Two days ago I went to a funeral for Dr. Newell Wert, who served as Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary for over thirty years. Having been dean for not nearly that long, I can only say that the man must have had
skin of iron a kevlar vest a bulletproof ego a very sturdy constitution. Let’s face it. If you’re a pastor, a bishop, a dean, president of some institution, or some other kind of leader, you know as well as I do that leadership is hard work. I have great colleagues and I serve at an institution that I really believe in. Even in the best situations, though, good leadership is a demanding task.
I only met Dr. Wert once, but as I was listening to the testimonies about his life, two traits kept emerging: his skill as a leader and his Christian character. This got me thinking: we often talk about the importance of leadership, but is there a particularly Christian form of leadership that we in the church should embody? What makes a Christian leader different from any other kind of leader?
After some reflection, I’ve written down a few thoughts. So here are seven (yes, the corny biblical number that Christians like to use in lists) traits that I associate with strong Christian leadership.
But first, the requisite disclaimers:
(a) No, I do not always embody all of these traits as a leader.
(b) This is not an exhaustive list. Surely you know that already, but the academic in me had to say it.
(c) I’m not an expert on leadership. These are just a few thoughts out of my own experience.
Now that the throat-clearing is out of the way….
1. Christian leadership is rooted in prayer.
We can’t do this on our own. Effective leadership in and of itself is hard enough. Christian leadership, however, is particularly difficult because we are trying to lead others into a counter-cultural way of thinking and living. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Another way of putting this is to say that Christian leaders need Godly wisdom. The Letter of James teaches, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (3:17)
To be the kind of leader who exhibits these traits of Godly wisdom is a tall order, and we can only do this by seeking God’s help in prayer.
2. Christian leadership involves sacrifice.
Sometimes when we look at people in leadership positions, we see authority, power, and accolades. The best leaders I know, however, aren’t seeking these, and they go about their work with a spirit of selflessness. In fact, leadership will often involve sacrifice. It may cause you to sacrifice your time or money. Making difficult leadership decisions may cost you friendships. If you’re like me, you will spend more than a few sleepless nights thinking about decisions you’ve made.
Jesus modeled sacrificial leadership for us. He served those whom he led, and in turn taught them to do the same for others. Of his own work on earth he said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
3. Christian leadership is gentle whenever it can be.
To the inexperienced, leadership often looks like the exercise of authority. Authority, however, is something that a Christian leader will invoke only when he or she must. I’ve found that collaboration, conversation, and consensus-building are much more effective in working toward outcomes that honor Christ than pulling rank or putting my foot down. Jesus taught his disciples,
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all (Mark 10:45).
The disciples had learned from the world around them that to lead meant to “lord over” others. Jesus shows them a more excellent way.
4. Christian leadership is confrontational when it must be.
In the life of every Christian leader, situations will arise that will call for confrontation. Gentleness should be the norm, but sometimes to honor Christ through your leadership means to confront a problem or person head-on.
This isn’t a particularly enjoyable part of the job, but sometimes a failure to confront is a failure to lead. One of the most famous confrontations in the New Testament is between Paul and Peter in Antioch. Paul recounts that Peter was eating with Gentiles, but when some representatives from James came to town (the “circumcision faction,” which I always thought was a bad name for a gang), he withdrew from his Gentile friends. He was afraid that these Jewish followers of Jesus, who still abided by Jewish dietary laws and table customs, would disapprove of his free association with Gentiles at meals.
Paul will have none of this. He writes, “But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentiles and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (Gal 2:14). What is at stake for Paul is the truth of the gospel, and he is willing to take on one of the pillars of the early church in defense of it.
5. Christian leadership will make some people unhappy.
Personally, I really like to make people happy. I really don’t like to make people unhappy. Nevertheless, a Christian leader will at times have to make decisions that others won’t like. Sometimes this displeasure will be acute. Sometimes it will involve weeping and gnashing of teeth, or worse yet, taking on that really cantankerous member of your staff-parish relations committee who likes to point his finger at you when he talks. Nevertheless, you can’t please everyone–and you shouldn’t try to do so. Make your decisions prayerfully, seeking the guidance of people whom you trust and having listened to alternative perspectives. Then accept the fact that some folks will disagree you. They may even express this disagreement in unhealthy ways, which gives you another opportunity to demonstrate leadership.
I could cite numerous examples in the New Testament of Jesus, Paul, and others who made people unhappy with some regularity. It’s enough to note, however, that Jesus died on the cross. People who were universally beloved, who spent their days pandering to the masses, did not die this way. The cross was reserved for those of whom the Romans wanted to make an example. Jesus made enemies, and he told his disciples they would make enemies as well. “Blessed are you when”–note that it’s when, not if –“people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt 5:11). If you’re concerned that everyone like you, it will be hard for you to be an effective Christian leader.
6. Christian leadership is truthful.
In discussions about leadership there is a great deal of talk about transparency. This is a secular term, however. I would prefer simply to say that Christian leaders are truthful. They don’t hide important information. The people around them know what’s going on.
Jesus teaches, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (5:37). People should be able to trust us. Our word should be good.
He also teaches, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:20-21).
7. Christian leadership is loving.
Love is the primary characteristic of Jesus’ followers. Before his return to the Father, Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
We often mistake permissiveness for love. This is not what Jesus meant. Love can mean holding one another accountable. It can mean having hard conversations, asking forgiveness, and granting forgiveness. The love that Jesus commands is not sentimentality, but a deep commitment to other people. Jesus’ followers are to be loyal to one another. They should be able to trust each other. They should be willing to make sacrifices for each other.
A Christian leader should have this kind of love for the members of his or her community. I’m well aware that love is not always the first emotion that sets in during difficult interpersonal situations. But do we truly care about those whom we lead? Are we committed to them? Can they trust us? Are we willing to sacrifice for them? Love would require that we answer yes to all of these.
Leadership is difficult but crucial work, and I’m still learning every day on the job. You’re welcome to tell me below what I’ve gotten wrong, what I’ve gotten right, and what I’ve left out.