Plotting a leader's course

September 7th, 2022

A quick Google search reveals that there is no shortage of books out there on leadership. The myriad of titles promises success in leadership, offering steps toward effective leadership and techniques to reach your potential as a leader. Leadership is the topic of the day, so it is no surprise that it has found its way into the church. A pastor is indeed a leader, one who shapes the ethos of a congregation through preaching and teaching but also through administration and decision making. People look to their pastor for guidance and counsel, for direction and vision.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these various resources. In a day and age when the church tries to maintain its relevance in an increasingly secular world, it is no wonder the church’s leaders turn to means by which the rest of society’s leadership seems to have gained a footing. Companies and businesses appear to have a better sense of how to navigate effectual leadership in the midst of changing times. Employing their failsafe strategies can only help the church and not hurt it, right?

Wrong. Since the church’s earliest days as a community struggling to survive in the midst of a dominant imperial cult, it has always been the church’s challenge to determine how it can adjust, both to survive and thrive. We witness in the New Testament writings the negotiation between the pressures of the controlling society and holding on to the specificities of the Christian life. A rough chronological survey of New Testament books shows that the later writings must concern themselves with order and structure particularly once communities begin to realize that they may be around longer than they had originally imagined. As a result, different roles for leaders in the community were implemented, such as presbyters and bishops. For example, in 1 Peter we read: “Therefore, I have a request for the elders among you. (I ask this as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and as one who shares in the glory that is about to be revealed.) I urge the elders . . .” (5:1); in James, we read: “If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14); and in 1 Timothy: “This saying is reliable: if anyone has a goal to be a supervisor in the church, they want a good thing” (3:1).

In these verses, we see a transition to hierarchical order taking place as the concerns of fledgling congregations move from theological and Christological issues to doctrinal and organizational issues. The church has always had to fight for its unique identity. It has always had to figure out how to distinguish itself amid the chatter of its surroundings, especially those surroundings that have considerably more power and leverage than any ecclesial voice ever will. As the church moved forward into the centuries, it was pressed to define itself over and against the heresies of the day. As such, the church’s hand has frequently been forced, reacting to circumstances rather than proactively acting to distinguish its core beliefs. How will the church describe itself, and by what qualities will it characterize its structures? How will the church define its identity? How will the church be distinctively faith-based and faith-oriented without being exclusive or prideful? And at what point in these navigations has the cost been too much, a kind of watered-down credo where the church seems to have lost sight of its heart?

Distinctiveness is essential for all institutions, especially for the sake of survival. The church is not exempt from the demand of differentiation. At the same time, however, the church has a rather unfortunate history of adopting and adapting, sometimes to its detriment. Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians is an example of how the church embraced societal norms: “...the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?” (14:34-36). Regardless of scholarly interpretations arguing that these verses were not in the original letter, explained as a later interpolation, their damage has outweighed justification of their insertion. The adaptation and adoption have had a historically negative effect, particularly when it comes to the leadership and ordination of women in the church.

In both Ephesians and Colossians, we see the author(s) suggesting Greco-Roman household codes for structuring a Christian household (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-25). Once again, although biblical scholars ar- gue that these passages were the church’s solution to assimilation, these texts are used to validate the subordination of women. In other words, the church has a history of assimilating ideas, forms, terminology, modalities, methods, structures, and so on that at first blush seem to be benign solutions for subsistence. But such adaptions are never without consequences. There has always been the threat of the church losing its distinctiveness at best and, at worst, losing its voice entirely.

A point of clarification here is necessary. This is not an argument to get the church back to what it used to be before the world messed it up, before the encroachment of the Roman Empire, or before its inevitable institutionalization. There is no pristine church or idyllic ecclesial leadership to which we can harken back and, therefore, use to solve the problem of how the church exists and persists in a world mostly uninterested in its values. The church has always had to differentiate itself theologically, institutionally, and organizationally. Those who are loyal to and leading in the church are charged with tending where and how this demand works itself out. Embody tells the truth about how the church responds to this necessity by taking on the wardrobe of the world, which then makes it indistinguishable as a church apart from society’s values.

And so, the church dons doctrinal rigidity.

It wears claims about its scripture, which scripture has never made about itself.

It puts on the attire of the culture, sometimes to blend in, as it had to do in the past, and sometimes in an effort to garner the kind of pertinence for which it has always wished.

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The intent of Embody is not to retrieve some utopian ecclesial leadership model, a pre-corruption time of Jesus, or an ideal never grounded in reality. Rather, Embody suggests that the church’s leadership is called to model the dialectic that is the constant struggle between core commitments and survival. The church is called to be an example of how Christian communities must always plot a course between what God needs it to be and what the church presumes the world wants it to be. Leadership in the church can never be a quick fix, or any fix at all. The church always exists in the tension between what God calls it to be and what it supposes it has to be. 

The church’s vocation is to model a way of leadership in the world that has an inherently different purpose, and that purpose is not a secular understanding of success. Success for the church is embodying a way of being in the world that gives witness to the abiding presence of God. For the church, leadership is not a noun but a verb, not a set of characteristics but an expression of who God is and how God works in the world, not a taxonomy of traits but a living out of the Kingdom of God in our midst. Leadership in the church can never be static but must always evaluate where and how its leadership structures are prone to idolatry. 

Church institutions assume they are being theological in their leadership when they say things such as, “The Holy Spirit is calling Grace Lutheran Church to...” But this is an extraordinarily presumptive claim. Furthermore, such claims are one-sided. They lack demonstrated activity of connecting theological thought to the church’s mission or vision. These kinds of claims do indeed reveal our idea of who God is and, in this case, God’s work can be codified, assessed, and even predicted.

A Few More Words about Leadership

What word might church leaders use instead of leadership, given that the word leader has a rather iniquitous presence in the New Testament? The term typically translated as “leader” or “ruler” is predominantly cast in negative terms: perceived opponents of Jesus and the gospel (Matt 20:25; Luke 14:1; 23:13, 35; 24:20; John 3:1; 7:48; 12:42; Acts 4:26; 13:27; 14:5); associated with Satan or the devil (Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); and rulers of this age (1 Cor 2:6, 8; Eph 2:2). Only in Revelation is the term used in reference to Jesus: “And from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5). There are, of course, various terms and metaphors for designated leaders of God’s people throughout scripture, and God’s people have a complicated history of figuring out just what kind of leader they want. From Moses to the judges to the prophets to the kings, exactly what the Israelites desire in a leader has always been rather unclear. When it comes to the New Testament, Paul uses various metaphors to describe his oversight of the churches he has founded (“apostle” 1 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1; “father” 1 Cor 4:15, Phlm 10; “nursing mother” 1 Thess 2:7). The New Testament’s later writings reveal the early church’s struggle to figure out a leadership structure in light of the realization that the church would be here for a while. It is in these correspondences that we see words such as presbyter and bishop (1 Pet 5:1; 1 Tim 3:2). In other words, when it comes to overseeing a community existing because of God’s love, there is an observable fluidity in the church’s attempts to identify a fitting kind of leadership. Perhaps this is how it should be. Once leadership becomes overly prescribed in the church, it loses its Spirit-driven identity. The challenge, therefore, is finding a way to talk about leadership in the church that maintains a certain mutability but also articulates some basic principles so the church does not get lost in variability. 

To some extent, when the church claimed leadership as a word for supervising positions held in the church, it muddied the waters somewhat. Employing mainstream vocabulary can be helpful and is sometimes even necessary when the church tries to locate its place and voice in society. At the same time, it is easy to embrace indistinctiveness of vocabulary around leadership, thereby losing sight of how the church is unique in its expressions and manifestations of leadership.

As a result, the church’s intentional reference to, and use of, the Bible and theology is essential for the church’s understanding and description of leadership. A biblical or theological imagination for leadership is indeed what makes leadership in the church distinctive. The church is the only institution that can make these connections, that can give witness to leadership models founded on the language of scripture and grounded in the continuity of God. When the church lets go of this prophetic responsibility, its accountability to the Bible and to its theological commitments will, and should, fall under scrutiny. As Jill Lepore writes, “Transfixed by change, [disruptive innovation] is blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.”[1]

While we have touched on presentations of leadership in the Old Testament and in some New Testament writings, we have yet to address Jesus as leader. Of course, what kind of leader people want him to be and what kind of leader Jesus describes himself to be makes for an interesting comparison, both in the New Testament writings and in today’s conversation. Expectations were high for Jesus’s leadership, particularly in the Gospels, because who Jesus is as a leader is also caught up in Jesus’s identity. Is Jesus Elijah, the one whose role it was to usher in the reign of the Messiah? Is Jesus the Anointed One? The anticipated King of the Jews? A new David? In other words, how Jesus leads is connected to, and interwoven with, his identity. When Jesus’s leadership seems to conflict with his assumed identity, and when his perceived identity appears to be at odds with his behavior, then this conflict ends up being the crux of both a polemic and a resistance.

Over the course of the Gospel narratives, Jesus uses a number of metaphors, directly and indirectly, making self-referential descriptions of his role and mission. Jesus’s role and mission constitute an array of images deeply rooted in his scriptures, the Hebrew Bible. As a result, there are certain images to which Jesus refers that we would expect, such as king and shepherd but not leader, and titles alone are not enough to capture who Jesus will be as a leader of this new movement within Judaism. Throughout the Gospels, few adjectives are used to describe Jesus, and they are frustratingly ambiguous. For example, no biblical scholar knows quite what to do with Jesus’s claim to be the “good” shepherd in John 10. What exactly makes Jesus “good”?

Jesus is described verbally. Jesus is not compassionate; rather, he had compassion. As we read in Matthew: “Now Jesus called his disciples and said, ‘I feel sorry [compassionate] for the crowd because they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry for they won’t have enough strength to travel’” (15:32). Or, as we also read in Luke: “When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, ‘Don’t cry’” (7:13). What difference does this make for how the church does leadership? It means that summarizing one’s leadership is not as simple as providing a list of adjectives. More often than not, we succumb to offering a catalog of our greatest traits to define our leadership style—relational, organized, hardworking, good preacher, good teacher— and nowhere in that set of skills is any articulation of the relationship between that trait and one’s theological commitments.

Among the parade of metaphors for Jesus’s leadership is a gem of a verse that gets the closest to Jesus’s own articulation of what it means to be a leader: “I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever” (John 14:16). As noted in the preface, the word translated “companion” is the Greek word paraclete, literally, the one called to be alongside or beside. Though penned by John, we at least have witness to Jesus’s self-reflection of who he was and how he was among his followers. Knowing that he will no longer be with his disciples, Jesus realizes that they will need another leader—the paraclete.

It is no accident that this promise from Jesus takes place during what is known in the Fourth Gospel as the “Farewell Discourse.” These five chapters, framed by Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (chapter 13) and the “High Priestly Prayer” (chapter 17), are Jesus at his pastoral best. Jesus knows the chain of events that will follow when he says in John 10:14, “the good shepherd” lays down his life for the sheep. The disciples need to be comforted and then need to be prepared. Jesus’s clearest reflection about his own ministry and thereby on his own leadership occurs in a moment of pastoral care.

That leadership in the church is born out of a perceived need for pastoral care is a critical component for how the church thinks about leadership and trains leaders. We see Paul’s leadership at work in response to worries he has for his churches. His own sense of his role within the churches he founded is often dependent on concerns within, and concerns for, his congregations; Paul is able to practice leadership in nuanced ways in response to the issues at hand. Paul’s theology is a work in progress; it is dependent on the intersection of a church’s theological assumptions and how Paul assumes God might act in, and respond to, these potential theological crises.

Leadership as the expression or embodiment of pastoral care is also true of Jesus’s description of the paraclete. After the first reference to the paraclete, Jesus then defines the role of the paraclete not with adjectives but with what the paraclete will actually do. The paraclete will teach the disciples everything and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them (John 14:26). The paraclete will testify on Jesus’s behalf (15:26); the paraclete will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8-11); the paraclete will guide the disciples in all truth and declare the things that are to come (16:13); and, finally, the paraclete will glorify Jesus (16:14).

Jesus’s articulation of the paraclete’s activities is reflective of the root meaning of the term. Again, as a compound word, para means “alongside of” and klÄ“tos comes from the Greek verb kaleÅŒ, which means “to call.” The paraclete, therefore, is the one called to be alongside us, to walk alongside us, to accompany us, to stand beside us, and to be our companion. As a result, the word paraclete can be, and has been, translated as advocate, comforter, aider, intercessor, guider, teacher, supporter, and counselor.

Instead of the church using the word leader, how might our perception of leadership, both within and from without, shift if we were to employ the word Jesus used to describe his ministry over those three years? What would happen if the church chose to utilize a term that Jesus himself called upon to identify his own leadership? What if the church committed to using paraclete instead of leader? How might that fundamentally alter how we talk about leadership and go about leading in the church?

Church leadership has tried to compete with expectations of leadership that society wants, accepts, and appreciates. Predominantly, this is a kind of leadership that is in control, organized, and strategic—and none of these adjectives even begin to define Jesus’s ministry. In fact, when Jesus appears to be describing his ministry, he is the least in control. We might even say that integrity in leadership is born out of crisis, as leaders in the church know well from the coronavirus pandemic, for example. The Fare- well Discourse is a swirl of human emotions, both for the disciples and for Jesus. Jesus knows that the hour has arrived; in John 13:1 we read: “Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time [hour] had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.” The entire Farewell Discourse is an anticipation of Jesus’s departure and an assurance for the disciples that Jesus will not abandon them. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, even Judas’s feet (who betrays him only verses later), and Peter’s (whose denial Jesus predicts in the very same chapter). There is nothing in control, organized, or strategic about the Farewell Discourse, with the exception of Jesus being fully aware of his fate. How the disciples will respond, how Jesus will respond to their emotions, cannot be scripted. The final chapter (chapter 17) is a compendium of uncertainty. In this three-part prayer, Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and for believers yet to be. Prayer happens when you realize that you are not in control. There is no other thing to do, no other place to go, except to turn to God.

About Embodiment

The first definition of embody, according to Merriam-Webster is: “to give a body to (a spirit): INCARNATE.”[2] Synonyms of embody include: absorb, assimilate, co-opt, incorporate, and integrate. We might ask ourselves: Do we embody the incarnation in our ministry? Do we take seriously the meaning of embody in how we describe and execute our leadership? Do we regularly think about how we are embodying that which is at stake for our leadership? Do we merely describe our leadership, rather than give a body to it? These are the primary questions that this book seeks to answer. As McCullough writes, “Embodiment encircles the physical body and the living self, for how we live cannot be separated from the form by which we live.”[3] To believe in the incarnation is to believe in this truth: bodies matter to God. When bodies do not matter, when our very bodies do not matter, then we are not confessing fully that the Word became flesh. The truth is, for too many of us, there is an avid denial of body when it comes to our leadership. This is especially complicated by the fact that for many people, especially for women leaders in the church, their bodies have been the source of pain that is the result of sexism, misogyny, and objectification.

Our lack of embodiment in leadership in the church communicates a lack of integrity on the part of the church. In practice, the extent to which the church bases its faith on the incarnation only goes so far in our leadership. We put provisions in place, acting on the premise that some bodies are more acceptable as the image of God than others. We also place these conditions on ourselves, acting on the idea that our bodies are not enough to do the work of God, that only certain bodies are suitable to lead in God’s church—and mostly those bodies are expected to conform to society’s standards. These standards, of course, are neither reachable nor real. They do not take into account the truths of flesh and bone. Furthermore, they perpetuate the ways in which humanity classifies what it perceives to be good and acceptable in God’s eyes. Thus, bodies have to be thin, attractive, white, young, clearly gendered, and able-bodied; as such, the church is then complicit in ageism, sexism, racism, heteronormativity, and ableism. This is what is at stake when we talk about embodiment and leadership in the church.

It is not enough anymore to celebrate inclusivity or milestones made on behalf of the church’s openness to other kinds of bodies. Leaders need to lead “embodiedly” as a daily resistance to society’s ongoing marginalization of the bodies of women, transgender and gender nonconforming bodies, disabled bodies, violated bodies, violenced bodies, and nonwhite bodies. For too long, the church has been complicit in what bodies it is willing to accept to preach from its pulpits; to teach in its seminaries; and to serve from leadership positions held in synodical, judicatory, institutional, and sessional structures.

Embodiment counteracts tokenism. Embodiment chooses intention. Embodiment insists how leaders lead is truly an extension of the self. Embodiment demands that your body matters, even when the church dismisses your body. Embodiment is the correction when the church demands a dedication of bodies over and above any other profession in the form of a self-sacrifice suggested by the cross rather than of a self-care advocated by the incarnation. As such, embodiment is not a euphemism for behavior or acting out certain characteristics. Rather, embodiment is the essential category by which we describe ministry based on the incarnation. To embrace embodiment is to embrace change, not just for the sake of change or for a perceived benefit of disruption; rather, centering leadership in embodiment embraces the fact that bodies are unreliable. They can betray us. They disappoint us. When we realize this truth, then we begin to understand that the mind is no different. Theology, models of church leadership, ways of going about church, are in the mode of relying heavily on the mind—as if the mind can solve every issue that the body finds difficult.

Messiness and unpredictability are inherent to embodiment, which is likely why leadership in the church sets embodiment aside in favor of leadership agendas that rely on ideals and plans. However, this is not how embodiment works. If the church and its leaders were actually living into the identity as the embodied spirit of God in the world, then this would mean letting go of that which is most valued in society’s definition of leadership. It would mean for the church’s leaders to embrace vulnerability. It would mean a transformation from being market-driven to being spirit-driven, and it would mean moving from using strategic rhetoric to using soul-speech, from being policy-driven to being relationship-driven. It would mean moving from being manual-driven to being Bible-driven. It would mean giving up on competition and striving for distinctiveness—a distinctiveness in leadership that actually embodies what it believes theologically. Frailty, fragility, and finitude are not the desired traits to headline an institution, and yet that is how God chose to reveal God’s very self. The church’s redemption “could not be wished or just thought, even by God herself, she had to be enfleshed.”[4]

Embodiment also suggests that experience is worthy of theological revelation, that theology “springs from” the body.[5] The church has exercised considerable effort in erasing theology that is born out of experience. After all, this is not a theology that is provable; nor is it a theology that can function as criteria for defending orthodoxy. It is no wonder, then, that when the New Testament was in the canonization process, claiming inspiration could not be a criterion for inclusion. But, as McCollough writes, “theology can no longer shroud us in the comforts of eternal absolutes.”[6] Nor should theology any longer be our reason for eschewing our own embodied experiences. The truth of the incarnation suggests, even demands, that wisdom is not found in the many answers set forth by leadership models but in the very bodies of those who have heard God’s call and have responded, “Here I am” and thereby taking “I am” seriously, just as Job does: “then from my flesh I’ll see God” (Job 19:26). And whereas the church’s history has held up a male body as normative and as representative of leadership in the church, the church has had a poor track record when it comes to addressing sexual abuse in the church.

The church can stand as a counterpoint to the ways in which bodies are dismissed in so many diverse aspects of life. The church can also seek to correct how society only accepts certain bodies, especially the bodies wanted to represent the church. As Isherwood and Stuart note: “What must be guarded against at all costs is the disappearance of the real, lived, laughing, suffering, birthing, and dying body underneath the philosophical and theological meaning it is called to bear. It would indeed be foolish to allow ‘the body’ to become a disembodied entity.”[7]

When bodies are dismissed for not meeting the criteria of what they hold up, then how can they be “sites of resistance”?[8] To believe in the incarnation is to insist that the body is the locus of theological experience: “The body is integral to the self and a place from which individual, social, institutional, and political knowledge is revealed.”[9] What difference would it make for leadership in the church if the church “took seriously as Scripture surely does: that the privileged arena of divine disclosure is the human body.”[10] We have conveniently forgotten that scripture itself witnesses to God’s revelation to, and in, bodies. God, and every way God acts, is experienced through bodies. The entirety of the biblical witness testifies to manifestations of God landing on, and working through, actual bodies.


Excerpted from Embody: Five Keys to Leading with Integrity by Karoline M. Lewis. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine,” The New Yorker, June 16, 2014,

[2] “Embody,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,, accessed February 14, 2020.

[3] Amy P. McCollough, Her Preaching Body (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 162.

[4] Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart, Introducing Body Theology (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1998), 32.

[5] Isherwood and Stuart, Introducing Body Theology, 33.

[6] Isherwood and Stuart, Introducing Body Theology, 39.

[7] Isherwood and Stuart, Introducing Body Theology, 151.

[8] Isherwood and Stuart, Introducing Body Theology, 100.

[9] McCollough, Her Preaching Body, 13.

[10] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), ix.

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