A Call to Followship

I’m writing this just having swallowed two of the latest leadership books for pastors and ministers. For the purposes of this article, I will define leadership as “the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” In other words, leadership is the ability, talent, and skills related to influencing others to help you accomplish something. This time and thought on leadership led me to a hypothesis: Maybe we focus far too much time and energy in the church on leadership.

What I’d like to put forward to pastors is a view likely contrary to much of what you read related to leadership. And that is, that very few people are really leaders, and that leadership development is not such a lofty goal as it may seem. As such, perhaps our time is better spent developing other roles within the church body, which may, in fact, make us more effective. Let me explain this with five key thoughts:

Thought: Leadership is overrated. I’m beginning to look at leadership like I look at church marketing. It’s a cottage industry. Leadership books, seminars, consultants, coaches, trainers, podcasts, even seminary classes. Within the leadership universe there are various definitions, strategies and ideas all chasing the elusive goal of building great church leaders. Despite all of these resources, the church at large continues to live by the 80-20 rule—20% of the congregation doing 80% of the work of ministry—just as it has for decades.

Sure, we have more mission statements and lists of common values than we did 100 years ago, but all of the focus on leadership has not in any significantly measurable way pushed the church forward. Leadership being of core importance to the church, it seems, may be overrated. Where we hear the church growing, flourishing, being bold and making a difference worldwide, it is not necessarily because more leaders have been developed in those places. Being bold and being a leader are two different things.

Thought: “Leaders” are a very small percentage of the congregation. The first thought led me to a question, which is, “Just how many people are really leaders anyway?” Sure, there are skills you can develop that help you lead. But just like there are great musicians, and great artists and great organizers and great craftsmen there are those who have God-given gifts in the area of pastoral leadership. So, how many people is that, exactly? The best numbers I can find, in a slew of studies on everything from leadership to CEO characteristics to gifted children, is around 3-5%. That is, those gifted to lead (cast vision, influence toward a task, enlist others) compose at most around 5% of your congregation.

Should that 5% be developed? Sure, but that still means that over 95 out of 100 people in the congregation are not leaders. That doesn’t mean they aren’t believers, or are not developing in their walk with Christ, or are not ministering daily. It doesn’t even mean they are not managerial material. It just means they aren’t true leaders by the textbook definition. And they likely never will be developed into the class “vice president” material we think of when considering the end result of intense leader development. We could spend much time and energy teaching them leadership skills, but to what end? Here’s a crazy question: Is over-focus on leadership causing us to push solid and talented believers into roles they were never meant to have, at the expense of roles where they would really flourish for Christ?

Thought: Jesus never asked or commanded us to lead. Without a doubt we want to know what Jesus Himself says on the subject of leadership. But there’s a problem. Jesus never actually instructed anyone to lead. You’d think there are some New Testament versus where Jesus uses to word “lead” or “leadership” applied to His disciples, but He doesn’t. Not one time. In fact, throughout the gospels the word “lead” in the positive sense is applied only to God leading, never not us. In the negative sense (as in, “leading astray”), we see it as an admonishment to man several times. Jesus actually says to His disciples in Matthew 23, “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (vv. 10-12).

Jesus told His disciples not to be called leaders. That’s probably won’t make the forward of the next book on church leadership. What Jesus did command is for us to follow Him. He said it 16 times. Seven times He specifically asked people to follow Him, and nine times He issued it as a general command. I don’t think the difference between leading and following, in a biblical sense, is primarily cultural, or language-based, or organizational. That is, I don’t think what we practice and teach today as leadership is what Jesus told us to do. You could possibly point to Romans 12:8 where leadership is mentioned as a spiritual gift, but there the context is really leading out in providing for others.  And this is the great danger of a church made up of flawed, sinful people—we are always tempted to do everything except the one thing Jesus told us to do. And Jesus told us to follow, not to lead.

Thought: Most ministry opportunities don’t require leadership skills. Jesus lived by example. He loved people. He cared for the poor. He went to the outcast and He taught against the grain. After the last supper and before He went to the Garden to pray on His path to the cross, Jesus’ last teaching time with His disciples is detailed in John 14-17. His instructions are filled with the opposite of what we hear in leadership circles. “You are the branches.” “You can do nothing without me.” “Be one as I and the Father are one.” “Remain in me.” “If you love Me, keep My commands.” “Obey my teaching.” “Love each other.” Consider that none of His instructions really require any leadership skills. “Obey, serve, remain, I’ll do the work.” Okay, I can handle that.

I think it is central to being a leader in the church to understand that Jesus’ primary commands to His disciples—and the example of His very life in the world—was one of servanthood. So much so that He equated serving others with serving Himself (Matthew 25:45). I don’t see any evidence in Scripture that the intent was to break the church up into a number of classifications of people, some who would serve, others to lead. Rather, all are to serve. And we are built and gifted to serve one another. The gifts of the Spirit are serving gifts. The Fruit of the Spirit are the results of a life of service. And Christ said others would know us, and know Him, by this fruit. It seems then, when taking the Gospels as a whole, that Jesus spent a tremendous amount of time serving and teaching His disciples how to serve, who to serve, and why it was important to serve. Serving, then, is really the very heart of what ministry is all about. Not all will lead, but all can serve.

Thought: The church may be far more effective if we taught and learned how to follow versus lead. What would happen if the church spent its time, resources and energy in the relentless pursuit of servanthood? What if we set aside the five steps to personal influence and instead went after five ways to help another person today? What if we stopped trying to manage our flock and instead pushed them out into the street with mops and brooms and Windex? Instead of strategizing and meeting and planning how to draw out 10 more heads to start a prayer ministry we just started praying more and by example showed others how to follow? One of the greatest servants of the modern age was Mother Theresa. She spent her life and every dollar she had serving the poor. Some would call her a leader. I would call her among the most devoted followers of Christ the world has ever known. I’m not inspired by her leadership, but by her servanthood.

Leadership has so many words and attributes attached to it in our culture that we’ve completely missed the point. When you think of leadership, you think of terms like vision, authority, command, control, hierarchy, influence, process, and strategy. These aren’t Bible words. These are cultural words that are assumed with the term leadership. When we recruit leaders, we want to develop them, put them in places of purview and influence, let them help us develop mission and strategy and give them the freedom and authority to call some of the shots. Jesus never told us to do any of that. Jesus is the Authority. Jesus is the influencer. Jesus calls the shots. Jesus gave us the mission and strategy. He only told us to follow Him.

Paul knew this when he said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16). How many potential Pauls are out there in our churches today? Very few I would say, with the education, experience, and the God-gifted mind to comprehend and teach so broadly and boldly on the foundational elements of the faith. But how many potential Mother Theresas are there in our churches? People who could right now devote their lives to the poor and those in need and do it simply and effectively and be the very picture of Christ who “did not come to be served but to serve?” I submit the answer is millions.

You want to lead? Follow Jesus instead. Let the first be last and the last be first. Pursue servanthood. Think twice on the leadership books. Spend the hour you were going to spend blogging about leadership instead serving someone who needs a kind word or help with a task. Then let Jesus open the door to show Himself through you to others. That is, for myself at least, in some measure, the result of these thoughts on followship.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.