A theological approach to pastoral leadership today

Many myths exist in Christianity today focusing on what qualities pastors with good leadership skills possess. Find out what true pastoral leadership consists of from a theological perspective.

Jon Coutts, at the time of this writing, was pursuing an MA in Theology, Briercrest Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Recent decades have brought a flood of church leadership books to pastors’ shelves that have carried an important dialogue with the corporate world and brought more focused intentionality and organization to Christian ministry. Great strides have been made in this regard and in making church accessible to seekers. However, in the midst of all of this dialogue, some underlying assumptions have leaked from commerce into the church, which threaten to guide the church astray and blur the priorities of pastoral leadership. In this culture, built upon the gospel of self-fulfillment and the latent ideals of consumerism, the tendency is to define churches and pastors by the standards of the business world. Among other things, servant leadership has been confused with customer service, “shepherding the flock” has melded with corporate strategizing, stewardship of spiritual gifts has been turned into a pursuit of self-fulfillment, and preaching has become motivational speech.

As biblical as the mission statements of churches may be, the unspoken purpose that often drives their formation is the achievement of numerical growth and corporate impressiveness.1Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon describe where this leads:

The problem is compounded because our church lives in a buyer’s market. The customer is king. . . . Pastors with half a notion of the gospel who get caught up in this web of buying and selling in a self-fulfillment economy one day wake up and hate themselves for it. We will lose some of our (potentially) best pastors to an early grave of cynicism and self-hate.

What a pastor needs is a means of keeping at it, a perspective that enables the pastor to understand his or her ministry as nothing less than participation in the story of God.2

Recent leadership trends have brought good to the church, but they need to be reevaluated under a holistic biblical model so that the driving purposes are Christ’s.

Leadership styles in biblical literature

Much has been made of the leadership styles and principles of such biblical heroes as Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus. Moses was wise to listen to Jethro’s counsel to delegate tasks to the reliable and empower his assistants (Exod. 18:24). David was courageous in the face of overwhelming obstacles (1 Sam. 17) and inspired others to follow him (2 Sam. 23). Paul directed all his ambition and ability to the mission (Acts 20:34, 35) and was conversant in every culture (Acts 17; 18). Jesus carefully trained a team of successors (Matt. 10; Luke 10), was apparently quite amiable at parties (Matt. 11:19), and was apt to attract a crowd (Luke 9:10–12). For all that can be learned from these insights, the trouble remains that even if the principles gleaned are sound and biblical, “all too often . . . one or another aspect of a more complex parameter is singled out as if it comprises all that is important.”3 In Western society, this generally means narrowing in on whatever best fits our bent towards consumerism, individualism, and capitalism. Churches comfortably rutted in worldly standards of success gravitate to those biblical principles that promote measurable effectiveness.

In popular literature about biblical leaders, not much is said about Peter, who seemed to want to stunt the growth of the church by coming down harshly on Ananias and Sapphira for a little white lie (Acts 5:1–11), and refused to sell out to Simon Magus despite the flare he might have brought to the cause (Acts 8:18–23); or Ezra, who refused to take advantage of “state protection” and led God’s people on the robber’s route with nothing but “traveling mercies” and pockets full of gold (Ezra 7; 8); or Joshua, whose leadership against Jericho by today’s terms seems at best eccentric and at worst insane (Josh. 6); or Daniel, a wise and diplomatic manager, who adapted to the foreign culture but suicidally refused to pray with the windows closed (Dan. 6).

Or consider Moses. Despite the great managerial lessons gleaned from Moses and Jethro, how often do leadership books talk about the sin that kept Moses out of the Promised Land? He assumed that God would have him bring water from a rock the same way as before and took it upon himself to repeat the previous practice. He took the miracle into his own hands, misled the people of God, and for all his previous obedience, permanently tainted his résumé (Num. 20:1–13). And how many leadership manuals caution against the sin of David? Plenty may speak of his moral failure with Bathsheba, but what about the census? It seems petty to our number-crunching minds, but when David took a head count for his own self-assurance, God sent a plague upon the people and showed him who controlled the numbers (1 Chron. 21). The list could go on. For all the leadership principles that can be gleaned from these biblical models (don’t forget Gideon and Samson), the point does not center around the reproducible strategies but the vital lesson that the best leader follows God every step of the way, taking nothing for granted, and relentlessly resisting self-reliance.

Before anointing David king, Samuel told Saul: “ ‘The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command’ ” (1 Sam. 13:14, NIV). While this may speak to some degree of the quality of David’s heart, more likely it refers to his heart’s direction. How a leader serves is important, but more important is whom they serve. In Paul’s pastoral guide to Timothy, when he tells him to do his best as a worker, God’s approval must be sought and the living, active Word that guides (2 Tim. 2:15; cf. Heb. 4:12). A great difference exists between falling back on proven principles and relentlessly seeking the guidance of God. Built into every biblical mandate is the call to submit to God, to listen for His prompting through Word and Spirit, and to obey accordingly. There are no shortcuts. The most purpose-driven job description cannot replace the necessity for pastors to let God lead and be the first in line to follow.

Followership: A forgotten paradigm for leadership

Andrew LePau lists followership among the most important biblical motifs for Christian leaders. He says that “we had better be about the business of learning how to follow as much as of learning how to lead.”4Leadership is not something separate from spirituality, as if one can get the spiritual batteries charged, go about pastoring, and then come back to the recharger every once in a while for a pick me up. Pastoral leadership is “participation in God’s work of transforming the community of faith until it is ‘blameless’ at the coming of Christ” and a perpetually “unfinished business.”5

 Andrew Purves observes, “Shepherding has been developed as an imitative rather than as a participatory approach to ministry. . . . The effect is to cast the pastor back upon his or her own resources. . . .

“[Leading to Jesus’] replacement by an ethical Christ-principle separated from him.”6 For all the good that there is in casting vision and planning intentionally, the pastoral leader does well to think of the church as taking part in an ongoing story of redemption and Christian communion rather than just a plan to be effected. Having said this, there are goals to be set and projects to be completed within the church. But there are motivations here other than the bottom line.

Perhaps, if Christian leaders are going to look to the world for leadership insights, they might consider taking a few leads from the storytellers rather than the moneymakers. Consider the insights of a longtime film director:

We’re not out for consensus here. We’re out for communication. And sometimes we get consensus. And that’s thrilling. . . . I’m in charge of a community that I need desperately and that needs me just as badly. That’s where the joy lies, in the shared experience. Anyone in that community can help me or hurt me. or this reason, it’s vital to have . . .people who can challenge you to work at your best, not in hostility but in a search for the truth. Sure, I can pull rank if a disagreement becomes unresolvable, but that’s only a last resort. It’s also a great relief. But the joy is in the give-and-take.7

Better yet, the letters of Paul (2 Cor.) describe ministry as a plainspoken and persuasive attempt to include others in the new creation: “And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:19, 20, NIV). Hauerwas and Willimon paint a stark image of the issue: “Atheism slips into the church where God really does not matter, as we go about building bigger and better congregations (church administration), confirming people’s self-esteem (worship), enabling people to adjust to their anxieties brought on by their materialism (pastoral care), and making Christ a worthy subject for poetic reflection (preaching). At every turn the church must ask itself, Does it really make any difference, in our life together, in what we do, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to himself?”8

What difference does it make?

Consider the direction offered by two of the best books, in my opinion, on pastoral ministry that have emerged from the wave of leadership books. Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadershipcan be described as one of the briefest but most poignant treatments of pastoral leadership that can be found. In it Nouwen pierces to the heart of ministry by looking at Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter and observing that God wants leaders who know, confess, and sacrificially follow Christ.9Then by reflecting on Satan’s attack on Jesus in the desert, Nouwen notes that Jesus resisted the temptations first to be relevant (turn stones into bread), then to grasp power (I will give you all the kingdoms), and finally to show off (jump from the temple).10

Based on these insightful texts, Nouwen challenges leaders to consider when their calling might be to irrelevance rather than meeting felt needs. He warns pastors to beware of shortcuts and apparent successes to undermine the very purpose of the church, and to remember that “the way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”11 Expressing the “impression that priests and ministers are the least-confessing people in the Christian community,”12Nouwen concludes that confession and forgiveness in a reconciling Christian ethos may be the best way “by which spiritualization and carnality can be avoided and true incarnation lived.”13

Where Nouwen offers a wake-up call to get pastoral priorities straight, Eugene Peterson gives a practical description of the essential motions of pastoral leadership. In his excellent book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, he says,“Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else. The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. . . . Since almost never does anyone notice whether we do these things or not, . . . these three acts of ministry suffer widespread neglect.”14 The point is not that these are the ways to get fueled up to go and employ whatever ministry strategies might seem most fitting, but that these are the ministry strategies. Preaching is where the community together hears and learns to read Scripture and is in turn read by it. Liturgy is the community’s address to God in prayer. Activities from small groups to outreach are the church’s enactment of and engagement in spiritual direction with those willing to dialogue. Through “attentiveness to God in prayer,”15 theological reflection on Scripture (through Word and sacrament, at the pulpit and in the living room), and authentic spiritual direction (including confession and forgiveness), the pastor helps the priesthood of believers engage with the Holy Spirit and grow in Christ together.

For all the marketing insights, growth strategies, vision statements, and other bells and whistles a pastor can use to increase a church’s corporate effectiveness, the actual purpose of ministry is screaming to be remembered again. The pastor is there to lead the church to the throne of grace, pointing the community to participate with Christ in communion with the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s “successful” churches and pastors will only truly be so if this is their focal point.


1 Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 163. While it is right to long for a return to the vitality of the church of the book of Acts and to
see God add to our number daily (Acts 2:47), it is unlikely that Luke intended numerical growth to be the standard of measuring faithfulness and determining proper pastoral practice (note tensions between Acts 5:13, 14).

2 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 142.

3 David W. Bennett, Metaphors of Ministry: Biblical Images for Leaders and Followers (Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker Book House, 1993), 192.

4 Andrew LePau quoted in Dwayne Uglem, “Biblical Motifs: Building a Model for Contemporary Leadership” (MA thesis, Briercrest Bible College, 1988), 80.

5 James W. Thompson, Pastoral Ministry According to Paul: A Biblical Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 150. “One major difference between the church and other . . . organizations
hinges on Christianity’s eschatological perspective. . . . Business organizations . . . wish to accomplish objectives that are visible within this temporal sphere, often those that fit within a five-year plan, a fiscal year, or a three-week sales blitz. . . . Christian congregations also try to get things done, organize themselves decently, and achieve objectives, but the Christian community has a larger historical perspective on all of these activities—larger in fact than this fiscal year, this political regime, or even this civilization. Universal history, amazingly, is the horizon of Christianity’s perspective.” Oden, Pastoral Theology, 162.

6 Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), xxx.

7 Sidney Lumet, Making Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 16, 17.

8 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 94, 95.

9 Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 24, 45, 61.

10 Ibid., 17–35.

11 Ibid., 62.

12 Ibid., 46.

13 Ibid., 49.

14 Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 3.

15 Ibid., 16.


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Jon Coutts, at the time of this writing, was pursuing an MA in Theology, Briercrest Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada.

November 2008

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