Leading in Mission at a Higher Level: How to Become a Reflective Practitioner in Mission Leadership

by Kirk Franklin

Being a purposefully reflective practitioner may be counterintuitive for most, but it can result in leading at a higher level.

Leaders in God’s mission must lead in a rapidly changing world—in social, cultural, economic, political, and religious environments—at local, national, and global levels. I call this the need to lead at a higher level. In doing so, I don’t want to detract from Ken Blanchard’s book, Leading at a Higher Level, where he states that such leadership has a higher purpose in mind, where the development of people is of equal importance to their performance. From my experience, leading at a higher level also requires becoming a reflective practitioner. I will explain what I mean in a moment.

After I was appointed to a senior leadership role with my mission agency, one of our board members encouraged me to take time out for preparation before starting. I was able to schedule a five-week personal retreat. The time went quickly as I focused my attention on four areas: (1) reading and reflecting on scripture (Jesus’ words in the Gospels; Paul’s missionary trips in Acts and his prayers in Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians); (2) reading and reflecting on books, articles, and audio presentations on mission, leadership, management, and change that were recommended; (3) writing (the reading and reflecting enabled me to focus my thoughts on writing core value, mission, vision, strategic indicators, and a potential strategic plan for the mission agency); and (4) weekly accountability sessions with my pastor.

As the retreat progressed I sensed a greater degree of confidence and empowerment. By the time I finished, I knew I was ready for the new leadership role and all that it would require from me. I enjoyed a degree of calmness about my life and leadership calling for the next few years. After awhile, however, I realized I was primarily interested in accomplishing tasks to achieve ministry goals with results I could provide to my board of directors. While interacting with church, mission, and Bible college leaders, I noticed that something seemed to be missing on my side of the conversation. I was lacking confidence in some areas; however, I couldn’t pinpoint what they were. When I mentioned this to a missiologist, he recommended I start a study program that had a healthy composition of missiology and theology courses. As I began reflecting on a theology of mission, it became clear to me and those around me that this was having an impact on the leadership I was giving. As I sat in lectures each week and carried out research on various topics assigned to me, I realized how refreshing the experience was. My thinking shifted from striving to lead a mission organization through focusing primarily on achieving results to learning how to lead at a higher level by bringing a reflective process into the leadership I was seeking to provide.

Three years ago, I discovered that other leaders in missions were finding that something was missing in their leadership. Their focus was on their own plans, strategies, budgets, and results. Many told me they had no voice with churches, Bible colleges, seminaries, mission leaders, and missiologists. They were under pressure to find their leadership voice and influence. They were under pressure to lead at a higher level even though they didn’t realize it.

Let me pause and reflect on the challenges in mission that lay ahead of us. How will we prepare for them? What will their effect be on the future of our ministries? Perhaps your mind immediately went to the practical factors affecting ministry (e.g., how to see the donor’s dollar go further in ministry; how to engage the next generation in mission, or how to harness the power of short-term missions).

Did you pause to consider these types of questions: What will global realities like rising oil, food prices, and global warming have on missions? What will the growing distance between affluent and less affluent countries mean to our ministries? How will the global shifts in Christianity affect us? How will the relationships between the leaders and followers of the world’s religions affect us? How have the changes in how the Bible is read and used around the world impact us?

What are the burning needs of leaders in mission? In May 2008 at our international conference, we asked mission leaders associated with our ministry from over fifty countries to give us their perspectives on their leadership development needs. They responded with fifty-nine topics that can be grouped as follows:

• Mentoring, coaching, ongoing training in leadership (nineteen topics, from “funding contextualized leadership training” to “providing an ongoing process of modeling and mentoring”)

• Practical skill development (sixteen topics, from “helping to learn English” to “learning best practices”)

• Specific orientation to the organization (eight topics)
• Personal growth (six topics, from “developing listening skills” to “conflict resolution”)

• Working with the board/governance (four topics, from “how to motivate board members” to “training for the board chairperson”)

• Preparing for leadership transition (two topics)

There were four additional issues addressed:

• Leaders need time to reflect.
• Leaders need reflection and prayer training.
• Leaders need time for reading to connect to the wider world.
• Leaders are grown in processes which involve pain that brings intimate contact with God.

These four topics (or less than seven percent of the fifty-nine topics) fit under a reflective heading. This could imply that the majority of leaders saw their needs to be in practical skills and ongoing leadership development. But does that make these reflective topics any less a priority? Albert Einstein is attributed as saying that major problems or challenges we have do not get solved at the same level of thinking in which they were created. As we apply this thinking to missions, I assume we are anxious to see God be glorified as he brings his mission into fruition. What is our part in this process as leaders in missions? What have we been trying that is not working? If Einstein is right, can the solutions actually be found within our ranks—or do we have to look beyond our strategies and structures to find solutions?

Reflective Practitioners
We need to consider the priority of becoming reflective practitioners. I first heard this term while listening to a presentation by Bill (William) Taylor of the World Evangelical Alliance at an Evangelical Fellowship of Asia conference in 2001. As Christian leaders, we have a higher purpose to lead under God’s purposes and character. Taylor stated that our leadership must flow out of our intimate relationship with Jesus and God’s word. Taylor defines reflective practitioners as

…women and men of both action and study; rooted in the word of God and the Church of Christ; passionately obedient to the fullness of the Great Commandment and Great Commission; globalized in their perspective; yet faithful citizens of their own cultures. (2000, 1)

Taylor speaks of “the superb example of that great reflective practitioner, the Apostle Paul: evangelist, missionary, church planter, team leader, strategist, missiologist, theologian, and author” (2000, 520). The reflective practitioner demonstrates a “unique and Spirit-empowered combination of action and reflection, study and strategy” (2000, 520). As one of my colleagues succinctly observes, the reflective practitioner has an integrated nature—action and study, local and global, Christ-centered and biblical. Perhaps leading at a higher level through being a reflective practitioner is a new concept to you. Whether it is or not, I hope you grasp its significance. As we seek to lead in a different kind of world, we need to balance practice with reflection.

Leading at a higher level by being a reflective practitioner requires more than knowing about the big issues facing one’s ministry. Henri Nouwen says such leaders “must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus” (1989, 45). He affirms the place of contemplative prayer, saying, “Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them” (1989, 45).

The concept of a reflective practitioner originated with Donald Schön, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his 1984 book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Schön defines a reflective practitioner based upon his observations from five professions—engineering, architecture, management, psychotherapy, and town planning—where he discovered that the best professionals know more than they can put into words. They rely more on a collection of creativity in simple, spontaneous ways learned in practice than they do on formulas learned in graduate school.

It was John Dewey who popularized the concept in the educational field. Susan Van Wynen states that “much of the credit for the development of the ‘reflective practitioner’ concept is given to John Dewey’s progressive education movement” (2008, 3). Dewey defined reflective thinking as “the active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it” (2008, 3). The reflective practitioner is someone who “sees and responds to everyday practices through a reflective lens and therefore needs to create time to enable reflectivity to take place and for new ideas to emerge. He or she can critically analyze practice” (2008, 3).

Building Reflective Processes into Leadership Practices
There are practical methods to build reflective processes into leadership practices. One we have used effectively is what I call a reading-reflection-consultative approach.

We have used this to stimulate our leadership to consider missiological issues affecting the organizations they lead. Each participant is asked to read a collection of articles and books appropriate to the discussion topic before arriving for a leadership meeting. Each person is given a maximum of fifteen minutes to share about his or her reading and reflection. Each gives a one-sentence statement that focuses his or her reflections on what he or she has read and how it impacted him or her. An external facilitator with a missiological background works with the group to summarize the key issues.

A practical example of this process was when our new leadership team met for the first time in January 2008. Our agenda was to focus on strategy. However, to prepare ourselves, we all read the Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 33 on Holistic Mission beforehand. We were each asked to reflect on these two questions: How do we relate the urgency of Bible translation in the context of the holistic ministry of the local church? and How does reflection on holistic mission help Wycliffe Bible Translators International think more realistically about its ministry and the context in which it functions?

When we arrived at our venue in San Jose, Costa Rica, each member of our 12-person team was given ten minutes to share highlights from his or her reading and reflection. Our missiological consultant facilitated the sharing and helped each person isolate one key statement. Each of these was written on a flip chart and remained there for the entirety of the three-day meeting to serve as a reminder of what we were thinking about. Then our consultant helped us summarize these thoughts into statements that would in turn inform our vision, mission, values, and strategies. We came up with the following which are specific to our ministry:

• We are called to a lifestyle of Bible translation as opposed to a task of Bible translation.

• Our ministry is not only to see people transformed for the afterlife (theological), but also transformed to lead a holistic quality of life.

• We need to position ourselves as part of the Church and the total mission of God, and not only overlap our ministry with that of the Church.

Each time we have used this approach I have noticed a depth in the reflective process which highlights its benefits. Being purposefully reflective practitioners is a new experience for many of our participants. This is because our initial response as leaders is to immediately attempt to “solve” problems, systems, structures, and processes. In-depth reflection requires learning and reorientation. The structured reading-reflection-consultative process helps us begin to act differently. As a result of this process, we have identified three improvement opportunities:

• Develop missiological reflectors—a core group of reflective practitioners who apply their minds to specific issues. They will help us engage at the global level to influence missiological dialogue and strategy.

• Intentionally develop reflective thinkers—a pool of general reflective practitioners within our mission. In fact, we want to encourage all our leaders to make time to read and think reflectively. It is essential they understand and articulate the theological and missiological underpinnings of our ministry.

• Become active in mission research—encouraging research in theology, ecclesiology, and apologetics from an Asian, African, or Latin American perspective. These missiological discussions and results should be shared with the Church as we engage with them.

Leading at a higher level through purposely becoming a reflective practitioner may sound like too high of an ideal. However, here are some simple ideas for bringing a reflective process into your leadership responsibilities:

• Spend twenty minutes a day reading and reflecting from biblical/theological sources on a wide range of topics related to your role, or covering specific situations in your work that you want to understand. Write down key statements and thoughts you can bring into your leadership role.

• Develop a journal of quotes from a wide range of authors that you can use in your communication with your team or that spur you to new ideas.

• Introduce a pre-reading and reflection process with your leadership team. Has all of your team read the same article or book with biblical/theological perspectives that impact your work? When you gather, give each person five minutes to share his or her reflections on his or her reading. Have him or her distill this into one key statement. Combine the statements into an overall philosophy statement that impacts your work or leadership.

• When you have your next strategic planning session with your team, use a reading-reflection process on a biblical/theological topic that informs your work.

• Invite a theologian to help you process a theological question, such as a theology of work, a theology of leadership, or a theology of globalization.

• Go away on a quiet retreat, where there is only you, your Bible, a pen and paper, and God. Learn to listen and take note of what God communicates to you. Share these insights with others on your team.

Is leading at a higher level through incorporating a reflective practice into our leadership life going to make a difference? I have observed many benefits for myself and many of my colleagues. Our missiological foundation and expression is well on the way to becoming a significant development for our ministry. Many of our leaders are developing as reflective practitioners. Others at least have a better understanding of the value of this approach. There is active buy-in from key leadership in this entire process. Therefore, there is scope to continue the consultative process with a core group of reflective practitioners, using internal and external resource personnel, to guide us in developing a missional thinking in all of our ministries. As we strive to do this, we are leading at a higher level.

Blanchard, Ken. 2006. Leading at a Higher Level. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Blanchard  Management Corporation.

Nouwen, Henri. 1989. In the Name of Jesus. New York: Crossroad.

Schön, Donald. 1984. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

Taylor, William. 2000. Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Van Wynen, Susan. 2008. “Looking to Jesus: Lessons in Becoming a Reflective Practitioner.” Unpublished.


Kirk Franklin is executive director/CEO of Wycliffe International. He lives in Melbourne, although the office is in Singapore. He and his wife Christine have three adult children. The Franklins have served with Wycliffe for over twenty-nine years.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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