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7 Leadership Books for Difficult Days

  • Todd Outcalt Lead pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg, Indiana
  • Updated Jul 27, 2012
7 Leadership Books for Difficult Days

Every pastor looks for those impactful leadership books—especially in difficult days. During my span of 30 years of pastoral work, here are seven titles that have impacted me (though in no particular order).

The Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen (Image, 1979)
I received my copy of Nouwen's classic work as a Christmas gift in 1982 during my early years of pastoral ministry. Nouwen's insights were stunning. Principally, he looks to the biblical images of Christ as the example for pastoral work, and demonstrates how, throughout Scripture, God uses wounded and broken people to do extraordinary ministry. The book is at once challenging and comforting and certainly grace-filled. Imbued in the book is a pervading humility that will help any pastor draw from God's strength (rather than relying upon one's own insights and energies). Reading Nouwen's book, one will come away with the feeling of having been in God's presence—which is not at all a bad thing for a leader. Better yet, the book is a quick read and can be pursued as a kind of devotional work, yet with deep insights. It's not so bad being wounded when God is the Healer, and Nouwen offers more than a few take-aways that pastors can use in any ministry setting.

Failing Forward, by John C. Maxwell (Nelson, 2000)
Maxwell writes widely on leadership, and I could cite several of his titles...but Failing Forward offers more inspiring and humbling truths for struggling pastors than his other works. In short, the book provides ample illustration and insight into the human condition of leadership and how failure is never the defining aspect of pastoral ministry. Failure is a part of every ministry, yes...but Maxwell reveals how grace, persistence and leadership strength can create a forward-looking movement, even in tough times. The book isn't principally about pastoral ministry, but the insights gleaned from it can be applied to any congregation.

The Pastor: A Memoir, by Eugene H. Peterson (HarperOne, 2011)
This book is stunning in its honesty and humanity. Peterson (The Message) writes beautifully and indelibly about his young and exuberant days in the parish and how his domestic choices (marriage, family, vacations) shaped his work for better or worse. His truthfulness concerning the stresses of parish work—and the joys—make his memoir identifiable. Although Peterson's entire parish ministry was served in one setting (and among one people) there is a quality to his commitment that demands attention. Although Peterson's ministry spanned economically good and bad times (and there was a conscious decision to keep his parish a manageable size), his memoir details more than enough hardships to awaken our sensibilities.

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor (Harper, 2007)
Another memoir, even more brutal in its honesty and trajectory, is Taylor's history of her ministry and what she calls compassion burnout. I include the book here because it is one of those that can deeply impact any pastor who ever has asked the question: "How can I continue in ministry through the tough times?" Because nearly 50 percent of all clergy do leave pastoral ministry eventually, her memoir offers some remarkable truths about the inherent pitfalls and stresses of pastoral work. Throughout, however, is an underlying awareness of God's grace and the strength that only God can provide during the difficult days.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins (Harper, 2001)
This is principally a business book—and not all business books translate well to the church—but Collins work here can translate into theology and pastoral leadership. Moving an organization forward (yes, even a congregation) requires discipline and resiliency. Collins provides an ample supply of timely illustrations and insights to show how the tough times make us better leaders.

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, by William H. Willimon (Abingdon, 2002)
This is a collection of pastoral insights gleaned through the ages—and by ages I mean from second century forward. In essence, we can learn much about today by looking at yesterday. Humanity has crossed these bridges before, and if we think we know what difficult days are, let us not forget the past. Willimon has done pastors and the congregations a great service here by assembling this remarkable collection and lifting up the place and role of pastoral leadership during tough times. Nothing more jolting to our sensibilities than receiving advice from a martyr, and a pastor looking for inspiration will find it here throughout.

What Got You Here Won't Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith (Hyperion, 2007)
I include this book here (though principally a business book) because I have found it one of the best and most compelling leadership books I have ever read. In fact, I read it every year to refresh my heart and mind. The title itself reminds us that life is filled with changes and challenges, and we can only lead through change (not ignore it). Furthermore, leadership style or focus that has worked in the past may not work in the future, and Goldsmith shows in clear and concise language and illustration how a leader can move an organization through change of any size or scope. At the heart of this book also is integrity of leadership, which translates to pastoral work very well.

Todd Outcalt is the lead pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg, Ind., a large growing congregation on the west side of Indianapolis. Calvary has been profiled at and He is the author of 22 books in six languages including TheUltimate Christian Living and The Healing Touch. His most recent book (with Michelle Knight) is He Said, She Said: Biblical Stories from a Male and Female Perspective (Chalice, 2012). He lives in Brownsburg with his wife and two children.