Leaders: Power or the Cross?

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 11.28.47 AMStacy Rinehart, author of Upside Down, observed that “there is an epidemic of power leadership loose in churches and ministry organizations today. Power leaders are so common that we’ve lost our immunity to this style of leadership.” This quotation comes from one of my favorite “leaders,” Kent Keith, president of PacRim University in Honolulu and author of The Christian Leader at Work: Serving by Leading. (Notice that subtitle, would ya? Brilliant. Not leading by serving but serving by leading. That’s upside down.)

Epidemic is right. I read about it all the time in the blog and internet world. Pastors want to talk about authority lines, leaders at Christian schools want to talk about authority lines, (some) complementarians want to talk about authority lines — you’d think the word “authority” would be all over the New Testament. It isn’t. What is all over the NT is cross and love. Hence, pastors aren’t called “leaders” or “authority figures” or “authorities” but rather “servants” and “fellow servants” and the greatest leader of them all, Paul, was called an “apostle” — which means not one in charge but one sent by the Sender.

Recently a friend told me about a pastor “who took over the church” when he arrived. How so? Within a month or two he had removed all those who had been doing the work of ministry but who were not “fancy” (I quote) and brought in all his friends who were “fancy.” He “cleaned house.” The church almost collapsed.

Each of us who is a leader faces a fork in the road: Will we be power leaders or servant leaders? Will we serve by leading or will lead by powering up?

Here are some of my choice statements by Kent Keith; read them slowly.

We were created for deep spiritual fulfilment and liberating joy: the joy of loving and serving God; the joy of loving and serving others. When we see the opportunity to love and serve by leading, we can follow the teachings of Christ and become servant-leaders.

Christian leaders don’t start with the way the world is, they start with the way Christ is.

A life of Christian leadership is a challenging life. It requires deep faith—an unshakeable faith that will sustain our relationship with God as we do God’s work. No matter what happens, we must be firm in our faith.

It is very clear: We are commanded to love. If we fail to love, we fail to follow Jesus, and we fail to know God.

When we love people, we care about what happens to them. We want to help them when they need help. Jesus called us to do exactly that.

When we follow the example of Jesus, we do not worry about our status, we just focus on what needs to be done, however humble it may be.

What is leadership? I see two major ideas or “models” of leadership in the world today. One is the power model of leadership. The power model says that leadership is about acquiring and wielding power for oneself. It is often about coercion and manipulation. It assumes a pyramid, a hierarchy in which power is in the hands of the leader at the top. The focus is on the leader, who issues orders to his or her subordinates.

The other model is the service model of leadership. The service model says that leadership is about making a difference in the lives of others. It is not about the organizational hierarchy, because anyone, anywhere in an organization, can be of service. The focus is not on the leader, it is on meeting the needs of others. Teams develop and implement the mission, which addresses the needs of employees, customers, and society at large.

There are many practical problems with the power model of leadership. For example, it focuses on having power, not on using it wisely. It defines success in terms of who gains more power, not who does the most good for his or her organization or community. And because people think they need to build power bases in order to become leaders, the power model promotes conflict between power groups. These conflicts may make it harder to solve problems and seize opportunities. Organizations and communities get stuck, locked in battles over power.

People using the power model of leadership have different values than those living the service model. According to Rinehart, the power leadership model has five driving values: standardization, conformity, pragmatism, productivity, and centralization. The servant leadership model is characterized by diversity instead of standardization, empowerment instead of conformity, is centered in the Scriptures rather than pragmatism, and values authenticity above productivity and control.

Servant-leaders may have legal authority, but they exercise moral authority. That is authority that is not legislated but earned. If people respect you and trust you; if they believe that you have faith in God and you have their best interests at heart; if they know that you are seeking to advance the kingdom of God, and you are on the journey with them; then they will follow you. You will have moral authority, and if you authentically exercise moral authority, your legal right to act may not matter.

Scholars study a variety of leadership theories and compare the theories to each other. A reading of the scholarly literature suggests that scholars see four elements that are unique to servant leadership compared with other theories:

1. The moral component. This is about treating people right, and creating an environment in which people can raise moral issues.

2. The focus on serving followers. Servant-leaders serve followers for their own good as well as the good of the organization. They encourage people to grow so that they can reach their fullest potential.

3. Concern with the success of all stakeholders. Servant-leaders define stakeholders broadly to include employees, customers, business partners, communities, and society as a whole—including those who are the least privileged. Servant-leaders care about everyone the organization touches.

4. Self-reflection, as a counter to the leader’s hubris. Servant-leaders are able to reflect and put their role in perspective. They know that leadership is not about them, it is about their ability to serve others. Their self-reflection often results in humility.

About Scot McKnight

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