A Few Thoughts on Church Leadership
For years, the idea of leadership in the church has been tied very closely to preaching and teaching. Over the past couple years, I’ve begun seriously questioning this assumption. In some contexts, leadership is tied to business and organizational decision makers…an assumption I began rejecting even sooner! My previous post raised the question of whether or not the increasing apathy about theology among some is actually a reaction to unhealthy leadership models within the church.
The challenge that has been in front of Christ Journey for a while now is to sort through what leadership actually is. What does it look like in decentralized, informal contexts such as our own? My suspicion is that the answer to this question for our context can also shed light on (though not answer) the leadership issue in more established congregations as well.
Over a year ago Chris read a letter to Christ Journey which basically confessed his exhaustion with the roles and expectations of leadership that had developed.
We had talked about the need for new models of leadership and had read of similar quests in other places, but in reality, none of us were quite sure what that looked like. In part, I think the inability to conceive of a different approach to leadership influenced the reactions of many members of our community. Because we could only imagine one way to lead, when Chris said, “I can’t lead in this way any more,” people heard “I can’t lead anymore.”
I must confess that though Chris and I function as co-leaders, Christ Journey has always viewed me in a support role – to this day even. Not knowing exactly how I should function in the midst of our leadership dilemma, I probably let Chris shoulder too much of the public burden. For that, I’m sorry.
In fairness, neither Chris nor I knew what leadership was going to entail going forward, we just knew that we hoped it would be a shared leadership among the community. People wanted a clear description and we didn’t have one. What we hoped for was a community to help discern just what that entailed.
We’ve learned a lot in the midst of this struggle. The mass exodus of friends was a hard experience, but it too has taught us much.
Today, I think I’m beginning to appreciate the value and understand the reality (somewhat) of non-hierarchical leadership. One of the main differences is that I don’t see my role as a teacher and preacher as indicative of my leadership – it is merely one of the ways I use my gifts to bless my community. I think this still probably confuses some people who expect the person speaking on Sunday morning to use that occasion like a coach’s half-time speech. Instead I’ve tried to take the posture (often poorly) that I learned from as wise man to be simply one hungry beggar sharing bread with another.
Instead of coming from my role as a teacher, I’m learning that leadership is tied more directly to my own engagement in life with Christ in such a way that others can see and be encouraged to continue as well.
I used to struggle with Paul’s comment that what people have seen in him, they should put in practice. It seemed to be a bit arrogant. As I’ve reflected, it is much more humbling and difficult to understand leadership in terms of the old cliche, “practice what you preach,” rather than merely “preaching about practice.”
My ability to lead others then is directly related to and derived from my own willingness to submit to a continual process of spiritual formation; to engage in hospitality and the mission of God, and to be willing to do all these things alongside and in full view of others.
Without time spent considering the implications of my theological convictions, I doubt this realization would have become clear. If I hadn’t spent time wrestling with a theology of leadership that seemed consistent with the mission that God has called us into, I would most likely have continued to accept the roles I saw around me…and perhaps would have walked away from church leadership because of it.
My role as a teacher and preacher are no less important, but perhaps they are not best understood as primary functions of leadership in our church. I wonder, how would congregations be affected if the role of preaching and teaching were seen as another offering to the community and not as the embodiment of leadership?
Would those who do not feel gifted to speak publicly find more empowerment to lead others? Would communal understandings of evangelism move from the realm of information and persuasion toward cups of cold water and loving our neighbors? Would our concept of faith be rooted in discipleship rather than (primarily) agreeing on doctrinal statements and propositions? Would our understanding of corporate worship transition from an event meant to “feed us” spiritually to an opportunity to praise God for the acts of Divine love we’ve witnessed?
Our quest for more shared leadership in Christ Journey doesn’t let Chris and I off the hook as ones who have been called by God to lead in this place. (I think that last line is worth rereading for those of us in decentralized contexts.) It does help us realize that we are called to be leaders of leaders as well as followers among followers. John Perkins and Shane Claiborne in their book, Follow Me to Freedom, remind us that the response to bad leadership isn’t no leadership…its good leadership. Good leadership is best displayed and practiced by those who endeavor to be good followers of Christ.
I am blown away by the complex simplicity (or is it simple complexity?) of that realization. I would love to hear your response to the idea of leadership outside of the public speaker or program developer. Also, particularly if you are one who hasn’t seen theology as all that important, does it seem different if we’re talking about the community of faith considering the implications of our beliefs?
What is the role of leadership in the midst of and in response to such a conversation? (In case you’re wondering, these questions are not a rhetorical device, I’d really appreciate some dialog here!)
May God give me grace in the coming year to lead others with humility, compassion and willingness to be a public display of love for God and for others…and may God do the same with you.