The Journey Blog

Reflections on the art of leading

Five Culture-shaping Practices for Rising Ministry Leaders

Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace.

- Tim Keller

Surely competence, confidence, and success are the most important qualities for any leader, far more important than something that smacks of "weakness."

Surely Keller exaggerates.

But put another way, "the broken" have a deep level of self-awareness— the veil has been lifted on Self—and this is critically important in any position of leadership, in any context, but especially in ministry.

Most of us who have been ministry leadership know we're vulnerable to the seductive idol of success, and as all idols do, this one will enslave us.

In my doctoral research I found five practices that are culture-shaping and that I believe will greatly aid established and rising ministry leaders in overcoming the pantheon of success idols. First, and foremost—give up the hero-leader myth. Second, join a collaborative community. Third, in that community, create an environment of safety and mutual trust. Fourth, seek mentors and peer learning partnerships. Fifth, discover spiritual direction and formation as a relational process.

In this post I will introduce Practice Number 1:

Give up the hero-leader myth

What do I mean by "hero-leader"? A hero-leader is one who believes that they should be personally responsible for, and capable of, creating the organization's vision, for selling that vision to the organization, motivating everyone in the organization to carry it out with high morale, and always being the one who has solutions, the quicker the better, whenever things get dicey.

In a brief of their Harvard Business Review paper, In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge ask:

Have you ever feigned confidence to superiors or reports? Hidden the fact you were confused by the latest business results or blindsided by a competitor’s move? If so, you’ve bought into the myth of the complete leader: the flawless being at the top who’s got it all figured out. It’s an alluring myth. But in today’s world of increasingly complex problems, no human being can meet this standard. Leaders who try only exhaust themselves, endangering their organizations.

The authors are speaking of the need for humility in the business context. How much more is this true of those of us seeking to lead in the church? We should know that humility is not only consistent with Jesus' teaching, it is also the antidote to the myth of the all competent hero-leader.

Humility also helps to break the cycle of unrealistic expectations leaders have of themselves, with its consequent tendency to isolate from those who can help us. A humble leader is in the same position as the congregants: dependence upon, and a deep, abiding need of grace from God. Hero leaders create organizations that depend upon them for answers and direction. Those organizations can go through generational cycles in pursuit of someone who has the answers to what is next. The converse of the hero-leader is not one who does not lead, but rather one who knows how to lead in a way that fosters interdependence and, ultimately, more dependence upon God—and in that way the whole organization grows and matures.

Both seasoned and emerging ministry leaders who model dependence enable their teams, or congregations, to face their most difficult challenges by modeling faith in God, rather than dependence upon one individual's expertise and gifts.