What kind of leadership is needed today?

A few years ago I wrote several blog posts on the need for servant leadership In Christ’s Church, opposed to an authoritarian or managerial leadership style (i.e. the all too common “over and under” kind of leadership today). Jesus told his disciples,You know that those who rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them, but it shall not be so among you. 

Sadly, all too often it is so among us (i.e. among those of “us” who are called to be followers of Jesus, who is supposed to be our model. He never misused his authority or abused his power, never for himself. Furthermore, he did not seek recognition and reputation, but actually modeled self-denial, ”emptied himself” (i.e. laid aside some of his “doxa”, glory, in his incarnation, as God in human form — see Philippians 2:6-7, “…taking the form of a servant”). 

This is what we need to remember moving beyond Bethlehem toward Jerusalem as we now begin our journey toward the season of Lent, recalling the so-called “silent years” (his childhood, youth, and earlier years as a young adult in Nazareth) — joining him on the road as he began his public ministry of teaching, preaching, healing, and standing amazed in his presence as we read the first-hand accounts of his incredible claims and wonder-working power, his mighty miracles — listening to the testimony of eyewitnesses as they describe his unexpected role as a Suffering Servant, renouncing all efforts to crown him king, refusing the throne and taking a towel instead, stooping to wash their dirty feet — reading the horror stories of his betrayal and beating, his scourging and suffering, his pain and passion, his brutal death and sorrowful burial in a borrowed tomb, and then the joyous and glorious announcement of his resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and the proclamation of his supremacy as the One who robbed the grave of its victory and now reigns as the Lord of heaven and earth forever and ever! 

However, we now find these heavenly thoughts interrupted and must come back down-to-earth again as followers of Jesus, living twenty-one centuries later in a much different world, but witnessing how the forever rare but relevant example of Jesus, the leadership style he modeled and the new standard of greatness he exemplified, is still the greatest challenge and most crucial need of our own time. As citizens of a nation far-removed from the one Jesus knew, but a land no less in need of servant leaders and also suffering from the results of authority misused and power abused, we now find ourselves living in another dark night of despair, following the first phase of a post-impeachment process that may bring the White House down with the removal of the President of the United States from office. 

Therefore, I have felt compelled at the beginning of this new year to recall a part of the New Testament story that is so often overlooked, if not intentionally given very little attention before or after Christmas, Mary’s words in the so-called Magnificat (Luke 1:46-53): “My soul  magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…for the Mighty One has done great things...He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Jim Wallis described Mary’s “Song of Praise” in a December issue of Sojourners magazine as “Nothing less than a Manifesto on turning the world upside down” (or should we be saying “right side up”?).

Many pastors and leaders in Christ’s Church who have long considered themselves “evangelical”, in the truest sense of the word, but who parted company with many others who have used and abused that label in recent years, were surprised following the impeachment of President Trump by the House of Representatives when Christianity Today (an “evangelical” journal founded by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) unexpectedly called for President Trump’s removal from office, especially since Franklin Graham has been one of his staunchest supporters. “Better late than never”, as the old saying goes, but there are many like myself who wish it had happened long ago! 

I was privileged to serve as Pastor Chairman for one of Billy Graham’s crusades in his hometown of Charlotte, NC (1973), and as a retired Presbyterian pastor who has always held Billy Graham in high esteem and now holds him in grateful and loving remembrance, I have been saddened to see the image of the great organization he founded so radically changed since his death, and in my opinion not for the better. I sincerely hope and pray Christianity Today’s action and example, supporting the removal of President Trump from office, will encourage many Christian pastors, as well as heads of other so-called evangelical organizations, to take a long hard look at the lifestyle and leadership style of the politicians they support, especially those who exalt themselves and abuse the authority and power of their offices. For all those in positions of leadership in Christ’s Church, this is a time to stand for the hard right against the easy wrong, For us, judgment should always begin with the house of God. Suffice it to say, the need for servant leaders in the Body of Christ, as well as in the corporate world and halls of government, has never been greater.  

As 2019 came to a crashing end, after our minds had been bombarded for several months with examples of the misuse of authority and the abuse of power by so many in public office, we witnessed the impeachment of a president who has enjoyed acting and reacting like a King!  Now let us sadly confess that there have been far too many pastors and leaders in Christendom who have  also enjoyed playing Pope! The hour is late, but not too late to call for a recovery of an entirely different kind of leadership in our land, that leaders in Christ’s Church should model, beginning at the top! Every church, just like every other organization, tends to take on the lifestyle of its leadership. Surely I do not need to argue the fact that there are far too many clergy-dominated churches today, as well as too many self-serving leaders. Rather than seeking to be served, pastors, elders, and other leaders in the Body of Christ are called to serve, rather than to be served! Instead of wanting to be in charge, insisting on our own way, promoting our own agendas, and thus becoming apostles of discord in Christ’s Church (yes, it is His Church after all, and not really “our Church”, and also supposed to be the Church He is “building” — see Matthew 16:18), rather than the church we want to build for our own glory.

Therefore, let us resolve in this new year to commit ourselves to becoming servant leaders and loving listeners (learning to listen with enthusiasm to what members of the church are saying and feeling, being “slow to speak, and quick to listen” — James 1:19). Rather than being “lords”, let us be the self-denying and caring leaders we were called to be, not first and foremost managers, heads of staff, and  church executives who are so concerned with who gets the credit — not leaders who enjoy being in the spotlight, who seek applause and affirmation (see Matthew 6:1-6), always needing to be out in front, but leaders who learn best, and lead best, by following — shepherds who also know the needs of their flocks, not just “feeding” but faithfully “tending” the sheep” of God’s pasture entrusted to their pastoral care (John 21:15-19; I Peter  5:1-6 — “not lordingi it over one another, but being examples to the flock” (vs. 3).

First, Jesus said “Follow me, and “I have given you an example.”  How quickly we forget, or simply choose to ignore, these words of Jesus: Whoever wants to be my disciple (i.e. “follower” and “learner”) must deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me” (i.e. nail down to die all the claims of self, all selfish ambitions — Mark 8:340. How different these words are from those of so many “prosperity” preachers in pulpits and on  television today, proclaiming a “wealth and health” gospel! The latter so often say, “If you listen to the gospel I preach, believe in the Jesus I proclaim, and send me $25.00 a month, you will inherit a blessing — you will prosper – you will be healed. “ My friends, that is an alien gospel! It is certainly not the Gospel of Jesus Christ! What does his Gospel of ”taking up the cross” mean for us today? Well, for one thing, it means forsaking our own pride and personal agendas, perhaps our own dreams and visions, and above all seeking to discover Christ’s vision for his Church  (as well as the particular local church we have been called to serve). It surely means submitting ourselves to the will of God and his perfect plan, by our unqualified commitment to be “followers of Jesus”, serving under his Lordship rather than seeking to “lord it over one another” ourselves! It means humbling ourselves and renouncing all self-centered living and self-exalting serving (read I Peter 5:6-9). 

Furthermore, the longer I live and serve my Lord the more convinced I am of this further truth: it means we must be willing to listen and learn from other leaders in the Body of Christ who have a servant spirit, as well as the gifts of wisdom and discernment (I Cor. 12:4-25), and above all whose conduct is a visible manifestation of “the fruit of the Spirit” in their lives (i.e. the character of Christ – read Galatians 5:22-26); and thus escaping the peril of professional pride, avoiding “becoming conceited” and actually “competing against one another” — and I must add greatly enhancing our service and increasing the prospect of a much more satisfying and fulfilling ministry. I know from personal experience that this is the result of modeling the kind of shared  leadership, when all are serving together “for the common good”, so there will be no division, discord, and “dissension in the body” (I Cor. 12). This is the kind of leadership so desperately needed today, both inside and outside the Church — leaders who are seeking to be the “servant of all” (Mark 10:42-43). 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let what is happening our national life be a warning to us all. It is so clear from any thoughtful reading of the New Testament that we have indeed “missed the mark” (i.e. the literal meaning of the Greek “hamartia”, the word for repentance) when it comes to emulating the leadership example of Jesus, and heeding the warnings of his apostles regarding the misuse and abuse of power as leaders in Christ’s Church. How easy it is easy to denounce the wrong kind of leadership we are witnessing in our political life as a nation, and then fail to repent of the same wrongs and weaknesses we have tolerated in our religious life. The apostles saw the danger if developing egocentric ecclesiastical bosses, who would “lord it over” others in the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that he himself had not abused his apostolic authority: “…not that we lord it over your faith; we serve with you for your joy” (i.e. the JOY if being servants of our Servant Lord together — II Cor. 1:24; read 11:20). The Apostle Peter also warned church leaders (Elders, Shepherds, including himself) not to be “…domineering over those in your charge” (I Peter 5:3). Once again, “judgment must begin at the house of God”, so let us repent, and again I say, REPENT! Then, and only then have we really earned the right to call our nation to repentance!