Vol 3:6 Let’s Get Rid of Leadership: The Need for a New Vocabulary to Reframe Our Concepts of Leading

The term leadership is inadequate to express how we are to lead as we participate with God in God’s mission.

This week I reflect further on Craig Van Gelder’s and Dwight J. Zscheile’s The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation. To reiterate, in this book, Van Gelder and Zscheile explore how the missional conversation has unfolded since the book Missional Church was published in 1998. The conversation has moved in different directions, many which are indeed not very missional, but reframe perspectives, in missional language, which have little to do with discerning where God is active in the world.

On p. 155, the authors express that in order for leadership to be understood missionally, it needs to be expressed as participatory leadership. However, I think we need to go further than that in reframing a missional understanding of leading. We will never escape the temptation of taking charge or taking control, even when using participatory as an adjective, as long as we continue to be preoccupied with describing what we do in terms of leadership.

Okay, you are confused, so let me unpack my thinking a little.

Van Gelder and Zscheile express that “leadership is one of the gifts of the Spirit (see Rom. 12:8)” (p. 155). But they do not have that quite right. It is not leadership that is a gift, it is leading. What we have done for the past 20-30 years is reframe this gift of leading into a status, a role and named it leadership. Church Growth made leadership the primary gift for accomplishing the success of an attractional ecclesiology and we have not even questioned whether this focus is adequate as we seek to lead missionally. Could it be that we are comfortable with the temptation to be leaders who excel at leadership? And to the extent that we succumb to this temptation of being a leader, we will miss what it means to be involved with God in God’s mission.

In all my exploration of Jesus and his ministry it is obvious that he exercised the gift of leading, but I think it is to completely misunderstand Jesus and his ministry by identifying what Jesus did in terms of leadership; he never advocated a role of leadership – he was always a servant (cf. Matthew 20: 20-28; Mark 10:35-45; John 13:10-17)

As long as we, in the missional church, seek to describe the gift of leading in terms of leader and leadership, we will never really get away from leadership’s tendency to control or to take charge, no matter what adjectives we seek to utilize. We try to ameliorate our deep sense that leadership expresses something antithetical to the Gospel and the mission of God by using a whole host of adjectives to soften its negative characterization: pastoral, participatory, spiritual, servant, etc. Yet, merely placing an adjective before the noun of leadership, does little to change what eventually leadership becomes – a way to lord it over others.

At issue is the noun that we use. Not even servant leadership is adequate enough – because servant is still merely an adjective – what we need to do is discover a new noun for describing what we are called to do as pastors in the missional church.

I propose that we use the nouns of servant and servantship, rather than leader and leadership, to describe what we are to do in leading the communities we are called serve in participating with God in God’s mission – after all it is how Jesus described his participating with God in God’s mission.

I know that whenever I bring up such a need for a paradigm shift, I get more or less a negative reaction. I think I know why. I contend that we really do not want to give up control, no matter how we try to soften the concept of leadership with an appropriate adjective. This is a temptation just as insidious as Satan’s temptation of Jesus – for him to take control of his ministry by tapping into his divinity. But Jesus knew that participating with God his Father in God’s redemptive mission required him to empty himself of his divinity, and with it every temptation to take charge – and instead he lived and led by serving as a servant among us.

I think if we were to take the time and energy to explore servantship as we have explored leadership in the past 20-30 years, we will begin to embrace a much more missional approach to leading than we ever will be capable of doing in maintaining our grasp on concepts of leadership. So, I suggest that we find ways to stop talking about leadership or even participatory leadership and begin to learn a new vocabulary, and a new way of being the people of God, as we seek to participate with God in God’s mission as servants.

I would really be interested in your comments and taking this conversation further.

[For more of my thinking on this, connect to my article entitled: What is Pastoral Leadership? under the Resources tab.]

  1. Linda Wiens says:

    I think these are excellent points. I have read and taught a lot about “leadership”, and yes, it does mean “taking charge”, “taking control” to people. There are different views about HOW it can and should be exercised. It’s also true that the word means a state of being or a position. It is a noun, not a verb.

    Your comparison to Jesus’ temptation by Satan is very apt and instructive. “… required him to empty himself of his divinity” is like “empty myself of my preconceived outcome and my belief that I have to bring it about” in any task, project or mission. If I see myself as God’s servant I will always be checking what He wants me to do, what part He has for me.

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