Thursday, November 19, 2020

Leadership: It’s a Dog’s Life

It seems everybody today is complaining about the lack of leadership in the local church. Those appointed to lead are not leading at all, or they’re leading too much. Either the whole church is failing to stand for anything, or else arbitrary and inflexible leadership is killing off the life of the church by strangling it with tradition, routine and rules. No one likes how things are running, but no one is terribly sure what a better style of leadership would look like.

Oh, there’s no end of advice out there.

The CRC Church Report

A recent report commissioned by the CRC Church lists twenty features of good leaders, including “optimism”, “ability to create own ministry vision”, “resilient” and “consensus-building”. claims that leaders have (conveniently) ten qualities: among them, a “can-do” attitude, the ability to delegate, an uncomplaining spirit and an attractive spirituality. All of this is not entirely biblical, but perhaps not bad advice either, so far as it goes.

There are a lot of common elements to such proposals. Most of them (well, those that are even marginally scriptural) always take for granted at the minimum that a leader must be a spiritual and moral person as a starting point. They also pretty much all insist a leader must have a servant spirit. But beyond that, most also try to specify something about leadership style — about the way a good leader conducts himself in relation to those he leads.

It’s in connection to how leaders manage the congregation that we so often get wildly off-base proposals. Take those floated by author and self-proclaimed church leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof, who insists, “We need more entrepreneurial pastors, not more shepherds.”


A Better Idea

Nieuwhof thinks an “entrepreneurial leader” has five qualities: love of risk, willingness to experiment, restlessness with the status quo, boldness and a bias for action.

Hmmm … I’m pretty sure some very bad leaders had those qualities …

Hitler comes to mind.

Now, I readily admit that if I were trying to make up my own list of characteristics of a good leader, I’d probably be just as inept.

Good thing I’m not trying to do that.

What I’d rather do is point to what I see as scriptural leadership. But before I begin, perhaps we should briefly consider a couple of leadership paradigms that are common today, but which are decidedly not what the Lord had in mind. I call these the “bully” model and the “pleaser” model.

The Bully-Led Church

One common school of thought on leadership goes like this: “Leaders should first of all be strong and directive. They should take control. Be solitary and determined. Have vision. Know what you want. Be commanding. Be impressive. Make people believe in you. Issue orders. Overwhelm objections. Pull rank. Persist. Be relentless. Make it happen.”

In churches run on the “bully” leadership model, a strong elder or “pastor” simply takes over from all the others. His loud voice, domineering manner and unyielding firmness win the day over his more timid peers. He rarely negotiates. He listens to contrary opinions only long enough to dismiss them. He ‘corrects’ whomever he pleases. He controls what is said from the pulpit and what is proposed in the meeting room.

Such a leader perceives there to be only one real issue in every decision: the issue of who will win. Firm in his views and indifferent to the wreckage he causes, the bully leader believes that whatever he personally decides is truth is truth. And his will is invariably also the will of God.

The Pleaser-Led Church

Of course, today there’s often another that says, “Be democratic. Take advice. Get buy-in. Consult. Be politic. Win friends. Form committees. Unify the group around the cause. Make people happy.” A church shaped around this leadership style is wishy-washy and “people centered”. Since superficial unity is its overriding value, truth gets shuffled aside in the name of preserving the appearance of love. Deep rifts in belief are allowed to grow but everybody meets regularly, undisturbed by having to stand for anything.

As sociologist Peter Berger has pointed out, many of today’s churches are often attended on a “consumerist” basis. There is no moral attachment on the part of the religious consumer: attendance is optional and contingent upon the church having pleased the tastes of the individual. Failure for it to produce satisfaction is grounds for voting with one’s feet and moving on. In fact, the understanding that produces the “unity” church is quite similar to that of secular social clubs, unions and social service groups. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow lists the special terms of the unspoken “social contract” that exists in such groups: “Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.

Of course, such rules make perfect sense in any social club at which no serious business is being considered. They imply that nothing much in the way of truth is at stake, so participation is optional and debate is impolite. The “unity” church is thus really a sort of semi-secular religious club, not a real church, and certainly not “the pillar and support of truth”. And ultimately, says Wuthnow, these sorts of arrangements leave the participants lonely and detached.

Lords vs. Leaders

But of course, the pleaser-led church doesn’t really model any leadership style at all, since essentially it decides matters of right by vote, which really makes it followship, not leadership at all. And worse still, if the leaders are manipulative then they can misdirect the congregation into imagining they’re operating with the sponsorship of the majority when all they’re really doing is running the show their own way. And really, that’s the bully model again, but the bullies are using the appearance of consent rather than the force of personality.

Neither bully leadership nor pleaser leadership is God’s paradigm for biblical leadership. Here’s what the scriptures say:
“Shepherd the flock of God among you … [not] as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”
What does it mean not to “lord it” over the flock? We can see here by what is presented as its contrary: “proving yourselves to be examples”. Lords rule. Examples model. Elders and leaders are to be models to those they lead.

Two Illustrations

We could think about it this way: bully leadership follows the pattern of a football coach. He stands on the sidelines and yells at the players, telling them to do what he wants, but also that which he does not himself do. His action is like a boss, a nag, a CEO, or even a petty dictator. And personally, he bears no responsibility to execute the instructions he issues. He tells others what to do; he does not himself have to do it.

Meanwhile, the pleaser-leader is a bit like a democratic politician. He watches the polls to see what the people will support, and then employs his ingenuity to give it to them, no matter whether what they want is good or bad, right or wrong. He perceives his continuance in office to be entirely dependent on his personal popularity. He is not listening to the word of the Lord, but rather bowing to whatever winds of opinion happen to blow through the congregation.

Real Authority

Neither of these leadership actually has any authority. They’re self-willed, self-interested leadership styles. The biblical pattern of leadership goes like this: first, the leader must hear the word of God and humble himself before it. Then he must submit to the discipline of obeying it personally, making changes in his own life so that he begins to manifest the truth. Then, and only then, he is qualified to teach it to others.

He does not have to be perfect — indeed, who ever is? — but he does have to be making his own obedience practical. He can still be struggling, but he must not cease struggling; and he must be making progress. If he’s got an uncontrollable temper, or if he’s a drunk, or if he’s terminally spineless, or if he can’t even lead his own household, then the Bible simply rules him out as a possible leader. The ability to be led by God personally is the prerequisite for anyone to lead in the church.

Remember the centurion? “I am a man under authority.” Not “a man wielding authority”. And remember the Lord’s words? “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them … but it is not this way among you.”

Lead-Dog Leadership

The biblical paradigm of leadership is premised on the obedience of the leader to his Higher Authority. It is because the leader has already gone through the personal discipline of becoming obedient that he has authority to instruct others. The leader himself acts as a lower link in a chain that goes both above and below him: he has authority, but only because he is acting under authority himself.

How can we picture this? It is perhaps best modeled by the lead dog in a sled-dog team. Have you ever seen one? The lead dog is out front: the others are coupled behind in pairs. The distinctive thing about a lead dog is that he never asks others to go where he himself has not already gone. He leads, but invariably by example. He boldly goes where no other dog has gone before. Having gone there, he is fully equipped and experientially qualified to require those following to join him.

This sort of leadership style is unselfish and unhypocritical. It puts the elders in the role of learning first what they will then turn and teach to the congregation. It shows rather than dictates. And since the elders themselves have already gone through the painful process of learning the lessons they pass on to the congregation, it is completely morally credible.

In the end, I think good leadership comes down to the following starting point: the Bible says leaders always have to be willing to do first what they command others to do. A good leader does not have authority; he lives under the Lord’s authority. Any personal power he has is a moral and spiritual power, one derived from personal obedience to the Head of the Church.

What Kind Are You?

Your willingness to lead by going first and providing yourself as an example to the flock is an acid test for whether or not you should ever be in leadership at all. If a person is unwilling to bow to the authority of the Head of the Church by remodeling his own life first, then he is in no way fit to lead the people of God. He is out from under his authority. He is a rebel, actually.

Bully-style leaders are not going to like what I’m saying one bit. Humbling themselves first is not what they had in mind. They like the title and the power, and they love getting their own way and making others knuckle under to their wills. They love legislating and hate shepherding. They are far too impatient for the task of nurturing others, too certain of themselves to learn, and too proud to serve. Nothing in the biblical view of leadership really appeals to them.

They were excited about the idea of being in command, giving orders and having a title, but not equally keen on having to confine their leading to areas in which they have already had to go through the discipline of obedience themselves ... and if this model is all that’s available to them, they get angry and indignant. Then they quit.

Best choice they could ever make: they should quit.


But let’s hope that's not you. Maybe, on the other hand, you are struck by the higher truth of leadership-by-obedience, and feel the obligation of becoming a leader-by-example. You feel the conviction of God leading you to obedience and to calling others to the same obedience. Well, good! You desire a noble work. And here’s a trustworthy statement for you: “If any man aspires to the office of an overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” But it’s a work. Aspire to the work; let the title, the acclaim, the power or the authority take care of themselves. Be what you want the congregation to be.

Go and show.
“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you shall receive an unfading crown of glory.”

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