We use the word “leader” in both secular and Christian settings. Christianized leadership is so different, however, that the task almost needs a different word.
Jesus’ teachings about leadership are the basis for the stark contrast. We look in particular to the words he spoke as he denounced Jewish religious leaders in his day.
One of these confrontations, found in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, comes across as harsh, particularly when you consider that just a few breaths earlier Jesus had spoken of the need to root our actions in love. (I suppose there’s a side lesson here: Loving certain people can mean having the courage to point out where they go against God.)
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach,” Jesus said.
He went on to point out the hypocrisy of these religious leaders, who were supposed to be working from sound understandings of Jewish scripture—writings filled with lessons about the importance of justice and mercy. Instead, he said, these leaders increased the burdens of the average Jew.
They also took great pleasure in the accouterments and honors that went with their positions. In a long diatribe, Jesus described them as legalistic nitpickers who had been entrusted with words of life but instead were better associated with death.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus said.
Our savior also practiced what he taught, becoming the great example of humble leadership. His trip to the cross brought him to the ultimate low point, death; his resurrection led to great exaltation.
The implications for Christian leadership are enormous. Followers of Christ are people who should turn the very idea of leading upside-down. In a Christian context, leadership becomes sacrifice rather than gain. A Christian leader lives in the mud surrounding the pedestal.
And yes, there is a serious dearth of true Christian leadership in the Christian community today. There are good leaders among both the clergy and the laity. But both the United Methodist Church and the larger, universal church desperately need more.
I’ve never heard anyone in a congregation complain, “We’ve got more good leaders than we know how to use.”
It would help, I am sure, if we who are already leading were better at explaining the basic role of a leader in a Christian community. That way, people could more clearly understand whether they are called to a leadership role.
Right now, we define “leader” mostly by describing a particular function in the church, usually defined as service on a board or a committee. A job description really doesn’t tell us how to lead, though. It just describes what specific task needs to be done.
In 1984, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder interacted very closely with the New Testament to describe the four basic types of leaders in a Christian community. If you feel you’re equipped to fill one or more of these roles, you’re probably called to lead in the church in some way.
Yoder said good Christian leaders act as:
- Agents of Direction. These people keep the vision of the kingdom of God before the people. They function like prophets, reminding others of the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ, work that ultimately restores creation to its holy state. They make sure the church remembers that it exists to help usher in this kingdom.
- Agents of Memory. These leaders help the church remember what is in Scripture and what the traditions have been regarding interpretation of God’s word, particularly where these reminders are relevant to a particular issue before the church. They do this largely without judgment.
- Agents of Linguistic Self Consciousness. In other words, people who are sensitive to how words are used. Think of these people as the cooler heads in the crowd, the peacemakers who calmly untangle what others are saying.
- Agents of Order and Due Process. People who ensure the unity of the group even in the midst of conflict, encouraging participation by all.
Some people may react to this list of “agents” by saying, “But those are the things the pastor is supposed to do.” And therein, I suspect, lies a significant part of our leadership crisis.
Certainly, a pastor should have a good sense of how to function in all four roles. But at the same time, the pastor should know this in order to equip others to fulfill these roles. We’ve become too reliant on church “professionals.”
A healthy church is full of people so committed to the spiritual disciplines that Jesus’ teachings have shaped their heads and hearts for leadership. Once leading, they simply have to ask themselves a few questions now and then.
Am I making others’ lives easier? Am I willing to do this without fame, title or even acknowledgment? Am I one who learns even while leading? Do I ensure justice, mercy and faith spread because of what I do?
A leader who can answer “yes” to these questions is exhibiting Jesus-style leadership.