The American church has been buffeted by the cult of leadership for a couple of decades now. The cult took root in evangelical Christianity before it did in my own United Methodist Church. We need leaders – not just any leaders, but skilled and committed leaders – so there is a reason behind our acceptance of the cult.
The smaller and more traditional churches are often resistant to the cult. They want office holders who will respect the wishes of the membership, who rule democratically, maintaining things the way they’ve always been done. Insofar as the job of the leader is to instigate change for the good of the organization and the fulfillment of its mission, these churches desperately need leaders, but are usually impervious to them.
You’re probably scratching your head about now, wondering, “Well, is he for or against leaders? He writes of a cult of leadership – calling something a cult makes it sound like a bad thing. Then he goes on to say churches need leaders. How can he have it both ways?”
The vast majority of United Methodist Churches (since it’s my own church, I speak of what I know best) have a number of church offices to fill. They have a Nominations Committee that meets every fall (preparing for Charge Conference) to fill slots for the coming year. It’s not uncommon to swap out people from what slot to another, from one committee to another, keeping a common face to the leadership of the church over the years.
One thing that goes unnoticed is that several years ago now the Book of Discipline was changed. What was formerly known as the Nominations Committee became the Lay Leadership Committee. While this newly named group is tasked with making nominations for offices, its main job is identifying, raising up, equipping, and deploying leaders throughout the church. This is a year around job, not just a “charge conference is coming, we better hurry” affair.
We also need to consider what kind of thing the church is. It’s easy to think in terms of businesses – one of the main places we get the substantive teaching for the cult of leadership. The church deals with money, mission statements, employees, etc., so it must be some kind of business (the tax code says it’s “non-profit”). Businesses often run factories, so we may think the church is a kind of factory – we make disciples.
Surely that much – that we make disciples – is correct. But are we a disciple making factory? Are we best off thinking of disciplemaking as akin to an industrial process? We put the inputs together: people, curricula, meeetings, etc., get the machine (church calendar/program) running, and out pops disciples.
If this is the way we think of things, we can see office holders (aka leaders) as cogs in the machine, parts of the industrial process. But what if making disciples is not an industrial process? What if scripture is accurate, and it’s better conceived as an organic process? What if our verb “make” deceives us into thinking in terms of a factory, when we’d be better off thinking of a garden?
Adopting an organic model leads us to think differently about leadership. Leaders are not mere cogs in a machine; neither are they just names plugged in slots of committees. What is of first importance for a leader in a disciple cultivating enterprise like the church is having ones own walk with God. We are able to reproduce – able to help others become and grow into disciples of Jesus – by being disciples ourselves.
Taking this route, the first question for a proposed leadership candidate is not, “Are you willing to serve on this committee?” or “Are you willing to make decisions of governance in this particular domain?” but “How is it with your soul? What is God doing in your life? How are you experiencing the call of God?” ‘What – even better, who – is your heart broken for?” If we start this way, then leaders will always work out of their ongoing (and growing) relationship with God. They will be conduits of God’s grace and wisdom to the people around them, spark plugs (I know, a non-organic analogy!) for Holy Spirit induced combustion in the ministry of the church.