Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Interview With Larry Pettegrew

(Note: This is an interview on leadership that I did with Larry Pettegrew back in 2012.)

I first met Larry Pettegrew in August of 2006. It’s hard to imagine that I found such a gentle, quiet, and humble man in the midst of one of the world’s most boisterous and pompous cities, Los Angeles. But, there he was. I’ll never forget sitting with Stephen Davey, President of Shepherds Theological Seminary (now where Pettegrew serves as Executive Vice-President and Dean) and the conversation somehow moved to Larry Pettegrew. Stephen had studied at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and knew him from there. Now, here I was studying under him on the other side of United States. I still remember what I shared with Stephen about Larry. I shared with him that my Historical Theology professor was a man that exemplified to me gentleness. That is to say when I read about the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22–23 and when I arrive at the word "gentleness," I could not help but think of Larry Pettegrew––and I still can't. Stephen's response was that he had the same impression.

So when I was presented with the opportunity to interview a leader in a field of ministry that I hope to serve in, I could not resist—I had to interview Larry. Really, I had to know what made this guy tick, especially in leadership. And, I had to know what someone like him thinks about leadership and how it looks where they serve the Lord Jesus Christ. What I learned was unforgettable.

The Essence of Leadership

Throughout the interview, Larry wrestled with the idea that he was actually a “leader.” He is obviously in a position of leadership, but his humble nature just would not let him associate himself "in the full sense of the term" as a leader. I’m sure if you asked the students, they would be the first ones to affirm his leadership. Maybe this is actually the first thing to recognize about leadership. True biblical leadership is marked by humility.

As we started the interview, I could tell that Larry was trying to prepare for whatever I might ask, almost like a batter trying to gauge whether he is about to receive a fast-ball or a change-up. He was ready for whatever I might ask. The first question was a change-up. “What is leadership?” I asked. He shared with me that leadership is servant-leadership. He called it "the idea that you humble yourself and wash the other person’s feet so to speak." I knew it was coming. He read for me the words of Jesus that whoever wishes to be great in the kingdom of God must become the servant. The second thing to recognize about leadership is that, to quote Dr. Pettegrew, leadership is servant-leadership.

The Making of a Servant-Leader

How is leadership learned? How are its qualities and characteristics cultivated into someone who will one day take the helm of leadership? Larry shared with me what was most significant in his preparation for leadership, and he also shared with me what Shepherds does in training pastors and other Christian servant-leaders. There was one key word—examples—especially Jesus Christ. "I’ve watched a lot of unsuccessful leadership and I’ve watched a lot of successful leaders over the years…I've learned by watching other leaders."

When he spoke about the students at Shepherds, you could tell that the most important element in their leadership development, he believed, was not in the classroom per se but in the living testimony of the seminary's faculty. That’s not to minimize the importance of the classroom. In fact, I asked him if he thought leadership could be learned in a classroom. He shared with me that he had asked that same question to one of his former presidents. That president said, "There are certain things that I learned in my advanced programs that helped me be a good leader."

Leadership development is a good balance between making the most of the resources available (these can include classes and books) and making the most of the examples (these can be both good and bad) lived out before your eyes. I came away from the interview asking myself, "How can I learn more from the examples of leadership that I get to watch day in and day out?" The third thing to recognize about leadership is that examples teach leadership and examples cultivate leadership qualities.

A Day-to-Day Look

So what sort of things does Larry do as a leader? I was not surprised when he told me that he looks at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 each day and evaluates himself to be sure that these are qualities that are being manifest in his life. He told me, "I go through the fruit of the Spirit every day in my devotions. I just think about it and make sure that they are to some extent being qualities of my life." The fourth thing to recognize about leadership is that leadership requires introspection and self-evaluation before the Lord.

Larry is also in the habit of eating with those in the highest places of leadership in his organization. For example, he has breakfast or lunch with the seminary president once a month. He also eats with others on the school’s board. He told me, "With Stephen, we usually try to get some things done. I usually try to catch his vision." With others, I got the impression that he was just loving on them like Christ while at the same time passing that vision on that he received from his president. Of course, servant leadership is not about just having fellowship with those at the highest levels in an organization. Larry shared with me that he regularly has breakfast or lunch with his students and the student council. In fact, other administrators have offered to interact with the student council in his stead, but he wants to do it saying "I want to meet with them because they really help me learn." The fifth thing identified about leadership from this interview is that leaders fellowship with and learn from everyone.

Weaknesses in Leadership

I was planning on asking him later about some of his own weaknesses as a leader. I didn't even get a chance to ask. He shared with me very early on in the interview that one of his biggest weaknesses is that he is not assertive enough. He said, "That’s probably a good criticism of it, but that's just who I am." But there are other things that he has witnessed in the body of Christ that he never wants to see in his life. He shared with me one:
What I've seen in the fundamentalist movement—not a majority of the time, but on occasion—is a dictator-type leadership…arrogance…an "I'm outside the realm of criticism" [mentality]…and so I don't want to have those type of qualities in my life. So I work hard, so to speak, in my Christian life at trying to have the fruit of the Spirit in my life as much as possible.
Leadership, according to Larry, is off-kilter when leaders place too much emphasis on getting the job done. It is also out of balance when the work is neglected. When I asked him if he had noticed any changes in leadership over the last thirty or forty years, he thought that leadership today "tends to be a little more personal and interested in people, at least when it is being done pretty good." Another principle about leadership is that “there needs to be a good balance between working with people and getting the job done.”

The New Covenant and Leadership

Larry has written a very helpful book dealing with the New Covenant and the Holy Spirit. Who better to ask about how the New Covenant impacts leadership than him, right? When I asked the question, you could tell that this was his favorite question. His speech picked up the tempo a little and he gave me a great answer—one that pastors today really need to hear. Larry said this: "I think New Testament pastors sometimes think of themselves as Old Testament prophets. And, that’s a bad deal. That doesn’t work in my opinion." Servant-leadership and prophet-style leadership do not coincide. True biblical leadership, under the New Covenant, is going to be a leadership marked by humility that continually bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Larry shared with me about how he has had the opportunity to work under some of the "high-profile" pastor-teachers of our days, men who have been used by God to reach thousands and millions for the sake of the gospel. Why had God used these men in these capacities and not others? His answer was that these men, by and large, do not do anything different than what other pastors and Christian leaders do on a smaller or less-visible scale around the United States and the world. To what degree and in what capacity a Christian leader serves the Lord Jesus Christ is determined by God's sovereignty. "Many times," he said, "God just reaches down and begins to use someone…He gives them an extra responsibility." Leadership always falls under God's mighty hand. He chooses the ins and the outs of a Christian's ministry. The primary concern for the leader ought to be faithfulness.

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Pettegrew, Larry D. The New Covenant Ministry of the Holy Spirit. Kregel, 2001.

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