John R. Mott—ecumenical Christian, statesman, and Nobel Prize winner—was a Methodist layman whose lifelong aim was to mobilize lay and ordained Christians for social and evangelical concerns. Exactly one century ago, Mott called his contemporaries to reflect on the need for high-caliber leaders in The Future Leadership of the Church (Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1909; hereafter, FLC). Unlike many fashionable leadership books today that often equate leadership with a set of one-size-fits-all skills, Mott’s work clarifies the unique characteristics of those called to church leadership in a modern, global society. He reminds Christians in his generation—and ours—that qualified leadership does not simply appear. Leadership emerges from a church committed to securing the most qualified individuals for ordained ministry. “No society,” Mott claims, “can realize great objects without thoroughly qualified leaders” (FLC, 4).
Mott’s potential for success was evident early on. Born in New York in 1865, Mott was raised in Iowa from infancy. He attended Methodist class meetings as a youth and became a noted orator while a student. Later, Mott moved to Ithaca, NY, where he attended Cornell University. At Cornell, Mott experienced a spiritual and vocational reconversion while listening to J.E.K. Studd, brother of one of the so-called Cambridge Seven who famously devoted their lives to missionary work in foreign lands. The experience reoriented Mott’s plans from a career in law to ecumenical leadership and worldwide missions advocacy. Local work in Ithaca with the Y.M.C.A. led to broader public recognition as a speaker and landed him a position as national secretary of the Y.M.C.A. between 1888 and 1915. In 1910, Mott helped lead the noted Edinburgh Missionary Conference, and, in subsequent years, laid the foundation for what would eventually become the World Council of Churches in 1948. Mott’s service to global ecumenism was far-reaching, his humanitarian efforts among prisoners of war and other major concerns frequently lauded, and his capacity as a compelling leader recognized finally through memorial services held around the globe following his death in 1955.
In his characteristically crisp motivational style, Mott’s work pursued his agenda in five areas: the problem, the urgency, the obstacles, the favoring influences, and the propaganda (i.e., the means of influence):
Mott’s The Future Leadership of the Church garnered wide praise in some sixty reviews, including an endorsement from President Theodore Roosevelt, who applauded Mott’s emphasis on the need for Christian leaders of a heroic spirit: “…the call of duty to undertake this great spiritual adventure, this work for the betterment of mankind, should ring in the ears of young men who are high of heart and gallant of soul, as a challenge to turn to the hard life of labor and risk, which is so infinitely well worth living” (cf. C.H. Hopkins, John R. Mott, 1865-1955 [Eerdmans, 1980] 325). But the question remains, does Mott speak a word for the church today?
I believe that Mott’s work continues to be relevant, even if we must translate some aspects of his plan for our own context. A few preliminary cautions are certainly in order. First, his portrait of the Christian leader as a solitary individual of the highest caliber is itself a potential obstacle to recruitment. One thing emerging church leaders and many recent writers on evangelism have demonstrated is that some of the most effective forms of outreach and leadership are found in the most commonplace and down-to-earth contexts (see the writings of McLaren and Kimball, for example). No doubt, Mott’s use of language was intentional, since he wished to inspire leaders of the highest caliber with a challenge of equally high daring. But movements favoring the ministerial capacity of the laity (e.g., the charismatic movement) have rightly decentralized the exclusive authority of individual leaders.
Mott’s focus on recruiting male leadership is also regrettable. One might excuse his language as a tendency of the times, but Wesleyanism did have a strong tradition of female leadership even in Mott’s day—one that has rightly been restored to full capacity in the last forty years in the UMC.
Yet, such criticisms aside, The Future Leadership of the Church could easily be published today. Mott’s focus on an emerging global society, the loss of respect for the ministerial profession, and the skeptical tendencies of the times continue to ring true a century later. The world has changed, but the problems Mott identified persist in many ways. Globalism is the new watchword, as technological innovations and major world events have brought once distant communities closer together. New ministers, too, continue to be in demand, as the rolls of many UM conferences illustrate. Second career pastors are an effective and vital dimension of church leadership, but the church must also intentionally devote itself to inspiring people of all ages to hear and act on the call to full-time Christian service. And the crisis of skepticism is no less a reality in the 21st century than it was at the close of the nineteenth. The singular word of a clergyman may not quell a skeptical voice, as Mott believed, but the emergence of pastors as spiritual and intellectual guides to faith may prove a more meaningful and lasting solution to disbelief in this generation.
Other commonalities are worth noting. The relationship between cities, suburbs, and rural areas can be felt in many annual conferences. United Methodists struggle with economic and social disparities not only among the laity, but even among the ministers who seek to work and serve in these regions. The challenges and opportunities that emerge from new immigration patterns and emerging populations continue to demand fresh ideas. Moreover, while the UMC continues to find means of supporting the educational needs of prospective ministers, the financial and spiritual challenges remain a serious obstacle for most seminary students. Too frequently, debt saddles graduates who are subsequently placed in low paying charges. And, while spiritual formation is a core component for accreditation with the Association of Theological Schools, a gap between theological study and pastoral care still exists that may create a deceptive disconnect between academic and pastoral theology. Professors and students alike must work to connect both aspects of the faith and learning continuum.
One should remember that John Mott remained a layperson throughout his lifetime, but served as an effective Christian leader nonetheless (cf. his Liberating the Lay Forces of Christianity [Macmillan, 1932] which addressed this pivotal dimension of leadership in the church). But his interest in restoring the value of Christian ministry as a full-time profession deserves fresh emphasis today. For Mott, the Christian minister is, above all, one who has experienced a genuine encounter with the living Christ. The example of a life transformed by a personal relationship with Christ allows the world to see the symbiotic relationship between a minister’s public proclamations and interior character. One hundred years after the publication of The Future Leadership of the Church, Mott’s words to a church seeking effective leadership amidst a global society open afresh to the penetrating power of the gospel remain strikingly relevant. The future of a church committed to historic orthodoxy depends upon the active recruitment of qualified candidates for ministry today. In our theologically and socially precarious context, the world longs for Christian leaders of deep faith and professional insight.