The Seductions of Leadership

November 14th, 2011

The church needs leaders. The church needs good leaders. The church needs leaders who will make other leaders. Smarter people than me have written a lot (a lot) about that reality, so I don’t presume to have anything to add to the conversation. But because leadership in the church is so important, it might be a good idea to think for a moment about its shadow side, about the ways in which it can go wrong. Now here I just might have something to say, because my branch of the Christian family tree believes in sin more than it does God—which means that from a tender age I’ve been taught to think about the ways humans can mess up. The list of ways that church leadership can mess up is long, but let’s look at just three of them.

The first relates to what I’ll call movement-based leadership. Movements happen when an extraordinary need or opportunity arises, and people are drawn together, usually quite quickly, to respond to it. Sometimes the movement doesn’t need or want a single leader, but more often an individual serves as the starting point or eventual focal point of the movement’s energies. That person almost always possesses a charismatic personality, and the members are drawn to that personality at least as much as to the issues or insights the leader articulates.

When a new church start takes off quickly, or when sudden, rapid transformation of an established congregation happens, the leaders can often resemble the model described above. That explains why they are subject to the same temptations—principally, the mistake of starting to believe their own press. Surrounded by people who love us and believe so strongly in us, the temptation to internalize all that adoration, to think we really are that great, is strong. Next we start to believe in our secret heart that this movement is here just because of us, that we are indispensable to God’s plan. And that’s when we hang our toes over that thin little line that separates charismatic leadership from its demonic counterpart. This is the point when it becomes all about us—which doesn’t leave a lot of room for it to be about God, now does it?

The second temptation, which relates to what I’ll call institution-based leadership, is a problem with which more of us have experience. As the movements described above mature, they do one of two things: they disband or they institutionalize. In the latter case, the leaders of the movement realize that if they want the movement’s message and ideas to carry on, they have to start building structures to insure that will happen. So they raise money, hire staff, acquire permanent meeting space, and the like. In short, they hunker down for life in the long haul.

The congregations most of us serve are miniature institutions, and so our leadership situation falls into this category. We know, then, where the seductions of this kind of leadership lie. We know that the burdens of maintaining the institution, of “keeping the lights turned on,” grow steadily heavier. We know that almost inevitably every institution succumbs to the temptation to make its own preservation its highest, albeit unspoken, priority. If movement leaders are tempted to shift the focus to themselves, leaders of institutions face terrible pressure to relate everything they do to keeping the institution fed and healthy. Lost in the shuffle, of course, are the ideas and insights the institution was founded to promote in the first place. In church leadership those founding principles are called the gospel, which is about giving yourself away in service of others and God. Giving yourself away becomes a tricky business indeed when you’re spending all your time tending to the aggrandizement of an institution.

Speaking of the gospel, one of its central claims is that the last shall be first, that in the kingdom of God all our carefully-constructed hierarchies will be flipped on their collective head. This gets us to the final temptation of leadership I want to explore. Put simply, we come to enjoy the role of leader. The ability to sway the opinions and actions of others; the attention and approval of other members of the group; the sense that we are necessary, that important things and people depend on us; these are powerful things. But most powerful and destructive of all is the sense of being elevated above others. We like to be in charge, to feel that people are following us.

As good Americans we believe in the myth of the Solitary Individual carving his or her own space out of the universe. In this myth we exist alongside other people, but in the end there’s not much we owe them. Following on the heels of this myth is another, that of the Person in Charge. Persons in Charge stand at the pinnacle of their families, organizations, businesses, governments, what have you. They are the ones ultimately responsible for everything that happens within their sphere, the ones to whom ultimate credit or blame is due.

I was once a member of a congregation that talked about moving our staff from a senior pastor/associate pastor configuration to a copastorate, in which responsibilities would be shared between the two. During the discussions one question kept popping up: “If we do this, who’s going to be in charge? Where is the buck going to stop?” The question belied the assumption that the pastor is a Person in Charge, possessing decisive authority and responsibility for the overall life of the congregation. The bubble of this assumption was burst when someone else asked, “How much money can the pastor spend now without talking to someone else about it?” The answer: maybe a couple hundred bucks, out of a budget of several hundred thousand.

This conversation nicely illustrates the fact that pastors and other congregational leaders aren’t Persons in Charge, they are servants of the servants of Christ. Church leadership is by definition about discipleship; it’s about taking up the cross alongside other Christians doing the same. Yes, the church must have leaders. They just have to be people who wear that leadership lightly, as befits someone who is first and foremost a follower.

Bob Ratcliff is an editor and teacher living in Franklin, Tennessee. He blogs about theology, the Bible, and other curious stuff at

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