To Lead or Not to Lead.

Recently there have been a number of conversations floating around the internet and blogosphere regarding the issue of leadership vs discipleship. It isn’t always couched as a competition…sometimes its just about whether or not leadership is Biblical at all.

The points are well made (for the most part) and highlight the dangers of taking on the dominant culture’s understanding of power and leadership. I get that. However, I remain thoroughly unconvinced that we should do away with the concept of leadership. The following was my response to one of the more healthy of these conversations. Surprise, surprise, my response ended up being too long to post in the comments section…

John Perkins says that the response to bad leadership isn’t NO leadership, its good leadership. I tend to agree. For Perkins, good leadership is characterized by following Christ well (healthy discipleship) in the midst of community (check out Follow Me to Freedom, which he coauthored with Shane Claiborne).

This posture of leadership allows us to remain alongside others as we follow Christ together, but also recognizes that some people have an apostolic calling: they take risks and step out on faith while others are waiting for someone else to step first. I know the answer we often give is that Jesus took the first step. That’s true, and for most of us in this conversation, who have that apostolic gift, it seems simple enough. Trust God. Follow Jesus. See the good you’re called to and go do it.

But not everyone has that same risk-taker personality, and not everyone has that prophetic imagination. That isn’t to say they’re less committed, less called or less anything. But those with the gift of prophetic imagination are called to help others begin to picture what life could look like if get swept up in God’s advancing Kingdom. This doesn’t have to be the top down, power driven leadership we see in corporate America. I’ve read the conversations you mentioned above and I appreciate the critique of putting a Jesus t-shirt on the business model and calling it Christian leadership.

However, I’m concerned about where we end up when we completely eschew leadership. In a sense, it is its own form of elitism because it basically makes Christianity something that only the risk takers and self-starters can participate in. That’s a bit overstated, I know, but I don’t think we need to get into an either/or battle with leadership and discipleship. Both are necessary. Without discipleship, as has been pointed out, we have another business organization replete with power dynamics, coercion, manipulation and a continued favoring of the wealthy over the poor and insignificant. This is bad. We must not allow this to continue.

Without leadership though, we may end up with a loosely connected group of individuals, some of whom are involved in great discipleship experiences while others are wondering what happens next. We may miss out on the synergy and cohesion of a truly vibrant community of faith held together by a shared mission (communitas).

I agree, good leadership should be marked by person(s) who have been discipled well and are currently engaged in discipling others. Good leadership should also include the willingness to step out in faith and ignite the imagination of others to do the same. When we have no leadership our discipleship risks becoming increasingly individualized. The role of a good leader includes helping the group continue moving together.

Leadership can never serve as a replacement for disciple-making. But unless we want to declare the church useless, as some have chosen to do, leadership is still an important part of our group dynamic. It helps us function as a community of disciples who are joined together by a larger mission. A mission that is much larger than our personal salvation, larger even than our personal discipleship experiences.

We’ve seen bad leadership often enough that many of us want to distance ourselves from it. I COMPLETELY understand. But when we abdicate our calling to lead others we can (I’m speaking from experience) begin to resent them for not responding to that leadership vacuum by stepping up and leading themselves. In other words, we resent them for being themselves, rather than being us. Not only is that not fair, its incredibly arrogant.

I appreciate this conversation and I realize I’m responding to way more than what has been said here. I hope we can continue wrestling through these issues. I appreciate your leadership in the conversation 😉


Posted on January 7, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great post. I appreciate and agree with what you said. However, and in no way taking away from what you've written, I've been interested to read several articles/posts by people who are arguing against completely rejecting leadership. What confuses me is that I have to yet to come across anyone really suggesting such an move. Perhaps I am missing them.The reason I mention this- and I am not suggesting this of you- is that whenever I find people challenge the NATURE of current leadership in the church, many people respond as though they are rejecting leadership altogether and thus defend leadership. I fear that this might derail the conversation from its intended direction.What do you think?

  2. I think its a mixed bag. I've encountered a wide range of conversations, most of them challenging the business model of leadership. Then I read a few that claimed our leadership energies should be directed toward discipleship. Then I read a few about leadership vs discipleship (sorry I don't have citations right now). And then the missional holy man, David Fitch, used one of his characteristically overstated titles, "Is 'Leadership' Biblical?" Since then several folks, including some people I know personally, have begun treating leadership as something to be avoided by missional communities.I'm with you, Jamie, we must resist the temptation to defend the validity of our favorite ideas just because someone challenges one form of them. That's why I point out the need to continue critiquing the corporate model of leadership. However, just as some people will defend leadership in general when only the nature was challenged, so also, there seem to be people who REJECT leadership in general when only the nature was challenged. That is the response I'm questioning.I guess in fairness, I should say it has mostly been people in the comments to blog posts (and some people in my own life) who are pushing to reject leadership, more so than the authors I've encountered. (Except for Fitch…he stirs up so much stuff through his hyperbole!)

  3. Here's the actual conversation I was responding to…admittedly, I imported some of my reactions to Fitch's conversation and others.

  4. Thanks Bret. I hear what you are saying, yet still feel as though (even in the case of Fitch, who uses hyperbole, then clearly points that fact out so not be dismisses too easily) not enough people are genuinely giving the challenge (even the hyperbole) due consideration. At best I have seen "Yes, but…" responses. Again, not referring to you, just in general.Interestingly, my own post on leadership ( seemed to be a complete flop. Maybe I'm just bitter (wink).

  5. I should be clear. I am deeply suspicious of much of what passes for leadership in the church today- suspicious, not always opposed. That being said, I cannot more clearly state that leadership is critical and essential. Perhaps the problem is that the word "leadership" is so loaded with crap that it is not longer helpful.I think some people will reject leadership because of its abuses and learn a great deal in the process. I can only hope that, through that process, they will return to a more healthy expression of leadership is meant to be. Sometimes we would do best to stand with those who might reject too much in the hopes that their journey will eventually lead them home.

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