A biblical picture of leadership

Leadership word cloud

The past few decades have seen a significant increase in interest in the subject of leadership, both generally and within the Church. So much so that it’s tempting to paraphrase Ecclesiastes: ‘Of the making of books (and articles) on leadership, there is no end!’

The range of resources available means that Christians face a challenge in knowing how to navigate the subject. On the one hand, we can become so infatuated with the most recent trend in management or entrepreneurship that we end up unwittingly relegating the Bible to the sidelines, while on the other hand, we might bury our heads in the sand with regard to the challenges of 21st century leadership or the wisdom that might be gleaned from some of the best leadership thinkers. In fact, we might prefer to ignore the subject altogether, perhaps even dismiss it as unspiritual!

It’s the first of those temptations – ignoring the voice of Scripture – that I hope to address in this article, suggesting three biblical themes that might provide a framework for fruitful reflection on leadership.

1 – The Bible and leaders

The importance of human leaders is implied by the array of leaders that God uses across the pages of both Old and New Testaments. Considerable space is given to many of their stories: from Joseph, in ‘secular’ leadership in Egypt, through Moses and the Exodus, Joshua in the Promised Land, judges, like Deborah or Gideon, kings like David or Solomon, governors like Nehemiah, all the way through to the Lord Jesus himself and those who followed him.

Despite the shortcomings of many of these leaders, many of them were agents of significant work among God’s people. How would the Hebrews have left Egypt and negotiated the wilderness without the leadership of Moses? How would post-exile Jerusalem have been rebuilt without the leadership of Nehemiah (even though he could not have achieved it by himself)?

While we need to be careful not to treat some parts of Scripture as little more than leadership handbooks from which we can glean ‘leadership principles’, many of the stories have a great deal to teach us about the challenges and responsibilities of spiritual leadership. We also need to recognise that few of the biblical leaders left legacies of unmitigated success. Moses failed to make it to the Promised Land. Samson’s story was a confusing mix of faith and recklessness. Many of the kings ‘did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord’.

Scripture’s portrayal of these leaders is so honest about their flaws that, even if it’s too much to say that human leadership is a necessary evil, we might be tempted to think of it as a dangerous necessity!

2 – The call to character

Scripture cautions about the traps of leadership. In the Old Testament Deuteronomy 17 warns the king against accumulating horses (a sign of military power), accumulating wives (perhaps as a way of cementing political alliances, but a potential gateway to idolatry), and accumulating silver and gold (material wealth). By any other reckoning, these three things would probably have been markers of success in the ancient world: who wouldn’t admire a leader with great military power, international influence, and personal wealth?

In fact, Israel had one such leader: Solomon. Solomon’s wealth set him at the top of the ‘Rich List’; he had 12000 horsemen (along with horses from Egypt); in his household were 700 wives and 300 concubines. But the trappings of apparent success carried the seeds of the destruction of Solomon’s leadership. He ended his life an idolater and the kingdom was subsequently torn from his family. How many Christian leaders have crashed their leadership on the rocks of money, sex, and power?

It’s no surprise that the New Testament sets so much store on the kind of people who were to lead local congregations. The instructions for appointing elders/overseers in the Pastoral Epistles prioritise personal character over spectacular gifting (though gifting is part of the picture). Similarly Peter (1 Peter 5) challenges the heart motivations of elders, warning them that spiritual leadership is not intended as a path to wealth or personal power.

3 – Biblical pictures

Derek Tidball, in his book Builders and Fools, encourages Christian leaders to think about their role less in terms of the latest leadership trend and more in terms of some of the pictures the Bible itself gives to describe ministerial leadership. When we do this, there is plenty of material!

Among the pictures from which we might draw, there are kings and warriors, prophets and sages, builders and pilots, and there are shepherds and servants.

‘Shepherd’ is perhaps the dominant metaphor for leadership in both Old and New Testaments. In the OT, God (already the Shepherd of his people) delegates the task of shepherding to kings and other leaders. Sadly, they often prove to be unfaithful and are denounced by the prophets who promise that God himself will step in. Messianic prophecy looks ahead to a coming King who will emerge from Bethlehem and shepherd his people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the welfare of his sheep, and in turn he delegates the task of shepherding his flock to his followers. Elders are told to ‘shepherd’ the flock.

If 21st century Church leadership is to be biblical, it needs to take proper account of the implications of the shepherding motif, with its call for leaders who are marked by both compassion and courage.

Finally, leaders are servants. The term ‘servant leadership’ has become familiar in general discussions of leadership, but it was Jesus who challenged his disciples to look less at the powerful models of contemporary leadership on display in the Roman Empire, and learn the lessons of servanthood. In contrast to the domineering styles of the culture around them, Jesus’ disciples had to understand that the radically different values of the kingdom of God included a radically different vision of what it meant to be number one: whoever would be first would have to be the slave of all.

Christian leadership follows in the footsteps of Jesus. In fact, we do well to remember that the call to follow precedes the call to lead: our leadership is validated when it flows from our followership. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, biblical leadership exists, not for its own advancement, but for the good of those in its care, for the glory of God, and the advancement of his kingdom.

(This is a slightly edited version of an article written for Insight – the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland – part of a special section the magazine is running on leadership.)

When Ego Leads the Church

I’ve been teaching through John’s letters over the past couple of months – one of a couple of evening classes at Belfast Bible College. As we wrapped up the course yesterday evening we were in 3 John, where we met Diotrephes.

In the background of both 2 and 3 John are some travelling preachers – some false and some true. The church is to help the former but not the latter.

Gaius, the addressee of 3 John has done a great job of helping those preachers who have gone out on mission for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus; in contrast to him is Diotrephes.

Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the reasons for his conflict with ‘the elder’ (presumably St John, the Apostle), but the simple facts are that Diotrephes refuses to acknowledge John, he is spreading gossip about him, he refuses to welcome the missionaries and excommunicates anyone who goes against his policy.

And he ‘likes to put himself first’.

Ego leading the church.

A week ago, a prominent evangelical pastor in America resigned from his post. His elders have written on the church website, detailing some of the patterns of sinful behaviour which have led to this situation: they include ‘manipulation and lying’; ‘domineering over those in his charge’ and ‘a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms’.

These are their words and not mine. They tell a story, like 3 John, of ego leading the church.

Perhaps you think of the old dictum that said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. It’s naive to think that Christian leadership is exempt from this.

Which calls for some urgent reflection on the nature and practice of Christian leadership. What is the nature of a leader’s authority? Should that be leaders’ (plural) authority? How can a leader recognise when ego is settling into the driving seat? When is it appropriate for a leader to exercise authority (as John appears to do in 3 John)?

And how is the concept of authority coloured by Jesus’ teaching that his followers are to relate in ways that are different from the leaders of the secular world?

Do we need to see more leaders taking up the towel and washing people’s feet?

If your church is not serving cake, you may be making a big mistake!

This time of the year often seems to throw up some fascinating studies relating to church ministry. I’ve written about a couple of them here and here. This week’s edition of The Irish Journal for Practical Theology and Church Leadership has turned up a fascinating report on some of Belfast’s fastest growing churches and what they have in common.

The title of the article is somewhat prosaic – ‘Factors in Church Growth in some Belfast Churches’ – but it’s worth a read. The research was carried out by Professor Pat Mason from Limerick Institute of Practical Theology and Dr Siegfried Schmidt from Hannover University.

They began by attempting to identify the 10 fastest growing churches in the greater Belfast area. They found that these straddled denominational backgrounds and included several newer, non-denominational churches. They conducted a series of interviews and focus groups among leaders and regular attenders at these churches to explore the factors behind these churches’ growth.

Some of the factors were particular to individual congregations. In one, it’s a popular preaching ministry; another is noted for its music; a slightly more offbeat attraction in one of the (Presbyterian) churches was the use of a smoke machine at the monthly family services.

But the one thing all ten had in common was the fact that they all serve some kind of cake either before or after the service (one Church of Ireland Church serves it both before and after). In most cases it was muffins or donuts, but one or two served freshly made scones: cake washed down, it should be said, by freshly brewed coffee (not instant).

John Ervine, an elder at one of the two Presbyterian churches in the survey described how he and the other elders had been sceptical when their minister suggested they try muffins and coffee after the morning service. They assumed it was ‘another American idea’ but agreed to allow him to try it for a month. ‘The results were amazing. We have tried modern music, we’ve even given out balloons to the children, but nothing worked like this: our numbers doubled in a month!’

The pastor of one of the Baptist churches in the survey (who wanted to remain anonymous) described how they had also encountered a bit of resistance at first, but after a couple of church business meetings they were able to get a 2/3 majority to agree to try muffins and coffee on the first Sunday morning of the month. They have not looked back.

‘We saw how popular all these coffee shops are with people nowadays,’ said Lucy Morris, part of the leadership team at a Church of Ireland church plant. ‘People are after the kind of experience that you only really get around a muffin and a decent cup of coffee. Why can we not give them that at church? The church should be leading the way in this kind of thing.’

A few people expressed concern about the sugar content of the donuts and muffins, and thought the Church should be setting a good example in proper eating. And there were a few other naysayers (‘they didn’t need gimmicks like that when WP Nicholson was preaching’). But it’s hard, say Mason and Schmidt, to argue with the figures. If it can all help make church the most fun time of the week, is that not what it’s all about?

If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link.


Spiritual leadership, Moses and delegation

Leaders easily fall into the trap of viewing authority in their organisation or institution as some form of zero-sum game. The more they give away, the less they have. And after all, if you are the leader, you’re meant to be in charge: right?

A couple of interesting perspectives on this come from a couple of episodes in the leadership journey of Moses.

In the first (Exodus 18), Moses’ father in law finds Moses overwhelmed by the task of handling all of the people’s disputes. Jethro was able to see that not only was this bad for Moses, but it was bad for the people.

You and the people will certainly wear yourselves out…

This was unsustainable and it was unhealthy. It’s interesting to speculate about what might have been going on in Moses’ mind that led him to run his business in this way. He had been prepared to delegate the Amalekite military operation to Joshua and had accepted the physical support of Aaron in Hur. But some have suggested visions of grandeur: for example suggesting that he’s acting like a king, sitting on his throne while the people stand around him.

Whatever was going on in his mind, he is willing to accept Jethro’s plan by which he will delegate some of the work to others. As Norman Cohen says, ‘leaders must acknowledge that they cannot control and run everything.’

To attempt to do so is to court trouble. Some leaders may want to give it a go, but it’s unlikely to be good for the long term health of whatever they are leading. Either they become dictators and their people become passive or resentful, they become bottlenecks and progress is stymied, or everyone gets frustrated and the leader burns out.

What Jethro noticed was that what was happening was good for neither leader nor people.

The second episode takes place later (Numbers 11) and this time it is Moses who realises there is something wrong. There’s been yet another episode of complaining on the part of the people who were thinking back to their time in Egypt where they could enjoy fish (free), cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic: now they were longing for meat but all they had was manna. As the people weep, Moses cracks. He cries out to God that he can no longer carry this load.

To which God responds by anointing seventy elders with the Spirit, so that they can share the burden with Moses. The sign of the Spirit was that the elders prophesied.

The story takes a fascinating turn when news reaches Moses that two men who had stayed in the camp, instead of going to the tent of meeting, were also prophesying. Joshua – Moses’ assistant – reacts by asking Moses to get them to stop. Moses won’t hear of it: ‘Are you jealous for my sake?’

There is quite a difference between the reaction of the young assistant and the old leader. Joshua wants to make sure that this anointing remains within the right limits and the Spirit empowers the ‘right’ people. Moses just wishes that all of the people would have this anointing with the Spirit.

There are probably a few challenging implications here. For one thing, how easy do we find it to affirm the work of God’s Spirit in the ministries of people who may not be part of our circle? But there is also a leadership lesson.

Leaders need to reach the place where they realise that it is not about them. Doubtless there are plenty of leaders who find themselves isolated because of their situation (they have been called to a place where there are few leaders) or because of the system within which they operate.

Rather than hold tightly to their authority and control, what if leaders made this their prayer?

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!

Meet a church planter: Stu Bothwell from Redeemer Central in Belfast

The third church planter we get to meet in this series of posts is Stu Bothwell who works with Redeemer Central in Belfast. (You can catch up with the previous posts that featured Gary Bolton and Lucas Parks).

Stu is 27 and is married to Emma. They’ve just bought their first home in East Belfast and Stu says that one of life’s great pleasures is sharing great food with friends.

StuBothwellStu comes from a family who are passionate about Jesus and is glad to have grown up in such an environment: he came to faith at an early age. In the summer after leaving school he had what he describes as ‘a significant encounter with God through which I felt called to leadership in the church.’ It came out of nowhere and from then he tried out a number of things including worship gatherings and preaching. He recognises that he was ‘winging it’, but he can see how the risks he took have come to play an important part in his story.

After a spell working in a school, Stu studied for (and completed a MDiv at Queen’s (while making a lot of coffees for Belfast folk); during this time he went along to a gathering of Redeemer Central and ‘instantly felt part of the family.’ Redeemer has provided him with a place to work out his leadership calling. There have been plenty of opportunities for involvement and growth – having interned and preached and become part of the leadership team, Stu now works as Missional Communities Co-ordinator.

Technically, Stu did not plant Redeemer Central: that was the work of David and Trish Capener. However there is a strong team ethos and it is recognised that everyone has played a part.

Tell us about your church: when did it start, where is it, how is it going?

Redeemer Central was planted five and half years ago with it’s first gathering taking place in the Capeners’ front room with two others joining them. The first few years of our story can be marked by our outgrowing of one venue and moving into another. So far, we’ve gathered in a front room, the upstairs of a pizza restaurant, a music venue, the Students’ Union and an arts venue in South Belfast until through the remarkable generosity of an ageing Congregational Church, we were blessed with our current home. We gather every Sunday at the heart of the arts, media, cultural and commercial scene in Belfast, in a historic venue that will soon see thousands of students living and studying barely 50 yards from our space.

However, we don’t want to exist as a church that simply gathers. We are passionate about establishing missional communities across the city and beyond. Currently there are nine City:Groups that are cultivating extended family and seeking to bless many geographical and cultural areas of our city with the redemptive story of Christ.

What do you mean by ‘missional communities’?

Missional Communities are groups of disciples who in sharing their lives together, seek to grow in discipleship and live on mission together. They gather regularly both in organised and organic environments and share a collective missional focus, for instance, seeking to bless their common neighbourhood, or an area in society that they are passionate about.

Tell us about your sense of call and your vision for this new church.

We believe God has formed us as a family of worship, welcome and creativity, who rooted in our identity in Christ, are sent to partner with Him as He establishes His Kingdom here. We long to share our lives with each other and share the story of Christ with our city.

We will always be a church family that loves to gather together to celebrate, as well as scatter across our city as families on mission. As we look ahead, we believe God is calling us to see the multiplication of more missional communities and the planting of other churches across Ireland and beyond. However in all things, we long to be marked as family who centre our lives around the presence and the purposes of the King.

What particular desires and prayer do you have for your church in 2015?

In one sense, we want to continue what God has been doing in and through us over the past few years – seeing disciples making disciples, a family of great grace flourishing and Missional Communities multiplying into new communities and cultural groupings throughout Belfast. Particularly at this time however, one key piece for us is seeing the establishment of healthy, life-giving rhythms throughout the whole family at Redeemer. We are increasingly aware of the correlation between intimacy and action. If we long to be a missional people, we must be a people passionate about worship and experiencing the presence of Jesus in our everyday lives.

How would you like to be able to relate to other, longer established churches in your area

We’ve been blessed with a number of significant friendships with other churches since we planted Redeemer. These relationships, across various streams, have been invaluable to us. As we have been blessed, we desire to be a church that blesses others also, with a heart for what God is doing throughout our nation.

In our journey of launching and establishing Missional Communities, we have had the privilege of equipping other local churches who are seeking to make a similar journey. Through leading learning communities alongside our friends, we desire to continue building fruitful relationships and serve the Church in this nation.

Thanks Stu!

To find out more about Redeemer Central, you can contact them via their website.

Meet a church planter: Lucas Parks from Village Belfast

At the start of this year, I’m featuring a number of church planters. I’ve written a bit about whether we really need new churches, and a couple of weeks ago I featured Gary Bolton from the Journey, in Lisburn. In this post, we get to meet Lucas Parks who leads a church called Village, in Belfast.

LucasLucas is 40 (you’d never guess from the photo) and has been married to Su for 20 years. They have 2 girls Averi- 10 & Kenedi-5, and a 3 year old son Lawson. Lucas is from Northern Ireland but moved to the US as a child as his father is American. he and his wife returned nearly 10 years ago where he worked as an assistant pastor in an existing church. In addition to his local church leadership, he currently serves as Country Director (Ireland) for Acts 29 Europe – a global church planting network seeking to catalyse the planting and replanting of gospel-centred churches by assessing, coaching, training, and supporting church planters. Lucas came to faith in his youth, and was called to ministry while doing a one year bible course during a gap year. He then went to seminary to complete a degree in theology.

Tell us about your sense of call and vision for this new work

As I was working in an established church in Co. Armagh I was spending more time amongst Belfast’s young, emerging creatives due to my brother being a musician. I was attending gigs and meeting loads of people who would ask what I did for a living. They were always surprised when I said a pastor! This almost always led to a conversation I would end up having dozens of times about how they were interested in spirituality, Christianity or Jesus, but put off by their perception of institutional church. I realise some of their issues with the church were false perceptions, or an excuse to live however they wanted but there were also enough real issues that it started to bother me that there was a whole subculture of young people who were open to the Gospel but found church too entrenched in our troubled history, or in a commitment to unnecessary traditions over Gospel clarity. We felt God calling us to move to Belfast and get involved in the lives of these people to plant the Gospel and let a church organically grow from that work. we want to be a church that makes sense as we practice the way of Jesus in community as we are committed to Gospel fidelity and clarity.

Tell us about your church – where is it, when did it start, how is it going?

We started with 6 people in my living room, and after 2 years of studying the bible together, and developing missional communities that have rhythms of practicing the way of Jesus together we launched Village Church Belfast publicly in February of 2014. We currently rent the hall from Cooke Presbyterian on the Ormeau Road, though we are looking for a new venue that would allow for further growth and a morning meeting time for our central gathering (we currently meet at 5pm). We have 3 missional communities that meet throughout the week and have about 50 adults involved regularly in the life of our church. We have new people most weeks, and are encouraged by God’s presence among us.

What are some of your hopes for the church in 2015?

That we would continue to build upon the foundation God has laid so far. We started with almost exclusively single people in their 20’s, but a lot of them have gotten married at Village and are now having kids – so caring well for children and families, as well as single people will be important. We would also like to see our demographic get a bit more “mature”. We love that our church is filled with young people in their 20’s and 30’s, but we look forward to the day when I’m not the oldest person in the church… we would welcome some older, wiser saints! Also as we are now establishing a more public presence in the community, we are praying for opportunities to serve our neighbourhoods as we join God in the renewal of all things. We continually personalise Jesus’ prayer that it would be in Belfast as it is in heaven.

How would you like to be able to relate to other, more established churches in your community?

The other churches on the Ormeau Road have warmly welcomed us, and we have a good relationship with them. All the ministers meet monthly and they have welcomed me into that fellowship. I guess I would like all new church plants to have a relationship that is mutually beneficial with established churches. We as a plant have much to offer in ways existing churches (which are often in decline) can learn mission and ways to engage culture in meaningful ways to see the Kingdom of God grow. Existing churches in turn have resources, hopefully a good reputation and know the history of the community. I think willingness to partner or cooperate together where possible could serve both churches and the community well.

To find out more about Village, Belfast, you can visit their website.

Meet a church planter: Gary Bolton from The Journey Church

In April 2014 I posted on whether we really need new churches. You can read what I wrote here – hopefully there is something for all sides to learn, whether the the new churches or the more established churches.

In the early part of this year, I’m planning to post a short series of articles introducing a number of church planters. Today, the series kicks off with Gary Bolton from The Journey Church in Lisburn.

Gary BoltonGary is 36 and has been married to Kathryn for 14 years. They have five children. Neither Gary nor Kathryn was a believer when they first met, but they both came to faith within a few months of each other around 17 years ago. Gary has been preaching for 16 years and between 1998 and summer of 2014 he worked with Revival Movement Association. He has an undergraduate degree from the Irish Baptist College and is now working on an MTh through QUB. Since September he has been employed full time by the Journey Church in Lisburn.

Tell us about your church – where is it, when did it start, how is it going?
The Journey Church began meeting in Lagan Valley Leisureplex on a Sunday morning from January 12th 2014. However, for about a year and a half before that we met as a very small group for a midweek bible study. The first year was particularly tough with no numerical growth – it was tiring and at times discouraging. However, I always had a deep conviction that growth and development would come. During the summer of 2013 our numbers were doubled and from this time forth our church has steadily grown. During 2014 it was a particular joy for us to baptise 5 ladies in the Leisureplex swimming pool – this was a great evening of testimony and rejoicing.

Tell us about your sense of call and vision for this new work
Since my conversion I’ve always had a sense of calling to church leadership which I worked out over many years. The small seed for church planting was sown in my heart during July 2011. A short time later I received clear direction from God through His Word. I watered this seed with prayer and counsel before stepping out in faith with a small bible study in September 2012. Our vision is to be relational, intentional and missional – see our website for a more thorough explanation of this vision.

What are some of your hopes for the church in 2015?
To continue working hard at the missional aspect of our church life. The Journey has a wonderful sense of community and love and we want our non-Christian friends to see and experience this love and hope that comes through Jesus Christ. Our main goal in 2015 is to become more prayerfully focused in our evangelism.

How would you like to be able to relate to other, more established churches in your community?
There are existing churches in Lisburn who have been faithfully proclaiming the gospel for many years and we praise God for them. We want to be an encouragement to other churches and we need their encouragement too. I’ve already made contact with a number of church leaders in our city for fellowship during 2014 and this is something I plan to develop further in the year ahead. Partnership with other evangelical churches is something I desire to see more of across our city.

To find out more about the work of the Journey Church, you visit their website.