Building Below the Waterline: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership

Book Review
  • Approximate Time Commitment: 10 minutes

BUILDING BELOW THE WATERLINE: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership by Gordon MacDonald focuses on the life of a leader. This book review was written by Hank Griffith of South Suburban Evangelical Free Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota. This book is good for anyone in a leadership position. It has many good lessons that leaders should take to heart.

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Full Review:

Gordon MacDonald is a retired pastor, conference speaker, and author of numerous books. These works are based not only on Scripture, but on his own personal experiences. In my opinion, it is his transparency about these things, some of which haven’t been pretty, that makes his books so powerful. That is certainly the case with BUILDING BELOW THE WATERLINE: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership, written when he was in his early seventies. This book is extremely valuable for anyone in Christian leadership – pastors, missionaries, administrators, church elders, etc. I assure you that you will be enlightened, challenged, and convicted as you read Building Below the Waterline. I should add that though it’s 248 pages, it can be read very quickly.

The book’s graphic title is based on the actual building of the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1872, the chief engineer wrote the following:

“To such of the general public as might imagine no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline.”

MacDonald uses this analogy to remind us that it is absolutely imperative that work be done in our soul, “below the waterline,” if we are going to persevere and be fruitful over the years. It demands worship, devotion, and spiritual discipline, none of which is completely visible by those around us.

The book is divided into two main parts:

The first part is on the inner life of a leader (11 chapters); the second part is on the outer life of a leader (13 chapters). I agree with the order in which the author places these two sections. The tendency is for most of us to skip over the inner life and go right to the outer life. Human nature makes us to want to learn how to be “successful” in “our” ministry.

There is so much of value in this book. I will share only some of the gems I’ve mined so that you will read this work for yourself. For example, in his chapter on “Cultivating the Soul,” MacDonald develops five virtues to cultivate in our lives: harvested humility, productive compassion, steadfastness – not stubbornness, faith beyond sight, and self-control. At the end of each chapter, there are three questions “For Further Reflection.”

Here are the questions for “Cultivating the Soul”:

  1. Which of the five virtues mentioned are evident in your life? How have they been cultivated? Are any of the five virtues lacking in your life?
  2. What authors feed you spiritually on a regular basis? How do they influence your spiritual formation?
  3. How can you balance the drive to success with what has been called by a man of God of a previous generation “the leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest”?


In another chapter, MacDonald makes a strong case for journaling. When journaling is done regularly, several things become possible:

  1. The invisible and the ephemeral are forced into reality.
  2. Learning experiences are preserved.
  3. Memories of God’s great and gracious acts are guarded.
  4. I can chart areas where I need most to grow and mature.
  5. A journal brings dreams alive. (Some of the best ones later become reality in our life and ministry.)


In other chapters, MacDonald stresses time on our knees in prayer, as well as time alone for rejuvenation. He recommends that we occasionally spend a day alone in nature, or visit a museum by ourselves, or experience a day in silence and reflection. It is imperative that the Christian leader have a weekly morning of “Sabbath time,” either alone or with his spouse. He recommends that we use the time to read, pray, write in our journal, and delight in God’s presence. (During this time we should turn off our cell phone and computer.)

Outer life

In the second part of the book on the outer life of a leader you will find tons of helpful ideas coming from MacDonald’s years of ministry: “The 3:00 A.M. Phone Call,” “When Things Get Ugly,” “Saying the Hard Stuff,” “DNF: Did Not Finish,” “How a Mighty Church Falls,” “The Right Way to Handle Church Conflict,” and more. Did I share enough to make you want to read this book?

Power of Public Prayer

Something that touched me deeply was MacDonald’s chapter on the importance of public prayer. MacDonald truly believes in the “Power of Public Prayer.” He has a strong conviction that it is our priestly role as pastors to pray publicly, as well as privately, for our congregation. In fact, he believes that public prayer perhaps ministers more deeply to some of our parishioners than does our preaching. In this chapter, MacDonald explains the importance of five types of prayers within the service: the invocation, the pastoral prayer, the prayer of dedication of the offering, the prayer of Illumination and submission before the sermon, the prayer of decision at the end of the sermon, and the benediction.

All this may sound very traditional and old-fashioned to you, but I believe we have lost something of great importance when our pastors fails to pray publicly for us. I agree with MacDonald that the pastoral prayer is a key ingredient of the Sunday worship service.  It should be by the pastor himself, and it should include at least the following elements – acknowledging God, confession and forgiveness, prayer for our world, and prayer for the needs of the people. Though prayer is, of course, directed to God, it blesses our souls in a way we can’t even explain when we are prayed for weekly by our pastor, the undershepherd of the congregation.

Best for last

Often an author saves the best for last. That may indeed be the case with Building Below the Waterline. In his final chapter entitled “Pastor’s Progress” MacDonald, as an older man of God, writes, “As I look over my life, I feel like the traveler in Pilgrim’s Progress; I can spot dark moments in which I’ve seen God at work in my life in a clear way. In each of these moments I heard a message in the midst of pain.” The author then goes on to share in an incredibly honest way six lessons God taught him in the hard times. And I can assure you MacDonald has gone through some things that you and I would never want to endure!



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