Lies Of Leadership

One of the things seminary left me completely unprepared for is the overwhelming amount of Christian spam that gets pushed through my inbox. It is simply amazing. I have no idea how they get my email address (word of knowledge?), but there it is, everyday.  I find Christian Spam comes in 3 basic forms; nutty (cottage cults & conspiracy theories), worship related (training, equipment and people offering to play for a small fee on Sundays), and Leadership seminars.  It’s the last of these bugging me lately. What does it say about leadership that its appeals fall in the same space as Viagra ads?  Has Christian “leadership” become so boorish and vapid that the impassioned voices for tomorrow must take to the spam-waves to titillate our inboxes?  (Yes.  Definitely, yes.)  Sadly, I think it just highlights how our fixation on Christian leadership, like never-ending sex, has become idolatrous.

Though it's preached on every Sunday, there is not much theological thought about leadership.  It’s not in the creeds. Perhaps this should tell us something.  Instead, the modern discussion seems to almost exclusively arise from the business world, and that seems worrisome.  Are the values of a capitalist democracy so closely aligned with the Gospel?  I don’t think so, I think more often theologians aren’t really concerned about leadership, and pastors & pedagogues sell it like umbrellas in a storm.  Certainly leadership can be a useful framework to discuss things, but we need to challenge the idolatry of leadership that reflects more of our enlightenment European inheritance than it does the character of God.  My fear is that too often leadership defines faith, and not the other way around.  Because language about leadership in church is so one sided, I want to sketch out the other side, to challenge leadership’s centrality, in hopes that a dialectic of leadership can emerge. It’s in this hope I’ve titled the series Lies of Leadership, hereafter referred to as, L.O.L…

Defining Leadership
The first obstacle in discussing leadership is defining it. What is leadership?  My impression is that there is a vague protestant idea that, “leadership isn’t role based, -but it was; only now we see more clearly that a leader is a kind of person who gets the right things done.  for God.”  In leadership seminars everywhere, people nod approvingly that leadership is more than just a role or position but women leaders are the fly in this ointment.  Is it role or personality?  For some, the answer is “I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.”  With apologies to Justice Stewart, it’s these undefined, intuitive categories that suggest to me it is just a function of culture, and not a particularly gospel value.  Undefined, discussions about leadership are shielded from inquiry, as if it is something natural and inherent to the world.  Like alpha males.  Like empowering visionaries.

Still, there is some common ground to depart from. John Maxwell, a Christian leader-guru, has a serviceable definition; “leadership is influence.” This simple understanding has advantages: it makes no value assumptions and it is descriptive, not prescriptive.  It can be applied to the terrible despots or compassionate grade school teachers.  It is a definition of leadership as phenomena and effect, and it makes clear that it is a kind of power.  The goal of leadership is not in question, nor are the means employed to get people to do things. 

The problem is that this isn’t a Christian definition. In Christian media, there is a growing emphasis that how you do things is as important as what you do: Christian leadership necessitates Godly ends because you can’t point guns at people in church to get them to do God’s will.  That’s what Hell is for.  Gary Wills, author of Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, has a nuanced definition that demonstrates this renewed emphasis on empowering and communal leadership: "The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and followers. ... Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership." The “shared” goal is important, highlighting the increased attention given to the contract between leaders and followers, and it puts ethics on the table as essential to a Christian definition.   So a starting point is tricky.  Though it seems more properly a category of psychology, of anthropology and not Biblical studies, in seminaries leadership courses are taught in schools of mission or pastoral training, suggesting the very practical, assumed necessity of leaders.  Is it technique, effect, or character? Could it be purely ethics?

I think J. Robert Clinton, Fuller Seminary professor and noted leadership heavy has the most agreeable definition.  Its useful, responsible, and probably accepted at some level by most church goers: “"In the Biblical context, a person with a God-given capacity and a God-given responsibility to influence a specific group of people toward His purposes for the group." The short version is, “taking God’s people to God’s place in God’s way; “as good a starting point as any. I hasten to add that despite my disagreements at points with Clinton’s work, it is helpful material and I have benefitted greatly when I’ve studied under him.

The problem with the definitions.
For me, the most immediate theological problem raised by these definitions is, “what is the leader’s relationship to the Kingdom of God?” Is a leader essential for realizing the Kingdom of God here on earth? Would the Kingdom of God occur without church leaders, or will we always look back and label people who helped change things, leaders even if they happened to be in the right place at the right time? I think most people believe they are necessary for the Spirit to bring change, and though they might shy away from saying it, the church in the US acts and talks as if the Kingdom of God is unattainable without leaders, as if the spirit of Christ in us cannot act without making leaders…Without them, presumably we go nowhere. Even looking backwards, when we see wonderful things happen, the Kingdom of God manifest, we look back, and describe the Holy Spirit’s work as occurring through leaders of that time/movement.  Our interpretive lens has become leadership instead of providence.

I think our fixation betrays a distortion of Catholic ecclesiology in which “leaders” have become mediators of Christ, protestant priests who mediate His presence through attendance records and activity logs instead of communion.  After all, the church is the visible, earthly, external form of the Kingdom of God, right?  We mistakenly identify the church so closely with Jesus that leaders who increase, expand, chasten, - or whatever the church, actually increase and expand Jesus, make him more present somehow because we can touch the result.  We can see it on our websites.  Leaders have become the new evangelical priests with Dockers instead of robes. 

Certainly it’s different than the Catholic priesthood, but I detect a similar ecclesiology.  If the Church is coterminous with Christ’s visible body on earth, then priests and leaders hold special mediating power.  But for evangelicals, the authority and validity of Christ’s visible body on earth rests largely on its earthly success (numbers, finances, pleasing people), and not on apostolic succession.  This makes it very easy to then see the marks of Christ as giving, attendance and branding -or new ministries, community and civic involvement if you’re in an edgy one. Regardless, the marks of Christ, and therefore leadership, end up as things that we can produce by exerting power.  The Protestant Pope has become the marketplace – what works –what is measureable. Small wonder that justice takes a back seat.  Evangelical leaders are more egalitarian, however, in that the priesthood of leadership is open to any who satisfy the vague cultural requirements of a leader – those who get results. It makes for a quasi- redemption: Christ unlocks the door, but leaders push people through.  Or convince them that they’ll love to walk through if you’re in a cool church.

Idolatry: So What?
My basic worry about notions of leadership is that we have missed Jesus and fallen in love with our own abilities. Leadership is natural. It is human. It is something we can observe and describe and do, to greater or lesser degrees, something always bound by culture, not a Biblical absolute.   But we are helpless before God, unable to live the lives we need to, trapped in our sin and frailty, and God’s solution to our problems was not a great leader, another king, or someone who could unlock a power already in us, but rather Jesus, one who came not as a leader but a servant and offered us something new and alien.  Christian leadership does not account for God's presence and work very well.  More alarmingly, people wait for influential leaders to move them forward, eschewing some responsibility.  We choose church leaders that bear strikingly little resemblance to Jesus while looking a lot like Braveheart.  Like my Viagra spam, much of our leadership obsession ends up only satisfying natural longings for power and effectiveness without offering any real solution to our impotence.

So that’s a start.  Looking back, my Anabaptist leanings are probably pretty obvious, but there are too many questions and not enough pixels for one post. Next I’ll take a look at leadership as an OT concept and see where we rinse out.


  1. Thank you so much for what you have written here - it gave me much to smile about on my holiday evening. The substance of what you say also moved me - we do talk alot of nonsense around leadership - and churches never want to face up to the issues of power inherent in any real discussion of leadership

  2. L.O.L, haha :)

    Joy let me borrow some Christian comics from the 70's and the one about David had a line that said "sheep need a leader or the will wander aimlessly. They will eat up all the grass and pollute their own drinking water." I don't know if "leadership" has anything to do with "spirituality" (both seem to be loaded words), but I do kind of agree with the thing about the sheep. Sometimes we need someone to speak truth when we cannot see it ourselves.

    As you know, my struggle is not whether or not we need leaders, but it is in the attribution of the effect. Is it God or is it me? Or do I look at someone and say "he is so holy" or "he is so close to God" or do I marvel at how God is working in him?

  3. @Jane,
    Thank you for your kind words. Not only do churches not face up to the discussions of power, sadly, I think that the (largely male) churches do not recognize many of them. By God's grace that will change.

    I need to see that comic. It will end up in a sermon! I agree that attribution is 9/10 the problem. I find I have a growing respect for people with a genuine gratitude that extends to God in these things.


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