Book Review- “Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader”

Grant Hagiya, Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-4267-5322-0. 

Spiritual Kaizen
Spiritual Kaizen

I recently had the opportunity to read Spiritual KaizenI had not heard of this book until receiving a copy of it in the mail, but I am very glad to have received it. It’s a nice and relatively short book (142 pages including notes) about ministry leadership and life. The book itself may be short, but its concepts, ideas and questions took me a lot of time to process because so many examples came to mind from my own experience based on what Grant Hagiya was writing about.

The book is divided into five chapters. The majority of the book is spent in chapter three unpacking what Hagiya defines as “The Big Three of Spiritual Leadership.” Elsewhere discussion is given to what he defines “Spiritual Leadership” as, the present situation of the church, traits and qualities of effective clergy, and “The Critical Role of Church Culture, Systems, and Organizational Development.” If you are looking for a book on church leadership, this is your book. If you are looking for a golden ticket and sure fire plan for effective church leadership without fail, this is not your book. (Such a book really can’t exist if we acknowledge every context and situation is unique.)

To quickly unpack the title of the book, it would be helpful to share the definition of “Kaizen” which Hagiya offers. He writes that Kaizen means, “steady and continuous growth and learning” (page ix). This theme is repeated throughout the work and helps underscore the book’s premise. Hagiya explains that “the premise of this book is that leadership traits are not set at birth, and that all of us can grow and develop into more effective leaders at any time during our careers” (4).

In unpacking and evaluating the book, I will not offer a thumbs up/thumbs down, or a ranking of stars, or things like that.  Rather for my processing, and hopefully for your benefit, I will share what I found that I loved, what I likedwhat I might have done differently, and what I felt raised questions for myself.  What I value in a book is that it makes me think and not just shake my head in automatic agreement or in hasty disagreement.  I want to be challenged when I read, sometimes affirmed, but most importantly I want to be able to think, learn, and grow.

What I Loved

There was so much that I loved in this book. I appreciated that the author’s premise was clear (4), and his emphasis on learning and life-long learning (86) and growth were helpful (133). His use and reference of tools like Strengths Finder was appreciated too. At the end of each chapter, he also provides suggestions “For Further Reading.” Those lists have likely given me a few more books to read and add to my library (including some more works from Jim Collins, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky).

Bishop Hagiya
Bishop Grant Hagiya, the author of Spiritual Kaizen

I also loved his descriptions and sense of the kind of leadership necessary to do the missional and adaptive work necessary to be in ministry today and in the coming years. He writes that, “effective leadership means that one should change styles in order to match the context of the situation one faces” (9). In order to meet the varying and changing needs, one needs to be able to adapt and use different styles and approaches. This conjures images of the connective leader. It’s reiterated throughout the book like when he adds that some researchers who studied the role and work of clergy “had never seen another profession where individuals had to switch roles so often and so quickly. They called this phenomenon ‘multitasking and polychronic orientation” (19).

Hagiya’s perspective on what he sees as being critical for ministry and leadership is helpful. He explains that, “some of the skill sets I see as absolutely critical for the ministry are adaptive leadership, resiliency, entrepreneurism, discipleship systems, networking, and mission field engagement” (45). Life-long learning is critical, but that also means being able integrate that learning into one’s behaviors and actions (38). To be the kind of leader that Hagiya believes is necessary to survive and thrive, they need to have a “a deep curiosity coupled with a hunger to learn on a sustained basis,” (43) and “an ability to create hope” (67). He also recognizes that this requires courage, noting that “Leadership also means having the courage to venture forward, and to sometimes moves ahead of the rules in order to take advantage of an opportunity” (59).

The leadership theorist in me especially appreciated his discussion and distinction between transactional and transformational leadership. He wrties, “In terms of a leadership model, the mission of the church has never been a transactional one, in which something mutually beneficial is exchanged. Rather, our missional model is one of transformation, where both parties are lifted to a higher level of love of life” (13). He later unpacks more about what it means to be transformational. He explains, “a transformational relationship acknowledges that alone, I do not have enough to fulfill my needs, and you do not have enough to fulfill your own needs, but perhaps together we can pool our resources and power to fulfill both our needs” (78). This idea speaks to the need of the larger community (Body of Christ). Collectively, this understanding of leadership and ministry is something that resonates and excites. He connects it theologicaly to the idea that all are commissioned. He continues, “All baptized Christians are so commissioned. There cannot be a consumer mentality in such a process. As baptized Christians we are not primarily to be taken care of, but through the gifts empowered to us by Jesus we must take care of others. This is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ” (14). As to how Hagiya explains this, I like the example elevator speech he shares (77) and wonder how each one of us might explain our understanding in such a short little speech.

Hagiya recognizes the importance of being in touch with what is going on in the world so it doesn’t “pass us by” (107). At the same time he recognizes the tensions of what it means to be a leader and in ministry. To put it simply, a good leader needs to be able to hold things in tension (114). They need to be integrative thinkers, and often the most successful leaders in ministry “thrive on the complicated and uncharted positions of the ‘not yet'” (115). In thriving in this, relationships matter, as do being able to notice and point out the gift of others and help discern with them what those gifts might be (92).

What I Liked

Building off of what I loved, I liked much of what Hagiya shared regarding adaptive leadership.  He connects Jesus to the idea of the adaptive leader which creates a nice theological and leadership theory bridge (14). He recognizes that new approaches are needed in ministry and in church planting, and provides some examples as food for thought (29). He also plainly admits that the church is struggling with what it means to be adaptive and how to respond to such challenges. He surmises, “Since many denominations are unclear about the type of pastor they need for the adaptive challenges of the future, their present system continues to produce the same type of pastor as in the past” (44). In response to this struggle he shares what he believes would be a helpful response through the growth of “adaptive spiritual leadership” which means “that we must learn and grow in entrepreneurial and innovative ministry, change and transformational models, and systems theory to name just a few” (49).

To underscore his emphasis on adaptability I want to share one longer quote with you. I believe this covers a repeated theme throughout the text and helps highlight some of the larger ideas and theories that Hagiya is incorporating in his work.

“Adaptability is one of the key themes of the new literature of adaptive leadership coming out of the Harvard Business School. The church is borrowing heavily from the adaptive leadership model, and I believe it is one of the most promising resources as we head into an uncertain future. The very premise of adaptive leadership is that there are no easy answers currently available for adaptive problems, and no answers means there are no experts that we can turn to…Adaptive leaders must resist giving superficial answers and keep giving the experimental work back to the people themselves” (59-60).

This concept speaks the importance of being part of a team, and building up the people of your team, organization and community around you. The idea of a “‘lone ranger’ mentality will surely lead to burnout and ineffectiveness'” (21). The concept of adaptive leadership is also served well when connected with the concept of the servant leader, and “10 Traits” of what Hagiya sees are part of being a servant leader, “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building a community” (62).

Theologically and pastorally I liked a few other ideas that Hagiya shared. He mentioned that he found resonance among pastors as being entrepreneurs when defining “entrepreneurial” as “”immediately seizing on opportunities and avoiding hazards like the plague” (58). That seems to represent most effective pastors I know. I also liked the theological idea that “the vision of God should make us uncomfortable, as we continually fall short of that vision due to our human sinfulness” (84). Ministry and the work of ministry is not about doing something comfortable. Some times we forget that, as do the people who are part of faith communities and congregations. This speaks to the observation Hagiya shares in that, “We must pay attention to our own development and growth as spiritual leaders, but the culture and systems of the church have a profound impact on who we are as leaders” (108).

Other ideas that I liked included Hagiya’s foundations of being a spiritual leader. He explains that he believes “there are three major foundations that all spiritual leaders need to possess: a deep well of faith, emotional intelligence, and transformational leadership” (48). He provides a helpful story about Coach John Wooden (80-83), as well as a fun quote from Peter Drucker about how “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (107).

What I Might Have Done Differently

As you can discern from this review, I loved this book. However, there are two things I would probably change or question. One, the book focuses fairly exclusively on leadership and ministry within a United Methodist Church (UMC) perspective. This is to be expected when the book’s author is a UMC Bishop. However, I think this book might be a bit more accessible and translate a bit easier if there were some additions or alterations that included examples from other denominations or churches. It would likely broaden out the book’s reach and audience if this were the case.

The other piece I question or take issue with is Hagiya’s assertion about millennials (33). He seems to suggest that millennials have or will develop positive feelings about institutions. As a millennial, I am not sure I agree with this. I have not seen millennials develop positive feelings about institutions to this point. Millennails seem to resonate well with causes and in responding to causes, but institutions don’t seem to be a place they place faith or attention in necessarily.

What Raised Questions

question markA good book raises questions in my view. This book did that and then some. There were some questions that came to mind about how to cultivate leadership and stewardship among younger members (33), but most of the questions I found and pondered had more to do with learning and the role of the seminary (and or the relationship of the church and academia).

Regarding millennials and younger generations, Hagiya writes, “”Because they lack knowledge of the structure of the church, there is little understanding of how giving to it will actually buy nets in Africa” (33). To this I have to admit and ask rhetorically, why would they? Why should they give? The church hasn’t really given the reason to give or told the story. These are important questions and point to needs especially regarding stewardship and how to help move a congregation forward by telling the story of what it does and why it does it.

Regarding learning, a few questions come to mind about life long learning. For example, when Hagiya writes, “One of the key abilities here is how much information, experience, or skill one can observe,” (39) you have to ask, well how much can they? At the same time, this idea of learning needs to be connected to “spiritual discovery in a relevant and nonthreatening way” (73). A continual process that builds leadership according to Hagiya, “helps your leaders uncover their own dreams and personal ideals. Examine their strengths and their gaps. Use their daily work as a laboratory for learning” (108). What this looks like though for you will be context dependent and thus be an open question for you to keep in mind. Further, how do we as the church best connect people with their gifts and strengths with opportunities to serve? Hagiya is right when he notes, “the church does not do a very good job in volunteer placement” (126). I have seen this far too often. But again, as to how to go about doing this, it is an open question.

Regarding the relationship of the church and academia, I appreciate Hagiya’s observations. I think he rightly notes that “our present church-seminary system does not facilitate the best relationship between the church and the academy. Communication does not always flow directly between the two, and more often than not, there is criticism on both sides of the fence….I think the academy must work more directly with the needs of the church and that the church must reduce its huge expectations of the seminary” (45). The question that comes of this then, is how to go about this? Hagiya continues, “the seminary must be more open to the end product it produces; a postmodern clergy candidate who is grounded in the traditional disciplines but who has an open mindset about the church and world. Adaptation in ministry is going to be a fundamental necessity, and those candidates who have a rigid and fixed mental model of what the church should be will not fare well” (46). Some seminaries have recognized this and are taking risks to respond to these challenges. Others have yet to really do the adaptive work necessary. Those that are making positive strides, are also likely “Using the local church as a living laboratory,” and allowing seminary students to debrief the experiments and experiences with peers through case studies and sharing results (66). Successful seminary training will teach prospective leaders of the church how to learn daily in their lives (109).

Regarding the church in general, a few questions come to mind, particularly about innovation and entrepreneurship. Hagiya writes that “the mainline church has valued and honored mastery, but not originality and innovation. This latter area has been off our radar screen as a church. This is probably the reason for our huge decline, as we have been attempting to maintain our churches, not grow them” (117). Do you agree with this assessment about a lack of originality and innovation leading to decline? Thinking for myself, I find it hard to argue. Additionally, I appreciate his point that, “As established denominations, we have lost this outreach edge. Unless we can capture this sense of purpose to make disciples of Jesus Christ, we have little hope for true renewal” (118). This again speaks to the importance of story. What is story? What is so significant that we have to share with the world and why do we share it?

A Closing Thought

Like I said above, if you are looking for a golden ticket and sure fire plan for effective church leadership without fail, this is not your book. However, if you are looking for a relatively short book that is full of a wealth of rich perspectives and good thought provoking material about what it means and might mean to be a growing and learning learner and leader in ministry, this is a fantastic read. If I haven’t convinced you in this lengthy review, let me quote Brian McLaren’s perspective. He writes that, “This is the one book on Christian leadership I wish every seminarian and young pastor would read and discuss with peers. And the same goes for every mid-career and senior leader too. Spiritual Kaizen is pure gold.” I generally agree.

Image Credits: Bishop Hagiya, and Question Mark.

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