I’ve been involved in Christian leadership in some form since becoming a Christian in high school, being introduced to leading worship, and being asked to lead teams and events through university, eventually ending up in vocational Christian leadership for 20 years.
I’ve been a volunteer, a team leader, a staff member and pastor, I’ve developed leaders who are leading ministries, I’ve hired people and I’ve built pipelines and pathways for Christian leaders to develop and grow.
Heck, I’ve even got a MASTERS DEGREE in Leadership!
I believe in this leadership thing. I think it’s real and valuable.
But I also know there are struggles for people who think about Christian leadership as a bit of an oxymoron.
“Isn’t Jesus our leader and shouldn’t we just follow him?”
“Isn’t leadership built around ego and personality, turning the leader into some kind of idol?”
“Aren’t all Christian leaders just phony and looking for power?”
I’ve heard all the questions.
And, truthfully, I’ve wrestled with these – and many more – over the course of my career.
But I still believe Christian leadership is real and valuable. And I believe it can be good.
So what makes Christian leadership Christian? How do we recognize distinctions of leaders following Jesus and helping others do the same vs leaders who are just building up their own platform and looking for more recognition?
1. Christian leadership is focused on following Jesus first.
There is no Christian leader who does not have Jesus as his or her leader. Christian leaders are followers first. Anyone who gets this wrong gets it all wrong.
Christian leaders are not replacements for Jesus. Yes, they are ambassadors – but so is every follower of Jesus!
A trusted, wise, experienced mentor describes it this way:
“Sheep first, shepherd second.”
Christians who aspire to leadership must aspire first to be followers of Jesus in every aspect of their lives. In a sense, Christian leadership is really sub-leadership, pointing people to the one who is truly worthy of following in every situation.
John 10:27 “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
2. Christian leadership demonstrates a reliance on the strength of God as the source of their effectiveness.
Where the world says your own power, strengths, and abilities are what make you an effective leader (whether those are natural or learned), Christian leadership requires people who are aware of their own weaknesses and fully depend on God for their strength.
Worldly leadership is focused on gaining recognition for my abilities, my success, my influence. Christian leadership is focused on showcasing God’s power at work through us.
Isaiah 41:10 “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
3. Christian leadership is focused on calling and character rather than position or power.
Since Christian leadership is focused on pointing people to Jesus first, equipping others to do the work of the ministry, and ultimately bringing glory to God, the inner life of the Christian leader is not simply one component of the equation, it’s the whole thing.
Unfortunately we have too many examples of Christian leaders who relied on position and power to bully, shame, and pressure people according to their agenda. Publicly they gave the impression their hearts were in the right place but within an inner circle the experience was very different.
This classic misalignment of what someone says and what someone does reveals a character issue. Integrity, honesty, trust, faithfulness, grace, mercy, kindness – all come from an inner life submitted to the work and calling of the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 78:72 “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
4. Christian leadership models interdependence rather than independence.
We are very familiar with the metaphor of the body of Christ – Jesus is the head, each of us has a role to play within the work he is doing around the world.
This often translates to a local church community as well where people are invited to contributed their gifts, talents, and abilities as part of the unique expression of the global Church in that place.
And we know the Church also transcends not just space but also time – from generation to generation. And so each of us is running a relay of faith where the baton is passed Sunday by Sunday, year by year, decade by decade, century by century for 2,000 years.
When we capture this image of the local implication being part of a much larger picture across time and space, Christian leadership admits easily that we are simply one link in a much greater chain.
The story doesn’t begin with us and it will not end with us. Jesus is the Author and the Perfecter and invites each one of us to play a part.
Christian leaders must recognize the part they play while helping people focus on the bigger picture, the greater narrative, the much grander purpose in which we are all participating.
1 Corinthians 12:27 “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
5. Christian leadership willingly admits its own limitations.
Christian leadership must be hallmarked by humility, grace, an abundance of forgiveness, and the realization that neither leaders nor those we lead carry within us everything needed to accomplish the mission of the church of Jesus’.
In very practical terms, you need sleep and one day you will die.
You can’t go 24/7 and you won’t live forever. Not here, at least.
When we pretend limitations aren’t real, we demand more and more from ourselves and from those we lead. Our expectations continually rise and we are never satisfied with the results people produce.
Instead, Christian leadership is unique by the fact that we recognize and admit our limitations actually speak to a greater power. Not in our ability to burn the midnight oil and squeeze every last bit of effectiveness out of the people we lead. Our trust in God, our keeping of the Sabbath, our intentional raising up of the next generation of leaders are all key examples of the way Christian leaders demonstrate their own limitations.
Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Christian leadership is not simply a churchy version of what the world portrays as good, faithful, fruitful leadership.
These five distinctions (and others!) really do create a separate category of leadership for followers of Jesus to recognize.