Leadership is a critical key to the success of an organization. John Maxwell explains, “Everything rises and falls on leadership…leadership determines the success of the organization.”
If leadership is a key for an organization to thrive, Christian leadership is essential for the works of Christ being accomplished in the church and world. Thus, the essence of Christian leadership is its focus on what God is doing in the world and joining alongside to accomplish it together.
As Christians, why do we want to become leaders of the church or any other settings? What is it that we are trying to accomplish? What is the motivation of our hearts to lead?
The apostle Paul answers these questions in theological and practical terms. Everything he did was for the sake of the gospel with the goal of telling and sharing the story of Jesus Christ, and making disciples of those that decided to follow Jesus. He had a clear goal: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23) and “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2).
Hence, when we talk about Christian leaders, we are stating that they are Christians from core to crust and that their motivation to lead and serve comes from their Christian character. While leaders, in general, may have diverse reasons to lead, the essence of Christian leadership is modeling Christlikeness (living, acting, and interacting as Jesus did) and accomplishing God’s mission: the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A Christian leader ought to lead for the sake of Christ’s love and God’s mission and not personal ambition.
From here, the integrity of Christian leadership is measured by the commitment a Christian leader has to Christ and the mission of God since Christian leaders are specifically called and entrusted to be stewards of the church and God’s mission.
I used to believe that good Christian leaders were the most charismatic, skillful, and influential people in our midst. Although these characteristics are not self-excluding of good leaders, they are not enough nor are they the main rule of Christian leadership. It took me a little while to discern that to identify good Christian leaders one must look beyond what is apparent and pay attention to the integrity of their character: what’s in the heart.
Henry Nouwen shares a story in his book Spiritual Formation to speak to the notion of recognizing what is in the heart:
A little boy was watching a sculptor work. For weeks this sculptor kept on chipping away at a big block of marble. After a few weeks, he had created a beautiful marble lion. The little boy was amazed and said: “Mister, how did you know there was a lion in the rock?”
He explains this story this way, “Long before [the sculptor] forms the marble, he must know the lion. The sculptor must know the lion by heart to see him in the rock. The secret of the sculptor is that what he knows by heart he can recognize in the marble. A sculptor who knows an angel by heart will see an angel in the marble…What do you know by heart?”
This is a daring and uncomfortable question for all Christian leaders: What do we know by heart? According to Nouwen, the answer is revealed in what we project and impress into others, in the trails we leave behind every way we go, what we are able to see in them even when nobody else does.
Christian leaders must see in everyone the possibility of them becoming Christ-followers too. To put it bluntly: are more people loving God and following Jesus because they crossed paths with us, Christian leaders? Are the people around us committing to Christ because of our witness to them?
If we take this assessment, then to recognize the integrity of a Christian leader one must pay attention to how they minister and serve others, and what kind of impact and legacy they leave in people’s lives. One can fool others with eloquent rhetoric and impressive, charismatic skills, but investing in the wellness, healing, and salvation of others requires a deep sense of commitment to God and Christ’s gospel.
Christian leadership is not a synonym of being ahead or on top above everyone else, but it is about the emptying of ourself for the sake of the other.
As a pastor and Christ-follower, I pray for everyone to love and follow Christ, and then be moved to serve and be in ministry alongside God too until Christ comes back in final victory.
Maxwell, John C. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. Nashville: Nelson, 1998.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit. HarperCollins, 2010.