Spiritual leadership or baptized secularism?

Principles for leading churches from a spiritual base.

Rex D. Edwards, D.Min. is an associate vice president and director of religious studies, Griggs University, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The task of a leader," said Henry Kissinger, "is to get his people from where they are to where they I have not been." Could this happen in the spiritual organism of the local church, however, if a pastor's leader ship style reflects a secular model, even though his or her objectives are spiritual? Could this happen if a pastor treats people as things rather than as persons? Could it happen if the focus is on the growth of the organization rather than on the spiritual growth of persons? I don't think so.

Types of leadership

Church leaders have varying concepts of their status and authority. Many borrow their ideas of leadership from the military, from business, or from some former pastor who has become their ideal and example.

We are conscious of the vast differences existing among the people who guide our activities. Much depends on the pattern of leadership a leader follows. Even more depends upon the kind of person he or she is.

Shawchuck and Heuser argue that "if the leader is broken, duplicitous, angry, then the congregation will reflect these qualities. If the leader is collected, complete, at peace, then the congregation will (eventually) reflect these qualities." They also suggest that "our interior world creates our contextual reality."1 In this particular context, let's look at three well-known general patterns of leadership in the church: autocratic, laissez-faire, and democratic.

1. Autocratic leadership. James Lundy describes such a leader as one who "makes decisions on his or her own, directs others to implement them, criticizes quickly and perhaps harshly, and influences by intimidation."2 Such a leader takes few people into his confidence, and generally keeps authority and responsibility highly centralized in himself.

Frequently this type of leader confesses faith in democracy but insists that he or she is the democrat who will run it. Such a leader is willing to delegate responsibility, but refuses to share authority. Subordinates are given little or no part in formulating the policies which they are expected to carry out.

Weldon Crossland describes the autocratic leader as "a kind of one-man army of the Lord. He is commander in chief, master sergeant, corporal, and private. ... He is 'the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.'"3 Usually such a leader lacks faith in people and in himself. Leaders who feel insecure usually tend to be autocratic. They avoid sharing responsibility and developing others as leaders, fearing it might raise up rivals.

2. Laissez-faire leadership. Michael J. Anthony describes this type of leader as one who "likes to maintain the status quo and prefers not to make a scene about anything. It may not be the best way of doing something, but as long as it works, why try to change it? This person's motto is, 'If it isn't broken, don't fix it.' They prefer to work alone in their office, far removed from the action. . . . [They] are non-confrontive and 'go with the flow.' . . . These people are seen more as kindhearted chaplains than commanders of the troops."4

Ted W. Engstrom concludes that "this style is practically no leadership at all and allows everything to run its own course."5 Such a leader develops an immunity to most administrative of the organizational work of the church. He or she is likely to say this kind of thing: "I always leave everything to my lay men." That the work of his church suffers doesn't seem to trouble such a leader, nor does he or she sense that denying encouragement, experience, and inspiration to those who work with him is crippling to the congregation. Such a leader may be described as a democratic leader in neutral.

3. Democratic leadership. This leader sees herself as a guide and counselor. She helps the group define and achieve its (not her own) objectives, helps the group plan its program, and develop its method. She seeks to get her followers to work with her, not for her. She believes that democracy is dynamic, developmental, and creative, in that it calls for the participation of the many, and places great importance on people and how they fare.

"Democracy," says Ordway Tead, "has high in its constituent elements the aim of conserving and enhancing the personality of all individuals the idea of respect for the integrity of the person and of the primary value of developing persons as worthy and worthful ends in themselves. .. . This includes," says Tead, "the discovery and use of unique talents, the fullest possible expression of creative powers, the responsible assumption of a share in shaping the conditions which are found to make growth in the quality of personal living possible."6

T. V. Smith distinguishes between authoritarianism and democracy when he says that the autocratic leader is strong in proportion to the ignorance of his followers, whereas the democratic leader is strong in pro portion to the intelligence of the followers.7

We all have worked with church leaders, who, while giving lip service to the democratic process, deny it in practice. Such leaders frequently staff their team or elect subordinates who will "go along" with their ideas and programs. Dictators disguised as democrats believe that the end justifies the means. Such a leader "uses people and rides their aspirations to increase his authority. He often gets their consent for decisions, but this is done by manipulation, hiding the true facts, and through the means of control and threat."8

Thus, leadership style is a moral choice: A leader chooses whether to respect human personality (as Jesus respected it) or whether to treat per sons as things.

Leadership for a spiritual community

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a spiritual democracy; each member holds equal standing with every other member.

E. Y. Mullins argues, "Democracy in church government is an inevitable corollary of the general doctrine of the soul's competency in religion. Man's capacity for self-government in religion is nothing more than the authority of Christ exerted in and through the inner life of believers, with the understanding always, of course, that He regulates that inner life in accordance with His revealed Word.... The priesthood of all believers, again is but the expression of the soul's competency on the Godward, as democracy is its expression on the ecclesiastical side of its religious life."9

The members of New Testament churches were equal in rank and privilege. Those who led local "congregations" were ordained for service, not for rule; for leadership, not lordship. The leadership roles identified in Ephesians 4:11, 12 reveal a functional rather than positional basis. Distinctions dictated by the gifts of the Spirit highlight various spheres of service, not authoritarian position.

Christ's own teaching on the subject is unmistakable, "'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead,... whoever wants to be first must be your slave'" (Matt. 20:25-27, NIV). John R. W. Stott remarks, "Autocratic clericalism is destructive of the Church, defiant to the Holy Spirit and disobedient to Christ."10

What is required of spiritual leaders? Certainly those selected as spiritual leaders in biblical times did possess qualities similar to those who function in business and civic organizations. The distinct difference, then, was the presence and enabling power of the Holy Spirit, which is why secular leadership styles are inadequate models for the body of Christ.

When a leader is filled with the Holy Spirit he or she possesses character qualities that reflect this reality. Such leaders engender respect, care, and concern for others. Christian servants will demonstrate leadership in a flexible manner and according to the direction that God provides.

The objectives of leadership

Yale sociologist Vance Packard describes the objective of leadership as "the art of getting others to want to do something you are convinced should be done."11 If this is true, then a church leader needs to address the questions, "What am I trying to do in and through these people?" "How can I help them to develop their full potential?" "What am I trying to accomplish in and through this church?"

Andrew W. Blackwood lists eight of the major goals a pastor may reach for. These are: (1) "New Testament evangelism," (2) "Christian nurture," (3) "Household religion," (4) "Church friendliness," (5) "Community better ment," (6) "National missions," (7) "Universal brotherhood/' and (8) "World missions."12 If the church is deeply concerned with persons, could not all these goals be comprehended in one all-embracing objective of building Christian character?

A pastor's objectives ought to be set in the framework of persons who have been redeemed, reborn, and grouped together voluntarily in a "beloved community." An interest in persons should lead to an interest in the growth of persons.

The pastor's chief role is to facilitate the development of Christian character and in building a spiritual climate conducive to the growth of a true spiritual community. He is a leader motivated by love, with vision and compassion, who has faith in people and believes that people grow through voluntary cooperation not coercion.

One way people grow is by becoming involved in developing and maintaining the policies and programs of the church. Detailing for people what to do and how to do it stifles individual creativity and produces spiritual dependency. Like canaries, they become content in captivity and will always want to stay in the cage, even when the door is wide open.

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner argue: "Leaders build teams with spirit and cohesion, teams that feel like family. They actively involve others in planning and give them discretion to make their own decisions. Leaders make others feel like owners, not hired hands."13

Why are some pastors unable to share responsibilities with congregants? Is it a quest for power and popularity? Or is it the desire to be an executive who directs others and has them answer to his or her every beck and call? Is it vanity and self-glory?

Bert Haloviak, director of Archives and Statistics at the General Conference, reports that James White, a church leader of the "patriarchal pattern . . . cast in the heroic mold," apparently had difficulty delegating responsibility. A month after his death, his wife Ellen was on her knees "pleading with the Lord for light in regard to [her] duty." While praying she fell asleep and dreamed of riding in her horse-drawn carriage with her husband driving and seated next to her. Later she wrote out the conversation that took place between them in her dream, in which James confessed, "'I have made mistakes, the greatest of which was in allowing my sympathies for the people of God to lead me to take work upon me which others should have borne.'"14

Spiritual leadership involves viewing the church as a school, of which the pastor is the supervisor, with various correlated activities of worship, teaching, training, service, recruitment, care of membership, public relations, officer and teacher training, organization, and administration. The pastor is the dean and all the members are his colleagues in ministry.

The spiritual leader

Techniques of administration alone do not make a successful leader. What a leader is as a person is of greater importance than the leadership role assumed. A Christian leader is first of all a Christian. With a God directed life empowered by the Holy Spirit, a servant-leader lives what he or she professes.

In their most recent book, Kouzes and Posner identify "credibility" as the key. They advise, "Leaders will have to nurture their relationships with constituents. They will have to show people that they care, every day. They will have to take the time to act consciously and consistently. Their actions must speak louder than their words. Leadership, after all, exists only in the eyes of the constituents."15 The pastor is God's leader living out the life of Christ in the midst of the people. He or she is first and foremost a witness of God's grace, serving not to benefit him or herself but the congregation.

The leader must believe in himself before he can accept, believe in, and serve others. "The insecure and deprived personality has not the basic requisites for full and free belief in others and for identification with their problems and needs.' Psychologists have discovered again and again that people who are too 'wrapped up' in their own problems are simply incapable of being much concerned with the problems of others."16

The Christian leader would say to his people, "The love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake both died and was raised" (2 Cor. 5:14, 15, RSV).

The Christian leader will choose "service over self-interest"17and will follow the admonition of Peter to "tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2, 3, RSV).

1 Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser, Leading the Congregation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 111, 56.

2 James Lundy, Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way (San Diego: Pfeiffer and Co. 1993), 92.

3 Weldon Crossland, Better Leaden, For Your Church (New York: Abingdon Press, 1955), 14.

4 Michael J. Anthony, The Effective Church Board (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1993), 135.

5 Ted W. Engstrom, The Making of a Christian Leader (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 71.

6 Ordway Tead, Democratic Administration (New York: Association Press, 1945), 58, 59.

7 See T. V. Smith, The Democratic Way of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936), chapter 6.

8 Engstrom, op.cit., 174.

9 E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 66.

10 John R.W. Stott, One People (Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971), 33.

11 Vance Packard, The Pyramid Climbers (New York: McGraw Hill, 1962), 170.

12 Andrew W. Blackwood, Pastoral Leadership (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949), 16-19.

13 James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pub., 1987), 131.

14 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, 10:38-40 (September 12, 1881). Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland.

15 Kouzes and Posner, Credibility (San Francisco: Jossey- Bass Pub., 1993), 56.

16 Franklyn S. Haiman, Ph.D., Group Leadership and Democratic Action (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950), 115.

17 Peter Block, Stewardship (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993), 49.


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Rex D. Edwards, D.Min. is an associate vice president and director of religious studies, Griggs University, Silver Spring, Maryland.

September 2002

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