Thursday, September 17, 2020


I've written before about my concerns with the preoccupation with leadership in the evangelical constituency of which I am a small part.  I'm seeing a lot floating around on the subject again, much of it a healthy response to the presence of abusive leadership within the churches.  That's good, in so far as it goes, but I do wonder whether the problem runs deeper.  I wonder why we're so obsessed with the idea of leadership in the first place.

I think there is a language problem here, which probably has a conceptual problem behind it.  If I turn to older authors, I find much about ministry, but very little about leadership.  Pastors and elders do not seem to be conceived of as leaders, or at least that is not the main way in which they are conceived.  That broadly reflects the balance of biblical language, where leadership occurs rarely in relation to the church (Hebrews 13 is the main collection of 'leader' words; there is also 'rule' in 1 Timothy 5:17).  We ought perhaps to be asking why we talk so much about leadership when neither Scripture nor Tradition make this a major theme.

Where does it come from, this emphasis on leadership?  My guess is that much of my constituency is based in University towns, and many of the pastors I know cut their teeth in student ministry.  In Christian Union circles, the question of who will lead is often acute; I know that as a UCCF Staff Worker I was often preoccupied with questions of who would lead the committee next year.  'Raising up leaders' in these contexts becomes very important.  I wonder whether 'leadership' models make more sense in parachurch organisations than they do in the church as the household of God; I wonder what that says about parachurch.  Similarly, in large churches with rapid turnover of people (i.e., student churches), the need to find and equip people to lead in the various established programmes of the church makes 'raising up leaders' a constant task.  And of course when you're working with students you are often (but not always) working with people who will, humanly speaking, be leaders in their various spheres.  Why not also in church?

There is a need to invest in next generation of ministers and servants of the church - no doubt.  But I wonder whether the constant talk of leadership, and leadership training, doesn't distort our view of ministry and of church.  Of ministry, of course, because we start to view pastors and elders through a conceptual lens which is not the one primarily employed by the inspired authors; of church, because so much of our energy is directed towards a minority of people.  After all, most people in our churches will never be 'leaders'.  If 'raising up leaders' is a preoccupation, then will we bother with those people?  What does it say to the 'average footsoldier' in the church if our primary goal seems to be raising and equipping leaders?  What does it communicate about their value, the worth of their service?

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that our efforts to root out 'bad leaders' will always be hampered by the fact that the very notion of leadership as we have employed it is bad from the start, and the ecclesiology - and indeed theology proper - that stands in need of such a notion of leadership is seriously wonky.

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