Developmental Leadership in the Church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 1, 2007

One of my struggles in church leadership has been in trying to lead effectively from “alongside” and not from “in front.” People talk about doing leadership in a decentralized, non-hierarchical way all the time; despite the simplistic ways in which the topic is often discussed, leadership from “alongside” is a difficult task that requires a great deal of thought. The reality is that most cultures affirm and value top-down leadership. The leader may be able to function in a way that is “alongside” but if others in the community think in conventional categories, they will do and say things that put the leader back on top.When leaders realize this dynamic, I’ve noticed that they do one of two things: 1) they become laissez faire leaders, thinking that if they step back, others will “step up” or 2) they re-enact the conventional hierarchical ways of leading, but they use less hierarchical language. Neither of these approaches work. When one realizes that we have a disempowered laity that doesn’t think of itself as minister and as priests, being a laissez faire leader could just enable them to stay as they are, often making the system more dysfunctional. A hierarchical leader (but without the trappings of hierarchy) will only succeed in making things seem better.

The leader who recognizes these traps will find him/herself struggling between these two inadequate responses. They desperately want an empowered community, but are afraid of falling into a hierarchical pattern in order to address the problem. I’m convinced that many emerging leaders struggle with “leadership ambivalence.” They reject traditional hierarchy…as well as the corporate American recasting of the hierarchical leader as “Vision-Caster.” At the same time, they realize that leaders must lead.

I’ve noticed that Paul gets more assertive in his writings when he is addressing particularly dysfunctional situations in the local church. In other words, the more remedial the church, the more actively and assertively he leads. I know this is simplifying, but there seems to be a pattern that goes something like this:

1) During the early stage, Paul is directly involved in leading. His leadership may seem more “top heavy” because he is establishing a new Christian community.
2) Paul will eventually move on, appointing elders or having someone else stay behind and appoint elders. At this point, I am assuming his role shifts to more of an “alongside” posture.
3) If a problem arises in the church, Paul sends a letter addressing the issue with an assertiveness which directly corresponds to the depth of the problem. If the church reverts to an earlier stage of their maturation, Paul asserts himself more directly as a leader, helping them to move ahead towards health.

And so, the goal is decentralization. The more a church lives out their role as ministers and priests in a healthy way, the less assertive Paul’s leadership needs to be. It is much like the role of parenting. The more mature the child, the less directive the parenting. The goal is that the child will eventually grow up and have an almost peer-based relationship with his/her parents. A parent would be negligent if he or she was laissez faire with a one year old. And that parent would smother their child if they were overly directive when the child is 27 and married.

All this is to say that I think we need to think of church leadership in dynamic, developmental ways. This means that we cannot have a single model for leadership, nor should leadership always look the same in the life of the church. The role of various leaders in the church will shift depending upon context, stage of development, and general healthiness of the church.

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