“Christian leadership” is not an oxymoron

ImageSorry for the long delay between posts. Since my last post, I got married, honeymooned in San Francisco, and took three weeks to recover from a nasty bout of bronchitis. Hopefully, I’m up and back at it now. My friend, Fred Liggin, asked me to write a few posts about the ambivalence about the word leadership among missional types. So, for what its worth, I think I’ve got two or three posts in me on this topic. Here goes.

I once sat in a faculty/student session at Luther Seminary where very lively discussion was had concerning Luther’s departmental designation of “Congregational Mission and Leadership.” At that point, Luther had revised their curriculum and had moved away from the designation practical theology in favor of nomenclature that indicated a more missional bent to the curriculum. Not surprisingly, this change met with resistance from many quarters. At one point in our discussion, a professor of worship and liturgy cleared his throat and with great passion argued that leadership was not a Christian concept. “Jesus talked about servanthood,” he offered. “The Third Reich talked about leadership.” Wow. An appeal to the Nazis is the rhetorical equivalent to the triple-dog dare when no double-dog dare has yet been offered.

Most who are nervous about using the language of leadership in terms of ministry or mission are more nuanced in their objections. Contained in their critiques, however, is some sort of anxiety that leadership runs afoul of some aspect of Christian piety. To put it succinctly, piety and power are set over against each other.

Now anyone who has read this blog regularly knows that this is a category error for me. Christians are not opposed to power, just certain forms of power. Nothing happens, nothing, apart from the exercise of power, even matters related to the Kingdom of God. As Paul says, the kingdom is not about talk, but power. Our refusal to talk about power, I think, favors those who wield the most irresponsible and unaccountable form of power–passive-aggresiveness. Because we have weak views of leadership and pretend not to exercise power, we sanction as the only socially acceptable form of power, passive-aggresiveness.

More, because we refuse to take responsibility for how power is exercised among us, we usually fail to realize how our tacit structures favor some in our groups and disestablish others, notably women, minorities, and the poor.

We would do well, given these realities to have frank discussions about the exercise of power, and by extension, leadership, in our missional communities. And I believe that leadership is a necessary feature of what it means to be missional.

Having said that, I also think that certain forms of leadership as exercises in certain kinds of power also present the greatest dangers to anything that might pass as missional. In fact, in my experience, the biggest burden of missional innovation within missional communities rests on the ability of leadership to learn new habits and practices related to power.

I am bothered by the number of ministers who grouse about the lack of power or authority they have, by which they usually mean control over processes and outcomes. In my opinion, this is akin to a golfer who spends all his effective power at the top of his swing, thereby losing club head speed at impact. (This is exactly the kind of golfer I am). They are asking, in my opinion, for the weakest forms of power that in the end render them less effective and totally burned out.

So, what’s the way forward given the ditches we have on either side? To me, the issues of power and leadership are intrinsically spiritual issues, and the fixes here always begin with theology as a participation in the life of God.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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6 Responses to “Christian leadership” is not an oxymoron

  1. Tim Catchim says:

    Well said Mark. Un-named power goes un-checked for sure. I think rooting the discussion the sociological realm to clarify things on the front end is the way to go. Power is everywhere, and the kind I am most nervous about is the unacknowledged, un-named kind. It means power holders can wield power undetected…scary indeed. I think Jesus asking people to follow him is a gesture of power. And when we move that forward to the end of his ministry where tells the 12 to in turn, ask others to follow them (make disciples), he is asking them to exercise the dame form of power, albeit in a lesser degree of course. We not have to say follow me AS I follow Christ, which introduces an additional point of reference that qualifies that power-relationship.

    • Mark Love says:

      Tim, the placement of actual leadership in the activity of the Triune God is absolutely crucial to understanding the role of the human leader. Thanks for the comment.

      • Tim Catchim says:

        Agreed. One assumption that often goes unmentioned in using the triniatrian framework as a model for leadership is that all three members of the trinity are perfectly mature in their character and competence. This, however, is not the case among us, which is why we need people to be leaders and help others develop character and competence. If we are all at the same level, then there is perfect unity etc. When there is disparity odf character and competence, it requires some to take a leadership and help people grow towards levels at which those who are leading are already at etc.

  2. Josh Love says:

    Good words. Thanks for taking the time to think this one out so well. I hardly ever get to people’s blogs but today felt like the day for some reason. I understand the point you make about power, leadership and servant hood. Its important to remember that the conversation should be about they WAY we use power, not wether to use it or not. I would be hesitant to give up on the conversation of “leadership” versus servanthood described in the conversation from Luther. Not the best move ever to take it to the Nazi level, but I like the conversation. My source on the topic primarily comes from Bessenecker’s book “How to Inherit the earth.” Chapter 3 details the popularity of “Leadership” literature in our culture. Scott talks about the lost virtue of submission. He makes a good case for the over-saturation of a concept (leadership) which is touched on very briefly in the teachings. Following (Jesus), servanthood, and submission are all ways Jesus instructs he disciples to be “great” in the kingdom. If leader = person we follow and Jesus= the example of great in the kingdom, than “leadership” should= servant hood and submission.

    • Mark Love says:

      Josh, of course you are right that the nature of leadership should reflect the nature of the Kingdom and should therefore be expressed as servanthood and submission. And certain kinds of leadership are to be resisted and called for what they are–get behind me Satan. So, keep me honest as I go forward.

  3. Logan Cowart says:

    I guess the question is, are we leading from the front, by example in doing good and serving, or are we harassing the flock of sheep like the sheepdog nipping at their heels and trying to drive them forward from behind?

    There are two patterns of leadership: The top-down, rule through fear, commanding type of leadership that demands obedience (whether earned or not), and is the pattern for most worldly and military organizations; and the bottom-up, lead by love, serving type of leadership that is given respect and obedience, which is the pattern for the church, and for what God does for the world, and for what good parents do for their children.

    We cannot drive a herd of cats, but we can pull them in by providing what they need.

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