Spirit-driven leadership: A perspective from Ellen G. White
In today's milieu of change and challenge, stress and struggle, growth and empowerment, one quality that every organization seeks is leadership—dynamic, motivated, goal-oriented leadership. Books and journal articles abound in the meaning and style of leadership necessary to succeed in today’s world and to contribute to the advancement of the organization in which one is engaged.
The issue of leadership is not limited to the world of politics, business, industry, and economy. The Christian church, with its worldwide mission and responsibility to develop men and women of character and endurance, also searches for leaders with vision and commitment. How are such leaders made? What characteristics mark the mission-driven Christian leader? What defines Spirit-driven leadership?
Christian literature provides various valuable answers. In this article, however, I want to share a broad conceptual framework for Christian leadership that emerges from the writings of Ellen G. White. I believe that these concepts from Ellen G. White will provide valuable assistance to ministers.
To begin with, let us note two core principles of leadership found in the writings of Ellen G. White. At the very base of Spirit-driven leadership, so essential for the mission of anyone connected with the church, is the Spirit itself. According to White, true leaders must be the recipients of the Holy Spirit and continually respond to the grace of God in their lives. The human heart would never know happiness or real meaning until “it is submitted to be molded by the Spirit of God.”1
Ellen White does not see leadership as some mystical mantle placed on a person, anointing that individual with superiority, authority, or infallibility. In contrast, she presents Jesus as the Model: “The way to become great and noble is to be like Jesus, pure, holy, and undefiled.”2 The leader’s greatest need is a personal knowledge of God, and a willingness to be led by His Spirit.
Secondly, Ellen White’s leadership concepts were not limited or narrow. Her perspective was so broad as to include a plethora of both management and leadership related topics, including knowing God, biblical models of exemplary and non-exemplary leadership, the empowerment of a gender-inclusive, age-inclusive, and race-inclusive church for evangelism and service, leadership qualifications, how to respond to the erring, and proactive visioning and planning.
What is leadership?
Even though Ellen White did not specifically define leadership, she sprinkled many cardinal points throughout her writings. Her leadership counsel remains always in the context of her unique theological structure of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. Thus, she perceives leadership as an opportunity extended by God to all persons to use their influence to promote Christ and the kingdom of heaven. A Christian leader, therefore, is one who, by life and example, advances Christ’s mission on earth, both in the proclamation of His saving grace to sinners and in heralding His coming kingdom. Accepting a position of leadership within a Christian context, thus becomes an enormous responsibility: to place oneself on the side of Christ continually and stand in opposition to the inducements of Satan, which come with tempting conventional trappings of leadership such as power, authority, wealth, and position.
Though most persons usually link leadership with administration, Ellen White’s concept of leadership goes beyond. According to her, every Christian is called to represent Christ, and be an ambassador for God and His kingdom. Leaders are, therefore, undershepherds, who unite with Christ in His redemptive mission.3 Surely that includes all of us, regardless of our spiritual gifts.
Ellen White draws powerful lessons in leadership from her review of various Bible characters. For example, in Exodus 18, we have the story of Jethro and his son-in-law Moses. Moses was single-handedly dealing with all the problems that were confronting Israel. Jethro saw in Moses’ style of leadership a sure way for burn-out, so he counseled him to share some of the responsibilities with other trusted deputies. But Moses should continue to ‘represent the people before God, and . . . teach them the statutes and instructions‘ (Exod. 18:19, 20, NRSV). In commenting on this, Ellen White affirms an important principle of leadership: “The time and strength of those who in the providence of God have been placed in leading positions of responsibility in the church, should be spent in dealing with the weightier matters demanding special wisdom and largeness of heart. It is not in the order of God that such men should be appealed to for the adjustment of minor matters that others are well qualified to handle.”4
To Ellen White, a true leader is someone who represents God, His character, and His purpose to those whom they are called to lead. That comprises the primary job description of a leader; other minor routine matters need not occupy a leader, but they can be cared for by others under the watchful care and guidance of the leader. She affirms the same principle when she comments on David’s charge to Solomon when he passed on the torch of leading Israel.5
Representing God’s will and purpose before His people must not be taken to mean that a leader should “play God.” Far from it. In the counsels of Ellen White, a dictatorial leader does not have a place at all. Her instructions for effective leadership are relational in nature. Spirit-filled leaders will cultivate a relationship with their followers based on shared vision, values, purpose, and characterized by positive conflict, managed transitions, and sustainable change.6
Ellen White’s leadership principles focus on the objective of leadership: to reflect Christ and thus be more effective in saving souls. The success of a person called to leadership results in direct proportion to the leader’s willingness to be filled with the Holy Spirit. In that renewed life, every person, regardless of occupation, should use their influence to draw others toward Christ and His offer of redemption.7
A leader, through Ellen White’s lenses, acts only as an instrument to achieve the goal of mobilizing the body of Christ to action, of providing momentum. Thus the leader is no more or no less important than the follower. Ellen White saw no hierarchal status or privilege of position attached to leadership. She was highly supportive of education and developing one’s talents to their capacity. Nevertheless, in her expanded definition of leadership, it is Christ, not formal institutions of learning, that qualifies the leader for God’s purpose. “In choosing men and women for His service, God does not ask whether they possess worldly wealth, learning, or eloquence. He asks, ‘Do they walk in such humility that I can teach them My way? Can I put My words into their lips? Will they represent Me?’ “8
Ellen White, as we have already noted, roots her leadership concept in faithfulness to God, and as such her principles of leadership will not be outdated. The call to root one’s leadership activity and style in the call of God and faithfulness to Scripture gives to us a universal model of leadership. Hence, a careful study of her writings will lead us to understand leadership in terms that are gender-inclusive, age-inclusive, and race-inclusive. Such a leadership will produce a church, fully equipped to preach the everlasting gospel, meant for every corner of the globe, as represented by the three angels of Revelation 14. Further, her call for an inclusive and universal leadership model will empower women, youth, and minorities in a unique way: something one cannot easily see in today’s leadership literature.
Qualifications for leadership
Of the many qualities that Ellen White emphasizes as essential in Christian leadership, we must pay careful and prayerful attention to the following:
1. A Spirit-filled life. In White’s perspective, the most important qualification for a leader comprises the calling and empowerment of the Spirit. This anointing comes in response to the leader’s willingness to seek, in humility, for the Spirit’s renewal and guidance and to respond to His promptings with selfless obedience and service. The Spirit-led leader will then build an inclusive team and will not be eager for power, status, or recognition.9 Ellen White encourages Spirit-led leaders to build a relationship with their followers based on shared purpose, values, and vision, and to encourage dialogue and dissent as authentic steps to sustainable change. She sees Jesus as the great Model for Spirit-led leadership.10
2. Study of Scripture. Leaders, in Ellen White’s view, must prioritize time for careful, continual, and deep study of the Scriptures, both to seek a deeper relationship and commitment to God and to find truth and wisdom. An expanding understanding of Scripture, accompanied with dynamic discussion of new truth, will equip leadership for the challenges of providing leadership in the advancement of truth.11 When real spiritual life declines, leaders become rigid and avoid discussion of fresh scriptural insights.12
3. Prayerful life. Leaders of integrity must schedule time daily for communion with God. For Ellen White, the purpose of redemption includes the restoration in humanity of the image of God. This divine miracle of heaven’s infilling can only occur in the leader whose dependence on God is total. The higher the administrative position, the greater the need of dependence on God.13 She wrote that too much “busyness” dries up the character and leaves the soul Christless. A living connection with God, not position, is essential to sound decision making and development of character.14
Leaders who do not pray continually for divine wisdom will develop a distorted worldview and will forfeit God’s blessing, resulting in personal failure. Power and strength for service come through prayer, as Christ demonstrated by example. Leaders should pray on behalf of those they influence. In times of crisis or emergency, God waits for leaders to pray in order that He can intervene. Leaders should also pray to discern good from evil and should do more than perfunctory praying in committee meetings, councils, and workers’ meetings. Leaders should pray for unity, divine leadership, and Spirit-wisdom.15 For particularly complex issues, White recommends fasting and prayer.16
4. Servant leadership.Though Ellen White did not coin the term servant leader, she does write at length on the concept of servant leadership. She sees Jesus as the primary servant-leader Model. Servant leaders combine God’s strength and wisdom with humble diligence. Though she encourages leaders to be productive, making the most of present opportunities, she strongly decries pushing for status or a higher position.17 According to Ellen White, a servant leader loves people and works sacrificially and compassionately to save them for the kingdom of God. She believes that a leader’s spiritual character develops and strengthens as they actively work to aid the poor and marginalized.18
5. Shared leadership. Ellen White gives considerable counsel to leaders who abuse authority. In her view, no one should see themselves as infallible, of supreme authority, or use any dictatorial or arbitrary methods of command. She vehemently opposes centralization of power and control while at the same time warns against congregationalism. She was particularly strong in her indictment of any kind of dishonest practice, exploitation, or injustice. Even committee members should be intentionally chosen to represent diversity of thought but not because they necessarily concur with the leader’s views.19 Leaders who do not treat each person with respect and dignity are abusing their authority.20
Comparing the leadership styles of Moses and Aaron, Ellen White illustrates the positive and beneficial use of authority versus a weak, vacillating, and popularity-seeking type of authority. Though she completely rejects a domineering, autocratic leadership style, she maintains that in times of crises a leader must demonstrate firmness, decision, and unflinching courage. The difference may be found in the leader’s motivation; a domineering leader may be eager for power and control whereas a decisive leader may be most eager to promote the honor of God.21
6. Inclusive and empowering leadership. Ellen White is a strong proponent of the inclusive empowerment of people for evangelism and service. For her, the people of God represent a melded humanity, where prejudice should not exist. The Holy Spirit should be allowed to anoint whom He will, and no hand should be stayed that could be engaged in ministry.22
7. Ability to connect. One of the most essential attributes of strong, godly leadership consists of the cultivated ability to connect with others. White speaks often of the need for patient mentors who will take youth and others with less experience under their wing, carefully encourage and motivate them, and provide opportunities to grow through success and failure. She even calls it a duty for leaders to recognize and develop potential in others.23
8. A sympathetic leadership. Leaders must deal with the erring with Christlike sympathy, offering hope and redemption even in failures. Though Ellen White acknowledges that reproof and protest are sometimes needed, discipline and correction must never be given harshly but always in the Spirit of Christ’s long-suffering love. She advocates tenacious, patient, even tender interaction with those who make mistakes, use bad judgment, or undergo other personal failures. Leaders who possess Christlike love promote justice, correct sin, and combat error while maintaining care and compassion.24
9. A visioning leadership. In Ellen White’s view, proactive visioning and planning must be Spirit led. Decisions should not be made until the leader’s team engages in prayer, and sometimes fasting, to ensure they are at one with God’s will. Ellen White is a strong proponent of expansive visioning, far-seeing thought, and well-considered risk taking. In this context of visioning, she again urges leaders to sometimes delegate planning and future development to those with less experience in order to provide them with important opportunities to enlarge their leadership potential. Additionally, she recognizes that each geographical location has its own challenges, and micromanaged visioning should not be done from a distance.
10. A caring leadership. No other area draws Ellen White’s concern in leadership as much as in caring for the poor, needy, and marginalized. In the midst of unparalleled prosperity of our nations, neglect of the needy corresponds to spiritual poverty. The perpetual search for meaning in the workplace might find resolution in the minds of those who applied Ellen White’s counsel about serving the poor to their personal prioritizing.25
All leaders, even great leaders, find themselves in complex circumstances where their leadership becomes challenged or their options seem perilously restricted. In an era of unprecedented information dissemination, communication speed, terrorism, AIDS, globalization, financial meltdowns, and family disintegration, our world may seem quite different from Ellen White’s world. Yet, perhaps it is because of the accelerating changes in our world that her counsel to cultivate a calm trust in God in the face of life’s stressors26 seems surprisingly fresh and relevant.
But cultivating a calm trust in God should be accompanied by transferring His blessings to those around us. That is the function of every leader in the church—and that includes all of us.
Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.comments powered by Disqus
1. Ellen G. White, God’s Amazing Grace (Washington, DC:
Review and Herald Pub. Assoc., 1973), 196.
2. White, Letter 7 to J. H. Kellogg, April 26, 1886.
3. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review
and Herald, 1941), 192.
4. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c
Press Pub. Assoc., 1911), 93.
5. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c
Press, 1917), 27.
6. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacifi c Press,
7. Ibid., 8:236.
8. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c
Press, 1942), 37.
9. White, Last Day Events (Nampa, ID: Pacifi c Press, 1992),
10. White, Testimonies for the Church, 8:238.
11. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 127.
12. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and
Herald, 1915), 297, 298.
13. White, Prophets and Kings, 30.
14. White, Testimonies for the Church, 8:238.
15. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers
(Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c Press, 1944), 279.
16. White, Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and
Divorce (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1989),
17. White, Prophets and Kings, 30, 31.
18. White, Testimonies for the Church, 2:25.
19. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, CA:
Pacifi c Press, 1943), 321.
20. White, Lift Him Up (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald
Pub. Assoc., 1988), 225.
21. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c
Press, 1958), 323.
22. White, “The Duty of the Minister and the People,” Advent
Review and Sabbath Herald, July 9, 1895.
23. White, Christian Leadership (Washington, DC: Ellen G.
White Estate, 1985), 55, 56.
24. White, Gospel Workers, 30, 31.
25. Cindy Tutsch, Ellen White on Leadership: Guidance for
Those Who Influence Others (Nampa, ID: Pacifi c Press,
26. White, The Upward Look (Washington, DC: Review and
Herald Pub. Assoc., 1982), 55.