A Leadership Rant

From a piece I wrote for Barefoot Ministries’ Slant 33 blog:

I was asked what are my top three books on leadership and, well, I wrote this in the middle of the piece.

So I want to put my idea on the line and see where it leads us. We have one leader, and his name is Jesus. I want to bang this home with a quotation from Jesus from Matthew 23, where he seems to be staring at the glow of leadership in the eyes of his disciples, and he does nothing short of deconstructing the glow:

But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Instead of seeing myself as a leader, I see myself as a follower. Instead of plotting how to lead, I plot how to follow Jesus with others. Instead of seeing myself at the helm of some boat—and mine is small compared to many others—I see myself in the boat, with Jesus at the helm.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • rjs

    Scot,

    This is dead center on my thinking at this time. We are in the boat with Jesus at the helm – followers.

    It impacts the way I think about the women in ministry – complementarianism debate as well. We are called to follow. Leadership is a byproduct of following, not something aspired to.

  • Chris

    Amen! I agree wholeheartedly. I had our church bulletin changed so it would read “Senior Pastor – Jesus Christ”. This was done to promote what you wrote in a subtle way to others. Also, I like your boat analogy. As a leader I need to always keep this perspective. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Ernest Manges

    Amen! I have long chafed at the over-abundance of books on “leadership” when the concept hardly appears in the NT. As you so rightly note, we’re called to be followers all. There are those whom God puts into authority, but their main focus also must be followership rather than leadership. I fear most of the Christian books on leadership draw much more from corporate America and MBA programs than they do from the Bible. I can hardly make myself read them.

  • http://manofdepravity.com Tyler

    Challenging, convicting, thought-provoking. Thanks Scot.

  • http://jamespedlar.wordpress.com James

    Thanks for this. I’m concerned about the obsession with “leadership” among evangelicals, and the way trendy ideas from the management world (propped up with a few out-of-context scripture references) are getting passed off as “gospel truth” in many circles. I like your conception – plotting how to follow Jesus with others. It makes clear that there is one head of the Church. We all affirm this in theory, but our practice often goes in other directions.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    Jesus definitely turned traditional ideas of leadership upside down. Hans Kung once said that leaders should lead from within, not above (this is significant coming from a Catholic theologian and the hierarchical system of leadership within Catholicism). I like it, though. It reflects Paul’s idea of leadership as just one gift among many that God gives to the church (Eph. 4), and forces us to re-think ideas such as asserting ourselves in order to get ahead.

  • Charles

    A part of me resonates with your point and I do think that leadership is overemphasized at times. I have always found it interesting that leadership is not listed among the qualifications for elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. That being said, I see no reason why one cannot be a follower and a leader, or perhaps even better, a follower who leads. I also do not see why one can see oneself as both a follower and a leader.

  • http://waytoemmaus.org Mick

    Good word. The apostle Paul, calls others to “follow me as I follow Christ”. Even if being a leader (more an “elder” or older in the faith) is inferred, the emphasis is on both being a follower of Christ as our head, not Paul. We have taken this notion to a whole new level and totally overlook the words of Jesus on this matter.

  • Chris

    This reminds me of one of my favorite passages just a bit earlier in Matthew 20:26-28 “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Is showing others how to follow being a leader? Or setting the example of how to follow? We have many more meanings to the word leader these days but I think in the context of Jesus’ speech he is talking about direction setting.

  • http://www.flirtingwithfaith.com Joan Ball

    Ahh, but Scot. The pursuit of leadership skills is big business on the conference/publishing circuits. It also allows us to focus .more on what we should do and how we should do it (activity) versus who we are versus who we are meant to be (transformation). The former allows us to remain in control. The latter requires surrender. So much safer to do stuff than to pursue holiness and follow into uncertainty

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    ….perhaps Jesus is the final strategist, in today’s language.

  • JRS

    Scot,

    Thanks for the interesting and insightful thoughts. You provide plenty of inspiration for response.

    In the world of leadership studies there arre no settled definitions of leader or leadership. There are many suggestions, but no consensus.

    I think it would help us understand your perspective if you could provide your definition of leader and also your definition of leadership.

    The definitions would certainly help us process your challenge.

  • http://www.alphausa.org/portland Kirk Petersen

    In an era of mission statements, vision casting, and measurable objectives, following Jesus should be the focus of every person (leader or not). Thanks for the reminder!

  • http://www.kvile.net KDV

    I just read the full rant, and I must say it was fully warranted. Maybe I too am cynical & cranky, but most everything I’ve seen on leadership is something from a CEO dressed up with a bible verse or story and frankly makes me sick and want to… well you get the idea.

    Instead of talking about “leadership” in evangelical circles (which focuses on being in the lead), why don’t we talk about “followship?”

    Thanks for voicing your thoughts on the subject.

  • James Petticrew

    I remember being really challenged by that very thought when I read “Metaphors of Ministry: Biblical Images for Leaders and Followers.” By David W. Bennett in which he points out the primacy of “followership” over “leadership” in the New Testament. Great resources for thinking about what ministry within the church really means

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I will fully agree that much of what passes as leadership literature is pedestrian and frequently absurd. But I’m not with you on punting the “leadership” term. What is so distasteful about discerning vision, calling and motivating people to a vision, equipping people for action, and (if so gifted) coordinating the work of a diverse group of people as they pursue a goal?

  • Linda

    Agree, leaders are followers, and they set an example, best to lead by example.

    And it will cost you everything to follow Christ…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JQOBMi4QS8

  • Rick

    Michael Kruse, as usual, brings up a good question.

    I am torn on the issue. I have a lot of respect for some of the individuals involved in leadership training, not to mention some of the organizations- such as Catalyst.

    However, sometimes the discussions about leadership seem to make leadership the goal, rather than just a tool to help people reach the goal.

  • James Petticrew

    “The single most important lesson for leaders to learn is that they are first sheep, not shepherds; first children, not fathers or mothers; first imitators, not models” David Bennett

  • mike

    I’m not gifted as a leader so it’s easy for me to want to resonate – not to mention there’s a lot of leadership “crap” out there… but, I have yet to see much take root let alone take off without a “leader” at the helm. Whether it’s a church, small group, or ministry, people really respond to good leadership. I’m all for people who are leaders (whether by title, gifting, position or sheer influence) to get better at their leadership. It may be they need to learn humility, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, or just learn how to be better followers of Jesus, but let’s not dismiss leadership development because of the abuse of some, the pride of some or the destruction some may cause – leaders are a fact of life (and Paul calls people who lead to do so with all diligence) so let’s pray that those who lead actually do get better at it.

  • Kristen

    Nobody mentioned Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus.

    I will go cry now.

  • Kristin

    So….how does this affect the idea of authority in the church?

  • JoeyS

    Kristen, you beat me to it!

    I like his notion that the Christian’s version of “leadership” looks more like irrelevance.

  • Clay Knick

    Leadership books usually give me a big headache. I also find them boring. Did I say boring? Whew! But…there is one book on leadership that I’ve read that is wonderful It is by Bill Robinson and is entitled, “Incarnate Leadership.”
    I liked it a lot and did not have to take Tylenol while I read it.

  • http://TheWellSacramento.org Josh Flood

    Everyone wants to serve God,
    especially in an advisory capacity.

    Thanks for the post-the comments encourage me.

  • Barb

    Well so there goes my Masters Degree–”Organizational Leadership.” :)
    @25–I’m glad you gave Bill Robinson a plug–his book is great and he was a great leader for Whitworth University.

    But–while I was getting my Masters I had to interview a leader, so I picked my boss (who had a unique style in our company). I was pretty suprised when she said something like this: “so then I became a Christian and I decided to read the Bible and see what I could learn about leadership from Jesus.” she knew I was a Christian so she felt ‘safe’ in saying it to me.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Michael — I think it is both/and … degrees on a continuum. But we are to lead as followers — mutually submitted to one another as we follow Jesus. Receiving and using the gifts of the Spirit to help equip the saints for works of service in the Body.

    Maybe leadership is actually a by-product? I have moved closer and closer to leadership as apprenticeship … so that it is grounded in experience walking in the steps of Jesus rather that floating around in theory and programs that reduce it to a formula rather than a relationship.

    When leadership puts process and programs ahead of people and relationships, it take a wrong turn. The power of influence is always to build up and encourage — even if it requires loving correction.

    I’m still with Neil Cole when he says that they do not teach beyond obedience. We have way too many folks who want to keep learning new stuff when they don’t have the basics down.

    I find myself representing leading as an aspect of cHesed / mercy: initiative that helps others succeed — that affirms their ability through support that gives courage to act in faith and shows how to obey like Christ did.

  • Phillip

    The concerns raised here are part of the reason for my chapter “Don’t Be a Visionary” in my book Finding Your Way. Leaders or visionaries too often are tempted to put themselves in the Lord’s place or others exalt them to such. Rather than creating a vision for the church, we need to join in God’s vision. Rather than trying to save the church, we need to remember that the church has a savior.

  • dura mater

    Prior to assuming the “leadership” role in my medical group practice, I asked one of our pastors if she could recommend any books on leadership. Her response? “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

  • http://www.sequimur.com/banditsnomore Richard H

    My denomination has lagged behind others in the past couple of generations, so the leadership cult is just now getting really big in our circles. If we can have a leadership that is more than just a spiritual veneer on top of a Weberian routinization of (real) charisma, I’d be happier.

  • Dave

    Scot:

    Amen brother !

    A good leadership book with the same theme is “Church Leadership” (AKA: A Theology of Church Leadership) with a subtitle of “Following the example of Jesus Christ”. It was by Lawrence O. Richards and Clyde Hoeldtke.

    Dave

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    /amen

    I get the same feeling from all the “Jesus CEO” leadership tracts that inundate the business (and the church too) world.

    /agree about Seth Godin’s tribes though that’s hardly in the blueprint of all the business leadership fare that’s served up today.

  • Mark B

    A couple of thoughts:
    1) If you have a non-sacramental theology (i.e. communion is a spiritual event or even a memorial meal) I think that leads to the need for a Jesus figure leader/pastor/guru. The real presence gets transferred. Lutheran leader is an oxymoron.
    2) That said, leadership seems to be one of those great biblical tensions we are called to live under. We are told to be as wise as serpents. Timothy is told to ‘man up’ and be that leader. And we are told don’t take those titles or assume the place of honor. The kingdom of the law needs leaders. The kingdom of the Gospel has one. Rightly dividing law and gospel is tough, and the church mixes them up all the time.

  • Jim H.

    Scott,

    Outstanding comments on Leadership. Exactly how I thought as a young pastor 25 years ago when all my church mentors and leaders were advising me to read different books on leadership (including How to Win friends and Influence People). I’ve since checked out of the church, but I’m really trying to follow Christ.

  • Mike

    I think sound leadership is crucial and always present in healthy churches. It’s sometimes hard to notice leadership until you find yourself somewhere where it’s very bad, or where there is none. I’ve seen churches that are dominated by a charismatic leader who holds the key to everything in the church. But I’ve also seen churches so eager to “democratize” all their practices, that no one is willing to make a decision or take responsibility for it.

    I think much of our modern-day distaste for the word “authority” colors our perception of the role of leadership in the church. But I think the Bible explicitly and implicitly acknowledges how crucial leadership is.

  • MatthewS

    These are weighty thoughts, worth keeping and remembering.

    Perhaps we need more books on followership and fewer on leadership.

    In defense of good leadership, a compelling leader shows a group of people what they can and must accomplish. Martin Luther King Jr, for example. God gives different gifts and he has gifted some people to administer. The whole body benefits from those who administer well.


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