What Makes Leadership Christian?

February 13th, 2013

If you want to be a Christian leader, you'll have no trouble finding advice. The world seems awash in books, articles, web sites, videos, and more on the subject. Practically all of this literature suggests that Christian leadership is distinct from other varieties (and on that I agree); a lot of it assumes that figuring out how it’s different is a relatively simple matter (on that I’m not as sanguine). I wonder just how simple it is to discern those principles in the first place, and especially how easily leaders can apply them in their own life. So in what follows I’m going to try to talk about what makes leadership Christian without resorting to easy answers.

What do I mean by easy answers? For one thing, I mean taking garden variety leadership insights, wrapping them in the thin layer of a story from the Bible, and calling them biblical. Folks often point to Exodus 18, the day Jethro taught his son-in-law Moses how to delegate authority, as an example of a biblical leadership principle. But other than that one chapter, when does delegated authority ever figure in the larger story of Moses and Israel’s encounter with God? The rest of the story focuses on how good a job Moses and the Israelites are doing (or not doing) in following God.

That’s where easy answers fail us; they blind us to what is really going on in Scripture, and what that might say to us. The Bible does have things to teach us about leadership; it’s just mixed up with all that complicated stuff about following God, the Bible’s actual message.

So, if we want to know how leadership can be Christian, we can give up looking for quick fixes and easy answers, and focus instead on the heart of the Christian message: the gospel of the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For leadership to be Christian, in other words, it must in some way embody the gospel. How does that happen? Let me suggest three places to start looking.

The Freeing Yoke

First, Christian leadership is about vocation and calling. In itself that’s an unremarkable statement, until you remember what a call from God looks like in the Bible. Although sometimes God’s call results in acceptance and a sense of mission (think Isaiah), more often it produces a “thanks, but no thanks” reaction (think Moses and Jeremiah), or even running the opposite direction (think Jonah). Why? Because the call from God is about God, not us; it’s about God’s redemption of the world, not our convenience. The call to Christian leadership should be received, not sought; it should be accepted joyously yet soberly. Like the call to discipleship, it is an enlivening burden, a yoke that frees us to discover ourselves by losing ourselves.

The Irony of Success

Second, Christian leadership needs to nurture a healthy sense of irony about itself. The gospel message is of a God who reaches down in grace to save us. But save us from what? Ourselves, mostly. According to the gospel, this sad lot of humanity partakes of a tragic flaw. In spite of the gifts with which we were created, and the ongoing presence of God in our world, we conspire daily to mess things up. And here’s the thing: the call to Christian leadership does not change that fact. Realizing this truth requires us to treat even our greatest achievements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

For example, pastors strive to expand the ministries and membership of their congregations. Pastors’ professional advancement depends, in large measure, on their success in doing so. Helping a church to grow is Kingdom work, and hence unequivocally a good thing. Professional advancement can involve healthy ambition, but let’s be honest; how often in this flawed and fallen world is ambition purely healthy? Do you see the irony here? In fulfilling our calling to help the congregation grow, we are at one and the same time motivated by zeal to build God’s Kingdom and, well, our own kingdom. What happens when we fail to recognize that irony? We tell ourselves that everything we do is for the sake of the Kingdom, that it’s all about God and not about us, and pretty soon we can rationalize any questionable behavior or improper decision by saying “I was doing it for God.”

The Emptying of Self

Finally, for leadership to be Christian it must get out of the way and allow the spotlight to shine on others. One of my favorite passages of Scripture is the early Christian hymn found in  Philippians 2:5-11, in which Paul talks about how, in Christ, God emptied the divine self, taking on the form of a servant. This emptying, this setting aside glory for the sake of others, is one of the principal gospel values. Without it, leadership cannot be Christian. Leaders in the church must be about encouraging and facilitating the ministry of others. The most effective Christian leaders recognize others’ gifts and callings for ministry, and help them live into those gifts. When that happens, when those ministries succeed, the original leader should be nowhere in sight.

And that is no way to get your face on the cover of Christianity Today, or your denominational newspaper, or even your church’s web site. We should admit the powerfully countercultural aspect of this fact of Christian leadership. Leaders, as the world defines them, are highly visible. As I’ve written in another post, our culture is in love with the idea of the Person in Charge, the leader who is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the organization. But this is not what Christian leadership is about. Emptying ourselves, giving ourselves away for others, means giving away the attention and credit, too.

Do you want to be a Christian leader? Do you really? Well, good. It is a joyous and rewarding calling—as long as you keep focused on the “Christian” part.

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