John R. Mott and the Leadership of the Church in a Global Society

Jeffrey Barbeau

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).

John R. Mott and the Call to Christian Ministry

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):


John R. Mott (1865-1955) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

  1. The Problem: The Christian church shapes the future of a global society. Mott makes a claim that even the most strident Christian often hesitates to state today: without the church, the rest of the world suffers. Statistical and anecdotal evidence—gathered by Mott himself through months of personal interviews around the globe—indicated to him that a considerable decline in the number of people willing to take up the call to ministry was already underway in the early twentieth century, both in the United States and abroad. Yet Mott examined more than mere numbers, for his standard for Christian leadership included physical excellence, social adeptness, and mental acuity. His language (directed to men, though more on this below) is sharp and poignant: “What is meant by men of ability? Men of personal force or strength of personality. Men of sound physical constitution who have the requisite common sense and self-control to care for the body, thus insuring its best working efficiency. Men of mental power and proper habits of study, determined not to stagnate intellectually… possessing the ability to express sympathy and friendship” (FLC, 11). For Mott, the church has a responsibility to encourage the most capable individuals to pursue ordination and full-time ministry.
  2. The Urgency: Mott indicates that the church operates within a world facing serious intellectual difficulties. Society demands leaders who can translate truth into the language of the day and provide sympathetic guidance for others. The church serves as a center for spiritual, moral, and educational formation. The growth of major American cities, for example, proved a serious challenge to the church in Mott’s day. Mott criticizes pastors who move to the suburbs while the cities wallow in despair with overwhelming spiritual and physical needs. The growth of cities was partly the result of a surge in immigration. The situation required uniquely competent leadership and offered tremendous promise for the church if it would effectively embrace the opportunity. Shifting patterns of immigration frequently led to conflict and prejudice, too. Ministers are uniquely equipped to bring unity to the community and help to break the bonds of prejudice and racism far more effectively than legislation alone. Notably, rural areas are also a central concern of the church, and require especially effective clergy to lead the people in these regions: “the problems to be solved by the minister in the village or town call for not one whit less ability than those confronting the city minister. This work will require to an unusual degree the spirit of heroism, self-effacement, friendliness, patience, and vision” (FLC, 40). Class struggle, economic disparity, and racial prejudice in cities and rural regions alike make the role of the Christian minister pivotal.
  3. The Obstacles: Mott cut straight to the point when identifying the chief obstacles facing the future leadership of the church: “The secular and materialistic spirit of the age is a powerful cause in diverting young men from entering the ministry. All ages have been materialistic, but at no time in the past and in no part of the world have the allurements of material progress and success been so potent with young men as they are today in North America” (FLC, 57). The age inculcates a desire for property and power, rather than a “self denying service for God and man” (FLC, 58). The problem was exacerbated by numerous factors. Classical studies necessary for ministerial preparation declined in favor of the sciences, new cosmologies and notions of human anthropology raised questions about the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, and a sense of inadequacy for the task hindered the willingness of young people to embrace a call to ministry. The church needs to encourage greater intellectual latitude, while standing firm on core teachings: “faith is a living thing…it cannot be expected that young men just entering the ministry will believe in a complete way all that older men have come to believe through years of experience and reflection” (FLC, 75). Debt further hinders the call to ministry. Mott laments that the church does not do more to assist ministers to procure their education without cost—through required service, for example. And, while Mott critiques the widespread desire for material gain, he also chastises the church for failing to provide ministers with adequate salaries to comfortably support a family. Above all, the greatest obstacle to enlisting the most capable individuals for Christian ministry is the church’s failure actively to recruit them.
  4. The Favoring Influences: Against these obstacles, powerful favoring influences exist. Ministers can make the call to full-time ministry contagious and desirable through a thoughtful example that restores the appeal of the profession. Denominational educational institutions have a responsibility to uphold rigorous academic standards and avoid the subtle “drift into inferiority” (FLC, 113). Revivals, so often a productive force in prior decades, have the capacity to awaken the interest of those called to Christian ministry, but churches must use this tool of ministry for it to be effective. Among the most important favoring influences is the encouragement of parents in the home, where children can grow to respect and honor full-time ministry as a valued professional calling. Throughout, the need for prayer abounds: “Prayer indicates that we actually believe that Christ meant what He said when He summoned us to pray for laborers” (FLC, 135).
  5. The Means of Influence: The final section, on “propaganda” or the means of influence, points out the specific means of action that ought to be employed by the church. Ministers ought to make the calling a viable and desirable option, young people should be encouraged by their teachers to take up the calling to Christian service, and college/seminary professors ought to make spiritual formation an integral part of their teaching. Mott even complains that “[t]oo many modern professors carry to an extreme the university idea and give one the impression that they are more concerned with developing subjects than developing men” (FLC, 154). Associations, student groups, and other small groups can promote the recognition of a calling to church leadership. Even the use of good Christian literature and biographies of great Christian leaders—reminiscent of Wesley’s development of the Christian Library—can facilitate the ministerial development process. Still, Mott cautions against allowing the leadership formation process to become “mechanical.” Ministerial calling is ultimately spiritual and Christians must avoid the temptation to allow “outward human suggestion” to “replace inward prompting of the Spirit. Only God can effectually call men into this service” (FLC 188).

The Needs of the Church Today

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.

Posted Mar 01, 2009