Examining leadership: A chat with Wycliffe’s John Bowen

TORONTO, ON—Wycliffe College evangelism professor John Bowen has spent a lot of time around university campuses. His years of study and teaching have led him to re-examine Christian leadership.

While working as a high school teacher, he says he decided he "needed more depth of understanding of faith," which fuelled his decision to attend seminary at Trinity College in Bristol, UK. After graduating, Bowen spent 24 years working for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, leading campus chapters, counselling students and later working as an itinerant evangelist. But in 1994, he decided to turn the tables once again, returning to school at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to pursue his Doctorate of Ministry.

"I was going across the country, speaking in universities and often I felt like I was reinventing the wheel," Bowen explains. "I was teaching the Christian students the same stuff about faith and outreach, doing the same evangelistic talks and I thought, 'I need more input for myself.' So it seemed like the right thing to do."

He found the courses were exactly what he was looking for and the diversity of theological backgrounds among his peers added to the experience. After completing his doctorate, Bowen was offered a part time teaching position at Wycliffe College in Toronto and he quickly realized it was what he was meant to do.

"I think my primary gift is as a teacher," says Bowen. "What I learned in seminary really shaped what I teach. I have an eclectic mind that takes stuff from all these teachers and puts it together in a way that reflects my own theology and passions. I think it is true of many seminaries that people think primarily, 'Am I called to be ordained?' My question is, 'What are your gifts?'"

The question of gifts is where Bowen directs aspiring ministry students. He believes when they have a sense of who they are and the gifts God has given them, their gifts will make them natural leaders.

Bowen explains that teaching people how to lead is a difficult task in a classroom setting, but that leadership gifts often come out naturally, whether through doing occasional preaching, working with youth groups or getting involved with mission trips.

"Quite often we have people [going to seminary] who started their own business, so we're not giving these people abilities they do not already have. We are honing and sharpening and giving [students] a theological framework for doing what they are doing."

The New Testament, Bowen points out, rarely uses the word 'leader.' He explains that it focuses on developing your God-given gifts, whether they are teaching, leading worship, encouraging, or entrepreneurial.

"If someone came and said, 'I feel called to be a leader,' I would be quite nervous," says Bowen. "I would ask, 'in what way do you want to lead; who do you want to lead; why do you want to lead?'

"Whereas, if someone said, 'I want to learn to be a better servant,' then I would encourage them to find out what way they are gifted to serve. I think that when you are using your gifts, you probably end up being a leader."

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About the author

Senior Correspondent

Craig Macartney lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where he follows global politics and dreams of life in the mission field.