Spirit-led cruciform leadership (insights from Gordon Fee)  

I am reading Gordon Fee’s commentary on Galatians (Deo Publishing: Blandford Forum, 2007). In his reflection on Gal 6:11–18, Fee says the following (page 255).

Whatever “authority” we might have in the church — and I doubt whether it is very much at all — it is totally derived, and it has nothing to do with position and everything to do with what has been earned by one’s character, as that is in process of being shaped into Christ’s own character by the indwelling Spirit.

And . . . my experience with those keen on their own authority in the church is that to a person they are not very keen on being shaped by the cross. That is, they may preach the cross well as the means of salvation; but that is only part of Paul’s concern in this passage [Gal 6:11–18]. His greater concern has to do with living cruciform, to have his life “shaped” by, and in the likeness of, Christ’s own crucifixion. (Emphasis added)

I like Gordon Fee as an “older” scholar, who is passionate about the Scripture and is a devout follower of Jesus. Here I feel that he is speaking as a father in the faith to encourage us to practise Spirit-led cross-shaped leadership.

But of course we should, most of all, hear from Paul himself.

But as for me, may it never be that I boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14; Lexham English Bible)

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Some unhealthy trends in Christian leadership  

I know of young Australian Christians who enjoyed Mark Driscoll’s preaching. Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church had thousands of worshippers in fourteen locations across four states in the US, with annual revenues of more than US$30 million. But in October 2014 Driscoll stepped down from leadership amidst multiple allegations. As of January 2015, Mars Hill was dissolved. Ben Tertin helpfully outlines some of the issues around Driscoll’s leadership and Mars Hill in his article in the Leadership Journal (Christianity Today, December 2014).

The article can be found by clicking here.

Since I am not an American, I am reluctant to comment on this matter. But the comments made in the article remind me of some unhealthy trends I observe in churches and Christian organisations in recent years. I would like to mention a few here.

Gifts and ability over faithfulness

Although this is not explicitly stated in the mission statements of Christian organisations or the official documents of the church, increasingly, leaders are chosen primarily because of their gifts and abilities. In fact, leaders themselves prefer to work with gifted people who are able to achieve tangible results. At the same time, Christians look to charismatic speakers because of their eloquent speeches and power of persuasion. But of course God is more interested in faithful people who are willing to give themselves totally to serve him. Faithful disciples produce faithful followers of Jesus, and often the process is long and the numbers are few. Gifted leaders, on the contrary, have crowds surrounding them. Their followers are many, but often they have not considered the cost of following Jesus.

Corporatisation and over-reliance of business models

Over the past 30 years I have been involved in not a few churches and Christian agencies. Operating in the context of a changing world, where financial management is increasingly tricky, leaders find that they need people with business and professional skills to run their churches and organisations. As a result, committed Christians with those skills are appointed to take up key leadership roles. Churches and agencies then adopt business models used in the corporate world in order to improve efficiency.

There is nothing wrong in this approach—not in and of itself anyway. But my observation is that this is often done without careful consideration of any inherent conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. In the worst scenario, money is the bottom line, which drives everything that the church/organisation does. For example, in the face of falling revenue, staff members are retrenched despite their faithful service over the years. In other instances, popular leaders and highly efficient workers are given greater pay increases because of the numeric or financial success they bring, while faithful and diligent—but less “productive”—workers are less valued.

We must guard ourselves from this management philosophy and corporatisation of the church. Surely we need sound management of our finances and efficient organisational structures. But we must learn to be love-centred with the help of the Spirit, so that we can truly be an alternative community to a value system that treats people as commodities and money-making machines. In times of financial hardships, we are to stand in solidarity with one another and learn to trust a God who will never fail us and who will provide all our needs.

Celebrity culture

I think celebrity culture has a more subtle effect on us than we think. We all have our faith heroes and we desire a role model to follow. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look up to someone. But it is very easy to turn a leader into some kind of celebrity figure, to the degree that we start to worship them. And we do so without knowing it.

This can happen when a pastor becomes famous because their church membership grows beyond a few thousands. This can also happen when a Christian writer or blogger becomes famous, and when their tweets have gained many followers. But we should never blindly follow well-known leaders, for no one is infallible, regardless of their gifts, charisma, the size of their churches, and their popularity in social media. We should never spend more time on their books and online teaching materials than on the Bible. We are followers of Jesus, and our job is to study the Scripture so that we may know God better.

We should not think that celebrity culture is only found in large churches. It can happen anywhere. Some years ago I met a young man who was well known for his involvement in community development, social justice, and being a peace activist. His punchy writing style and radical peace-making activities were beginning to attract many young people. At the time I was working in the aid and development sector, and I was asked to spend half an hour with him over a cup of coffee. I was surprised that over that short time he repeatedly told me that he had shared the platform with the most well-known peace-activists and those who lived and worked among the poor in the US—those who spoke to thousands of people at conferences and whose books were best-sellers worldwide.

Obviously these famous figures have had an immense impact on his life, and indeed they are his faith heroes. I don’t want to undervalue his (and his faith heroes’) contribution to poverty alleviation and peace-making. But I am afraid that, with a mentality like that, Christians are unwittingly reproducing celebrities in the name of the poor, so much so that we are producing followers of people rather than disciples of Jesus himself.

Power, influence, expansion and world domination

The last trend I want to mention is perhaps not new at all. It seems that there is a renewed trend to use power to extend God’s kingdom. I am concerned when the rhetoric of Christian leaders is about power, expansion, and world domination. The church is not about conquering the world to gain universal dominance through power and influence. Rather, its call is to embody the death of Jesus, so that the world may see the living Christ and risen Lord in its solidarity with the pain and suffering of people in this world.

A (mis)understanding of mission that is based on an expansion mentality can easily lead into empire-building. We are not called to extend God’s kingdom or influence culture by means of (social and economic) power. Rather, Christ-followers are to faithfully live a cross-shaped life and create cruciform Jesus-centred communities that embody the values of God’s kingdom. We are to rely on God’s power in our weakness. We find this in the apostle’s Paul’s teaching.

Paul repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians (6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him. A life of affliction in fact displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ, and in the process believers reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). In his own words, Paul says,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

This notion counters everything that celebrity culture symbolises. It is about faithfulness, not charisma, gifts or abilities. It does not rely on the best business models, but God’s power to provide. And it is not about expansion or dominance. Instead, it is about a cross-shaped pattern of ministry that bears witness to the crucified Christ and risen Lord.

Jesus-shaped VS worldly leadership: Tim Gombis on Christian leadership

Over the past 20 years I have been an active participant of a number of churches, Christian organisations and theological colleges. I have met some wonderful people, and am thankful to their leadership and their desire to serve God.

But at times I come across leaders, whose style, ethos and practice are, I am afraid, shaped by the values of this world rather than the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. I don’t think it is a healthy trend.

Recently Tim Gombis wrote a series of blog posts that are particularly insightful, and I think it is worth re-blogging here. In the following I will list the links to those posts, as well as some quotable quotes there.

Whether you are a pastor, an elder of a church, a board member in a Christian organisation, a Christian school teacher or principal, or a professor/lecturer in a seminary/theological college, I think Gombis’ thoughts are helpful as you ponder your leadership in your context.

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Cross-shaped Leadership

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/12/cross-shaped-leadership/

The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and it shapes  and determines everything about being Christian. Cruciformity – or, being “cross-shaped” — means having our lives and church community dynamics oriented by the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Cruciformity is a powerful reality because it is the only way to gain access to the resurrection power of God.  When we shape our lives according to the life of Jesus, we experience his presence by the Spirit, and God floods our lives, relationships, and communities with resurrection power.

When I talk to people training for Christian leadership about cruciformity, however, I discover the assumption that it isn’t easily practiced in ministry.  Many assume that cruciformity may be good for ordinary Christian people, but it won’t work in leadership situations.

I wonder if this is because our imaginations are shaped by worldly conceptions of leadership and of power.  We assume that at some point cruciform leadership would fail.  It wouldn’t be up to the challenges of “real world” situations where power must be wielded over others.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 2

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/13/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-2/

Worldly leadership: A desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve these things, even if it means neglecting or hurting people who do not appear to be means of one’s own personal advancement.

Jesus-shaped leadership: An unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 3

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/16/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-3/

Cross-shaped leadership constantly adjusts to God’s agenda.  This is significantly different from worldly forms of leadership, which are oriented by the leader’s agenda.

Worldly leadership is leader-determined.  It’s all about “my dream,” or “my vision for this church.”  Churches with charismatic leaders are often compelling communities for a time, but they seldom manifest cruciformity.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 4

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/17/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-4/

Cruciform leaders do not view people as the means to achieve other goals.  The people to whom we minister are the goal.  The whole point of Jesus-shaped leadership is to take the initiative to see that God’s grace and love arrive into the lives of others.

Christian leaders are servants of others on behalf of God, so people are the point—not my goals, plans, vision, or ambitions.

We talk about “results,” or we want our ministries to be “effective.”  We look for ministry strategies that “work.”

When we talk like this, we reveal that we are envisioning something bigger than or beyond the people to whom we minister.  We subtly become the servants of that other thing and we look at the people as the means to get somewhere else.

This is one way that pastors’ hearts function as idol factories.

When we set our hearts on certain goals and ends, we can become very frustrated at our people when they don’t perform the way we want them to.  When we’re not seeing the results we expected, we put pressure on people, demanding more from them.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 5

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/18/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-5/

Worldly leaders are captivated by a craving for more and more influence.  Cruciform leaders, on the other hand, are content with current responsibilities given by God and seek to grow in faithfulness.

In any and every case, cruciform leaders are focused on faithfulness to the task.  This involves self-sacrificially serving others, getting to know those to whom we minister.  Cruciform leaders take the initiative to cultivate relationships of mutuality and authenticity shaped and oriented by the love and grace of God.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 6

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/19/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-6/

Cruciform leadership is marked by a determination to live authentically and relate honestly.  Jesus-shaped, cruciform leaders don’t hide their weaknesses, inadequacies, and failures.  They aren’t self-promoting, they don’t seek power, and they don’t trumpet their strengths.

Worldly leadership, on the other hand, is consumed with image-consciousness.  Worldly leaders manipulate situations in order to put the best face on things.  They try to control how people see them and what others think of them.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 7

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/21/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-7/

Cruciform leaders have ultimate aims to bless others, to give them life, to see to it that God’s goodness, love, and grace are always arriving into others’ lives.

Worldly leaders, on the other hand, have selfish ends and will use others to achieve those ends.  Other people, therefore, are means to my own ends, and others are valuable to me only insofar as they serve my purposes.

Seeking to resolve a broken relationship is a well-motivated desire, but it’s possible to approach such situations manipulatively.  We might find ourselves plotting and planning how we’ll graciously expose the other’s fault; we anticipate responses and prepare counter-arguments.

Christ-centred (covenant) leadership (Sherwood Lingenfelter)

Recently, I came across the Sherwood Lingenfelter’s Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). Although the book is about leadership in cross-cultural contexts, it has many insights that are relevant to every context. In fact, given our increasingly global and multi-cultural (and postmodern) world, the book’s insights are really worth considering. Here is a great quote.

Every community has its own standard of accountability, and the issues and structures of accountability vary significantly across cultures. Some societies and particularly Western industrial nations, insist on accountability structures that require extensive documentation and eternal structures and processes. Others insist on accountability as a product of relationships and emphasize that people are accountable primarily to the groups to which they belong and to the standards the groups hold for their members. As a consequence building a community of trust is always a major challenge for cross-cultural leadership. (p. 21)

Acknowledging his indebtedness to Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art (2004), Lingenfelter says that leadership “is not achieved through structures or social processes.” (p. 99) For Lingenfelter, “the critical factors for leading cross-culturally are Christ-centered learning and trustworthy covenant-centered leadership.” (p. 101) Lingenfelter also says the following, which, I think, is very insightful.

[L]eadership need not be power focused or governed by the tyranny of consensus. Rather, a leader defines the rules of participation to reflect inclusiveness in the body of Christ, commitment to the work of the kingdom, and effective communication among team members that understands the essence of mutual submission, weakness and forgiveness. That kind of leadership is not driven by results but rather is focused on mobilizing people to concentrate on mission and work effectively together to achieve the very best impact for the corporation or the ministry. (p. 100)

For those who are involved in cross-cultural leadership in particular, the following example is really worth reading.

The expatriate mission director, who adamantly opposed Thai corporate culture, expressed certainty that his vision of “servant leadership” was the correct biblical “form” that must replace the distortions of Thai cultural leadership. He used his role and resources to drive the team members toward his “transforming” form of empowerment and decision making. Such leadership behavior distorts and destroys the very teamwork and community relationships that the leader aspires to achieve. (p. 100)

This distortion resides first in the assumption that there is only one kind of servant leadership: that which is expressed in an individualist, egalitarian vision of social life. Most of the Westerners on these Thai multicultural teams have embraced the individualist, egalitarian vision and define servant leadership in terms that fit their social values. They are free to do what they “feel called” to do and to “fulfill their dreams.” They do not bring to the table a commitment to relationship over self-fulfillment or a willingness to submit to others with a priority for unity. They do not see building trust in covenant community as a greater priority than their ministry focus and calling. They assume that “exercising my gifts,” and “doing ministry tasks” are more important than “being the body of Christ.” (p. 100)

I think what we should consider here is not only that there are different forms of leadership, but also what a Christ-centred leadership truly looks like from a biblical perspective. In other words, is our leadership shaped by an individualistic culture? Or is it community-focussed and shaped by Christ’s self-giving way of life?

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Henri Nouwen on leadership, being relevant and powerful

A friend posted something written by Henri Nouwen yesterday, which prompted me to search for some quotes by his great author. Here are some good ones on leadership.

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. (Emphasis added)

Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel.

Sources (accessed on 7th January 2014):

Power and Paul’s cruciform leadership

I have been thinking about leadership and power. Over at ETHOS there is an article entitled “Reflection on Power and Powerlessness” (Feb 2012). Here are excerpts from the article that speak of Paul’s cruciform leadership (Emphasis added).

But how does this cruciform power work? I find Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians really helpful. Most scholars recognise that some members of the Corinthian house churches were unhappy with Paul’s leadership, and he has to defend his apostleship in his letter. Paul does not deny his apostolic calling. But his view of the right use of power is thoroughly based on the life pattern of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. He repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in the letter (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him, and it is this life of affliction that displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ and in the process our lives reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). He utters this astonishing statement,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

On one level this teaching is about how we should rely on Christ in our own hardships. But given the context of Paul’s defence of his apostolic credentials this reveals Paul’s understanding of his authority and power as a leader. Power, then, is about embodying the paradox of the cross. There is no resurrection without death. Strength is found in weakness. Glory is found in a life of suffering, sacrifice and love.

Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel, that is, the anointed King who was to come, as anticipated by the prophets. Based on this, Jesus announced his mission to proclaim good news to the poor. Of course, salvation and forgiveness of sin is available to all – both the rich and the poor. But undeniably Christ’s ministry was characterised by his solidarity with the social outcasts and economically disadvantaged. It is true that Jesus used his power to heal the sick and deliver those under the bondage of evil spirits. But he did not exercise any political, social or economic power that one would expect from the royal son of David. Quite the contrary, he died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of Rome’s dominion over its subjects. But at his obedient death God raised him up, and exalted him to the highest place. Paul bases his ministry on this Christ-story, and models his own life on the paradox of power in powerlessness. He determines not to use worldly power to respond to his opponents. Instead, he ensures that the power of Christ is manifest in his weakness. Both Christ and Paul know what it means to be powerless. Christ is the rightful King, because he was crucified and raised to life. Paul is determined to follow him, and we are called to go and do likewise.

The full article can be found here.

Leadership and power

There is a lot of talk about Christian leadership nowadays. Often there is an assumption that “power” is a harmless as long as it is used rightly. Accordingly, good leadership involves the right use of power and authority. But I wonder whether we should challenge this assumption. Last year I wrote an article about power and powerlessness. It is not about leadership as such, but it does take a look at the pattern of Paul’s leadership. Here is an excerpt.

But how does this cruciform power work? I find Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians really helpful. Most scholars recognise that some members of the Corinthian house churches were unhappy with Paul’s leadership, and he has to defend his apostleship in his letter. Paul does not deny his apostolic calling. But his view of the right use of power is thoroughly based on the life pattern of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. He repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in the letter (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him, and it is this life of affliction that displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ and in the process our lives reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). He utters this astonishing statement,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

On one level this teaching is about how we should rely on Christ in our own hardships. But given the context of Paul’s defence of his apostolic credentials this reveals Paul’s understanding of his authority and power as a leader. Power, then, is about embodying the paradox of the cross. There is no resurrection without death. Strength is found in weakness. Glory is found in a life of suffering, sacrifice and love.”