Leadership studies in need of a theological corrective.

I am the son of an Assemblies of God pastor whose ministry hit its stride in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. In other words, I am the child of a generation of AG clergy who underwent the revolutionary introduction of so-called leadership studies into pastoral work. Let me say at the outset, I understand leadership in this context to mean something like “a set of behaviors that, in a given context, align an organization, foster execution and ensure organizational renewal. They are enabled by relevant skills and mindsets.” Leadership studies is thus… well… the study of that.

Pastors struck up something of a trade agreement with this field. Models of leadership that had been incubated in the secular world were brought into the church, a process that called churches to higher standards of excellence. At the same time, leadership studies offered a new vehicle for evangelism when pastors saw that church-work had something genuine to contribute to this field. With leadership, you could import excellence and export evangelism.

With leadership, you could import excellence and export evangelism.

The appearance of leadership studies also did some genuinely theological work. On the level of practical theology, leadership disciplined our concept of the church; it made us appreciate the church as a ‘lead-able; institution. On the level of pastoral theology, leadership helped pastors understand how their vocation was not tantamount to being the best Christian in their own church. On the level of theology, it softened the divide between the secular and sacred. In other words, leadership studies even had something to contribute to the world of theology proper. 

The most poignant shift, though, came in the actual lives of actual pastors. Leadership studies served the church at large in a way that systematic theology on offer seemingly did not. In a world that was losing respect for clergy, pastors could claim the dignity of leadership. There was suddenly a new way to assess and deal effectively with problems in the church — something more than reading your Bible and praying more. Leadership depressurized the space between the pastor as church leader and the pastor as a person before God. There was space to work smarter instead of harder.

Within my own tradition, the AG built structures to sustain the revolution. One just needs to take a look at the number of leadership programs at AG schools and at how many of them are housed in the departments that train pastors. At Valley Forge, for instance, the department’s name is “Ministry Leadership & Theology.” Undergraduates planning on going into ministry can now major in “organizational leadership” or “pastoral leadership” instead of pastoral ministry, Bible, or theology. You can even “go to seminary” for a master’s degree in leadership.

The Lord saw all of this and said that it was good. Indeed, the adoption of leadership studies into pastoral life and work was very good for the church.

However, I have begun to think that the relationship between leadership studies and pastoral work now needs correction.

A few months ago, I was a fly on the wall at the church-wide leaders’ meeting of a sizable church, a rally for every volunteer and semi-staffer for some vision-casting. It was the ecclesial equivalent of Steve Jobs announcing the iPod. A particular moment in one of the keynote talks stood out to me. One of the pastors was talking about cultural change. There was a whole running metaphor about tectonic shifts. At the climax of the talk the pastor said, “At moments of tectonic cultural shift… that’s where leadership happens!” Right then the little theologian in my head said, “No, it’s not. It’s where the Kingdom of God happens.”

Now, most charitably, I suppose one could take the pastor to be saying something like “the church can leverage moments of cultural change as opportunities for Kingdom work” which is certainly true. But that is not what the pastor actually said.  What the pastor actually said was that, at moments of a cultural shift, “leadership” happens. Even at my most charitable, such a way of speaking about leadership exposes the presumption that the word “leadership” is a suitable replacement for the phrase “the kingdom of God.” We should be worried if we can no longer see the difference between something called leadership and the Kingdom of God. 

The point here is this: leadership studies should not stop us from doing our theological studies. There comes a point at which any good thing can transgress its proper place; in theological terms, any good thing can become an idol.

I fear that the elevation of leadership is producing some ministers who know the ‘how’ of leadership but cannot articulate the ‘why’ of Christian vocation with sufficient theological depth. I am worried that we are oversaturated with graduates with degrees in leadership who are immediately concerned with getting themselves in the youth-pastor-to-lead-pastor pipeline. It’s not that the aspiration to lead a church is a bad thing in itself. But if you are becoming a pastor because you need an outlet for your leadership rather than developing your leadership because you need it to pastor, would I implore you: go do anything else. Plenty of other institutions — where the stakes are lower and the pay is better — need leading.

The elevation of leadership is producing some ministers who know the ‘how’ of leadership, but cannot articulate the ‘why’ of Christian vocation with sufficient theological depth.

Of course, you might wonder why you should care about this critique, about the places that leadership becomes idolatrous. The primary answer is that we love God. We love God in God’s becoming human in Jesus Christ, in God’s willingness to be close by God’s Spirit. We love God in God’s decision to save the cosmos. We love God who, despite God’s incoercible freedom, wants to be known. And it is the task of Christian theology to make sure that nothing compromises the loving knowledge of this God.

The second answer is that leadership theory actually does not have all the answers on how to plant, lead, or grow a church and it certainly does not have the answers on how to be a part of God’s kingdom. But if we elevate leadership studies too far above the discipline of theology, we will simply be duped. We will develop cheap pallets for the soundbites of leadership gurus. The Scriptures will only be as deep as the leadership theory that we hope to find confirmed in them. Jesus will become little more than “the best leader ever.”  The church will simply become an organization that is being led. We need deeper, we need wider, we need higher than all that.

So if we are concern about giving God God’s proper place and about seeking answers in their proper places, we need to cut a more balanced way forward. I would like to suggest some preliminary directions. As a theologian who is currently working at a church (National Community Church in DC – an AG affiliate church), I have confidence that better really is possible, without undue duress or unsustainable cost. So for anyone who thinks I am on to something, here are my three pieces of advice for churches, pastors, and students preparing to study ministry.

One, guard your heart. Solemnly discern whether and where you have made leadership an idol. This will require you to practice the traditional spiritual disciplines of silent prayer and community. Hints of leadership idolatry include: preaching sermons that spend more time in ‘leadership research’ than in exegesis; spending all your staff development ‘becoming better leaders’ as opposed to going deeper theologically; having a theology that has not grown in any formal way since seminary or since Bible college, even as your life and ministry have grown; knowing the names of leadership gurus, but not knowing the names of major theologians or Bible scholars; maxing out on leadership conferences; reading more leadership studies than you do theology; clinging to the identity of “leader” as the mark of pastoral dignity. These are all admittedly only “hints”.

Two, hire a theologian. Find a seminarian with free time. Train someone who is already a part of your community. Reach out to the faculty of a local Christian university. Then make them available to your stakeholders.

Three, learn the theology of the Kingdom of God. I know pastors are busy and theology often feels like an innavigable ocean, but start with the kingdom. Watch Gordon Fee’s YWAM lectures (they’re up on YouTube) and, while you’re at it, read some of his books. Read N.T. Wright. Read Lucy Peppiatt. Read Stanley Hauerwas and John Wimber.

It has been my experience that those who invest themselves in understanding what the gospels mean by “the Kingdom of God” find a practical pay off.  This is because the Kingdom of God is not only a message but a method. What is more, it is Jesus’ own message and method. His career was fundamentally about the Kingdom of God. That should be reason enough to get crystal clear on what scripture means by the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven (God).” (Matt 3.17, 4.23, & 24.12; Mk 1.15; Lk 4.43)

What is more, it is Jesus’ own message and method. His career was fundamentally about the Kingdom of God.

I know as well as you that there remain churches that still need the leadership revolution, and there are pastors who have done such good work that their most pressing need is to become a better leader. All well and good, however, the church at large needs a better balance. We need to dethrone the study of leadership and reconsider its relationship to theology itself. We need to see clearly, as Isaiah says, “The Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.”