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Will the Future Shape Theological Education?

by David Funk, PhD, Oct 31, 2008

“Foresight is the ‘lead’ that the leader has,” wrote Robert K. Greenleaf in his seminal work, The Servant as Leader. “Once leaders lose this lead and events start to force their hand, they are leaders in name only” (1977/2002, p. 40). This statement captures the importance of foresight as a servant-leadership quality, a conviction that appeared in several of Greenleaf’s essays and was later identified in the list of salient servant-leadership characteristics distilled by Larry C. Spears (1995, p. 4).

Although servant leadership is well suited as the leadership choice for those in Evangelical Theological Higher Education (ETHE) to model and teach (Jones, Lowery, & Tanner, 2007; McKinney, 2004; Thompson, 2002), the development of foresight as a component of servant-leadership has typically been lacking. Likewise, Gary (2004) and Chand and Murphey (2002) have suggested that churches, especially American evangelical churches, are also in need of reorientation with a foresight perspective. “We need pastors with foresight,” declared Gary (p. 38), “Hope can undergird the life of the church if introduced into professional and doctoral programs to reach mid-career pastors or ministry leaders with foresight methodologies.”

The need for leadership foresight is especially pronounced for American evangelicalism, which is experiencing a cultural shift away from the dominant paradigms of its twentieth-century antecedents. This shift is occurring as a new generation of evangelicals, dubbed the younger evangelicals by Webber (2002), and a parallel phenomena, the “emerging church movement,” challenge the traditional modes of leadership preparation within evangelicalism’s institutions of higher education. These institutions include the colleges, seminaries, and theological schools that are the training ground for many evangelical leaders.

According to McKinney (2004, p. 158), ETHE institutions should reflect a commitment to train servant leaders, but it is unclear that servant-leadership foresight is specifically developed within the Evangelical academy. “By design, religion has been more inclined to cultivate hindsight, rather than foresight,” wrote Gary (p. 38). The cultivation of foresight during this formative time of leadership preparation promises to produce theological leaders with the adaptive capacities and wisdom to shepherd their ministries well into the twenty-first century (Chand & Murphey). As awareness increases of the importance of theological leaders with foresight, the inevitable question becomes how might this happen.

The Study Design

One answer is to better understand the perceptions and preferences for the future cultivation of foresight by ministry leaders in ETHE. As part of my doctoral dissertation in Leadership Studies (Gonzaga University), I interviewed ten people in the Pacific Northwest with influence on leadership-development efforts in ETHE in order to understand how they perceived the 15-year future of servant-leadership education, and particularly the servant-leadership quality of foresight (Funk, 2008).

My conceptual understanding of servant leadership and foresight was based primarily on the work of Greenleaf and Slaughter (1995) in order to answer four fundamental research questions. Participants were queried about, (1) their understanding of servant leadership and foresight, (2) the forces driving the current leadership-development situation in ETHE, (3) possible leadership-development futures in that context, and (4) their efforts to address these situations.

My qualitative study combined in-depth, open-ended interview questions with Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR) to elicit participant perceptions about the essential nature of servant leadership and foresight, and its future development in ETHE. In each interview, participants described optimistic, pessimistic, and most-probable possible scenarios of ETHE leadership-development efforts in the year 2022. They also made recommendations for rendering the optimistic scenario more probable. Responses to the research questions about servant leadership and foresight were discussed within the context of the future scenarios and recommendations.

Foresight Findings

The findings of this study included identification of essential elements of servant-leadership and foresight education, descriptions of the driving forces influencing the situation in ETHE, and suggestions for improving the future of leadership-development efforts there. One discovery was the general consensus that the Evangelical academy will need to be characterized by foresight, creativity, and cooperation with its constituent churches in order to realize a future closer to its best-case scenario.

Participants described servant-leadership foresight as an important, future-oriented leadership capacity that could be developed in the right setting. More importantly, foresight was described as being interpretive, intentional, and integral to the leadership task. Although foresight was admittedly a future-oriented concept, an important piece had to do with the immediate present and how it was understood. As such, participants described foresight as “seeing and defining reality.” Rather than a divinely given charisma or gift, foresight was typically equated with the more mundane process of working to understand the future significance of indicators that are already present.

Related to its interpretive quality, foresight was described as an intentional and proactive stance with regard to the future. The practice of foresight is more choice than calling, participants said. Although differentiated from forecast, a concept regarded as more oriented toward certainty and statistical extrapolation, foresight was described as anticipatory yet “not quite prophetic.”

Finally, because participants saw foresight as more choice than gift, they also acclaimed its necessity for wise and effective leadership. Broaching the non-optional category of leadership characteristics, participants affirmed that the practice of foresight was ultimately a necessary piece of leading with vision.


Based on my findings, I conclude that ETHE leaders and those with influence on its leadership-development programs need to elevate discussion of foresight as an integral leadership capacity worthy of training. This study noted the dearth of intentional foresight-development pedagogical practices in ETHE, a situation that could be remedied as foresight assumes greater prominence in leadership language and classrooms. As awareness of foresight grows, my hope is that future evangelical leaders will embrace foresight as a crucial dimension of leadership effectiveness.


Chand, S. R., & Murphey, C. (2002). Futuring: Leading your church into tomorrow. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Funk, D. D. (2008). The future of servant leadership and foresight in evangelical theological higher education. Dissertation Abstracts International, 69, (02) 312. (UMI 3303370).

Gary, J. (2004). Creating the future of faith: Foresighted pastors and organic theologians. Dialog: A Journal of Theology. 43(1), 37-41.

Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). The servant as leader. In L. C. Spears (Ed.), Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th anniversary ed., pp. 21-61). New York: Paulist Press. (Original work published 1977)

Jones, J. K., Lowery, R., & Tanner, T. (2007). Academic leadership as servant leadership. Biblical Higher Education Journal2, 25-33.

McKinney, L. J. (2004). Evangelical theological higher education: Past commitments, present realities, and future considerations. Christian Higher Education3, 147-169.

Slaughter, R. A. (1995). The foresight principle: Cultural recovery in the 21st century. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Spears, L. C. (1995). Introduction: Servant-leadership and the Greenleaf legacy. In L. C. Spears (Ed.), Reflections on leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers (pp. 1-14). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Thompson, R. S. (2002). The perception of servant leadership characteristics and job satisfaction in a church-related college. Dissertation Abstracts International, 64 (08), 2738A. (UMI No. 3103013)

Webber, R. E. (2002). The younger evangelicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

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