Some people are leaders. Period. Some people have the capacity to interpret situations through attentiveness and close listening, anticipate outcomes, clearly articulate what’s at stake in situations or decisions, line out processes, effectively engage differences, collaborate and build consensus, motivate and empower others for action, communicate clearly and regularly, and create reliable systems of accountability. Some people do these things kinds of things well. Some people don’t. It’s unwise to pretend otherwise.
Now, let me be quick to add that few leaders possess all of these attributes or abilities. It’s also wise not to locate the leadership of any community exclusively in one person or even in a select few.
Let me also add that Christian leadership is not simply the sum of abilities or actions. Part of being a Christian leader has to do with embodying the values of the Christian story.
But with these caveats in mind, I still think there is such a thing as a leader that moves phrases like “servant leader” beyond abstract platitudes.
I served on a very gifted ministry staff at the East County Church of Christ, Gresham, Oregon. For about five years we had a team of four that effectively ministered together and collaboratively. I was the most tenured of the staff, both in terms of overall ministry experience and staff service to this congregation. And I was the preaching minister, which gave me a more public position of influence. Still, I was determined not to be the senior pastor. The others did not report to me. Nor were we silo-ed in our discrete ministry areas. We were determined to collaborate across all of our ministry tasks. We wanted a very egalitarian ministry structure.
But for the first several months, we struggled. The way forward for us came when we collectively recognized that I had leadership skills that others didn’t have. While we still worked collaboratively and across job descriptions, and while I was still not their supervisor, the fact is we began to work better when I stepped forward and took more responsibility for structuring our work together. Part of this was due to my experience and position on staff, but some of it was due to abilities I had which made me an effective leader.
My son is in a new job where he is collaborating with others to create a new business. Josh is important to what they’re doing at the conceptual level and is a key stakeholder in the company’s future. He is a leader. But often the past few months he has commented on what an effective leader his boss is, how certain ways he has of shaping their common work has created an energized environment.
I’ve been re-reading Michael Welker’s important work, God the Spirit, this week. Welker, through a careful reading of all biblical testimonies to the Spirit’s work, moves understanding of the work of the Spirit away from the individualistic or incomprehensible and toward the work of creating new, trustworthy, just, public human communities. He talks of the Spirit’s work as making God’s power knowable. “The Spirit makes it possible to know the creative power of God, which brings the diversity of all that is creaturely into rich, fruitful, life-sustaining, fortifying, and protective relations.” Josh’s boss is doing this kind of work. Good leadership fits very well into this description of the Spirit’s work.
If I were writing a book on Christian leadership, I would not begin with this post. I would begin with the life of God, and I will turn my attention just this way in future posts. But I think it’s important somewhere in there to recognize that good leadership has content and shape and that some are better at it than others. And that we should embrace this fact and think theologically about how we might lead others into the mission of God.