Leadership, like most subjects, has gone through a lot scrutiny, study, adjustment and change in the last three decades. These studies have included the traits, styles, character, integrity and theories of leadership. Models of both effective and negative leadership have been featured in articles, books, and seminars. Most local congregations have also, at one time or another, during recent years given attention to leadership.
Over the past 30 years several new leadership models have been presented in the business sector of America. Some have found acceptance and application in congregations. These include transformational, transactional, charismatic, situational, managerial, and servant leadership. Examples from Hitler to Churchill have been used as models of leadership. Even the leadership traits of Jesus, Moses, Paul, and Nehemiah have been presented as models.
Back in 2007, Lee Iacocca asked in the title of his bestselling book, “Where Have All The Leaders Gone?” (Simon & Shuster, N.Y., N.Y.). On page five he asked: “Where are the voices of leaders who can inspire us to action and make us stand taller? What happened to the strong and resolute party of Lincoln? What happened to the courageous, populist party of FDR and Truman? There was a time in this country when the voices of great leaders lifted us up and made us want to do better. Where have all these leaders gone?” While the author is referencing his remarks to business and political leaders, there is a principle application for church leaders.
Whatever happened to leadership in the church? Yes, I know we have restored the titles of elder, deacon, preacher, teacher, and minister. But have we restored the leadership practices we observe in first century church leaders? After writing 20 books, numerous articles and teaching leadership on the undergraduate and graduate levels, I know I have now taken a step onto sensitive, controversial, and avoidable ground. Speaking for myself, most of us who lead in the church don’t want the spotlight directed on us and our performance. Why? Two reasons. We know we aren’t perfect but keep our hands to the plough anyway. Second, so many requirements and expectations based on business and sports models have been added to the servant model God requires. We have created a model for failure, discord, and abuse of the biblical model of being a servant leader.
I know that leadership in congregations’ today face cultural, economic, moral, educational, media, and spiritual challenges no other generation of leaders has faced. There is the necessity for using commonsense, expediencies, and allowing changes in traditions in order for the Body of Christ to carry out her mission in the world. However, all processes addressing these challenges must be based on the solid leadership principles in God’s word.
In order to restore biblical leadership we must begin with the realization that all leadership begins with self-leadership. It is in leading self that we learn what leadership is and how it works. If I can’t lead myself how can I lead others? Whether as an elder, deacon, preacher, teacher, or minister, your work is based on your ability to lead yourself. The apostle Paul addressed this principle in his Romans letter: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Romans 2:21, 22).
In order to restore biblical leadership we must understand and practice servant leadership. This is in contrast to the dictator, boss, or owner mentality of leadership. Jesus set the example (cf. Mark 10:45; Philippines 2:4-9). When the disciples of Christ were seeking prominent positions of leadership, Jesus rebuked them and gave them this reminder: “… You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:35-45).
In order to restore biblical leadership we must remember that a leader’s influence is the major catalysis for effectively leading followers. It’s the old adage “What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.” In giving the Philippian brethren a thinking agenda, Paul reminded them it wasn’t just words but it was his example: “The things which you have learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Every Christian is influencing someone else; this is especially true of leaders.
In order to restore biblical leadership it is essential that leaders be bold, not cowards. Boldness was one of the obvious traits others saw in the early church leaders. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Boldness is not rudeness, pushiness, or aggressiveness. It is having the faith and convictions to do the right things regardless of the opposition. It is saying “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). It is knowing that fearfulness is not from God (cf. 2 Timothy 1:7).
In order to restore biblical leadership it requires knowing and practicing every attitude and action with a view of glorifying God, not self or anything or anyone else. “[T]o Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21). “For to Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
In the world of what we call executive leadership there is a continual quest trying to find a test or evaluation that will quickly identify and determine an executive’s leadership ability. This quest has produced a plethora of diagnostic profiles, tests, forms, assessments, and evaluations that offer insight into leadership ability, or a lack thereof. In some congregations these diagnostic tools are being used with Bible passages tacked on. This may help us answer the question: Whatever happened to leadership? Biblical leadership has been absorbed, diluted, and replaced by a worldly approach. We must prayerfully and biblically ask and answer, What is the biblical test for real leadership that glorifies God?
This brief article has been written with the intention and need to draw our attention to the question, Whatever happened to leadership? How visible and successful is it in our congregations? Every institution from the home to the White House; from the local church to a military unit, is where it is because of leadership yesterday and tomorrow will be where leadership is today. We close with these clarion words by Jesus relative to following the leaders in His day: “Let them alone. They are leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14). Remember the leadership approved by Jesus involves serving, caring, sharing, loving, selflessness, and courage, all based on the word of God. All Christian leadership has a spiritual dimension, which affirms that every kind of church leadership centers in the spiritual.
Whatever happened to leadership?
J.J. Turner presently serves as an elder and preacher for the Lord’s church in McDonough, GA.