This essay was originally published in The Journal of Student Ministries. I post it here for two reasons. First, I felt like I needed to post something and I didn’t have time to write anything new. Second, I think the conversation about leadership is moving toward a more servant-minded tone, but still lacks a little humility when it comes to the title and position of a leader.
It’s a little long, and it doesn’t have very many pictures. If you have a hard time staying focused when you scroll through your Twitter feed, it may not be for you. But I do hope it brings something to the table theologically and in practice. Thanks for reading.
In kindergarten, one of the thrills of life was being elected to the most prestigious office any five year old could possess—the Line Leader. No announcement sent post-toddler legs jockeying for position like “Okay class, let’s line up for recess.” And let’s face it, the false pretense that “caboose” is just as cool as line leader is an invention of sympathetic teachers, destined to boost the self-esteem of kids who weren’t picked and, thusly, on the verge of emotional breakdowns. The front of the line was the winning spot, everything except that was for losers.
Like in many other aspects of life, adults have a hard time letting go of childish things in this area. Success is achievement. Success is power. Success is influence. There are leaders and then there is everyone else. It’s not that service jobs are less important—the guy who waits on us in a restaurant is arguably more valuable to the people at the table than the district general manager. But the general manager still gets paid six figures and the buss boy splits tips at the end of the night, a fact that must not be ignored. This dynamic has been fostered and fussed about for as long as there have been hierarchies, and I am not naïve enough to think that will be ending soon. And, to be fair, leadership is important. Without good leadership organizations, businesses, families, and teams all suffer. In truth, they probably go under.
My distaste is not with the practice of good leadership, but with the fascination in obtaining a position of leadership.
Unfortunately, I came to this conclusion the hard way. I wouldn’t be writing these indicting words if they did not apply to me. Since I was a kid I was told I was going to be “a good preacher someday.” In my effort to see “someday” come to pass, I went a little overboard with the greatness thing. Oh, if you knew me you wouldn’t say so. You’d probably say I was a nice guy, really easy to get along with, good with the kids, passionate about stuff. But in my head there was ambition, day-dreaming, and impatience. When would I finally fulfill those childhood prophecies?
Training for ministry, I was a big fish in a small pond. I got the good gigs, pats on the back on campus, and accolades reflective of my potential. I read the leadership books (at least partly because I had to if I wanted to pass), listened to the leadership lectures, heard people talking about the successful people in ministry—those whose flocks were thick with sheep and whose resumes were crowded with accomplishments. I actually believed that’s what ministry was all about.
It seems like that’s what a lot of other people think, too.
We could all name the book titles. There are ten steps toward this, seven principles for that, thirty-eight ideas for more effective whatever. We read the books in college, they clog up the best-seller list, and the authors make the talk-show circuit. Some of the insights are valuable, very few of them are new, and all of them seem indulgent. This doesn’t make them untrue of course. They’re disputable, despite popular opinion, but not necessarily false. Again, the problem isn’t with the existence of these books, but in the religious following they can claim.
Enough beating around the bush. I’m sure being vague is not an admirable leadership trait, so let me get right to the point:
What’s so biblical about leadership?
A Brief Word Study on Leadership
In the NIV, “led,” “lead,” “leader,” “leaders,” or “leadership” is used almost 500 times. When you take the verbs out of the equation and try to learn about leaders (noun) the appearances of the words are reduced by sixty percent. Of those two hundred and four occurrences, only 14 are in the New Testament. To be fair, I acknowledge that you can’t just ignore Old Testament principles as if they don’t count. But in terms of modern-day church governance, I think the discerning reader will agree that the New Testament proves a more accurate model. That model supplies us with barely a baker’s dozen hints at what a leader should be all about.
Of the fourteen appearances of “leader,” “leaders,” or “leadership,” several of the mentions are in a negative context. In the gospels, some leaders are trying to kill Jesus (Luke 19:47), while a few believe in him (John 12:42). In the Book of Acts, once it’s used in reference to Judas’ abandon position (Acts 1:20), while other times it’s used as a comparative reference to the Jewish leadership who condemned Jesus to death (3:17),or to refer to those who meant the apostles harm (14:5, 25:2, 28:17). To be fair, there is one reference to the Christian leadership, who selected Judas and Silas to go on a missions trip with Paul and Barnabas (15:22).
Elsewhere in Pauline literature leadership is mentioned as a spiritual gift, something that should be duly noted (Romans 12:8), and something that seems appointed of God and worthy of respect (Galatians 2:2). Three times the Hebrew writer urges Christians to respect and obey leadership. All three occurrences are in chapter 13, and they must not be ignored. Yet even with these pro-leadership Scriptures in mind, should we conclude that leadership is something to be grasped for, fascinated with, or obsessed about? Is there something to be said about the absence of much leadership talk in the Bible?
What About Followship?
By way of contrast, the presence of discipleship talk and following in the New Testament is noteworthy. Ninety-four times the word “follow” or “disciple” is used in the New Testament, a total that is six times that of “lead.” The vast majority of these occurrences are in the gospels and—you guessed it—Jesus is the one being followed.
- Matthew 4:19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
- Matthew 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
- Matthew 19:21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
- Luke 14:27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
- John 1:43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
- John 21:19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
It seems clear that the whole of the Scriptures are more concerned with teaching about following than they are leadership. Yet contemporary Christians seem to have their fascinations reversed. Leadership is all the rage, selling out conferences and dominating casual conversations. Ask the average minister what they’ve read more pages of in the last month, the latest leadership book or the Bible, and—this will come as no shocker to you—they’ll probably not say “the Bible.”
How can this be? Why are we so preoccupied with leading? In becoming so fascinated with it—and, in some cases, good at it—have we forgotten how to follow? Is it even an arguable point that following is more important than leading?
Good Leaders Follow
I know that many of you may have already quoted to yourselves the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” There’s a leader for you! It’s true; Paul is leading others with those words, rather boldly in fact. But the basis for his leadership is his own dependence upon Christ, not his skill set or organizational prowess or top ten list of undeniable qualities.
This point cannot be lost—good leaders are more concerned with who is in front of them than who is behind them.
Imagine that we all meet up in the woods somewhere for a midnight hike. The moon is concealed behind the clouds, and the denseness of the trees blocks out the remaining beams of light. It’s just you, me, and a half-dozen others. Pretend that you are appointed leader of the group. We’re to walk right behind one another and step where the other steps. If the person in front of us makes a wrong move, they are doing so at the peril of the person behind them. Now imagine you are elected the line leader. You will control the safety and direction of the group. Where you go, others will follow. No problem, right? You just unzip your backpack and pull out your trusty flashlight.
Pardon the simple story-telling. But may I ask you an even simpler question? What is so important about that flashlight? To apply our parable to modern leadership techniques, the flashlight should be unnecessary. You are a good leader. You know the woods. You make good decisions. You might even involve the rest of the group when appropriate. You encourage the line, and even though your eyes struggle to see what’s next, you can get people to follow you through the woods without hesitating. Why do you need a flashlight at all?
The answer is elementary. No matter how encouraging, affable, inspirational, or collaborative you might be, if you don’t have a flashlight, you are the conductor of a train that is heading for an unavoidable crash. Without something out in front of you guiding the way you are a disaster waiting to happen—at the hand of a fallen limb, a snake, or an obscured-from-view hole.
Could it be that too many “leaders” are inspiring people to follow them but they have no clue where they are going? Alternately, could it be that there are some very influential people who may know where they want to go but have no clue how to get there? Are you a leader who has a pile of people behind you, walking in your footsteps? If so, wouldn’t you like a light out in front of you, guiding your every move?
Of course, every minister consulted would agree that we must “be right with Jesus” if we’re going to lead others. But does it affect our practice? Can we say with confidence like Paul in 1 Corinthians, “follow me, because I’m following Christ.”
The Bible makes it plain that if we want to lead people we need to conquer following first. It’s that whole, “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” business. You don’t read that in many leadership books. But I think Jesus meant it.
As a Practical Matter
Let’s put all this to the test. Think of the three most influential people in your life. Really, go ahead (I know, I hate when people put this kind of stuff in articles, too. But if you don’t think of the three people then the last few minutes have been wasted). What did they do that influenced you? Why did they come to mind? What qualities did they have that made you want to follow them?
My guess is you didn’t think of people who were all that impressive. I thought of a small-town preacher, a truck driver/janitor/farmer/social services worker, and a school bus driver. Those three people were not “great leaders.” They had never read a John Maxwell book (there, I said it after having avoided it all this time). They were never in a single spotlight, part of a mega church, or on a best-seller list. They were not in powerful positions. But over the course of my life, I came to know that they were following Jesus. They were good, kind, and wise. They made me want to follow Jesus, too.
Is the same true of all the people you thought of? Chances are you didn’t think of people who had legions of people under their oversight. More than likely you thought of regular old people who you noticed were following Jesus. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that following Jesus should be our greater concern?
We youth ministers talk a good game. We throw around words like authentic and organic and, well, you-can-fill-in-the-blank. Youth ministry has gone from a ground-breaking new ministry product to a commodity. We’ve perfected it, programmatically and otherwise. If anyone knows how to lead kids, it’s us.
- Have a dynamic personality
- When you preach, be funny
- Use product in your hair
- Lead up, and don’t take any nonsense from elders or pastors
- Train volunteers and student leaders to do that stuff, too
We’re on the cutting edge. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s the edge of a cliff. We’ve led a hundred students there practicing what we thought was good leadership, and our next step will send us sailing over the edge. We forgot to bring our flashlight.
Being the Caboose
It was only when I found myself at the edge of the cliff, flashlightless, that I came to understand that leadership wasn’t the point. There had to be more than successful, spot-lit, high-profile ministry. What does it profit a man if he gains the greatest ministry leadership position, but loses his own soul?
Then I read Romans 1:6, which says that we are called to belong to Jesus.
That’s all? Not change the world, or lead a revolution, or force a building campaign? Just belong to Jesus?
That verse played in my brain like a broken record, and I came to understand that I was not called to be a good leader; I was called to belong to Jesus. The amount of people who showed up at stuff became less important, and the depth at which I knew them grew in importance. My desire to be known by crowds diminished and my desire to be known by Christ increased. I stopped worrying about “arriving” and starting thinking in terms of “going.” It was refreshing—but more than that it was relieving.
The striving for position stopped, and the jockeying for acknowledgement ceased. No longer do I concern myself—much—with how noticed I am. There’s a human element there, for sure—who doesn’t want to be honored, noticed, and respected. But my deep desire is to know Christ, be known by Christ, and follow in His footsteps every day.
If being a leader is what ministry is about, then I quit.
Praise God, it’s not. It’s about being a follower—a follower of Jesus. And we’d do well to teach our students that very same thing. 1 Peter 2:21 says, “to this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you could follow in His steps.”
Maybe being the caboose is the best position after all.