Defining Leadership: What Is It and Why Does It Matter in Church?

Leadership is a key component in the health of any church or ministry.
Defining Leadership: What Is It and Why Does It Matter in Church?
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“Great men lead people,” Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ said. “But greater men train leaders.” As leaders we are called not only to raise up followers, but also to equip leaders. How we define Christian leadership is the crucial starting point.

When I teach leadership, I walk through a few definitions, including:

“Leadership is a dynamic process in which a man or woman with God-given capacity influences a specific group of God’s people toward His purposes for the group.” (Robert Clinton)

“Leadership is influence, nothing more nothing less.” (John Maxwell)

“The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” (Peter Drucker)

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” (Warren Bennis)

Here is the definition I use today:

Christian leadership is a process of influencing a community to use their God-given gifts toward a goal and purpose as led by the Holy Spirit.

But, how does this work? And, how is Christian leadership different?

A Skill?

A common debate about leadership involves whether leaders are made or born. On the one hand, some believe leadership is simply a skill to be developed. On the other, some think there are natural born leaders, with no refining or development necessary. The answer lies in between these two extremes.

There’s no doubt some are born with a combination of characteristics that easily opens doors for leadership.

However, there are additional skills of leadership one can learn.

In his book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin observes how we’ve overestimated the importance of being born with great ability—leadership, sports, music, or other areas—and underestimated the power of deliberate, intentional practice to improve [1].

Regardless of our starting point we can grow as leaders.

I am struck by the reaction people have after taking a leadership class. They feel empowered because they have learned skills to better lead a congregation or ministry. They LEARNED to lead, inside the gift set and wiring God had already given them.

Therefore, whether leadership comes naturally to us or not, we can learn to lead better, often by developing skills. Sometimes those are pure leadership skills, but sometimes they are skills that support leadership.

When it comes to leadership, growing in specific skills allows us to better serve God’s people by leading them well. Growing as disciples personally includes developing as a leader specifically.

Shared Power

Christian leadership— the kind that honors God— is not about the accumulation of power. Rather, it is about empowering others.

Theologian John Stott said it best when he said:

The authority by which the Christian leader leads is not power, but love, not force, but example, not coercion, but reasoned persuasion. Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.

There are different types of power when it comes to leadership. For example, there is the type of power that allows you to hire and fire members of your staff. However, if that is the only power you use, it is not Christian leadership, because “people development works best through inspiration, not authority” [2].

Part of that power means we seek to elevate others. Too often, church leaders focus on their specific and more immediate tasks—preaching the Word, leading in worship, discipling students—to the neglect of the more long-term, yet equally vital, role of developing and releasing leaders. This has been something I’ve increasingly focused on—perhaps more so as I’ve grown older.

Here’s a personal example shared with permission. Some few years ago when I was at Lifeway Research, our team spotted a leader with great potential. It’s not that he failed to live up to his potential. He did. However, we believed that he could take on a greater leadership role.

Daniel Im was a staff member at a church in Canada when we brought him to LifeWay. When he came, I told him that I had two things I wanted to see as we served together.

First, I wanted him to help me create a platform for NewChurches, a resource that helps church leaders grow their congregations. He led the NewChurches.Com initiative so well that the podcast we do with Todd Adkins is now the most listened to church planting podcast in the world, with over one million downloads.

Then, I shared with Daniel that I want to elevate his voice. Today, Daniel is one of the best-known leaders in church planting, through his work with NewChurches.Com, co-authoring the updated Planting Missional Churches, and growing New Churches.

I used my “power,” but I used it to bring a new voice into leadership.

When we find ourselves in positions of power, we have to be willing, as Stott said, to view our role as leaders as opportunities to serve others through love. Remember our purpose is to help others and bring glory to God.

Understanding the role of power in leadership helps us do both of those things. Great leaders who understand how to use their power will take more blame than they deserve, give more credit to others than might be warranted, and give their leadership authority away to others whenever possible.

Leaders Are Not Perfect

One of the hardest aspects of leadership is managing expectations. Our leadership skills will not always be perfectly practiced in our lives. I’ve struggled and failed as a leader, and I’ve struggled and failed as a Christian.

I’m grateful God hits good licks with crooked sticks [3]. Leadership is defining reality, and a central reality of leadership is to point people to a perfect Jesus, not an imperfect leader.

If we define Christian leadership as obediently following God’s leading by using the gifts God gives us, then humility and openness can help us to develop as we lead others towards God’s kingdom.

Thus, leaders need people speaking into our lives as well. Our role as Christian leaders should be focused on the God we follow and the people we serve. When those realities are present, we will lead well.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair at Wheaton College, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

[1] Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 7.

[2] Ibid., p. 134.

[3] Though this statement is sometimes attributed to Spurgeon, its source is unknown.

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Defining Leadership: What Is It and Why Does It Matter in Church?