On Cheeky Leadership

This week, I have been ruminating again about leadership, particularly in the church. There is, I suppose, a danger in overthinking these sorts of things; after all, it would be silly to think loads about leadership and neglect to actually do the leading. In addition to my own arrival as pastor of a new church, I have had plenty of other reasons this past week to ponder such high and lofty mysteries. Last weekend I participated in a (lively) diocesan synod, during which delegates from across Argentina strove manfully to pull our fledgling diocese together to confront the challenges ahead. And, what’s more, a good friend and former rector of mine has been nominated as a candidate for bishop in the Diocese of San Joaquin, and that has been present on my mind as well. It makes sense that I would be treasuring up these things and pondering them in my heart; but to be honest, my musings on leadership actually stem from something far less high-minded: I just recently finished reading a book titled How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious.

Yes, you read that right. The cheeky author of this very tongue-in-cheek book opens up to the young seminarian or recently ordained minister the true nature and character of church dynamics in an effort to help him get ahead in his career. The facetious thesis (say that ten times fast) of the book is that the secret to advancing in position, status, and salary in the church is to combine cutthroat secular leadership methods with a veneer of nonthreatening homespun piety. The trick is to view the church as an innately (and merely) human institution, then to cater to the felt needs of its members (i.e. keep ’em fat and happy), and finally to reap the hard-earned political winnings over the years. I laughed a lot as I was reading this book, but it also shook me up a bit: I realized that, humanly speaking, if a young minister were to do everything in that book, he probably would advance to a high position of leadership (if not salary) in the church. This, I think, is frightening.

The question in my mind is to what extent our style of leadership in the church should be any different from styles of leadership in any other human institution? To what degree can we as ordained and lay leaders of Christ’s body learn or borrow from the spheres of corporate management, marketing, the armed forces, or the political world of Washington D.C.?

There does appear to be some overlap. Many of the canons and techniques of leadership in the world around us simply reflect common sense, basic principles of human interaction grounded in the divine act of creation re-bolstered by common grace, principles which will apply equally for a small business and for a country parish. Just as someone who has the spiritual gift (charisma) of teaching in the church probably also has natural gifts in teaching other things in other places, so natural gifts and principles of leadership may yield dividends when put to use in, for and through the church. For this reason, as I read How to Become a Bishop, I was struck by the fact that many of his suggestions were truly good advice, even if they were for entirely the wrong reason.

However, I think we must do better. The Apostle Paul, whilst upbraiding the Corinthians for their unseemly divisions, warned them against being “merely human.”  Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr, cautioned in Life Together that there is a difference between human community and spiritual community, and that genuine spiritual community is always a gift given by grace through Christ’s death on the cross. The redeemed community is and will be different from all other human communities, and its leaders can and must be different from all other leaders. The title of a book by John Piper puts it rather well: Brothers We Are Not Professionals.

We must be on guard to put the grace of our Lord Jesus front and center in our leadership as in our churches. It is crucial that leaders in the church have a desperate dependence on the living God who alone can grant what he has promised. As lay and ordained leaders we must ingest and digest the words of Jesus to the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” We must depend upon the gift of this grace for and in the our lives; in fact, we must boast of it, because it is the same grace that powerfully creates and constructs that spiritual community, a community to which God has given us leaders as a gift.

And that kind of leadership, which boasts in its own weakness and in the weakness of the cross, will in fact begin to look rather like that of the God-Man himself, who went to that very cross for us. The more we depend upon and rest in the grace of God “who took the nature of a servant,” the more “that same mind” will be in us as leaders. As servant-leaders we may not advance in position, or in status, or least of all in salary, but we wait for our reward in heaven where Christ is seated: a crown of glory for those who have run the race set before them.

I have not quite found the line marking the balance in all of this, but I am running the risk of overthinking the matter of leadership, and the hour tells me I must go put it into practice. Sola gratia, my friends!