Where did Edwards fail? It is difficult to say. Sometimes leaders face an intractable situation that is impossible to solve, situations that sometimes lead to the clarity that their time in a congregation is over. But, all leaders, especially pastoral leaders, must grow in their ability to lead, even as contexts change. And, no, the problem wasn’t that Edwards needed to know his Enneagram or Working Genius. After all, you can’t become a good leader by studying leadership.
Jonathan Edwards was unequivocally the greatest mind of Colonial America. He was arguably one of the greatest minds America has ever produced. An in-depth reading of his copious works shows his facility with precise argument, big-picture thinking, biblical exegesis, redemptive-historical scholarship, and the philosophical underpinnings of the global culture he found himself in. He preached with skill and led a revival that spread throughout the colonies that now comprise the Northeastern United States. Admittedly he was also a little quirky, overly introspective, completely wrong about the slave trade,1 and, at times, unnecessarily speculative.2 He could also be pietistic to a fault. But despite his foibles, Jonathan Edwards was one of the most gifted pastor-theologians that the world has known (having a significant influence on modern theologians like John Piper and Tim Keller).
But he was also fired.
How could this happen? We tend to think that the powerful combination of theological training and homiletic skills ensures a long and mostly-peaceful pastorate. Where Edwards failed was in leadership.
Leadership — The Dirty Word
Let’s say it clearly. Many, many church leaders have unwittingly attempted to baptize the most recent leadership books to serve organizational needs. It isn’t that churches can’t benefit from the common grace insights of the popular leadership material (mainly covering managerial skills). They can (and should). General principles—wisdom and foolishness—govern how leaders organize and engage with the people they lead. But our book wasn’t written by Maxwell or Covey. Our book is the Bible, written by the Lord.3
So what should we do? We have to keep the Book primary while benefitting from other books. We must be students of Scripture before we are students of organizational principles. But we also can’t neglect to learn skills to help us avoid making stupid mistakes.
What Happened in Northampton?
Despite their initial positive response to the First Great Awakening, Edwards had several twenty-something young men within his congregation who now showed themselves, from all signs, not to be truly converted. And yet Edwards was tasked with shepherding them. One of these young men found a midwifery manual (with illustrations). He not only shared the manual with his buddies but began to make lewd comments to girls in the congregation based on a lascivious reading of the midwife manual. It became a congregational issue.4