Phineas F. Bresee led by influence rather than control, something that was evident in his ability to attract the respect, fellowship, and loyalty of other strong leaders. Controlling leaders repel those of equal strength; influencing leaders attract peers and unite equals around a common agenda. Bresee’s leadership style was a key to his success, and it persuaded Nazarene contemporaries to elect him as the united church’s first general superintendent.
Bresee’s capacity to lead had several distinct sources. First, he was well-read. He had few years of formal education, but was largely “self-made” through systematic reading. He placed a premium on education and self-culture. Although he had been unable to attend college himself, he was a trustee of Simpson College in Iowa, where he developed and executed a plan that saved the school from financial ruin. He was later a trustee of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and president of Nazarene University in San Diego (now Point Loma Nazarene University). When the sudden marriage of a young minister Bresee knew made college impractical for him, Bresee advised the young man to instead set up a reading program and become acquainted with works of history, geography, and literature. Bresee also urged him to subscribe to magazines that reflected current cultural and religious trends.
Bresee was describing his own reading program. Through reading, Bresee was able to speak competently on many topics, a strength reflected in his sermons and in his editorials in The Nazarene Messenger.
Bresee also learned from experience. This was illustrated after his ill-fated role in a mining venture. To foster a respectable retirement for Methodist ministers in Iowa, he promoted an investment scheme in a Mexican mine. However, the mine had been salted, and ministers and laity lost their precious investments. Bresee personally ensured that all losses were repaid within a few years, thereafter warning ministers against promoting financial schemes, even with the highest of motives. Even negative experiences were teaching moments in Bresee’s life, and he integrated these lessons into his subsequent attitudes and behavior.
Bresee brought his own unique vision to the Church of the Nazarene, but did not stifle the vision of others in the process. Instead, he enabled them. He let C. W. Ruth take the lead in plotting the mergers that created the united church in 1907 and 1908, and he showed no reservation as H. F. Reynolds’ promoted a vision for Nazarene participation in world evangelization. The controlling leader insists on “being in charge,” while the influencing leader affirms the gifts and vision brought by others.
Bresee was blessed with sound common sense. His practical approach to problems in the local church and in denominational affairs increased his ability to influence and lead others. This was evident in his views on church governance. In his early Nazarene ministry, church organization was quite simple. However, as the number of congregations multiplied, Bresee adapted features from the Methodist Episcopal Church, such as districts and district superintendents as well as the “trust clause” governing local church property. Even the notion of “general superintendent” was an application of Methodist episcopacy, though one that was adapted for use in a more democratic church. Bresee believed that mission should shape church structure and insisted on the test of practicality.
Good preaching is often the key to influencing others. This was certainly true of Bresee.
Bresee made preaching and pastoral care the heart of his ministry. Good preaching is often the key to influencing others. This was certainly true of Bresee, a substantial preacher whose sermons reflected the Bible’s dominant themes. He would have agreed completely with J. B. Chapman’s declaration many years later that “the preacher is, in the true sense, the measure of the sermon.” The coherence between the preacher and the message inspires confidence among the people and shapes the pastor’s ability to lead through influence, while a disjunction between the messenger and the message breeds distrust and disillusionment.
How did Bresee become the man cherished in Nazarene memory? In 36 years, he achieved nearly every measure of success in the Methodist Episcopal ministry: pastor of substantial churches, district superintendent, and General Conference delegate in two different conferences that were half a continent apart. There was every prospect of future successes. Yet in the pivotal year of 1894, Bresee accepted a marginal status within his Methodist conference so that he could freely preach each Sunday at the Peniel Mission, an independent work in inner-city Los Angeles. Through this experience, his conviction grew that he was called to create family-oriented churches among the urban poor. When the Peniel Mission’s directors fired him, he could have found a safe harbor by returning to a Methodist pastorate. Instead, he joined others to launch a new work dedicated to “the salvation of souls and relief of the needy.” In the process, he embraced a new understanding of his call and ministry, demonstrating flexibility and a willingness to let prayer, Scripture, and discernment reshape his life.
Stan Ingersol serves as the denominational archivist for the Church of the Nazarene
J. B. Chapman, The Preaching Ministry (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1947; reprint, 1976), p. 29.
Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, Manual (Los Angeles: Nazarene Publishing Company, 1908): 12.