The way of a Christian leader

Learn about various aspects of leadership in light of Jesus’ downward mobility.

Larry Yeagley is a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

Pastors need effective leadership skills. Achieving them is a lifelong process. A seminary class is only a starter. Every situation provides a fresh challenge that may bring an updated model. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote, “A whole new type of leadership is asked for in the Church of tomorrow, a leadership that is not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader, Jesus, who came to give His life for the salvation of many. . . . The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”1 In this article we will look at various aspects of leadership in light of Jesus’ downward mobility.

Helping others succeed

Jesus spent long days demonstrating kingdom life for His disciples. At times they would have used the power games of the world, but Jesus patiently insisted on the way of love. He taught them, “ ‘Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven’ ” (Matt. 5:16, NASB).

Matthew 10 is what I call Jesus’ manual for leadership. He taught it to the disciples, and then sent them out two by two to apply the manual. He was laying the groundwork for their success. Experienced pastors, blessed with the responsibility of mentoring young pastors, aim to help them succeed. This requires time, teaching, trusting, sending, correcting, and affirming.

Thoughtful and Compassionate

One way to help others succeed is to be thoughtful and compassionate. I was in the middle of a baseball game at a summer camp I was working at all sum- mer. The church conference president drove for almost an hour to give me the bad news, personally. My wife was in the hospital due to a miscarriage. He put his arm around me and said, “I want you to go home and spend a good two weeks caring for your wife. And don’t count it against your vacation.”

The same leader slipped into a back pew during my fi st lame attempt at public evangelism. At the close of my presentation, I invited the audience to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. He could tell that I was uncomfortable with altar calls. He met me at the door and said, “Your talk was well done. Just remember, the best decisions for the Lord are made in the homes, not in the church.” His compassion has lingered in my mind for decades. I envy that kind of leadership.

Trying new ways

Jesus frequently found Himself coloring outside the traditional lines of Judaism. People were excited at His fresh approach to kingdom-life teaching. He used a different way of teaching for people of different backgrounds.

My pastor told me he had a pile of manuals on how to do evangelism. He rejected all of them because he likes to use his creativity and lead people to Jesus in his own way. I commended him for coloring outside the lines.

A young adult noticed in her church that traditional methods of evangelism had been tried many times with no results. She and a dozen young adults decided to try something new. They painted the city food bank inside and outside. They volunteered to serve cli- ents and donated food. They took roses to shopkeepers and lonely-looking people waiting for a ride at the grocery store. A blind man who was produce shopping received a rose. A customer who watched him receive the rose said, “Where is your church? That’s the kind of church I’d like to attend.” One member was so excited about going to her area that she exceeded the speed limit. The police stopped her. She apologized and gave the officer a rose with a smile. He declared he had never been given a rose. He gave her a friendly warning. She knew he had never heard of the Seventh-day Adventist Church until that day.

Effective leaders refuse to generate top-down programs. They encourage planning at the grassroots, like that of this young-adult group.

There is a price to pay for leader- ship that colors outside the lines. Charges of disloyalty, rebellion, and pride may be leveled at this type of leadership. Effective leadership avoids these accusations by willingly giving a thorough explanation of different methods before implementing them.

Out of the Ivory Towers

 I asked the social secretary to a famous physician why his world-famous hospital failed. She immediately said, “The ivory tower.” The doctor thought his methods were the only way. Young doctors were not given privileges, so they organized their own hospital for the community.

The chief executive officer of another hospital, swimming in debt, was wise. He formed an administrative committee. Together they created a plan to reduce the debt. He spent time in every department gleaning ideas on cost saving. His off e was always open to any employee. His openness gained confidence and cooperation. In two years the hospital was out of debt.

A few years later that hospital was taken over by a corporation. The leaders gave orders. Advisory committees were disbanded. Confidence  dwindled. The hospital was purchased by another corporation. The ivory tower concept of leadership failed.

Effective leaders never insist that their way is the only way. They take many people into their counsel and are ready to change their minds and accept a better idea.

Names and behind the names

George Pocock practiced a good leadership skill. Pocock built the shell and trained nine young oarsmen who won Olympic gold in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He learned much about the hearts and souls of the young men. He saw hope where a boy thought there was no hope, and skill where skill was obscured by ego or anxiety. He observed the fragility of confidence and the redemptive power of trust. Pocock was a real leader.3

A previous boss of mine came up to me years after I had worked for him. He knelt by my side and said, “Larry, I have been following your work over the years. I want you to know that I’m proud of you.” Be the leader who knows people’s names and looks behind the name.

Dirty Hands

Setting up and tearing down camp meeting tents was diff for ministers who were not accustomed to heavy work. We hauled heavy wooden platforms for each family tent, then grunted and groaned as we lifted the tents in place. Through my sweat-filled eyes I saw the president of my church conference tugging at the opposite side of the tent. I appreciated seeing the leader working with his employees; it was more important than just giving orders. Getting one’s hands dirty is a quality of leadership to be cherished.

On a television program called Undercover Boss, the owner of a large company disguises his or her identity and works in several positions within the company. The people that the owner worked with thought he or she was trying out for a job. The owner working beside a person struggling to make a living often led to higher wages and better working conditions. Walking in the shoes of an employee was a real eye-opener.

Keep Learning

A degree in leadership earned in the twentieth century may not equip you to be a leader in the twenty-first. Hudson T. Armerding wrote, “Merely living longer does not necessarily qualify an individual for leadership. . . . The effective leader is continually seeking to learn from his experiences and become even more proficient in his work.4 Leith Anderson says a leader must maintain a “learning curve.”5

A Methodist pastor in Texas believed that a leader of ministers should go back to pastor a church every four or five years. Nothing like learning through doing, he insisted.

A church administrator was frightened at how out of touch he was becoming. Months later he resigned his leadership position and became the pastor of a big-city church. Be willing to continually learn and be led by the Holy Spirit to where God wants you to serve Him.

Asking why

A leader who never asks questions does not deserve to be a leader. Why am I doing this? Is this the best way to do it? Does what I am doing make a difference? Is what I do a result of my own study, or is it merely following orders from management? Am I enthusiastic about what I am doing? Am I willing tobeevaluated by others?

Failure to ask questions can lead to ineff y, blind loyalty to time- worn traditions, and waste.

Young adults in today’s church are asking important questions. Church leaders need not fear their questions. They are nothing more than doors to a growing church in a changing world.


Pastors who want a leader who tells them what to do and how to do it are depriving themselves of the excitement of creativity and innovation. Leaders who bow to such pressure are settling for mediocrity. The bright young adults in the church become enthusiastic about change, but not change for the sake of change. They live in a world where every phase of life is on the move. Some of them work for companies that invite their opinions and ideas. This creates a loyalty and enthusiasm for the company. They desire that same openness for their church, but some leaders in the church do not share their hopes.

There appears to be a fresh interest in improving leadership in the church. There are writers within the church who are expressing the need for downward mobility in leadership style, a style that promises to renew interest and engagement among the young.

Nouwen spoke about a new type of leadership in the church of tomorrow. We need it in the church of today.


1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: Crossroads, 1989), 45, 62.

2 Emphasis from the author.

3 Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the1936 Berlin Olympics(New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 48.

4 Hudson T. Armerding, Leadership (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1981), 39, 154.

5 Leith Anderson, Leadership That Works: Hope and Direction for Church and Parachurch Leaders in Today’s Complex World (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Press, 1999).

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Larry Yeagley is a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

May 2015

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