Ed Stetzer: “As the pendulum continues to swing, remember: leadership is biblical, theological and contextual.”
We need good leaders. So we need solid leadership development, books and other resources. But it seems to me leadership is an important issue that’s often overlooked. I know, you think I’m crazy. Leadership resources and speakers abound. But there’s a reason the best place to find leadership books is at a Goodwill or some other thrift store.
Secondhand stores are like leadership book archive vaults. Why? Well, there’s a pendulum—and it has swung. In the 1980s there was much talk about leadership and a lot of people writing on it, speaking on it. Leadership theories and ideas were influencing the church and the church was, in many ways, being shaped by that.
Then in the 1990s the pendulum began to swing the other direction. People started objecting to the near-constant references to Warren Bennis or Jim Collins’ books on leadership. They began to complain of the Maxwellization of leadership. “We need a little less leadership and a little more biblical principles,” some said.
I understand issue fatigue. But this incessant pendulum swing is not particularly helpful. And the de-emphasis on leadership isn’t healthy.
Here are three reasons we should not reject the culture of leadership development.
1. Leadership Is Biblical
Throughout Scripture when there is a great move of God there is generally an accompanying leader from God. There are a couple of exceptions, but God achieving his work through leaders is a pretty consistent pattern. I’m not talking about a general feeling that someone is walking out in front—no, in the Bible, leadership is actively affirmed. Paul writing to Timothy says that “if someone desires to be an overseer, [it] is a noble task.” We’re reminded of the nobility of leadership even in the descriptive passage of 1 Timothy 3, as it talks about the biblical qualifications of a pastor.
We know the names of great leaders of God’s people, and we know why they matter. We know what they did. Throughout Scripture, leadership is not just a biblical concept in the church, but a godly practice. It is both prescribed (it’s a noble task, it needs to be done, the call to raise up leaders), and described (stories of how leaders have functioned well and poorly). Leadership is both a biblical practice and principle.
2. Leadership Is Theological
Leadership is not done in a vacuum. It is theological. There are things leaders are called to do; there are things leaders are expected to be. As you look at the description of overseers in 1 Timothy 3, you notice the vast majority of the description is descriptive of life and doctrine.
So leadership is biblical, but it’s also theological. I don’t lead because I memorized a few phrases and can now quote them, and they rhyme, and I can inspire people. It isn’t simply about leading, but leading correctly. I can’t unpack all of that in this short column, but there are several excellent books on developing a theology of leadership—even Outreach magazine contributor Tony Morgan has weighed in with his e-book, Developing a Theology of Leadership (available for iPad, Kindle and Nook).
Many people have led poorly, and sometimes they lead poorly because they have a bad theological basis of leadership. They just don’t have a real sense of where God is calling them to lead. If God isn’t leading you, where are you going to lead others? The fact that leadership is theological feeds directly into the third reason we shouldn’t avoid a culture of leadership.
3. Leadership Is Contextual
Leadership is theological so that it can be effectively contextual. When we think theological, we think Ephesians 4. God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip God’s people to engage in faithful and fruitful ministry. The theological leads to the contextual.
Why is it important to contextualize leadership? Because many of the attributes of leadership that are effective in one place will not be successful in another area. For example, in Japan there’s actually a proverb that says, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Being conspicuous is not highly valued in Eastern culture. Yet, in many Western societies it’s that autonomous individual who leads, makes a difference or brings about change. Biblical leadership principles that worked with Moses will work with Maxwell, but the way one leads will be different from Peoria to Pretoria. A good leader cares about cultural variations and learns to adapt them.
Varied cultural expressions reflect the creativity and diversity of God. While God is not responsible for every aberration found within culture, he did create the people and knows them in their cultural distinctions. God knows what leadership qualities work in each setting to bring about kingdom change within a community. People are wired to respond and develop in different ways. There is no reason to fight that. When we deny the nuance of contextual leadership, we create barriers that keep people from transformation.
A Culture of Leadership Is Needed
So the biblical and the theological values of leadership will be constant, since God’s Word and his mission are unchanging. But the contextual value of leadership will vary from one place to another. Biblical and theological leadership truths are to be passed down to the next generation. And since there are contextual variables, we need training that addresses them. This is why the regular development of leadership resources is importaant. When you see someone dealing specifically with practical leadership skills and practices, do not write them off as having left the Bible. As the pendulum continues to swing, remember: Leadership is biblical, theological and contextual.