Jesus the CEO?

In my last blog I suggested that the classical understanding of Christ as prophet, priest, and ruler might guide our reflections on new ways of understanding pastoral ministry in a post-Christian/pre-Christian society. The “facilitation” model I was taught in the 1970’s simply doesn’t work any more.

There is an alternative. By the early 1980’s I was meeting pastors who told young clergy that we needed to see ourselves as CEOs. After all, we worked with boards (deacon, elders, trustees, etc.), managed staff, gave the church its overall vision, and in general took executive responsibility. Such a model could even be conceptualized in terms of the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, the book “Jesus CEO” would come out in 1995 to provide “visionary leadership from ancient wisdom.”

Add a good sales and marketing background (for the assumption is that the product is solid, its marketing and sales that are lacking) and you are set for successful pastoral leadership. Supposedly

Quite apart from whether Jesus was a model CEO (and surely the very idea is anachronistic) there are some serious problems with this model of church leadership in our contemporary world. Primarily it elicits serious conceptual confusion between the purpose of a corporation/company and a church. Secondarily it confuses just how how lines of responsibility run in a church as opposed to a company.

A company/corporation (even a non-profit) exists to provide services for its customers/clients, and income(or satisfaction) for its employees/volunteers and owners/shareholders. This is true of even a non-profit which is funded by donors. A church on the other hand exists to offer praise and glory to God and to engage the world with the gospel. When a church reshapes itself as a company this becomes distorted. Congregations get treated as employees/donors/volunteers, when in fact they are none of these things. Those whom the church serves with its ministry get treated as customers/clients, when in reality being engaged with the gospel means asking them to do more than “consume” Christian ministry.

The distortion arising from the corporate/company model will inevitably distort the understanding of leadership. Models of corporate company leadership inevitably understand the role of the CEO in terms of relationships with employees/donors/volunteers, owner/shareholders, and customers/clients. Whether leadership is approached in terms of ethics, style, effectiveness, productivity, or goal orientation at the root will be the fundamental relationships determined by the purpose of any company or corporation. And these will be realized through relationships with employees/donors/volunteers, customers/clients, and owner/shareholders.

If one is leading a church for whom these relationships are either non-existent or represent a gross distortion of the kinds of relationships that form the group then CEO models of leadership will either be dysfunctional or will eventually turn the church into a non-profit or for-profit company/corporation. And indeed this is what is happening across the United States and the world.

Two things follow that need to be teased out in more depth. First, (and this cannot be stressed enough) we must distinguish between management and leadership. There are skills in organizational management that are useful across many types of organization, and no one with managerial responsibilities can or should avoid learning these. But management and leadership are not the same thing.

Secondly, models of leadership in the church must arise from a clearly defined ecclesiology, or understanding of the nature of the church. And frankly this is the central problem in contemporary Christian leadership. We are grasping for models of leadership because we are adrift in the currents of contemporary organizational models instead of standing on the firm ground of Biblical reflection and Christian tradition.

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