Leadership as Influence

Is there any difference between leadership in non-Christian groups and leadership in the church, or in Christian groups? And, if so, what is that difference? Some would say there is no difference: leadership is leadership. Others, and I join that crowd, would say until leadership is re-shaped by the gospel it is not even Christian leadership.

One pastor-theologian who has baptized all of leadership theory into theology and wisdom is Mel Lawrenz, a teaching pastor at Elmbrook Church near Milwaukee. His new book, Spiritual Influence, records his years and years of leading, pastoring and reflecting on pastoral leadership as spiritual influence. In fact, as Mel defines leadership, I would say he has a missional theory of leadership: we are given the opportunity, or calling, to aid in the influence of God — through God’s Spirit, Christ, Scripture, etc — on a person or organization. There is an excellent website with more resources for this project, where “Circles of Influence” and stories are discussed.

Years of thinking through this topic led Mel to this: “I have learned about human nature and the nature of God” (18). In the post today I want to sketch some of Mel’s ideas about the meaning of “influence.” But Mel believes all authentically Christian leadership is connected to the kingdom of God vision of Jesus.

Who has influenced you the most? In what ways did that happen?

Influencers have “some driving idea or ideal underlying what they do” (26). They “have a grasp of something under the surface, something hidden …” (26). Yet, this is not pragmatics: “influence comes out of the core reality of who the influencer is” (26).  So he defines it: “Influence is about the hidden forces that make visible results that have an enduring effect” (27). You can see where he is headed: those hidden forces are the influence of God through God’s Spirit.

It is too easy to think of leadership or influence as something that happens through a motivating talk. I think Mel’s right here, and that is why I think the pragmatics of leadership miss so much: “Influence is a cumulative pressure that gets things moving and keeps them moving” (29). Hence, I disagree so much with those who define leadership as “imposing one’s will on a group” — that coercion and force and authority, not spiritual leadership.

So now it gets theological: “Spiritual influence and leadership take place at the level of the human spirit, and they are prompted by the Spirit of God, who works to reform the human spirit, bringing people back to the shape God designed in the first place” (29-30).

Some elements then of spiritual influence:

1. It is about people.
2. It is about all of life.
3. It is about priorities.

4. It is about values.
5. It is about time.
6. It is about character.

"Trump has that affect on people to allow him to get excused for anything."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …
"Thank you Chaz. You and I have spoken before and Northern is one of my ..."

Time For Seminary: 10 Reasons
"Mark and Kyle - I totally agree with you guys! You should check out Northern ..."

Time For Seminary: 10 Reasons
""Paul’s lines in Romans 13 are almost certainly strategic." No. Regardless of what one thinks ..."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RJS

    My conviction: Christian leadership is not about leading – it is about building up peers, brothers and sisters to stand alongside oneself for the kingdom of God. Christian leadership is about serving, and it is very personal.

    From this summary I rather think Mel agrees. (Although perhaps with some nuance I miss.)

  • Rick


    Is it just about building up, and/or is it also about a “vision” or “mission” (ex. being a missional church in culture, attracting the unchurched, etc…)?

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, your theory of leadership is close to Mel’s. What’s vital about your statement is that when leadership is about building up “influence” rises exponentially. When it is about leading as “follow me” limitations are introduced.

  • RJS


    That depends – is it about “your” vision and “your” mission – or about building up others to use their gifts to carry out the mission of God? Building up others to use their gifts means nurturing peers not assembling followers and recruiting volunteers to carry out your vision.

    I don’t think we can be an effective missional church in culture with the current leader/follower (Lay/clergy or staff/consumer) divide.

    Are we really reaching our full potential when the aim is to attract the unchurched to a service so they can be saved?

  • Rick

    RJS- I think you and I are on the same page then.

    Scot- Does Lawrenz specify on who one should influence? Some better know leadership gurus emphasize influencing those that have high potential (“8’s” or “9’s”). What do you think of that strategy?

    On a related note, I am tired of hearing how coldly churches that hold to a strong “leadership” and corporate model treat employees. Because for them, it is not “about people”. It is about the goal of getting bigger.

  • Jamieson

    Leadership in non-Christian environments is based upon a perceived talent of one sort or another. In Christian circles, it is based upon a perceived “calling” of one sort or another. In my experience, it is best not to challenge leadership in Christian circles unless you want to risk the wrath of God.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, I haven’t seen that in the book yet but I’m not done. Let us say there are some elements of a corporate model that can be useful to churches, but any model at work in a church needs to be reshaped by the gospel.

  • Diane

    I would agree that Christian leadership is quite different from the world’s notion of leadership. I became a Christian because of Christian leadership: I joined a group led by a young woman who was deeply Christian and yet didn’t impose her views. She said her piece every once and awhile, usually briefly, and then got out the way, empowering the rest of us to find our paths. One of the things that has most moved me in the Christians circles I have been part of is the way people who might be written off as “defective” by the rest of the world, are given space and encouragement to grow and experience their worth and gifts. The transformations can be stunning. I myself am moved beyond words by the number of Christians who have believed in me far more than I have. I think of Bonhoeffer, writing from prison, that God stands on the edge of the village so that humans can stand in the center–that is the Christian model of leadership. (It was the exact opposite of what he experienced in Nazi Germany, where leadership was defined by dictatorship.) I think of Francis of Assisi choosing children to come with him to stop a crusade. All of this is foolishness to the world.

  • Bill

    “I disagree so much with those who define leadership as “imposing one’s will on a group” — that coercion and force and authority, not spiritual leadership”…agreed. But this can happen when “leaders” get burned out or lose the influence or authority they think they need or deserve. It’s not leadership. It’s something else. I have heard this expressed when people reflect on or respond to mistreatment by a leader or they just have an ax to grind about leadership in general because of what they may have heard or witnessed.

    Scot (#3), Are you saying this is an either-or (influence or follow me)? Jesus is the leader’s leader and I think he was a great influencer with his command to “Follow me”. Or do you mean follow me a different way?

    Deut 17:14-20 provides the view that God had for the king. While I am not talking about the specifics of what is said there, I do see leadership being limited not by the king but by God himself and the willingness of the king. God provides a foundation for and puts limits on leadership. It would seem to me that true influential leadership is limited and maybe this is what Mel is saying, in part.

  • Adam

    Dr Brene Brown defined leaders like this:

    “anyone who holds themselves accountable for finding potential in people and processes.”

    And the point of this definition is that you don’t have to hold a position to be a leader. Any person regardless of their position, education, status, etc… can be a leader because it’s primarily about holding oneself accountable.

  • I am really glad “missional” has been brought into this discussion. As I interviewed people and worked on biblical background when writing the book one of the things that most enthused me about a “spiritual influence” paradigm is that it opens up the “Christian leadership” issue beyond church leadership. I have talked to so many believers who are influencers or leaders in business, education, government, non-profits, the arts, community life, etc. who are ready for a deeper call to connect their spiritual resources–things like wisdom, discernment, ideas and ideals–with the work they do and the world they inhabit. The influencers are out there already. But they need something more substantial than cliches about being “salt and light.” This is true also for people I would not hesitate to call “leaders,” but who don’t think of themselves that way because they don’t have a title on their door or an embossed business card in their wallet. Influence is pervasive, powerful, and enduring. With the intensity of feelings about the troubles of our society and the world today, people are looking for leadership–but not domination. If we stay locked in a power-control view of leadership today, we will have missed an opportunity that is one short step away.

  • “Jesus is the leader’s leader” (Bill #9). There has to be something passed from Jesus to leaders to make them “Christian leaders.” We see that in the 12 and the 72. Sure, we can learn so much about leadership from all corners of the world (all truth is God’s truth), but unless leadership smells like Jesus, it is not Christian leadership. In Jesus we get both character and mission. Leaders and churches who claim to be “like Jesus” but have no missional *activities* are *not* like Jesus. You cannot separate Christian leadership from mission IMO.

  • Rick

    John #12-

    What is that mission? Is leadership to direct the mission, or to equip others to do the mission?

  • Sociologists going back to at least Max Weber have talked about the distinction between power authority. Essentially power is the ability to direct others to your will even against their own wishes. Authority is deference granted to you by others, and a desire to follow direction, because based on past performance that demonstrates you consistently have their interests at heart. (I know that the terms “power” and “authority” are not used so precisely in the common vernacular but the distinction is worth reflection.) The two are almost inversely related. The more you rely one the more you sacrifice the other.

    There is a need for the exercise of power in human affairs but we know that too much power concentrated in one person is dangerous. So we develop roles with clearly defined parameters in which power may be used in highly proscribed and prescribed ways. Police officer Joe Smith can’t use deadly force because he is Joe Smith but only in very specific circumstances when functioning as a police officer. This limitation of various types of power is how we have overcome the challenge that too much concentrated power leads to centralized tyranny and too little leads to the tyranny of anarchy.

    Most social institutions have some element of power involved. Government using police. Educators and school administrators with students. Businesses with employees. Parents with children. But in every social institution, if authority is absent, or there is continual reliance on power to achieve end, the institution will collapse. It seems to me that authority (as described above) is what would define leadership. Yet “leadership” in most social institutions is eventually going to require exercise power for the common good.

    So while I agree that defining leadership in terms of power … “imposing one’s will on a group” … is wrong, I’m not convinced that every particular exercise of is anathema to service as a Christian.

  • #11 Mel

    “The influencers are out there already. But they need something more substantial than cliches about being “salt and light.””

    Back in March a did a series here at Jesus Creed on John Knapp’ book “How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it.)” One of John’s key points is that business does not welcome the intrusion of of religious sensibilities into the workplace while the church has no effective language to speak to people about business and work. Thanks for offering some reflection in this direction.

  • Michael-
    I believe you are putting your finger on two HUGE issues for us to work out in our view of leadership as believers: power and authority. I really agree with your point that the abuses of power and authority do not mean that we should eschew them. The NT clearly shows Jesus’ followers as exercising power and authority (by divine mandate), but they key is that they are derived. Here is where a biblical view of leadership diverges from the non-biblical. Power, yes–but not ours. Authority, yes–but not ours. Same thing with truth. (Power, authority, and truth addressed in chapters 12, 13, and 14 of the book.)

    When we lead, we exercise power—and in spiritual influence this is a redirection of the power of God because any power we possess is puny by comparison, and dangerous as well. When we lead, we assert authority—but the difference between transformational leadership and pathological leadership is whether we are helping people discover God’s authority in their lives or we are just asserting our own authority. When we lead, we declare truth—although in Christian faith “truth” is not a person’s property or tool, but a faithful definition of reality that is to be shared, not imposed.

  • Bill

    Isn’t it also true this discussion in part assumes the one’s being influenced trust their leaders? Without trust this thing falls flat. It is assumed the leader has the trust of those who s/he is leading.

    So how does the leader understand trust is generally earned not conferred upon him/her? And how does or should that influence the leader? The ability to influence and lead others does not exist in a vaccuum. It is a combination of gift, talent and trust.

  • Leadership that is “Christian” is that which speaks into existence the potential that lies within the spirit of every person. True leaders do not place authoritative demands on others, but give themselves up to allow others to begin to believe that they are loved and liked. In short, a leader is a dispenser of transformative grace to those around him/her

  • DRT

    The trouble is that most people do not understand what leadership looks like. My definition of secular leadership is pretty much the same as what RJS says in #1, but there are very few folks in leadership positions that approach it that way. That is one of the big problems in American culture.

    To use a buzz word from the 90’s, leadership is about empowering people. It is about making them the best they can be. To play off Michael Kruse response, leadership is not about making people do things, it is about making people want to do things. Which goes back to influence. The authority granted to you by those being led is key.

    Given that, we have various motivations, the goal of leadership. What is the target that a leader is trying to achieve. In the case of Christian leadership it is Jesus. In secular it is often something else, but the best leaders can use Jesus too.

  • David Wylie

    The list you have given applies to ALL authentic leadership behaviours – not simply spiritual. The gospel takes these natural abilities ad uses them in the Kingdom.

  • I really like these reflections on Lawrenz’s work. In particular, I like the missional component that he stresses in his comment. So many people who are influencers would never see themselves as leaders. It is important that as churches we help to equip these people with something more than an admonition to “make a difference.” For that reason in particular, I am glad to see this work.

  • Jim – I think that if significant numbers of believers use the resources they have in Christ (wisdom, discernment, truth, ideals, derived power, etc.) in all sorts of contexts outside the church, then those who lead within the church will be challenged and stretched. I really hope this happens.