Biblical Models for Christian Leadership
WCIU Journal: Leadership Topic
July 6, 2017
by David Gyertson
The majority of to-day’s faith-based organizations are the offspring of dynamic founders whose personalities, passions, and dedication focus energy and enlist followers. Their compelling presentation of vision, and call to sacrifice in order to achieve it, are the driving forces God uses to address the selected needs of society. Organizations usually prosper in addressing their specific mission as their CEOs remain active, effective, and focused. By contrast, when these leaders leave, die, retire, or most significantly fail, the organization’s ability to sustain its mission can falter.
As organizations mature, their significant dependence on leaders to create, project, and maintain identity, particularly in faith-informed organizations, remains strategic. The quality, passion, and character of leadership casts vision, creates structure, and drives the staffing of mission, as well as the effective marketing and successful fund raising required to fulfill the mission. While without a vision the people perish (Proverbs 29:18), it is clear that without the visionary, the people needed to perform and fulfill the vision soon lose sight of and commitment to the mission. And as leadership goes, so go funding, service impact, and the effective performance needed to deliver on the organization’s promise.
However, faith-based organizations have an amazing resiliency – a factor that should not be surprising to those who understand the nature of God’s sovereign call on, provision for, and protection of these entities conceived to incarnate His love for a needy world. As an organizational and leadership researcher, consultant, and educator, I am challenged by the fact that many of these entities, though aerodynamically unsound in terms of systems, structures, operations, and even leadership, are like the bumblebee that flies despite the inherent limitations. Something is at work that moves beyond reason, science, and systems that can only be attributed to a loving Heavenly Father who likes to remind us that our thoughts, as well as our ways, are not always His (Isaiah 57:8-9).
One of the mysteries of faith-based leadership is that God often chooses champions that illustrate that it is not by might nor by power but by My Spirit (Zechariah 4:6) that His work ultimately is accomplished. I remember well the counsel I received from a senior leader in an international ministry who served as the right-hand to the organization’s founder. Painfully aware of the limitations, as well as being in awe of the talents and capabilities of the founder, he reminded me that all leaders are human with feet of clay. He went on to celebrate and illustrate God’s wisdom in deploying leaders who hold the treasure of their calling in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7) so that in the end it is clear that the excellence and the power belong more to God than to them. Those insights informed my own attempts to lead, as well as follow, through the past four decades of service to intentionally Christ-centered organizations.
It has been helpful, in my goal to understand the impact of Christian leadership on organizational mission and identity, to explore four basic Scriptural models, or what I characterize here as motifs, of leadership style and motivation. It is important, however, to underscore that models are almost always artificial and as a result incomplete. No leader fits fully into any one of these characterizations due to the raw materials of personality, experiences, motivations, and skill sets each individual brings to the specific situation. Current institutional needs and emerging opportunities also influence the tailoring of these off-the-rack suits to fit the person with the place.
It is my experience that effective leaders understand their preferred motif of leadership and work from these positions of experience and disposition. However, the most effective leaders willingly adapt their leadership preferences to changing conditions as required. With those caveats, we consider four biblically illustrated models of leadership – prophets, priests, kings, and apostles – in an attempt to better understand leadership predispositions and their impact on institutional identity. We can only provide here a cursory overview with an emphasis on those qualities and characteristics of the motif that influence organizational mission and identity. I have found these categories helpful in my executive coaching activities to better match individuals and organizations as well as effect positive transitions from one leader to the next.
The prophet motif is the one most characteristic of founder leaders. The prophets of the Old Testament stood as emissaries on behalf of God declaring in compelling, and often convicting as well as correcting, tones His plans for His people. The missions of organizations led by such prophets tend to be focused, specific, and targeted in their ministry objectives. The fingerprints of the leader are evident with the organization taking on the personality and characteristics of the leader. These leaders have an urgency to their vision believing that time is short, needs are great, and this cause is worth both living as well as sacrificing for in terms of commitment and resources. Often their mission takes on a militaristic, confrontational tone – a culture wars characterization – that positions them in the forefront of the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, in apocalyptic proportions. For such leaders their mission has world-changing, culture-shaping implications and their identity is driven by a conviction that they have a unique and distinctive call from God to be His John the Baptist voice to and for this generation. Theologically there is often an emphasis on God’s power and presence with a particular focus on the authority of God’s Word and/or the infilling power and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Where the prophet motif speaks to the people on behalf of God, the priest motif speaks to God on behalf of the people. Here the mission is one more of comforting the afflicted in contrast to the prophetic motif of afflicting the comfortable. Peace, grace, compassion, mercy, reconciliation, and caring are the foci of institutional mission. Pastoral tones and perspectives shape the identity of the organization where care for the least, the left, and the lost dominates the nature and as a result the identity of the organization. As with the prophetic motif, the organization reflects the style, dispositions, and character of the leader usually with an emphasis on God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion.
The king motif distinguishes itself from prophet and priest primarily in its approach to getting God’s work done. While prophets cajole and reveal, and priests comfort and revive, Kings tend to create structures and issue the commands necessary for the implementation of the vision. In this motif, measurable evidences of success drive the leader. Growth and expansion are highly valued rubrics for determining God’s blessing. Loyalty to the leader and the mission are expected – there is little tolerance for those who do not embrace the mission as identified and projected by the leader. In these organizational cultures, followers implement mission as directed by the leader and are rewarded for their effectiveness in fulfilling the CEO’s expectations. This is a top-down culture very dependent upon the leader for mission interpretation and communication.
As we move to the apostolic motif of leadership, there is a decided shift from the earlier models where the focus primarily is on the leader to create identity and determine mission to a cooperative, collaborative, and facilitating leadership disposition. Prophets cajole, priests comfort, and kings command, but apostles coordinate and facilitate, as well as course-correct and nurture the vision and mission at the heart of institutional identity. The first three motifs operate in an independent fashion assuming the final authority for decisions and direction. Even if they have Boards, these function more as ratifying and advisory councils rather than as governing accountability-based entities.
While elements of the prophet, priest, and king can be present in the apostle’s calling, much of the functions are building, as Paul described the mission of the Church, into the body of Christ with each part functioning in mutual support and submission under the headship of Jesus as its Lord I Corinthians 12. Mission and identity emerge out of the collected and cooperative collaboration of those called to serve the vision of the organization. The leader facilitates the crafting of the organization’s identity rather than creating or primarily controlling it. And in this motif the leader has a clear sense of responsibility to some governing and guiding force such as a Board. Paul, for example, submitted his teachings and plans to the Jerusalem Council for advice, validation and direction.
In my service at Asbury Seminary, and later Asbury University, I became aware of the quilting bees so characteristic of the creative work of Appalachian women. Each would come with the knowledge that the goal was to make a quilt. Together they discussed and decided on the overall design – double wedding rings, pomegranate, double propellers, and several other historic patterns were among the many options. Each quilter brought what scraps of fabric they could afford or had available. And under the coordinating eye of the queen of the quilting bee, they decided together where their scraps best fit. Each woman’s contributions of fabric, as well as skill sets, were valued and then employed to create a whole that was always greater than the sum of its parts. While usually there is a recognizable pattern, depending on design choice, each quilt is distinct due to the fabric contributed and stitching techniques of its individual participants.
In a similar fashion, the apostolic approach to leadership involves and invites the key stakeholders into the process of identity formulation. While the leader remains the primary catalyst for developing, communicating, and resourcing the vision, those who implement and support it are elevated to a higher level of involvement and responsibility. In this motif, followers are co-creators with leadership rather than just tools of leadership. Given the increasing rate of turnover in senior leadership positions, institutional memory and stability are enhanced by spreading the responsibilities of organizational culture and identity to those who carry the day-to-day workload of the mission. Leaders then serve as quilting bee conveners encouraging and making room for the specifics of the vision to be revealed through the contributions of those God calls to serve.
Paul, as you might expect, is the New Testament example for the apostolic motif. However, he was an interesting blend of all four motifs as he addressed the various start-up and course corrections needs of his churches. Nehemiah is an Old Testament illustration of the apostolic motif working to serve under authority while involving and facilitating participation across the various categories of key stakeholders needed to achieve the objective of rebuilding the walls. I find Cyril Barber’s Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership (Loizeaux Brothers 1999) a very insightful study of leadership that reflects much of what this particular motif brings to organizational mission and identity.
Paul, in Philippians 2 provides an excellent insight into the Jesus model of leadership that I continue to explore in my own search for effectiveness. He suggests that the ultimate characteristic of Christ-like leadership adapts the chosen or preferred leadership style to the needs of the led rather than to the needs or preferences of the leader. While it should be obvious that my predisposition is toward the apostolic motif, there are times and circumstances when what is needed for the good of the mission is one of the other leadership styles. The needs of the led dictate the style of leadership chosen. Any of the four motifs can be appropriate and effective when driven by this simple but profound insight. With such a servant leadership priority, each of the four styles has the potential to sharpen mission and project an identity that is consistent with our understandings of the Jesus model of leadership we long to appropriate.