in the daily life of believers. In other words, the cross happened not only in 29 ce in ancient Palestine; it happens also in the event of proclamation and in faith. Though unrepeatable on the stage of history, the cross repeats itself in the community’s worship and in the ministry of its faith active in works of love.

He expresses this theology of the cross in six affirmations about the nature of ministry.

Chapter 1, Made by the Cross: Undergoing Jesus – Cross-shaped leadership is not only about taking an initiative but also about receiving the initiative of others, of God and other people. It suffers in response to the events of our lives and the lives of others in the name if Jesus. He says, “in practice this means that what leaders do is always provisional, contextual, and fallible. It is always interim in nature.”

Chapter 2, Old Self, New Self: Beyond the Glittering Image – Letting the cross expose the old self and reveal the true self of fallenness “is the root of vocational discernment and ministry formation.”

Chapter 3, Your Last Proud Day: On Being Made Humble – This humility is in contrast to the heralded “visionary” or “purpose-driven” leaders. Berntsen calls for “strong-willed humility,” calling it “the most noticeable mark on leaders left by the cross.”

Chapter 4, The Reverend Answer Person: Closet Atheist – He says, “Cross-shaped leaders are focused on people before ideas, answers, or master plans. They are listeners and questioners before they are visionaries or seers.” He laments the fact that vision cannot be separated from the committed relationships of those we serve, else it hardens into a mere abstract “ideology or an agenda.”

Chapter 5, Life Together: In Sickness and in Health – He says, “Cross-shaped leaders live a double life” wherein we get on with making progress on our mission while at the same time recognizing the imperfect lives of ourselves and those we serve.

Chapter 6, Humor: The Last Laugh – He says, “Humor is a sign of our need for grace. Cross-shaped leaders take themselves less seriously, because they take God’s grace more seriously.”

From the Publisher

For Lutheran pastor John Berntsen, the cross is about more than the crucifixion on Good Friday. It is shorthand for the whole drama of salvation—God’s decisive act of reconciling the world to God’s own self. The cross is dying and rising with Christ, but at a deeper level it is the story of the world’s resistance to grace. Those who lead are subject to the cross no less than others. In contrast with the current fashion for “visionary” or “purpose-driven” leaders, cross-shaped leaders are not primarily the providers of master plans, nor are they master builders. Cross-shaped leadership is provisional, contextual, and fallible—open-ended ministry that has the character of a pilot project. It is always under construction and revision.

Our moment-by-moment functioning in ministry is subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. But Berntsen offers good news within this potentially dismal perspective. He writes, “Once we’ve accepted the truth that ministry is hard, even impossible—once we’ve stopped living in denial of this reality, or perhaps whining about it—it becomes the truth that sets us free. We cease being gloomy servants, weighed down by our resentful conviction that we are all alone in our work—the closet atheism born of the worry, ‘If I don t do it, nobody will’—and instead become joyful coworkers of a strong, wise, and consoling Lord.”

With optimism, humor, and deep empathy, Berntsen’s Cross-Shaped Leadership offers hope and challenge in the midst of the rough and tumble of parish practice.

About the Author

John A. Berntsen, ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. A graduate of St. Olaf College (B.A.), Yale Divinity School (M.Div.) and Emory University (Ph.D.), he has also taught at the college and seminary levels.

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