Writing from his experience as a leader and leadership developer for many years within InterVarsity, Jimmy Long passionately argues that existing and emerging Christian leaders need one another in order to guide the church through the present cultural chaos into an uncertain future. In his view serious differences in leadership style and savvy follow the modernist and postmodernist fault line. Fearing debilitating “leadership wars” in the church, similar to the worship wars, he urges both kinds of Christian leaders to collaborate, rather than contend.
Long places the burden for change squarely on the shoulders of the existing leaders. Their current leadership style characterized by the principles of control, command, and celebrity (145) must change. Rather, they must learn how to give away power, to lead through relationships, and to recognize the expertise, gifts and insights that emerging leaders possess. For their part emerging leaders need to exercise patience, value the experience that existing leaders possess, and choose to work collaboratively without a critical spirit.
He uses position and role as fundamental categories around which to arrange his argument. The essential leadership shifts he sees occurring are summarized on page 42. For example, existing leaders who operate on the basis of positional authority will have to alter their perspective, because for emerging leaders authority is something earned, independent of any position. Further the mantra that leaders cannot show weakness should be turned on its head because emerging leaders value authenticity and vulnerability, rather than a pretense of perfection. A leader’s role in the 21st century context will be to walk with the team on a journey of exploration, rather than to know both the goal and how to arrive at that destination.
Evangelical leaders must, in Long’s view, find forums within which to nurture significant conversation between existing and emerging leaders in order to avert “leadership wars” and potential destabilization of many churches and Christian agencies. Existing leaders who function using a hierarchical leadership model will frustrate and eventually lose gifted emerging leaders. Long urges existing leaders to adopt a team leadership approach that encourages shared responsibility, unleashes the creativity potential in emerging leaders, and permits the opportunity to take risks. Let’s admit, he says, that we do not know what church ministry is going to look like in the future and commit to learning together what it may become.
Long’s analysis of the difference between existing and emerging church leadership styles displays considerable reflection and expertise garnered from developing emerging leaders over many years. Different perspectives on leadership do exist and if we fail to recognize them and deal with them, our ability to lead will be compromised, the church will suffer, and emerging leaders will be stifled, if not discouraged from pursuing their ministry leadership. “Both existing and emerging leaders feel alone and uncertain of what the future holds. Both sets of leaders need each other to overcome their fears and ease their uncertainty about the future” (33). Existing leaders might feel somewhat stereotyped by Long’s descriptions, but his perspective still has value.
In responding to Long’s proposal I will consider two of Long’s presuppositions and two of his prescriptions. First the presuppositions.
- Long believes that Church leaders in the modernist period erred by borrowing too heavily from business models in order to define both the leadership position and role in the church. “Like the corporate world, the modern church has emphasized a corporate culture where the goals are clear, the mission is clear and there is not a lot of fluff….This type of leadership model from the Western corporate world tends to induce compliance from its members, not foster commitment or creativity” (50). This model of leadership no longer is aligned with postmodernist culture and its values, in Long’s view.
When he describes the leadership paradigm that should replace this “corporate” understanding of leadership, however, he defaults once more to the world of business to find solutions. Again and again he quotes from articles or studies about emerging leaders in the business world published in the Harvard Business Review or Business News or the Academy of Management Executive. I am not critical of him doing this because we have much to learn about leadership through such publications. It is ironic, however, that he seems to depend upon the corporate world as it now exists in postmodernism to define the emerging leader’s position and role, even in the church. There is no suspicion that such sources today may be just as tainted and misguided for defining emerging leadership positions and roles in the church as they were twenty years ago when the church was enamored with the corporate leader model.
In my view we must constantly be evaluating the degree to which the leadership perspectives, principles and practices occurring in the corporate world are helpful for determining church leadership praxis. Leadership is a cultural phenomenon and as culture changes so will our leadership perceptions and practices.
- Long’s second presupposition is that we can discern Jesus’ leadership model and that Jesus’ model supports the emerging leaders’ perspectives on the position and role of church leaders. I agree that we must examine Jesus’ teachings and actions to inform our understanding of church leadership. After all, the church is his idea, not ours. He is the head, not us. So rightly Long seeks to ground his prescriptions for a new leadership paradigm in the person of Jesus. Almost every chapter has some reference to Jesus.
There is a problem, however. Long is not the only one who turns to Jesus to discern the most appropriate leadership principles. Hybels and Maxwell, to name two noted leadership gurus, would also claim to ground their understandings of leadership, as different as they may be from Long’s perceptions, in Jesus.
What kind of exegesis allows us to bend the life and teachings of Jesus to serve and promote such diverse leadership models? Were the twelve apostles really functioning as a “ministry team” in any meaningful sense? What about Jesus’ statements where he defines himself as master and teacher and his disciples as his followers and learners? His followers are to wear his yoke, not one of their own devising. Did Jesus lack a vision? Was his vision not dominant? Is it really the case that “for Jesus, who was on the team was more important than where they were going”? Jesus seems to be very focused, at least according to Luke 9:51 where “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Where does he invite his disciples to help him cast the vision? In what sense did Jesus lead in weakness? Jesus does say in John 13:3 that “the Father had put all things under his [Jesus’] power.” We must acknowledge some mystery here in the way Jesus integrates washing his disciples’ feet with this power. The Gospel narratives present a Jesus who is very much in charge, submissive to God’s will, embracing the cross in fulfillment of his mission, but triumphing over his enemies. He is an authoritative leader. So in what sense is he weak and vulnerable?
We might extend this discussion to how Moses or Paul or other people in Scripture become illustrations for various models of leadership. It seems to me that too often we play fast and loose with the biblical narrative in these matters and must exercise considerably more exegetical discipline before claiming Jesus or some other biblical personality as an example of our particular leadership model.
On a minor note Long’s exegesis of Luke 10:27 (page 110) in support of relational leadership, i.e. leadership in community, is suspect. Long proposes that the second great commandment “love your neighbour as yourself” is plural in formation, meaning “people are to love as a community.” However, this is not the case. Both pronominal forms in this command are singular, not plural. His exegesis is unsustainable in this instance.
Earlier (page 108) he suggests that Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 incorporates “a plural word for ‘you’” and “Jesus meant, ‘You will be my witnesses in community [author’s italics]’.” It may be that the context of Acts leads to this exegetical conclusion. However, there is nothing in the use of the second person plural pronoun that necessarily means this command should be fulfilled in a communal manner. The plural pronoun will not carry that freight all on its own.
Long offers several prescriptions as possible solutions to these incipient “leadership wars.” The first is that leadership must be exercised in a team context. Biblically the metaphor of the body, in his view, serves to support the need for diverse individuals to contribute to the leadership, based upon expertise and giftedness (although I wonder whether this leadership application of the metaphor was in Paul’s mind). The function of the team leader is to enable the team to fulfill its communal leadership responsibility. Again, there is good practical wisdom that Long offers to help leaders understand this. However, what I missed in all of these discussions is any guidance about the need for accountability and how it works in such structures. I think I noted two occasions where the word “accountability” occurs in his book. Existing leaders are urged to let emerging leaders have space to risk and fail. Such experiences are important for developing leadership competence. Accountability, however, still has to be present. Without accountability leadership runs the serious danger of becoming dictatorial, self-serving, and manipulative. Emerging and existing leaders both must learn how to lead with accountability.
The second prescription that Long proposes is that existing leaders must let emerging leaders pursue their dreams and not be controlling. Again, Long’s idea has merit. Good leaders give space for those on their team to discover creative solutions to current and emerging problems. But Long does not seem to recognize that existing leaders also have dreams and are working hard to implement them. It seems that emerging leaders want control to implement their dreams and existing leaders want control to implement their dreams. When dreams clash, how do you arbitrate? Not every new idea is a good idea; not every idea will move the ministry towards mission fulfillment; not every idea is prudent; not every idea is timely. Part of leadership competency is ability to discern which ideas really have legs. This is not so much an issue of control, as an issue of deep wisdom, the kind of wisdom that James discusses in his letter (3:13-18).
Long sounds a necessary caution as the Evangelical church seeks to discern how leadership should be exercised in these times. If leadership is essentially a cultural phenomenon, then we do need to discern the scriptural principles that will help the church evaluate which elements of leadership practiced in our culture are compatible with Kingdom values. If church health is inevitably tied to good ministry leadership, then we have to understand how to provide such leadership within the faith community so that Jesus’ Kingdom mandates are being fulfilled in culturally relevant ways. Diverse views about ways of leading probably have always marked leadership transitions from one generation to another. Let’s recognize this reality and have the spiritual maturity to deal with it in ways that are good for the church.