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.)

Advertisements

Christian leaders and their devotional life

prayerleaders-1

I was recently asked to speak to a church staff on the importance of a leader’s devotional life. With Bono’s disclaimer that ‘you preach what you need to hear’, here is the drift of what I said.

A key verse (albeit with a spiritualised interpretation) is Song of Solomon 1:6 –

My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!

So here are four reasons why leaders might find it challenging to maintain their devotional life and four reasons why it matters:

  • There is a lot to do! Which means that various things jostle for attention and priority. It can be tempting to be drawn to what can be measured (how many hours we worked, how many people we counselled); but what if the things that matter cannot actually be measured? The story of Mary and Martha is a reminder that there are times when we can get so weighed down by the list of what needs done (or what we think needs done) that we serve from resentment rather than from the overflow of devoted hearts.
  • We get distracted! Richard Foster said that ‘distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day’. Aside from our preoccupation with the mountain of tasks that are calling for our attention, there are our own inner thoughts – our preoccupations, fears, confusion and questions. And there can be the ubiquitous distractions of our social media feeds on-demand news cycles.
  • Ministry becomes a substitute for devotion and we become professional Christians. At times it takes the form of thinking that once we’re ‘in ministry’, we have somehow graduated beyond the need for the normal routines of the Christian life. Or the fact that we read the Bible for our sermons and talks somehow exempts us from reading it for ourselves.
  • The problem of routine. ‘Discipline’ sounds harsh and some of us see routine as the enemy of spontaneity, or even a pathway to ‘legalism’. It’s true that routines can become ruts, but without structure we’re at the mercy of our moods and circumstances, and routines help us not to forget.

The trouble is, as soon as you sit and become quiet, you think, Oh, I forgot this. I should call my friend. Later on I’m going to see him. Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down (Henri Nouwen).

And why is any of this important?

  • We are followers before we are leaders. Or, as a good friend of mine puts it, God has called us to be shepherds, but some of us have forgotten we are still sheep.

Jesus had different priorities than teaching us to lead. ‘Follow’, however, comes up explicitly over thirty times in the Gospels. Whether or not all of us or anyone are called to leadership is not at stake; we are all called to be followers. Discipleship is first and foremost about following. Disciple indicates one who follows Jesus, ‘a relationship that involves both commitment and cost (Arthur Boers).

  • Our best leadership flows from who we are. Leadership is not merely a set of functions carried out by a leader: the next leadership is the leader expressing who they are. The best Christian leadership is an overflow of who the leader is being shaped to be in God.
  • We need to find strength in God. Leadership is challenging and there are times when leaders are overwhelmed and their own resources are insufficient. A seasoned leader once told me that ‘probably one of the greatest things you need to learn on leadership … is the ability to strengthen yourself in God’.
  • Leaders need to know that God loves them. This has been a theme in some of the leaders’ stories that have been shared with me, both in my research and in my Leadership Journey podcasts. In the middle of all the remarkable events and challenges of his leadership, what must it have meant to Moses to hear God say, ‘You have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name’?

Pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Pastors need to pursue growth in their understanding of and feelings concerning God’s acceptance (from Resilient Ministry).


Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

(From the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind)

Leadership 101: What, exactly is leadership?

leadership-bannerIt was none other than Machiavelli who suggested that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in a new order of things.’

But what, exactly is leadership? One count I saw had the number of definitions running act around 1500. It’s been suggested that, like the ancient proverb of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, leadership has many aspects and none of them by itself appears to be an adequate definition. Warren Bennis suggested that it’s like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it!


The understanding of leadership has developed across the centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the focus was on leaders themselves, with Thomas Carlyle’s claim that the history of what has been accomplished in the world has essentially been the history of ‘the Great Men who have worked here’. It’s possible to trace the roots of the Great Man theory all the way back to Aristotle and his belief that social rank was determined through one’s superior virtues which, in turn, were the result of one’s birth.

Not unnaturally Great Man theory evolved into the Trait era (although the idea of traits is an ancient idea). The basic quest of students of leadership at this time was the attempt to identify which specific traits separated leaders from non-leaders. If people who became leaders were different from everyone else, what made them different?

The theory ran aground somewhat (at least for a while) when it was suggested that there was no consistent set of traits that distinguished leaders from non-leaders and, significantly, that just because someone is a leader in one situation does not make them a leader in another.

Trait theory never quite went away with some scholars suggesting that attempts to discard it have been too sweeping. Even if it is not possible to establish a definitive list of distinguishing marks, there appears to be evidence that there are some traits that make a significant contribution to a leader’s success.

Nonetheless, the focus of study shifted next to leaders’ behaviour. From one study emerged the idea that there were two dimensions to leadership: some leadership had a strong focus on the people it was leading while other leadership focussed more on the task at hand.

However this was not enough as people came to appreciate that no single style of leadership was universally the best style, regardless of the specific situation or environment. An understanding of leadership needed to take account of the situation in which leadership was being exercised.

Studies and theories continued to develop: from transactional leadership to transforming (and transformational) leadership, and from servant leadership authentic leadership.


Even if we’re unlikely to come up with a single, ‘correct’ definition of leadership that excludes all others, it’s worth making some kind of attempt!

For writers like John Maxwell, it appears to be the irreducible minimum:

Leadership is influence. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s simple and quite memorable, but probably leaves too many issues unresolved. Is all influence leadership? Does the influence of a TV advertising campaign qualify as leadership? Is there a difference between intentional and unintentional influence? To be fair, Maxwell has also been somewhat more nuanced in his subsequent claim that ‘the true measure of leadership is influence’.

Maxwell is not alone in highlighting influence as a key component of leadership. For example, Peter Northouse defines leadership as ‘a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, while Howard Gardner describes leaders as ‘individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors and/or feelings of others.’ What’s interesting about this definition is that it allows Gardner to distinguish between direct leaders (think Churchill) and indirect leaders (think Einstein, whose influence was exercised through his ideas): leadership may be exercised by word and/or personal example.

I think these are all helpful, as long as we recognise the caution that has been noted by some scholars who have suggested that since few social interactions don’t involve influence, we’re not saying much when we say that leadership is influence!

David Starling suggests that ‘leadership is the act or task of making an intentional contribution toward the direction and motivation of a group in the framing and pursuit of a common purpose.’ He argues that good leadership is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself and promotes interests that go beyond its own.

It’s worth noting how his definition highlights both the element of intentionality and the idea of a commonly share goal towards which a group is moving.


Some of the writers I have mentioned are Christians, but it’s worth taking time to reflect on what makes Christian leadership Christian?

Carl Trueman suggests that trends in the culture have affected how the evangelical church has understood leadership. While accepting that Christian leaders can learn from wider aspects of leadership practice, he cautions that Scripture must determine Christian notions of leadership.

Albert Mohler, a fairly powerful leader himself, suggests that while an obsession with leadership in the contemporary church may be both necessary and understandable, this obsessive interest has nonetheless ‘served to distract the church from the nature of leadership as revealed in Scripture’, with Christians tending to draw lessons from various spheres of secular leadership rather than looking to the Bible.

James Lawrence calls for Christian leadership with these distinctives:

  1. It is founded in relationship with God as Trinity;
  2. It is rooted in the Bible and directed by the Spirit;
  3. It is marked by servanthood;
  4. It is shaped by the cross and resurrection;
  5. It is sustained by prayer;
  6. It is lived out personally as part of the community of the church.

‘Leadership,’ he says, ‘is a key factor in the spread of the gospel.’


There have been voices of caution both within the Church and more widely. Barbara Kellerman, a leadership insider who might be running the risk of biting the hand that feed her, critiques the leadership industry’s ‘leader-centrism’ with its implication that those who don’t lead don’t amount to much. It is not enough to focus only on the leader at a time when other factors, such as the rise of the follower, have gained significance, and leaders have less power than previously. In fact, she goes as far as to accuse the leadership industry of being ‘self-satisfied, self-perpertuting and poorly policed’!

David Starling, like Trueman and Mohler, warns about the tendency to swallow the secular concepts of leadership. He notes that for all the talk of ‘leadership’ in Christian circles, there are surprisingly few explicit mentions of the terms leader and leadership in the biblical text. However it is not that there are no leaders or that there are no other images associated with leadership tasks.


After all that, how should we define it?

I think that reaching a definition requires us to consider the relationship between the leader and the followers, the nature and means of the leader’s influence, and the establishment of the goal for which leadership is exercised.

Walter Wright (Relational Leadership) describes it as ‘a relationship in which one person seeks to influence the thought, behaviours, beliefs or values of another person’.

And here is my more clumsy attempt at describing a Christian leader:

A leader is someone who is intentionally influencing a group of people towards an agreed and beneficial goal: Christian leadership means doing that ‘Christianly’!


So what do you think? Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • How important is leadership? Is it possible to either overstate or understate its importance?
  • What factors need to be considered in understanding what leadership is and how it is defined?
  • How might you define leadership?

Leadership learnings: Eddie Arthur

Eddie Arthur describes himself as an agitator and mission thinker, He has been involved with mission for several decades, notably with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

eddie_arthur_2aI asked Eddie to tell me the most important thing he had learned about leadership and how he learned it.

Here is his answer:

Just talking about things doesn’t mean they will happen. You have to take action and, above all, empower your team to move forward and take the flak for them when they do.

I learned this the hard way; by seeing that my good ideas didn’t get put into practice just because I told people about them and we passed motions in meetings. I had to do some work; not just think great thoughts.

Eddie went on to add this second lesson:

Leadership reveals the strengths and weaknesses of your character – but people will take more notice of the weaknesses! You have to learn to use your strengths and develop your areas of weakness. I learned this by seeing my own character flaws exposed to others and to myself. Thankfully God is merciful and so are most of my colleagues!

If you are a leader, how would you answer the question? What has been your most significant leadership learning?

Contours of a Leadership Journey

Having spent time interviewing a number of seasoned leaders about their stories, while researching the theme of leadership crucibles (more of this another time), I noticed these elements that mark a leadership journey

  • Conversion. While all of the leaders I spoke to have had some kind of conversion experience, some of them talk about how radically life changing that experience was.
  • Call. Not everyone has an Isaiah-type experience of call: but some of the leaders I spoke to talked about a dramatic call experience as they listened to a speaker at a conference; another spoke more of a gradual awakening and eventually coming to the realisation: ‘This is what I was born for.’ Others spoke of significant happenings that preceded invitations into particular leadership situations.
  • Not unrelated to the first two themes is the theme of the sovereign providence of God. Sometimes leaders find that their steps are directed by an unseen hand, closing one door to open another.
  • Character and personality. Obviously these terms are not exactly synonymous, but leaders need to be aware of issues around each of them. Some leaders display very clear leadership traits in the way that they are drawn to problems. Character development is important and the leadership journey may also be a journey of character transformation.
  • Paradigm shifts. The average age of the leaders I spoke to was around 61. These leaders have lived and led long enough to experience a changing world and to undergo changes in how they view certain things, like, for example, the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Crises and challenges. Sometimes these are personal or family related, sometimes they are spiritual and sometimes they have to do with leadership and ministry. Of course a leadership crisis can become a personal crisis as the leader begins to question himself/herself. One church leader spoke of how he discovered that the answer to his leadership crisis was not better leadership technique, but greater dependence on Jesus.
  • The leaders discussed a number of things related to their spirituality. For example, some talked about the love of God, some talked about their experience of the Holy Spirit.
  • The influence of others. Reggie McNeal has written about the significance of Jethro-like characters that cross the path of a leader and the leaders in this research spoke of fathers, of youth leader, and of others who have had significant roles to play along the way. Interestingly two of the leaders (one 60 and the other in his 70s) said that they wished they had had a mentor. (Note that the photo at the top of this may be misleading in this respect: the guy is on his own!)
  • Travel was not a frequent theme, but it was there. It could be negative, with the struggles that go with isolation and culture issues in a different setting; but it could also be positive – some of the leaders spoke of positive experiences as they spent time in other countries.
  • Transitions and progressions. Some leaders spoke of how God uses one situation to prepare you for another. A couple of leaders sensed a widening sphere of influence as they progressed along their leadership path.
  • Retirement is a ‘crucible’; while a retired leader can look back and see how God has been at work, the loss of structure can bring challenges and at the same time opportunities to experience new forms of spirituality.

Do any or many of these resonate with you?

Exploring your leadership journey

It’s almost a week since our leaders’ event at Edenmore Golf and Country Club. Anyone expecting to hear five tips for guaranteed leadership success from perfect and saintly leaders was in for a surprise!

What they got was searing honesty and pertinent challenge from three seasoned leaders; there was also a bit of humour – hardly surprising to those who know the members of the panel! It was a privilege for all who were there to listen to these leaders (I reckon a good century of experience between them) as they made themselves vulnerable in reflecting on their leadership journeys.

…incredibly moving, humbling and thought-provoking … a significant marker in my own journey.

Trevor Morrow, minister emeritus at Lucan Presbyterian Church, a congregation he served for over 30 years talked about the dangerous idolatries of ministry that can lead to the damaging neglect of family. He talked about the ‘wilderness’ of Lucan – a tiny church of 12 members when he went there, having left a congregation of a thousand in Northern Ireland. He talked about people God put in his path as he began to carve out a unique (and controversial) ministry as a Presbyterian in a Catholic context.

Ken (Fanta) Clarke reflected on some of the powerful experiences that have shaped him along the way. The realisation that he had been living as a bachelor in the early years of his marriage; a deeply powerful, cleansing encounter with God just weeks before his election as a bishop; a memorable, if frightening, time with God on a prayer mountain in Uganda. The latter two of these experiences reinforced Bible verses which he has had inscribed on his bishop’s ring.

Ros Stirling talked honestly about the crucible of singleness, challenging both single people and everyone in the room to be accountable. She talked about the encounter with a school pupil who was disillusioned by the Church – an encounter that would later be significant as she worked for 21 years for the Presbyterian Church, leading their youth department. She spoke passionately about her conviction that ministry needs to flow from a leader’s relationship with God – God aches for us to have such a relationship with him, but our culture tends to be so much more driven. Her conviction around this has been expressed in the establishment of Cleopas – a ministry that aims to provide space for the cultivation of this relationship.

All three spoke of people who had been influential along thew way. Trevor and Roz each spoke of the powerful impact of their father and other people, such as ministers, youth leaders and other mentor figures. Ken spoke about youth leaders and a school teacher, now quite elderly, who has continued to encourage him through the years.

We had a full room, with an audience that spanned generations and church backgrounds. People spoke about how they had been refreshed by the morning. One leader wrote that he had found the morning ‘incredibly moving, humbling and thought-provoking … a significant marker in my own journey.’ Another said that it had been ‘good for my soul’ and valued the insight of the speakers: as a young leader he is eager to glean from the wisdom and guidance of more mature leaders. Others found it timely and helpful.

If you’d like to know more about any similar future events or workshops (there might even be a related podcast in the future), get in touch using the contact form.