Tag Archives: pastoral ministry

Should pastors reject the language of leadership?

I’ve spent most of my professional life studying and applying leadership principles. In Seminary, I took a class called “Organizational Leadership.” After Seminary I continued to read books and listen to podcasts (Rainer on Leadership) that addressed different aspects of ministry leadership. Meanwhile, in my “secular” job I moved quickly to the role of Tech Lead and, for several years now, have been functioning as a Project Manager. Project Managers who are certified through Project Management Institute, which I am, maintain their certification by reading books and watching videos on the topic of leadership.

I recognized early on that pastoral leadership and corporate leadership are quite different. I also learned (though it took me quite a bit longer) that I was better suited to the corporate leadership setting.

Pastoral training

Seminaries and other Christian institutions train pastors to be leaders. They school them in the language of leadership and leadership principles and practices. Prospective pastors read books like The Leadership Challenge and Good to GreatChurches expect pastors to be good preachers, care for their members, and lead their church to a brighter tomorrow. 

Scot McKnight and a Church Called Tov

While some people welcome and celebrate the modern American emphasis on leadership, Scot McKnight roundly rejects this shift. He (and co-author and daughter Laura Barringer) have written the book A Church Called Tov which describes the difference between churches with a toxic culture and churches with a “tov” (the Hebrew word for “goodness”) culture. Churches with toxic cultures shape toxic people. Churches with tov cultures shape Christlike people. 

McKnight’s final chapter distinguishes between churches that view the pastor as a “leader” (toxic culture) as opposed to churches that view the pastor as a shepherd (tov culture). 

Here’s how he states the problem: “Something radical has seeped into the church in the last fifty years. The American meritocracy has reshaped pastors and churches, and a new culture has taken root, based on achievement and accomplishment rather than holiness or Christlikeness.”

He directly ties the culture of achievement to the language of leadership: “Churches… now define pastor with business-culture terms, a pastor is a ‘leader,’ and a leader is defined by the meritocratic system of American culture.” Again, “When pastors are defined primarily as leaders–or entrepreneurs or visionaries–they’ve already ceased to be pastors in any biblical sense.”

He gives several signs of this unbiblical turn. Pastors are now expected to produce measurable results, like increased attendance and expanded giving. They are trained to look at the Bible as a leadership manual. They think about things like “branding” and “customer satisfaction.” 

McKnight is concerned that by calling pastors “leaders”, “we run the risk of their losing contact with the spiritual calling and [start] to shape the culture toward an institution or business run by a CEO.” By using the language of leadership, we lose the biblical vision of pastoral shepherding and flatten the picture of the church to that of an institution or business that produces a consumable product. 

The “spiritual calling” he refers to in the previous paragraph is what Eugene Peterson calls “spiritual direction,” or formation toward Christlikeness. McKnight states, “The role of pastor, then, is to mentor people into Christlikeness” and “become more like Jesus.”

In short, McKnight argues that we have allowed a secular vision of leadership based on meritocracy and measurable accomplishments to define the pastoral role. We inadvertently do this, in part, by referring to pastors as leaders. In contrast, we should allow the bible to define the pastoral role and that, in turn, to define the nature of pastoral leadership. We should let the term pastor define what sort of leader a pastor should be, not let the term leader, as shaped by American meritocratic values, define what a pastor should be.

Leadership Means and Ends

McKnight uses the term “leadership” primarily to refer to the values and goals of modern business. Businesses value success and achievement. They aim to gain market share, make money, and satisfy more customers. A church that adopts these values and ends values high “performing” individuals who can fill the pews and improve the church’s image to outsiders. With that understanding of leadership in mind, I agree with McKnight’s critique. 

At least in my formal education, however, leadership was not presented in this way. Instead, authors like Kouzes and Posner provide leadership principles unconcerned with values and ends. Consider Kouzes and Posner’s five leadership practices in The Leadership ChallengeModel the wayInspired a shared visionChallenge the Process, and Enable others to act, and Encourage the heart. All these practices have an analog in Scripture. 

  • Model the way: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). 
  • Inspire a shared vision: Paul often presents an ideal picture of the future toward which his churches should strive (see Ephesians 4:14-16). 
  • Enable others to act: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12). 
  • Challenge the process: Jesus challenged the Pharisees and their way of relating to God. 
  • Encourage the heart: “But your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it” (Deuteronomy 1:38).

None of these “leadership” practices imply, by themselves, corporate values of achievement and success. The organization, or the leader, will instead use (or misuse) these practices to achieve the goals that they define. They can be used to fill the pews (if your “shared vision” is a full church) or form a church family to Christlikeness (if your “shared vision” is a church growing to become spiritually mature.)

I think McKnight leaves room for this sort of nuance by adding that the church needs good leaders, but I think he may overemphasize the role that the language of leadership by itself shapes church culture. 

Perhaps McKnight’s greatest contribution is to show that churches and pastors should not uncritically adopt the values and goals of the corporate leadership culture. The two have different goals and objectives. That is not to say that churches are superior to businesses. Businesses often have goals that extend beyond profits. The “shared vision” where I work as a project manager is to “invent the future of flight and bring them home safely.” Both of these goals – innovation and safety – contribute to the broader common good. But, my pastoral role and project management role were still different. While I aimed to serve Christ in both fields in only one field did I am to make people more Christlike. While some leadership practices, like those listed above, are easily transferrable across fields, others are not. Pastors and churches practice wisdom when they let the Bible, not the business world, define both the ends and means of the pastoral role.