October 21, 2008

Leadership by Imitation

by Jessie Larkins
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

It seems that wherever you turn these days the buzz word on the street is “leadership.” The failure of the financial market, when not being blamed on minorities or the poor, is blamed on a failure of leadership in government and industry. For too long the standard of worth for CEOs and economic strategists has been a cut-throat measure of greed and self-interest. In the religious world, too, the decline in attendance and influence of mainline congregations and denominations has been attributed to a lack of effective pastoral leadership. Books filled with strategies and tactics (Is there really a difference?) on the subject of effective leadership fill the shelves of bookstores, both sacred and secular, with the promise that the right organization and charisma can lead even a failed organization or congregation strongly into the future.

I wonder sometimes if the leadership modeled by the disciples and early apostles as they began church-planting across the Mediterranean would have much street credibility in today’s conversations on effectiveness in leadership. What would happen if we held the “latest and greatest” in leadership strategy against the measuring rod of the apostles’ teaching? Paul might struggle to win friends and influence people on Wall Street with a leadership based not on “words of flattery or with a pretext for greed” (2:5). He would certainly offend a “key leader” or two in most congregations I know with a leadership that “made demands as apostles of Christ” (2:7). Yet, as one who stood firm in the gospel “in spite of great opposition” (2:2) and courageously gave himself in love for those whom he served, his example of leadership among the Thessalonians sets a standard worthy of consideration by denominational ordination boards or a lay leadership committee. The leadership Paul describes requires both courage and clarity. It is a leadership that is prepared to endure scorn for the sake of the truth as it names idols and lovingly points followers towards the true God.

There is no place for motivation stemming from self-interest, self-aggrandizement, flattery, or greed. Paul challenges the desire of leaders to avoid discomfort. Most importantly, Paul notes that true leadership requires a deep and selfless love for not only the gospel but for those whom one leads, following in the footsteps of Christ who so loved those he served that he gave his life for them.

Throughout Paul’s letters it is clear that neither church attendance or giving (standards too often used as judges of effective ministry) are the basis upon which he measures his effectiveness among the communities he serves. (Though for all their faults many of the churches formed under his leadership would hardly be marked as failing, stagnant, or stingy.) True effectiveness in ministry for Paul is measured by how closely the communities and individuals he served are transformed into Christ-like servant leaders themselves. It is hardly coincidence that Paul’s ministry suggests that if Christ-like disciples are the desired outcome, then Christ-like leadership is required. It might not make the best-seller list, but if we want to form leaders worthy of the gospel (or become ones ourselves), we might go back to Paul, who called us to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1), and devoted his ministry to bringing others into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.


Heather C said...

Excellent article - it was a timely reminder of becoming a leader willing to give my life for those whom I serve. In leadership it is too easy to use words of flattery or appeal to self-interest. Your reflection gives importance to the clarity needed when making "demands as apostles of Christ."
I wonder about the use of worship and giving statistics. In the tradition I am in (palliative mainline) these statistics have been abandoned and negated as not useful for decades. However I think as congregations are transformed into the way of Christ we discover that weekly corporate worship and sacrificial giving are indeed marks of the life of Christ. Personally I have also found the habits of worship and giving to be the means (not just result) of significant transformation into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jessie said...

Thanks for your comment. You are exactly right, I think, when you say that both giving and church attendance can be signs of transformation. I have both seen and experienced signs of this transformation in the church and my own life. What I was hinting at, somewhat less successfully than it came out, was the notion that either "church growth" or large budgets are a sign of effectiveness or success in their own right rather than a mark of spiritual formation evidencing Christ-like transformation. I struggle with the notion that just because a church has large numbers or a large budget that they are automatically assumed to be doing more effective/successful ministry than one that is less numerically stunning. Numbers and growth can be helpful measures if they are measuring the right things for the right reason. (What if the churches recognized as effective/successful at our denominational gatherings were the ones with the highest percentage tithing?)