Why Much of What You Know About Effective Leadership Is Wrong

John ArmstrongLeadership

Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) continues to influence Christians across a wide spectrum. His books that have most influenced me include The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, Clowning in Rome, The Life of the Beloved and The Way of the Heart. I am pleasantly surprised at how often evangelicals quote him. I do, however, wonder if they understand him. His textured biblical reflections challenge a number of our presuppositions, especially about leadership. Since ACT 3 exists to “equip leaders for unity in Christ’s mission” I find Nouwen to be one of my most important resources because he was both deeply spiritual man and a real, practicing ecumenist.

Index In the book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, which is one of my favorite Nouwen works, he wrote the following about effective ministry:

My movement from Harvard to L’Arche [a ministry to the mentally challenged] made me aware in a new way how much my own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often, I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients for effective ministry.

The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Jesus sends us out as shepherds, and Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hands and be led to places where we would rather not go. He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to community and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Crossroad Publishing, 1989, 91-92.

My friend Dr. Timothy Gombis, a New Testament professor and first-rate Pauline scholar, wrote the following in a recent Christianity Today article:

If we encountered Paul today, he would not be the strong and decisive leader we often imagine. In fact, many of our contemporary churches would hardly consider him a viable pastoral candidate.

Evangelicals place a high priority on leadership, perhaps because historically our movement has been carried along by strong leaders. The great figures in our heritage have been powerful speakers and compelling visionaries, many of whom have built colleges, seminaries, and, in some cases, entire denominations. These are also the traits we want to see in our pastors.

Thus we intuitively assume that Paul was someone just like this. We think he must have been a compelling figure, a charismatic and decisive leader, and a powerful speaker. From the moment of conversion, he immediately put his great abilities to work for Christ, taking over the leadership of the church and becoming its powerful spokesperson. When we look at the evidence from the New Testament, however, we find a very different picture…If we encountered Paul today, we might be disappointed to find someone quite unlike the strong and decisive leader we often imagine.

I continually encounter false expectations about leadership among Christians. We have adopted the Strong Natural Leader (SNL) model as desirable and then turned the Type-A personality into the norm for effective mission. We want our pastors to be visionaries who lead by the sheer power of their personality. This cuts across the modern Christian world in one of two ways:

1. It discourages and destroys the effective ministries of men and women who are not SNLs. There are many very good leaders who will never be acknowledged as great leaders because they do not fit the model we’ve adopted, a model generally taken from the world not from Christ.

2. It exalts one style and type of personality and thus creates a natural tendency to seek after those personalities to build bigger corporate models that we call ideal or successful “local churches” or movements.