The Flourishing Pastor, Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership

The recipient of the Christianity Today 2022 Book of the Year in the “Church and Pastoral Leadership” category, The Flourishing Pastor aims to encourage and instruct pastors in the art of shepherding their congregations. Tom Nelson is the lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Kansas City, a multi-campus church, and president of Made to Flourish, an organization dedicated to spreading the ideas found in this volume. Nelson is concerned that pastors are increasingly at risk for burnout and are challenged by strong cultural headwinds that often lead them to anything but flourishing (pp. 6-7, 12). They face wounding criticism, unfulfilled expectations, and misunderstandings (pp. 79, 107, 226-227). They are immersed in a toxic celebrity culture (pp. 16-22, 42) that provides little encouragement for pastors to minister as shepherds (pp. 24-26). Quoting Eugene Peterson, Nelson believes many pastors “are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods” (p. 11). Nelson cautions, via Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about overemphasis on being a visionary, rather than a communicator of Scripture (pp. 20, cf. pp. 24, 229). For his own enrichment, Nelson turns often to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (p. 110), and a reminder, drawn from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters which he reads annually, that our real enemies are demonic (p. 208).

Nelson believes the church is God’s design for hope in the world (p. 33), and flourishing churches led by flourishing pastors are vital. Flourishing churches emphasize developing disciples who live out the Christian life, not only on Sundays, but throughout the week. The author calls this equipping Sunday to Monday Christians (pp. 161-179), which is the purpose for the organization he directs, Made to Flourish, as well as being interwoven in the DNA of his church. Through this methodology Christians do not try to win a cultural war, they try to glorify God by being like Christ (p. 127). Christians are already in society, and they are to bloom where God plants them (pp. 130-132). Nevertheless, the church he leads engages culture through numerous programs, including the arts, benevolence in the community, dance, partnering with local, national, and global organizations, and bridge-building across religious, racial, and political divides (pp. 137-141, 189-190). They also have a two-year pastoral residency program (pp. 138, 192-194, 243-244). The mission statement of Christ Community Church is, “To be a caring family of multiplying disciples who influence our community and world for Jesus Christ” (p. 159). The shadow of Tim Keller, who endorsed the book, is evident in this statement.

In critiquing The Flourishing Pastor, I found the book long on generality but shy on specifics. Thus it is often difficult to know exactly where Nelson is leading his readers. But if one were to follow the thread he lays down it would line out several disturbing concerns, as:

1.   Spiritual Formation (p. 8): while few actual teachings emerging from the Spiritual Formation (i.e. Spiritual Disciplines) Movement that draws from medieval Roman Catholic ascetic and mystical practices, are stated, nevertheless it is hard to miss Nelson’s reliance on modern promoters of the system. The author’s favorite resource is Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest rooted in the works of the monk Thomas Merton, and psychological philosophy (pp. 13, 27, 28, 54, 84, 90, 103). A close second in popularity is Dallas Willard (pp. 51, 58, 67, 94, 116, 136, 161, 212), who, along with Richard Foster, was instrumental in introducing spiritual formation to Protestant Christians. Not to be missed is Nelson’s strong endorsement of Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuit’s values (pp. 155-158). Loyola was one of the ancient Catholic mystics who was a primary leader in the Counter-Reformation, Rome’s attempt to quash the Reformation, often through persecution and murder.

2.   Psychology: Nelson seems steeped in secular psychology as can be seen in his promotion of life coaches (pp. 45, 46, 73, 99, 110, 115, 202), his recommendation for self-love (p. 111), and his several quotes from Curt Thompson’s book The Anatomy of the Soul (pp. 96, 152, 154, 234, 241) Thompson claims to be a Christian, but his book is pure secular psychology, with no attempt at integration with Scripture.

3.   Generous Orthodoxy (pp. 150-151): This is a term coined by Christianity Today to reflect its editors’ desires to be orthodox in doctrine, but gracious in tone. With the general principle we can agree, but while Nelson warns of the danger of mission drift (pp. 158, 206-207), he himself drifts in several theological areas. As has already been documented, Nelson has joined forces with Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and spiritual formation leaders. To these can be added the following interpretation issues: Nelson informs us that the world is asking not if Christianity is true but if it is good (p. 127). But, of course, many things are viewed by the world as good; the uniqueness of Christianity is that it is true—and this must be our proclamation. When quoting John the Baptist as saying that Christ must increase but he must decrease, he commends John but then says, “In my opinion, he didn’t say enough” (p. 192). Adding his opinion to the words of Scripture is dangerous territory. In addition, Nelson tells the reader that Jesus modeled five “smooth stones” for us: study, prayer, solitude, fasting, and service” (p. 96). But we know little of Jesus’ study habits, He seldom fasted, and was criticized for it, and even solitude was a rare event in Jesus’ life. And strangely Nelson states that “Peter’s use of the language of virtue reflects a long tradition from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle” (p. 104). This is a questionable and dangerous assertion in regard to a Spirit-inspired author of Scripture.

4.   Mysticism: More than once Nelson claims to have heard the voice of God (pp. 6, 36, 56, 103), yet claiming it was inaudible. While common today, and straight from Dallas Willard’s playbook, it is an undermining of Scripture and how God leads His people today.

Overall, while The Flourishing Pastor offers some general insights and wisdom in shepherding God’s people, it is deeply flawed by the numerous concerns noted above.

by Tom Nelson (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2021), 246 pp., paper $12.69

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel