A Fresh Look at Leadership

In a recent New York Times column, “Help Wanted: Leadership”, Thomas Friedman echoes what many are asking: where is the leadership so critical for today’s turbulent world? Just returning from both the Middle East and Africa, a big part of the chaos and hunger and instability I witnessed can be laid at the feet of dysfunctional leaders. But the absence of leadership also explains why so many churches are adrift without any clear, forward movement.

I began to imagine what it might look like if leaders from different realms began to listen to one another, with a view to learning how to become better leaders. Picture three people at a table: Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, President Barak Obama, and Pastor Eugene Peterson. What might be each one’s leadership lesson for the other?  I’ve been actually thinking about this for some months, and I am here in San Francisco to present a paper on the subject.

Howard Schultz might speak to the issue of performance. Leaders who ably lead in a corporate world pay attention to metrics. They have to to survive. Would an employee work at the highest level if there were no indicators of success? Would a company know how to forecast if there wasn’t come measurement? Metrics are what give an intrinsic sense of accomplishment, of meeting the goals.

Pastors might begin to nod off, assuming all of this corporate talk is irrelevant to ministry.  But is it?  Could it be that the reason so many ministries are drifting in mediocrity comes back to leaders who have not established any clear goals?  If we are truly honest, some of the avoidance of metrics comes back to accountability.  What if we really began to pay attention to how many guests return, how many attendees are getting into the story, and what percentage of members are actually becoming transformed?  God apparently has His measureables. One day we will all stand to give an account for our lives (Heb 13:17).

On the other side of the table, Barak Obama might say that effective leadership begins with having the right plan.  Leaders worth their weight create a state of mind, a common vision, and this begins with setting the framework, the agenda. I’ve noticed that the difference between great and not so great Presidents goes back to the agenda they stake their presidency on.  A good agenda gives voice to what goes deep in the constituency one is leading.  It must be clear enough to be obvious, and one must hang on no matter the challenges.  Leaders like Roosevelt and Reagan are remembered for coming out of the gate with a national agenda that addressed the real concerns of a nation and turned the tide.  And it served their leadership well.

Is there something here for pastoral leadership as well?  I believe so.  What if pastors were more intentional to set an agenda for their ministry?  Give voice to the concerns of their congregation? Focus the resources and energies in a clear direction?  Isn’t this at the heart of leadership?

Finally, Eugene Peterson might say that pastoral leadership has something to add to the discussion as well.  He might first acknowledge that he is somewhat suspicious of the whole subject.  Pastors tend to become so enamored with other leadership models that they lose sight of their calling.  Peterson has written plenty about pastors who metamorphose into shopkeepers and religious entrepreneurs about the task of marketing god.

But he might nonetheless say that true pastoral leadership might make the greatest contribution of all to the subject of leadership.  Pastors have this God-given role of grounding us in certain essential realities critical to transformative leadership. Here are some realities every true leader must come to grips with: first, leaders, for all of their stated importance, are not as critical as they might assume. There is this tendency for humility to recede as leadership advances.  The world is strewn with the wreckage of leaders who, caught up with their significance, eventually implode. The best leaders come to realize that leadership is ultimately a result of grace and is thoroughly dependent upon the wisdom of One beyond themselves.  If leadership is sustained, it will be because a leader becomes full of God, not full of self.  Such leadership may appear less impressive on the world stage, but it has actually become quite dangerous to the status quo, and from an eternal perspective, makes the greatest impact.

The second reality is that those a leader leads are people who cannot be reduced to customers who purchase nor diminished to constituents who vote. Great leaders respect their followers, honoring this realism: people are made in the image of God, are objects of God’s love, and must be guided to live out their God given purpose.  This is true servanthood, which in turn is true leadership.

It’s my conviction that pastoral leaders who respect the corporate world, who pay attention to metrics; pastors who learn from the political world and set the right agenda; and pastors who have a true sense of who they are, who people are, and what God intends leadership to be, can become the leaders critical for today’s turbulent world. And God knows we need them!

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.