There are no shortage of books on the topic of leadership. Indeed, pointing out this fact is the first thing that most books on leadership seem to do. These books also point out that there is a crisis of leadership in the world today, such as having traded true leadership for celebrity.
In order to discuss a philosophy of Christian leadership, we first need a working definition of leadership. A precise definition might be stated as such: Christian leadership is the dialogic art of influencing others toward God’s agenda. In order to make clear what is meant by the definition it will be necessary to unpack in turn each aspect of what is being stated.
Leadership and Others, A Dialogue Concerning God’s Agenda
In unpacking our definition we must first assess the players involved. In this definition two actors may be assumed outright, the leaders and the “others.” The first thing to unpack is that the art is made up of leaders influencing “others.” Christian leadership is not confined merely to influencing Christians. Our Christianity seeps into every aspect of our lives, our interactions with Christians and non-Christians, and these interactions include those instances of leadership over both groups. Christian leadership does not vary depending on which group the individual is working with.
Along with the leaders and the others that the leader is influencing, there is also God. This is important for establishing the dynamic of the relationship between the leaders and those being led, because it is this aspect of the definition which introduces the servant-leadership aspect of the art.
Some books on the topic of leadership state that the leader is merely influencing the followers to achieve a defined mission; others specify that it is influence to achieve a common goal. In the first instance the influence toward a “defined mission” could place the goals, vision, and mission of the leader over and above those of the followers. In the second instance influence toward a “common goal” could still face the risk of placing some sort of merely human goal as the primary thing to be achieved. That God is also an actor indicates that neither the leader – nor even the group – is the thing of primary importance; it is God’s agenda that takes the central focus.
Again, this focus on God’s agenda introduces the servant-leadership aspect of the art. The chief implication of this is that the leader is a servant, yet this servant-hood is not first and foremost to the group. Primarily, the leader is a servant of God.
In being a servant of God two primary things may be assumed, a love of God and a love of neighbor, the latter of which indicates that the servant-leader will have a love for those that he or she is leading. Since the leader has a love for those that he or she is leading they will act in such a way towards their followers that exemplifies that fact.
This means that the Christian leader will not abuse or exploit their followers, and if they have been placed in a position of authority they will not abuse that position out of love for those who they are leading and the One they serve. Indeed, the leader will act knowing that they will someday be required to give an account to God of their actions.
When God is the one being served the individual loses all authority when they abuse their power and use it in a wrong way; as G.K. Chesterton points out, one “cannot have a shred of authority if he merely has the power to do it and not the right to do it.” Chesterton’s point here is rooted in the truth that authority is something given from God, and therefore one cannot do anything in authority unless one is right in doing it; what one is ‘right’ in doing is derived from God and his agenda.
The art of leadership involve the three actors of the leader, the others, and God. This relationship is one of a God-derived love, and furthermore it is a dialogue.
This dialogic aspect is the final key dynamic of the leader-followers relationship. The leader is not merely influencing others towards God’s agenda, but they are doing so while in dialogue with those they are leading.
Leadership is not a one way conversation; the only time in which that sort of leadership is feasible is when the leader is receiving direct revelation from God. In lieu of that, the leader must converse with those he or she is leading. One of these implications is that the leader must have an idea of where his people are. The leader is operating within a given context and with a certain group of people and the leader must be aware of what God is already doing in that place so that he or she may avoid merely trying impose an alien change to the direction of a group without knowing where or why they were headed where they were. Leaders therefore need to ask themselves what kind of situation those they are leading are facing. The Christian leader is one who invites discussion and constructive feedback from those that he or she is working with.
Finally, the Christian leader does not lead in such a way as to make themselves indispensable. Rather, the leader leads in such a way as to produce more leaders, echoing the command to go out and make disciples. As Henry Blackaby asserts “one of the most tragic mistakes leaders commit is to make themselves indispensable.”
God’s Agenda: Vocation and Calling in Leadership
God’s agenda is a central facet of Christian leadership, which gives it a close relationship to the ideas of vocation and calling. This aspect of Christian leadership is generally seen as being of utmost importance, as William Willimon puts it:
Faithful pastors must have a vivid sense of vocation, a sense of being summoned by God to do his work. The work that pastors do is too demanding to do it for any other reason than the conviction that one is called to do this work, that God wants you to do it.
With such a strong emphasis the need for a sense of vocation is certainly seen as strong.
Here Willimon is referring specifically to the context of pastors, and those within the Christian community vary on whether they apply the language of vocation and calling to professions outside of the pastorate.
Along with Martin Luther, we can extend the language of vocation and calling to areas outside of the pastoral ministry. However, also along with Luther, it would be incorrect to view this sense of calling and vocation as a calling to a specific area of either Christian ministry or secular work.
A mediating position would be that which is sometimes deemed the “wisdom” approach to the will of God as opposed to the “specific-will” approach.
We are called to pursue God’s will, where God’s will is not defined as some specific action but as the pursuit of righteousness.
As Luther’s view has been summarized, “Christian vocation is not finally about production… it is about the neighbor, about giving oneself to the other in love and service in the glorious freedom of the gospel.”
In this understanding of calling and the will of God, Luther would be in disagreement with those such as Willimon and Blackaby, who assert a specific calling to a specific position. In Luther’s understanding our calling and our vocation is to serve our neighbors and in so doing to lead in a righteous manner and to righteous ends.
The Biblical and theological frameworks of leadership have been touched on throughout the discussion above, yet it is helpful to lay them out in a more straightforward manner. There are three key theological themes that provide a framework for the above practice of leadership: the state of man, the call to righteousness, and the sovereignty of God.
The State of Man
In discerning how to lead people you must know where people are at.
From Scripture we may observe that the state of man is fallenness; man is sinful, and man is also loved by God and made in his image. This serves as a vital theological foundation for leadership because man as created by God yet fallen is one of the key basis for the servant aspect of leadership, for the love that the leader has for those under his or her care.
Because man is made in the image of God we must love those who are in our care. Yet while man is made in the image of God, he is also fallen, and we must realize this as we are working with people. Realizing this fallen aspect of mankind keeps the leader aware of the imperfection of the system he or she is working in, and furthermore it keeps them humble, knowing that they themselves are imperfect. Knowing that these imperfections are in place the leader can expect failure, but because of the hope that is in Christ and the sovereignty of God, he or she may trust that their failure will not be fruitless.
The Call to Righteousness
While mankind is fallen, he has been called to righteousness. On the one hand this a plea for the gospel, yet it the key to leadership that has been already discussed in terms of calling and vocation, that Christian leadership is the dialogic art of influencing others toward righteous ends.
It is this aspect of Christian leadership which allows it to not merely be confined to Christian ministry, for any leader can conduct their affairs such that they lead towards a righteous end.
A Christian business leader can exercise that call to righteousness by managing his employees in a Godly manner, not taking advantage of them. At the same time the Christian business leader can also influence others toward righteous ends by leading his company toward fair dealings with other companies and by engaging in business practices which do not exploit the system. A Christian military leader may lead a righteous life in fulfillment of that call, and then influence his troops towards righteousness by serving as an example of righteousness, and by making tactical decisions in accordance with a just-war theory. A Christian political leader may again serve as an example, and may influence others toward righteous ends by pursuing policies which would glorify God.
Finally, a Christian minister is called likewise to be that example, and may influence his congregation towards righteous ends, spurning them towards evangelism in general or towards any specific program that would glorify God; yet, the minister in this case does not pursue the specific program because God wills that specific program, but because it is a program that is in accord with glorifying God.
The Sovereignty of God
The sovereignty of God is immense importance for a framework of leadership. Perhaps the greatest benefit the sovereignty of God has for the leader is in its ability to let them trust in the perfect plan of God and the fact that all things will work for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Because the leader has this trust he or she may be confident than even in their own personal failure – or even the failure of their projects or their group – that God will still bring good out of those failures.
Nothing is ever a total failure; because God is sovereign some benefit will always come out of those actions which are done with the aim of pursuing righteousness.
It is the sovereignty of God which assures the leader that he will be held accountable for his actions as a leader. This accountability is what will help keep the leader from acting improperly in his position. It will both motivate the leader to put their entire heart into the work, knowing that it glorifies God, and also keeps them in the fear of the Lord, knowing that he will hold them responsible for the way they have used their leadership.
As has been stated, Christian leadership is is the dialogic art of influencing others toward righteous ends. These righteous ends are synonymous with the agenda of God, for God’s agenda is that his people pursue righteousness.
The Christian leader, thus, is one who influences whatever group he or she oversees in such a way that upholds Christian values; the Christian leader will lead in a righteous manner, and will make sure that the goals being pursued are ones through which God can be glorified, if for no other reason than that the job was done well in service to the neighbor. In this system the leader is capable of setting the specific agenda through dialogue with the group, so long as that specific agenda coincides with the general agenda God has of pursuing righteousness.
This is a system of leadership that may be applied to any sort of leadership in any context, for any action may be done in such a manner so as to bring glory to God.