African Christian Leadership, Realities, Opportunities and Impact

Edited by Robert J Priest and Kirimi Barine ( Orbis Books for the American Society of Missiology, 2017). $30 USD.

This book, with fifteen contributors, has a clear and openly stated purpose – to assist those investing funds in education and training of leaders for Africa’s churches to know the most fruitful projects in which to place the funds from their foundations and churches.

The evidence for this springs almost from every page. And of course the venture of which this book is the culmination, to interview 8041 people in three countries of Africa, Angola, Kenya and the Central African Republic, in four languages, to discover which pastoral leaders they believed were having an unusually positive impact in their countries, could only be undertaken with significant financial investment. Having identified these current leaders, in-depth interviews were then conducted with them to discover the commonalities among the factors that had lain behind their development as leaders.

This procedure is very worthy and understandable. Its findings are informative. Mentoring and formal education are central to leadership development. The overriding finding is that a major competence in influential Christian leaders is ‘bridging social capital’ not only horizontally across cultural divides but crucially also vertically between the different social and economic levels of society. This also applies internationally. ‘When Christians connect globally within the framework of shared transcendent values, and within a framework of trust and trustworthiness, their collaborative efforts can achieve far more than either partner could achieve without such ties.’ (p.76) This equally applies to donors because ‘ when governments in Europe or North America wish to transmit resources to places like Africa, their lack of close ties with those most in need means that the resources typically are transferred in ways that invite high levels of corruption and misuse by unscrupulous middlemen.’ ( p.77) Further, ‘ even secular governments or aid organisations often find such religious networks vastly preferable partners to local non-religious parties’. Ibidem. The UK DFID should take note since it refuses to provide aid specifically to church groups. A negative finding was that most Christian churches, organisations and leaders have a minimal focus on Islam.

Two critical questions must be noted. The first is drawn from a review by Dominic Lawson, a political journalist in the UK and son of a former UK chancellor of the exchequer, of a book that examines data about the advertising industry. He writes: “I follow the analysis that is (being) given to investment banks about the chances of a Brexit deal. The reports always end with a series of percentages, supposedly the probabilities of various different outcomes. These numbers are of course, nothing more than opinions masquerading as mathematics: apparently reassuring to investors, but adding nothing to the sum of human knowledge.” (Sunday Times, Culture, July 7 2019, p 33). How far is the information in this study of current leaders, mined through this rigorous process, more than tabulation of opinions about them rather than evidence-based assessment of what has been effective Christian leadership?

A second critical question concerns history. One contributor notes the importance of gathering the stories of leaders and their impact on their churches and communities. However that is precisely what the strategy of the research avoids since it designedly focuses only on living leaders. One finding is that ‘another aspect of effective leaders is their passion for civic engagement.’ (p 37) Since Kenya is one of the three countries studied I searched the index for any reference to Archbishop David Gitari ( Archbishop of Kenya 1997-2002), but in vain. His autobiography, Troubled but not Destroyed ( Isaac Publishing, McLean VA, 2014) is drawn from the daily diaries he kept since the age of 18. Arguably he had the status in Kenya that Archbishop Desmond Tutu did in South Africa as far as influencing the history of his church and country. Should any study of national Christian leaders and their impact as a source for understanding what counts as effective Christian leadership neglect resources that have the advantage of historical distance in time so that their full impact and thus effectiveness can be gauged?

African Christian Leadership is strong on data and current experience, but weak on analysis, theology, ecclesiology and history. It is therefore hard to see how it will shed light on what counts as effective Christian leadership in Africa today and how those aspiring to provide it, those assisting them and those seeking for them, might develop and improve the knowledge and skills needed for the task.

So further work, carried out with equal rigour, is needed to explore these dimensions of the topic.

Christopher Sugden, Oxford, July 2019