Do you ever think about where your leadership is leading? Winston Churchill once commented that, “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Having been the pastor of a congregation which met in a barn of an Art Nouveau Gothic church building, I really understand what he meant. Yet something else also shapes how we function as the church: our understanding and resulting practice of leadership.
I entered ministry in the early 90s, so I lived through the rise of the “leadership movement” within the evangelical church. My bookshelves are now packed with books on leadership. Over the years, I attended numerous conferences on leadership and took undergraduate and postgraduate courses on leadership. Like most pastors, my email inbox is daily bombarded by invitations to read blogs about leadership and listen to podcasts about leadership. With providential predictability and irony, as I type these words, I have an email notification beginning, “Seven Signs Your Leadership…”.
I confess that I have not been just a passive witness of this rise of leadership thought in the church but also an active consumer and even promoter of it. The books, conferences, blogs – and in the early 90s, even cassette tapes – churned out by leadership writers and consumed by me have shaped my self-understanding as one called to ministry in the church. If I am honest, as a result, I came to understand my primary calling as being a leader. And my understanding of what it means to be a leader has in turn been shaped largely by models of leadership drawn from business and even the military.
Have you played the wooden block balancing game Jenga? If so, you know what happens: one by one, the wooden blocks are removed until the whole tower becomes shaky and eventually collapses. That’s what has happened to my confidence in the leadership movement over the past few years: scandal after scandal has made my confidence in it wobble; now it feels to me like it’s collapsing around my ears.
For those of us who are called to serve the church, being a leader (as spelled out in the flood of resources aimed at us) was never meant to be our primary way of approaching that calling. For his PhD work, David W. Bennett looked at the metaphors for ministry in the New Testament. One of his main conclusions was, “Jesus focused more of his attention on teaching the disciples to follow rather than giving them instructions on how to lead. The single most important lesson for leaders to learn is that they are first sheep, not shepherds, first children, not fathers, first imitators, not models.” (Leadership Images from the New Testament) This is consistent with a quick approximation that in the New Testament the words “lead” or “leader” are found about seven times but the word “disciple” appears 260 times and the phrase “follow me” appears 23 times.
Despite what we’ve heard from the leadership gurus in the Kingdom of God, everything does not rise and fall on leadership but on discipleship. We can only lead in the Body of Christ through following Christ. In fact, what makes Christian leadership Christian is that it is expressed in and through Christian discipleship. In the church, following is leading, which is why Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” The problem is that a whole industry predominantly focused attention on “follow me” while virtually ignoring, “as I follow Christ.” After all, have you ever been invited to a global followership summit?
To be clear, I am not questioning the need for leadership in the church. What I am questioning is from where we draw our models and our mentors for leadership in the church, and the impact that has on church culture.
In The Strength Of Weakness, Roy Clements asked three questions that go to the very heart of the issue. “Let me ask you, what is your image of a great leader? Let me ask you another question, what is your image of a great Christian leader? Now, let me ask you a third question. Did the insertion of the word ‘Christian’ into the second question materially change your answer?”
Clements forces us to think about the sources we draw on for our definition of greatness in leadership in the church. Surely, only Christ gets to define that for his Body. In his clearest statement on leadership, Jesus said to his disciples,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25-28)
Those words are a clear call for us as Jesus’ disciples to reject the leadership values and practices of the dominant culture rather than be inspired by them. Instead, we are to follow his example of sacrificial servanthood in how we exert influence within the Kingdom of God. Pecking orders and power plays are ruled out among his disciples. Author Lance Ford writes of these verses in Unleader, “His [Jesus] requirement is that we lay down the crown and spectre of leadership and pick up the towel and basin of servantship.” Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the leadership movement effectively encouraged me to do the opposite.
Rather than focusing our primary attention on Jesus when it comes to leadership, our focus has been elsewhere. For about two decades, Christian leaders have been encouraged to draw inspiration for their leadership from the leaders in the worlds of business and the military. As a result, many have come to approach leadership in the church as a position of power rather than a spiritual gift and an opportunity to serve. Recently, the evangelical movement has thrown its hands up in horror as a whole crop of its leaders has been revealed to have abused their power. There has been a litany of stories: leaders who have created toxic, unaccountable macho cultures, who have exploited and abused people and acted in narcissistic ways that served themselves rather than Jesus or others. In retrospect, where else should we have expected the version of leadership we popularized to lead?
It is time to admit that the power-abusing, narcissistic church leaders of recent scandals are not aberrations but the all-too-predictable Frankenstein creation of the evangelical industry’s own leadership movement. As for me, I’m turning my back on importing the leadership modes of Fortune 500 CEOs, victorious generals, and leadership gurus. Here are the voices I am choosing to listen to; here are some of their leadership maxims, when it comes to my calling:
“Follow me.” – Jesus Christ
“He must become greater; I must become less.” – John the Baptist
“Follow me as I follow Christ.” – Apostle Paul
“If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him.” – Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
“The bible is a book about followers, written by followers, for followers. I am always a follower first.” – Rusty Ricketson
When it comes to leadership, which voices are you currently listening to? Where do you think they will lead you and your church?