Things I Didn’t Learn About Leadership in Church

Leadership originates in response to the needs of others. Leadership is not the response of people to the vision of an influential person, but rather their response to the leader as he or she articulates their wants and needs. It can not occur without truly knowing and understanding the needs of those one presumes to lead.

When a leader speaks the language of the hopes of others, the followers’ response is what initiates the leadership relationship. When a leader knows the underlying needs of others, a shared vision and mutual relationship that produces transformation can be created.

Leadership is not the articulation of what we assume others need. Which means that I can not really enter into a leadership relationship until I know someone well enough to know their needs and am willing to serve them in response to their needs, not to mine. This is a fair gauge for assessing whether a true leadership relationship exists.

Positional leadership can create a platform of influence for an individual, and it can be organizationally effective. However, it is not typically transformational to the lives of followers. To the degree it is separate from relationship with followers, it is a perversion of leadership, no matter what you call it.

I find most material on church leadership to be a confusing mixture of organizational management cloaked in servant language preserving hierarchical relationship. Because of that, I believe we are still mostly confused about what leadership is within the church. My thoughts about leadership within the church are further explained in the post A Relational Ethos of Leadership.

As an organization, churches require managerial leadership, and I am not saying there is anything wrong with that. There are many things a person may do that are important and good, however not everything should be lumped under the label of leading.

Real, transforming leadership can occur in the church. However, true leadership is rooted in the needs of the follower, not the needs of the leader or the organization. Possibly that is the reason that transformational leadership in many realms, religious, political, societal, most often occurs outside the margins of established structures of power.

Leadership is not dependent on position but on the actions of one who is responsive to need. Therefore, real leadership can exist at any level both within and outside of a particular system, organization, or structure.

Permission granted. Anyone can lead. But few will.


15 thoughts on “Things I Didn’t Learn About Leadership in Church

  1. Iconcur with Alan! Nicely put especially the comment “or the organization”. I believe good things can happen they just don’t happen to be Christian things nor Christ conformity things :o)

  2. Okay, I definitely need to add this blog’s feed to my bloglines account.

    Good stuff here. Just wish I had something more constructive to say. ;)

  3. It is all the stuff happening outside of the organizational structure that is making for a lot of nervousness. More and more of the upcoming generation are looking outside of structures and being condemned for it. It will be interesting to watch.

  4. On the topic of managerial leadership, I think that reflecting on the passage in Acts where the first deacons were chosen might be instructive. First, it demonstrates what you’re saying here, that not all “leadership” is the same. Second, it demonstrates that even managerial leadership needs to serve the people rather than exist for its own sake. The deacons were called because there was an issue with distributing food to the needy and someone needed to sort it out and oversee the process.

    I think it’s a good practice for any group or organization to take a good look at its managerial leadership from time to time to (1) evaluate if it’s still serving its purpose and (2) change things as appropriate if its not serving its purpose any longer.

  5. A wonderful post, Grace! Thanks for your analysis in identifying different issues that all get globbed together in that multimorphous term, “leadership.” It is, indeed, a messy subject where we don’t seem to have our differentiation work done very well yet.

    Anyway, I wrote something a couple years ago relevant to the idea of shifting from authority in “positional leadership” to authorization in “relational leadership.” Maybe this link to the post on Key Transitions in Church Systems will be of help …

  6. Great post Grace.

    I think scripture puts it like this.

    For though you might have ten thousand instructors (schoolmaster, guardian, guide) in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. (1 Cor 4:15)

    Scripturally – maturity (which is tied to responsibility) goes from infant to son/daughter to father/mother.

    Worldly maturity goes from worker to supervisor to CEO. Sadly, in the church, we have 10,000 supervisor/CEO’s – but not many fathers.

  7. Thanks everyone. As I was learning these things last semester, I thought, “This is the most Christian thing I have ever heard!”

  8. “I can not really enter into a leadership relationship until I know someone well enough to know their needs and am willing to serve them in response to their needs, not to mine”

    The trouble is that people often do not know their own needs. I think of Jesus at the well. He knew the woman, which goes to your point perfectly, and indeed knew her well beyond what she was willing to present. He pushed her to admit her needs were not her expressed needs.

    So much of church leadership has formed with the understanding that people do not realize their own deeper needs. Which is true. But, back to your point, leaders in the church often miss both surface needs and deeper needs. The customer is far from always being right, but there are so few leaders with deep insight like Jesus that even deeper needs are ignored. Leading everyone–most of whom have earnest desires to see and communicate Christ–into places of frustration, discouragement, and confusion.

    It’s also a source of strong self-righteousness coming from both sides.

    Real relationship is indeed important, but not without some guiding measure of discernment that pushes those in the church to see and respond to deeper needs, whether in formal leadership or outside of it.

    1. Patrick,
      This is an important point. Sometimes a leader will articulate needs that people weren’t even aware they had, yet in almost a prophetic manner (I don’t mean that in the charismatic sense), they speak into a deeper need. However, as you said, this must be differentiated from presuming to know the needs of others. Leading from prophetic imagination must be rooted in deep humility, relationship, and love or it can quickly become abusive.

  9. I like what you have said here Grace,
    I think Jesus said it something like,” If any among you wishes to be great, he must become the servant of all”.

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