Christianity and Leadership Research: Are They Incompatible?

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One of the Rossano Gospels, a 6th Century Byzantine Gospel Book, the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament manuscript. This page depicts the Triumphal Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

The church can be arrogant at times and one of those times is in its response to leadership studies. Geoff Surratt wrote an article awhile back for ChurchLeaders.com titled “Why Leadership Training Doesn’t Work.” Let me be clear; I am not saying that Geoff’s article came across as arrogant. In fact, I agree with his main points. But I want to use his article as a springboard to discuss an issue I have with many church leaders who turn up their noses at secular leadership studies. Geoff’s main point is well taken: you cannot develop leaders by sending them to a few leadership seminars. Having said that, however, I take issue with an attitude I see among many church leaders (some of which can be seen in the comments section to Geoff’s article).

The problem is that many preachers and other church leaders I have run across have an attitude of superiority about secular scientific research in general and about leadership studies in particular. Statements such as the following manifest this attitude:

“I’ve always had a ‘mild irritation’ with the over emphasis on ‘leadership’ in Christian circles. It seemed to sniff more of a grasping for power and a feeding of the ego than true, authentic, laying down your life for the sheep type of leadership.”

“Some churches require leadership classes to participate in ministries in the local church. This leaves the door open for workers of iniquity to come into the church, complete the training, obtain a certificate, and begin to destroy the House of God.”

“Leadership taught from a biblical basis does not look anything like what the world considers strong leadership.”

While all of these statements contain a grain of truth, they depict a flight from research that is too often characteristic of conservative Christianity. The truth is that the best and most recent leadership research demonstrates and even advocates that real leadership is not a grasping for power or a feeding of the ego, but is service to others.

It is true: there is a kind of leadership that Jesus rejected. Much of the leadership literature, however, also rejects that kind of leadership.

I have seen the leadership question from both angles. I first saw it from the angle of one who was caught up in the spiritual superiority mentality of so many seminary graduates. I felt like the only book that had anything worthy to say to us was the Bible. In fact, in seminary, I avoided courses that were not directly related to biblical studies. I thought that by sticking to the one true book, I would have a more pure and, therefore, more effective concept of leadership.

I was sorely mistaken. The Bible disconnected from an understanding of the culture that we are trying to reach, only leads to the relativizing of Scripture itself.

Through my studies at Azusa Pacific University in leadership and later at Regent University, I found a treasure trove of insights that explained so many realities of ministry that previously had been a mystery to me. How can this be? It’s not that difficult to understand once the window of light has been opened: The church is not just a spiritual entity; it is also a corporate body. So the insights of leadership studies are just as applicable to the church as they are to any other human group.

We are living in a time when the church is breaking out (and I don’t mean that it is breaking out with a rash). I mean it’s breaking out of old walls that once segregated Christian thinking into neat us-and-them categories. This has largely been the result of the Internet and more recently of the rise of the social media phenomena. Today, people WILL BE EXPOSED to ideas from all directions. You can no longer circle the wagons and protect your people from ideas. Because of this, the church must be more capable of addressing the issues and concerns of the world in the language that the world understands. One of these languages is the leadership language.

Can you imagine if we applied the Bible-only rule to any other field? We would never go to a Doctor because they did not get their learning from the Bible. We would never go to Kroger’s because they did not look to the Bible for instructions on how the shelve their goods. We would never purchase a car because the dealership did not follow the biblical instructions on how to build an automobile. It gets ridiculous. The fact is that the field of leadership research has provided us with some important insights about how to work with people both in the U.S. and abroad. This information is non-religious. It crosses theological boundaries because all true insight comes ultimately from the God of Creation. The scientific method simply looks at His creation and draws conclusions, sometimes right and sometimes wrong. But the method itself is a good one.

As mentioned above, I used to have the same attitude that I am analyzing here. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Fear of exposure. I think I feared that I might be exposed as lacking basic leadership capability. Instead of facing this possibility square on and learning what to do about it, I chose instead to attack the messenger, the messenger being those who always talked about leadership.
  • Theological error. I used to think that God speaks only through the Bible. Upon further consideration of some key biblical texts, I realized this is simply not true. Look at what Paul says in Romans about how the creation itself teaches us about His glory (Romans 1:20). Science is simply the study of His creation and it is one way God reveals truth.
  • Jealously. I think I used to be jealous of the accomplishments of business leaders and other community leaders. This came from of a sense of inferiority. I found that, if I could separate my spiritual form of leadership from the secular, I could then claim to have a superior kind of leadership that the secular leaders cannot have.
  • Lack of Information. One of the key verses of the Bible that I used to say that Christians should not benefit from these leadership studies was Luke 22:24-27. I was under the impression that leadership in the world was always about authoritarian or self-promoting behavior, the kind of behavior that Jesus rejected. I later found, however, that the opposite was the case. Leadership studies have long recognized the need for servant leadership… in fact even more so than the church at times.

I close by saying that in fact Christians do have something that non-Christians do not. We have a direct connection with the Spirit of God through Jesus Christ. This means that Jesus is our example and our guide for leadership. This however does not mean that we ignore the research on leadership. The Bible was never intended for us to replace science, but rather to inform it. And that’s an important distinction. This is true of many areas of life and it is true for leadership.

If you have had the attitude described above, I hope you will reconsider. I found that the literature on leadership helped me to clarify things in the Bible in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. Augustine used the example of the Israelites who took the gold of the Egyptians with them out of Egypt and used it to build the tabernacle of the Lord. We can use the insights of leadership research–informed by the Word of God–to build leadership models that work AND that give honor to Christ.

If you are interested in exploring leadership from a biblical perspective with your congregation, contact me at GregWaddell[at]LeadStrategic.com. I am also available for pastoral team coaching.

2 thoughts on “Christianity and Leadership Research: Are They Incompatible?

  1. Wow, you really pushed the buttons in this one. I am inclined to take issue with the comment of “Bible only” and your conclusions. I do not believe it, the OT and NT documents, the Bible, is insufficient in any culture or circumstance in our lives, and that it does in fact provide “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” That being said, I do understand that our studies in secular areas of our lives are valuable and worthwhile, leadership studies as well. Since the church is primarily physical, separate and apart from our spiritual lives and service/worship 24/7/365 in the kingdom of God, we should take advantage in the leadership studies. We do elect and appoint the administrators and/or decision makers in our churches, or employ them, and they should understand that the churches are to be equipping all believers for their service as priests/servants in the kingdom.

  2. Larry, Have you ever read the book or seen the movie The Peace Child? It’s about Don and Carol Richardson and their missionary work in the remote jungles of the Southwest Pacific.They are shocked when the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus makes Judas a hero in the minds of the people they were working with because deceit was a moral virtue to them. The missionaries had to live with them and study they ways for a long time before they discovered a cultural key that allowed them to comprehend the good new about Jesus. I think one of the reasons the church today is so failing in reaching our culture is because of the very premise you state, that they don’t have to study our culture. I believe that a true missionary our own culture will study the culture just as much as he or she studies their Bible, because only then will they be able to communicate the message of the Bible to that culture..

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