Book Review: Seven Leaders, by Iain Murray
Iain Murray, Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors. Banner of Truth, 2017. 296 pps, $28.00.
Statistics show that many pastors today are experiencing burnout and quickly leaving the ministry. Survey after survey reveals that many of them simply believe they no longer have what it takes to be a good pastor.
It’s not too difficult to see why. Take a look at pastoral job postings these days and you’ll see a set of requirements beyond the grasp of anyone who’s honest with himself. Couple that with the explosion of blogs, podcasts, and conferences led by celebrity pastors, and the average pastor of a small church can find himself feeling completely inadequate.
Some simply quit. Others, in an effort to better themselves, turn to books on church leadership, often written by those highly successful celebrity pastors.
Well, if you’re one of those pastors who’s been knocked down and burnt out, let me recommend that you put those fancy leadership books down and instead immediately pick up another book: Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors.
WHAT’S IN THE BOOK
Written by Iain Murray, a pastor and the co-founder of Banner of Truth, Iain Murray, Seven Leaders is unique insofar as it demonstrates church leadership through seven brief biographical sketches of seven different pastors, the majority of whom will be unfamiliar to most readers. Focusing on the lives of John Elias, Andrew Bonar, Archibald Brown, Kenneth MacRae, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, W. J. Grier, and John MacArthur, the book is adapted from a series of addresses Murray gave at Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne in 2014. Written especially with an eye toward young men entering the ministry, Murray writes, “It is not meant for them alone. When history is forgotten, it is later generations who suffer. The past is rich with wisdom which will never be out of date.”
I couldn’t agree more. As a (not so young) pastor myself, I found Seven Leaders to be one of the most helpful books I’ve ever encountered and one every pastor should read. But why?
WHY YOU SHOULD READ THE BOOK
The first reason you should read Seven Leaders: it reminds pastors that we’re all called to different times, different places, and different flocks. We’re all given different gifts, different talents, different strengths, and different weaknesses. Murray writes, “Faithful men are not the same in gifts, opportunities, and circumstances. . . . God does not make replicas. We are to learn from leaders yet be imitators of none.” These days it’s very easy to think that the “successful pastor” is going to look a certain way: replete with blogs, books, conferences, podcasts, and a growing congregation. But men differ greatly in their gifts and abilities and talents. God made each one unique, and called each to simply be faithful to the work he gave them.
Second, you should read this book because it’s brutally honest about the struggles inherent in ministry. Every pastor deals at times with depression and doubts that cause them to question their own competency for ministry. The pastors in Seven Leaders encounter trials and temptations of various kind. Each has a season of darkness and doubt, and each ultimately finds his hope not in his own relatively feeble abilities, but in the One who said, “I will build my church!”
We read of Elias’ struggle with his own sin and Bonar’s great grief over the loss of his wife and son. We read of Brown preaching to 76 members in a room that could seat 800 and of MacRae’s battle with serious illness caused by too much stress. We read of Lloyd-Jones being accused of pride and arrogance, and Grier’s struggle with intense loneliness and isolation. Finally, we read of MacArthur’s surprise and relief when he discovered that his expositional sermons really were making a difference.
These accounts are strong reminders to pastors. Through them, it’s as if God was saying to me, “You’re not alone in your struggles. I am using them in your life, and using you despite them.” As Brown puts it, “Though children die, though wives be cut down, though husbands go to the grave, though fortunes break, though all depart, yet in the darkness, and through the storm, there comes a voice, and it says, ‘I, Jesus, live still.’”
Finally, and most importantly, you should read this book because it reminds all of us that the goal of pastoral ministry is not our own glory, but Christ’s. As Murray puts it, “It is faithfulness to Christ, not results, which needs to be the preacher’s primary concern.” Every chapter, whatever the differences, has the same refrain: Pour yourself into preaching, dedicate yourself to praying, and let Jesus build his church through the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
Pastors need a daily reminder that we are “not the Christ” and that the church we shepherd is not ours, but his. We need reminders that preaching is God’s work more than ours, that “one sermon preached in the power of the Holy Spirit is better than 100 without” (MacRae), that “we are responsible, as workers, not for success, but for faithfulness” (Brown), that the church’s spiritual and numerical growth is due to the will of our sovereign God and not some secret formula (MacArthur).
We need to have convictions that are theologically driven, as John Elias did, such that we do not gloat when “success” comes or despair when it departs.
Seven Leaders reminds us of all of those things. Along the way, it instructs in other areas (i.e. lessons about the importance of church membership and the fine theological nuances of Amyraldianism).
But in the end, this is a book about men of conviction not men of convenience. It’s a book about men whose main desire was to remain faithful to God—men who fought theological battles, wore holes in their knees from praying, encountered bitter disappointment and grief, and yet are remembered because, in the end, they knew that the churches they shepherded were Christ’s, not theirs.