taking the words of Jesus seriously

In the 1980′s there was a push within the Church to build leaders. The thinking was that effective leadership could spark the Church out of its malaise.  People like Bill Hybels and John Maxwell began building messages around the idea that leadership mattered for the well being of a church or ministry.

The shift was one I eagerly embraced. Focusing energy upon leadership was wise and healthy. Even Spirit led. And it has worked.

But I’ve begun to wonder if the pendulum has swung too far.

Sometimes it feels like a cult has formed around leadership. It’s not just a church thing; it’s prevalent in business, government, education, etc. You can see it everywhere. Authors try to come up with the next big leadership book. Speakers give us twelve steps to effective leadership. Seminars focus on the leader within us. Even “team” leadership becomes a buzzword.

The result of this emphasis on leadership is we often neglect other valuable metrics like wisdom, love, and joy. This is especially dangerous in ministry. I see people who start ministries with “solid leadership” as their goal, but they neglect the theology that informs their ministry.  People spend months creating strategic plans and mission statements. Far too often, churches and nonprofits focus on organizational structure more than truly serving people. When a problem develops, we seek “leadership solutions”.  When it feels too individualistic, we create team leadership structures and invest time into understanding the concept.

It can all be good, of course. But it all seems one dimensional. We’ve bowed down to worship the power of leadership. The cult of leadership has run amok.

That’s not a good thing in the Church. Our identity needs to lie in whose we are, not just who we are. It shouldn’t always be about being a leader. It’s about being a follower of Christ. There are even some who twist the focus on God, getting caught up in the image of being holy and spiritually mature. But aren’t those, too, often just ambitions that disguise our longing to be leaders?

Look, I’m not trying to bash the Church. I’m not a deconstructionist. I love the Church and deeply appreciate what good leadership has done.

It’s just that it often feels to me like leadership has become a code word for power.

Power structures are one of the most subtle underpinnings of societies. They influence how we perceive everybody and everything around us. We are sometimes not even aware power structures exist because they operate in our subconsciousness. But aware of it or not, it’s undeniable that we partially define people and organizations through the lens of power.

Seeking power is sometimes done with good intentions. But reaching for that elusive ring, as noble as the intention may be, can corrupt us.

One key way this happens is the pursuit of leadership as a means to control.  We lead because we do not want to lose our authority. Max DePree famously said “the first responsibility of leadership is to define reality.” I agree, but can’t you see how the temptation to control is inherent in the definition?

Another way that leadership becomes a code word for power is when we equate good leadership with having loyal followers. This often excludes those with differing viewpoints. Leaders become insulated, feeding their sense of control and power.

The flaw is simply this: leadership has the cache that our society bestows power upon, and we subconsciously desire that power, so too often in the Church we dress power in the language of God’s calling, and then we call ourselves leaders.

Thus, leadership becomes a code word for power.

I’m not saying this happens all the time. I know a lot of good leaders who have resisted this trap. But in a Church culture that so highly values leadership, and one that bestows such honor upon leadership, avoiding this trap is difficult.

That’s the downside of pushing the pendulum so strongly toward leadership.

Maybe it is time to push the pendulum the other way.

Roy Goble is the owner of the family real estate investment firm Goble Properties.  He is also the President of PathLight International, which serves at-risk youth by providing educational opportunities that integrate faith and learning.  Roy is a Trustee of Westmont College, Chair of the Board for The SOLD Project, and is founder of several non-profit organizations.  He and his wife D’Aun live in Pleasanton, California.  You can read more about Roy at www.junkyardwisdom.com and follow him on twitter at @roygoble.

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