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Counter-Cultural Leadership

by Dr. Tony Blair, President

For a generation or so, "leadership" has been the dominant theme in ministry circles. We go to workshops and hear that "everything rises or falls on leadership." We go to the bookstores and find a surprisingly large collection of books on Christian leadership. And those who pastor churches are held accountable for how they "exercise leadership" within their congregations.

This was not always so. In the colonial era the American pastor was primarily the "village theologian;" as one of the rare educated persons in the community his responsibility was to preach, catechize, and evangelize. In the 19th century another responsibility was added to this-—the "spiritual physician," the one who would care for souls in much the way that a doctor cared for bodies. In the decades after World War II, the pastor also became a "counselor," one with increasingly specialized knowledge about human development and psychology. And, since about 1980 or so, the primary metaphor has been that of the "pastor as CEO"-—one whose primary responsibilities involve leadership of an organization.

The change of dominant metaphors over time did not eliminate previous functions; there has been a cumulative effect that translates into a tremendously demanding job description for the early 21st-century solo pastor. The attrition rate in ministry is very high as a consequence. The "pastor as CEO" model has been particularly pernicious, for the measures of leadership success in ministry differ little from those in non-faith-based settings, and those, in turn, often uncritically reflect certain American cultural values that those who follow Jesus should call into question.

For example, why should leadership in the kingdom of God be measured primarily by "the ABCs": attendance, buildings, and cash? An inordinate focus on "growth metrics" reflects a commitment to baby-boomer consumerism but seems often far removed from the counter-cultural reign of God as announced by Jesus. And why should we assume that "vision" is primarily the responsibility of the leader, who must then motivate or manipulate others into following her agenda? This is the dominant model of "leading change." But the people of God have other ways of understanding vision.

Why should leadership be centered in a single person or a small group, rather than diffused throughout the organization? Why cannot leadership be shared, even in the most senior positions? Finally, why would we assume that those who are promoted to senior leadership through mastery of the status quo are those best able to transform the systems through which they have ascended? Transformation is usually initiated on the margins by prophetic voices. How should we nurture that kind of leadership?

It's time for God's people to challenge some of the dominant assumptions. And, as we do, let us remember what my friend Leonard Sweet has pointed out in I am a Follower -- that Jesus seldom invited anyone to leadership. Those who asserted themselves he usually cautioned, sometimes strenuously. Indeed, his most basic invitation was simply "Follow me." We are called to the joy of following Jesus and, yes, sometimes to the responsibility of leading others along that same path--perhaps for a while, or maybe for a career; perhaps informally, or maybe as a job; perhaps at the margins, or maybe in the center of things; perhaps to be admired and respected, or maybe to be persecuted or crucified.

There is wonderful news in here! Everything does not rise or fall on leadership. Everything rises or falls on how we follow the One who leads us all into truth. It is his kingdom, not ours. Follow him.

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