Much ado about leadership

Once you have worked in the same profession for a long enough time, the desire to become a leader eventually arises. Did you ever look at your boss and hear yourself think: “I can do that”? Or maybe it was: “I can certainly do better than that.” How long before we get to that point and how strong that desire is, varies from person to person. But the fact is that most of us assume it is a natural, even necessary, step in our lives. But why?

We need leaders. Don’t we? It certainly seems so. Leaders and followers are a reality that we need for the world to work. But, as you might expect from previous posts in this blog, what the world needs to function is not really my main concern. As a Believer, it shouldn’t be; I have other priorities.

The problem is that we live in this world, and to make decisions within this world we have to reason about the problems of the world. In so doing it is very easy to use the rules and logic of the world. But then, when we are faced with issues of ethics or find ourselves facing problems within the Church, how do we reason about those problems? Do we remember then that there are rules of the Kingdom? Do we then use those rules?

This is not an artificial conundrum. Just think about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek”. Within my Church family, surrounded with people that claim to believe just like I do, who value mercy, compassion, and forgiveness as much as I do, I certainly hope that I would turn the other cheek to an insult or offense… After all, that is what Jesus expects of us. But now imagine the same situation in the world, a business environment, in the dog-eat-dog world. Someone else in the company is looking to advance at my expense. And they are more than willing to play dirty. How much turning the other cheek am I going to do? And before answering that categorically, let me up the ante: What about if letting someone else use me as a doormat also has negative consequences for those who work for me?

Interesting as this example is, and worthwhile as it would be to ask: What would Jesus do? This is not what I want to talk about today. I used this example to illustrate how ready we all are to consider living with two sets of rules, two sets of logic: One applies to the world, one applies to the Kingdom of God. But wouldn’t living that way lead me to become double-minded?

You see, logical rules presuppose the existence of values. And the values of this world are not necessarily compatible with those of the Kingdom. Yet by using them we can get accustomed to them, maybe even inured to the point that we do not see the possible contradictions.

Did Jesus teach us about leadership?

Many books have been written on the lessons we believers should take from the life of Jesus if we want to be effective leaders. Jesus CEO, is one. Lead like Jesus, is another. They are full of excellent advice. I absolutely agree that a believer who brings his faith into his role as a leader in the world will have the most positive impact possible on the lives and hearts of those who work with him (for him). But there are two caveats that we cannot forget:

First: don’t expect the world to appreciate it, thank you, or reward you. In other words, don’t expect that acting that way will bring you prosperity in the world. That’s not the way it worked for Jesus. (Remember the cross.)

Second: As long as the movement we exert is from the Gospel into the world, that’s fine. But the moment the actions, techniques, expectations, philosophies that we have, in good conscience, adapted to the worldly situation turn around and echo back, and start affecting the way we view the work of the Church, we are in trouble.

A business in the world may need a CEO. But the Church does not need a CEO.

Matthew 23:8-12 8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Does saying that Jesus is “the greatest leadership role model of all time”, do justice to His life and ministry?

one child leading another

And a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6)

There is a well-known passage in the gospels where Jesus tells his disciples that a requirement to enter into the kingdom of heaven is to become like a little child. But what does becoming like a child mean? To get the context right, we have to start with Mark’s gospel, where we see that it all started with the disciples arguing among themselves:

Mark 9:33-35 And he came to Capernaum, and being in the house, he asked them, Of what were ye reasoning by the way? And they remained silent, for by the way they had been reasoning with one another who [was] greatest. And sitting down he called the twelve; and he says to them, If any one would be first, he shall be last of all, and minister of all.

Apparently, each was vying to be Jesus’ right-hand man when the time came for Him to inaugurate the Messiah’s Kingdom on Earth. As Jesus often did, He turned their assumptions upside down. They were aspiring to power (and, yes, the responsibilities that came with it) but Jesus tells them that the way to “climb up the ladder” is to be the bottom rung.

To such an unexpected answer, what would you have replied? Would you have just accepted it? It certainly is not self-explanatory because in their world, as in ours, there is an acknowledged need for leaders, there is a need for people with vision and skill, people willing to “take the reins”, so to speak, and get things done. If I had been among those twelve, as a minimum my reaction would have been, “Really?” I think more than one reacted that way because in Matthew we have the record of the moment after:

Matthew 18:1 In that hour the disciples came to Jesus saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?

Who’s the boss? This is a fair question. If we are all busy serving each other, how are going to get anything done? Someone has to be in charge. And Jesus then expands on his reply:

Matthew 18:2-4 And Jesus having called a little child to [him], set it in their midst, and said, Verily I say to you, Unless ye are converted and become as little children, ye will not at all enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Whoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, *he* is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens

In future blogs, I want to dig into the various facets of what it can mean to become like a little child. But for today I just want to focus on the contrast that Jesus has drawn between the disciples’ attitude on the way, and the attitude He says is mandatory, the one childlike trait He spells out: humility.

The world says that the most important person is the leader because without him (or her) our ship will founder. So, of course we are going to pay our CEO well, and on top of that we will add all sorts of bonuses when his (or her) plans succeed. Positive reinforcement is a good thing, right?

But here, Jesus has summarized the key qualification for their job (the job that He chose them for – John 15:16) as humility. Just focus on serving; that’s what Jesus taught.

Again, if you had been there, would that have made sense to you? Would I have accepted that, and turned upside down all the expectations of my life up to that point, and started living that way? How easy is it to lay aside a lifetime of presuppositions?

I think the human thing to do, our natural inclination, is to try to take the Truth that we acknowledge Jesus must be speaking, and make it fit within our worldview. I think our natural inclination is to have this running self-commentary in the back of our minds that says, ‘well, He couldn’t really have meant that literally’. And so, we come up with our own interpretation of what He meant, assuming that that interpretation is a reasonable facsimile.

Which leads me to wonder if the term ‘servant-leader’ belongs in the language of a disciple.

Is there such a thing as a servant-leader?

The term servant-leader was coined in the 1970’s by Robert K. Greenleaf. He was concerned with the leadership crisis he saw in this country, and the social ills and injustices that that vacuum of leadership was allowing. He concluded that the solution to those problems was not in terms of “… systems, ideologies, and movements” because they are not fundamental, that is, they do not make themselves. But rather, the solution, he said, “is the incremental thrust of an individual who has the ability to serve and lead.”

Furthermore, in his view, the pre-eminent qualification for a leader is that that person be first of all a servant. And, he goes on to claim that the person that finds his fulfillment in being a servant eventually will realize that he is called to be a leader, and will want to lead.

Greenleaf’s original essay (and follow-on work) is a worthwhile read. He has many good things to say. And his goals are utterly noble. There is probably little doubt that if Corporations and Institutions were structured and functioned according to his teachings, our worldly society would be better off. But I would point out that his fundamental premise is that we human beings have the power to fix our world’s problems if only we were to choose to act in this enlightened way. He fully expected that by the 21st century our society could be radically changed for the better:

“A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants.”

The italics are Greenleaf’s. And I trust the irony of that emphasis is not lost on a reader living in 2021 USA.

That things didn’t turn out the way he hoped is not a reason to discount his advice. My misgivings have to do with the application of his ideas, and therefore their basic premises, to the Church. Or said another way: Does the wisdom of the world have something to contribute to the Church?

There is a difference between the world and how we live in it and the kingdom of God and how we live for it. Jesus made this clear when the Pharisees tried to trap him with the question about paying taxes to Caesar. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” That was his answer, even though Jesus knew that in the kingdom of God, paying those taxes was meaningless. Remember this passage?

Matthew 17:24-27 And when they came to Capernaum, those who received the didrachmas came to Peter and said, Does your teacher not pay the didrachmas? He says, Yes. And when he came into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, What dost thou think, Simon? the kings of the earth, from whom do they receive custom or tribute? from their own sons or from strangers?

man picking up fish

     Peter says to him, From strangers. Jesus said to him, Then are the sons free. But that we may not be an offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when thou hast opened its mouth thou wilt find a stater; take that and give it to them for me and thee.

Jesus’ attitude toward the world, from his own words and deeds, and as taught by Peter and Paul in the epistles, is one of living at peace, insofar as it is possible, among the people of the world. Because that is the only way that we will be able to get them to see God’s love and tell them about the Kingdom of God. He wants us here. Remember how he prayed to the Father about his disciples:

John 17: 14-18 I have given them thy word, and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world. I do not demand that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them out of evil. They are not of the world, as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by the truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world…

I think the way to look at it is this way: The life we live in the world is one of necessity but the life we live in the Kingdom is one of calling.

The world is our mission field and we must be able to function within it. The way most institutions and businesses operate in the world is not going to be aligned with the way the Kingdom of God works. And I am not talking about lack of ethics but just at the fundamental reality that in many jobs in the world I, as the employee, serve at the pleasure and for the benefit of the share-holders. If we don’t want to live that way then we‘d better make our own business and run it the way we want.

But within the company I must work for the benefit of the company. It is in this sense that Greenfield’s advice is useful because he was addressing the business world as it is and the world’s institutions and how they could be changed or improved. In that world, sure, the servant-leader may be the model to aspire to.

But in the Church?

Haven’t we already been taught by Jesus how to live in the Church?

Mark 9:35 And sitting down he called the twelve; and he says to them, If any one would be first, he shall be last of all, and minister of all.

If we want to be first in the Kingdom of Heaven (not first in the Church) then we are called to be the servant of all. There is nothing in this passage that hints at leadership. It is all about serving. Because as he says elsewhere, the Son of Man came to serve not to be served.

If the definition of servant-leader is Greenleaf’s, where the leadership role is the natural aspiration and evolution of every servant, then I don’t think such a thing belongs in the Church.

By whose authority do you do these things? (Matthew 21:23)

The story of the Early Church shows us that authority in the Church was bestowed exclusively by God (i.e. through the laying on of hands.) Overall, the role of the disciple at every level within the Church appears to be one of serving, of carrying out the calling they knew God placed in their lives. It is in this context that a hierarchy of responsibility was set up. There are people gifted with the responsibility to teach and to pastor. Yes, there is organization:

1 Timothy 5:17-19 Let the elders who take the lead [among the saints] well be esteemed worthy of double honour, specially those labouring in word and teaching; for the scripture says, Thou shalt not muzzle an ox that treadeth out corn, and, The workman [is] worthy of his hire. Against an elder receive not an accusation unless where there are two or three witnesses

But this organization is all in the context of all us in the Church working together to accomplish the mission of Jesus.

Church was their life, not just a part of their life.

This is why I included that verse 19 above. Their worldview presupposed that their Heavenly Father was actively in charge and supervising all that they did. God was the real – and only – boss.

In this worldview, every individual is serving God. As a consequence of obeying that calling, they help each other accomplish the good of the Kingdom of God, together.

shepherd and sheep

1 Peter 5:1-5 The elders which [are] among you I exhort, who [am their] fellow-elder and witness of the sufferings of the Christ, who also [am] partaker of the glory about to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God which [is] among you, exercising oversight, not by necessity, but willingly; not for base gain, but readily; not as lording it over your possessions, but being models for the flock. And when the chief shepherd is manifested ye shall receive the unfading crown of glory.

     Likewise [ye] younger, be subject to [the] elder, and all of you bind on humility towards one another; for God sets himself against [the] proud, but to [the] humble gives grace.

The leadership of the elder is that of a Shepherd. Which beside feeding the flock (as Jesus asked of Peter) involves “oversight” and living as an example for everybody else. That word oversight literally means “looking with fitting, apt concern”, the way a shepherd must pay attention to his sheep. Because they are in his care.

Nothing in here sounds like casting a vision, spelling out a mission, directing the way for others to follow, or any of the things we associate with leadership today. Nothing in that early Church sounds at all like a business with leaders and followers. Why? Because every disciple already understood the vision and the mission and the way to go: It is all Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We walk together because Jesus calls us to walk together. We work together because Jesus called all of us to do His work.

I would say that in Peter’s admonition, the younger follows (is subject to) the elder not because he needs the elder to point the way – for Jesus already said that all His sheep recognize His voice – but rather because when a bunch of us work together on a common task we know we need organization. This is at the root of Paul’s illustration of the Body of Christ as a physical body in 1 Corinthians 12.

It is not about leaders and followers. It is about each one of us picking up our individual mantle of responsibility and carrying out the work of the Kingdom. Like I said earlier: For the early Church, Church was their life.

But we don’t live that way today, do we? Maybe it is unrealistic to expect to live that way today. Ok. But to what extent do we let the “reality” of our world today shape the life of the Church?

What if I stumble? What if I fall? (DC Talk)

Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-leader offers the world-system a kind of salvation. Where does his authority come from? If you read his essay, you find these claims:

  • Moral principles do not come from theory but from experience, from what works.
  • Prophets exist in every age with the right words for that age. And they are validated and strengthened by the fact that people listen to them. In his view the writer Albert Camus was a prophet of his time.
  • Words of wisdom are not of old and eternal but rather new wisdom is rising with every age appropriate to that age.

This is not the worldview of the Word of God. Yet, what could possibly be wrong with servant-first leadership that makes sure “that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” What could be wrong with a leadership that passes this test: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

It’s kind of hard to argue with such lofty goals. I said it earlier: there is much good advice in these leadership books.  But let me ask you a question: Go to that bookshelf and pull the books out and look for the chapter that says: “What to do when your leader disappoints you.” What do they tell you to do… in the Church?

I am not talking about moral failure of the leader. I am talking about failing to meet all the expectations we have placed on the role of that leader.

If I am looking at this relationship as one of leader and follower, I find within me this tendency to judge: “Well, he should have known better.” “Didn’t he go to Pastor school for this?” “I mean, with great power comes great responsibility (so taught us Spider Man).” “That’s not the way you run a work place.”

Which eventually pours out into: “We need to do something before everything we have worked for gets ruined.”

BUT, if I am looking at this leader as my brother, as a disciple just like me, as my Syzygus, my yoke-fellow in the work of the Kingdom, I hope I feel moved to step in and ask: Can I help you carry this weight? After all, that is what a yoke is for.

I hope I would say, “You have not failed me: For the gifts and the calling of God [are] not subject to repentance (Romans 11:29).  Let’s figure out what we all need to do, to get back on track. Because there is still a lot of field left to be plowed.”

Maybe, in the Church, we are all only meant to be servants.

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