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The Leadership Cult

Why are we fascinated with the very thing Jesus warned us against?

Not a week goes by before another leadership book or three crosses my desk. In a pile of recent church books sitting in front of me sits The Soul of a Leader, The Leadership Dynamic, and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.

A Google search reveals a plethora of leadership groups, organizations, and institutes of every conceivable name. Want to give a kick-start to your nonprofit? Put leadership and institute in the title, and you have automatic prestige. How's this? "The Galli Institute for Leadership Development." No university or major institution, desperate for new sources of income, can forgo having its own leadership seminars/classes/degrees. Even Disney has gotten into the act with the Disney Institute — "Highlighting the vision and ideals of Walt Disney, Disney Institute is a recognized leader in experiential training, leadership development. …"

In our culture, leadership has become a "cult" — in the sense of an obsessive or faddish devotion. And Christians have been initiated into it. Besides the books that sit before me, there are many others authored by big-name pastors — or former pastors, since some pastors have managed to parlay their leadership insights into whole careers. Christian colleges are all about "developing future leaders." And there's the famous Leadership Network. And Leadership journal. And on it goes.

When Leadership came on to the scene in 1980, not many Christians thought about what it meant to lead an organization. Managing was more the rage. And few people saw the pastor as a leader. Today, it is the rare pastor who does not think of himself first and foremost as a leader who must employ leadership skills to lead his people. Gone are the days when pastors thought of themselves as, well, ministers those who "attend to the wants and needs of others" (American Heritage Dictionary).

What is more revealing is the shift occurring in the pews. In the last decade or so, I've noticed more and more church staffers refer to church volunteers as "leaders." You're a leader if you teach Sunday school to first graders. Or if you tally the offering on Sunday mornings. Or if you pitch in to clean up the kitchen after that church potluck; that shows initiative and sets an example — leadership! Now, everyone is a leader. If you want to make someone feel good, call them a leader or say they show leadership potential.

We are still ambivalent about all this. When we feel queasy about wielding authority, we start waxing eloquent about "servant leadership." The pastor prophetically calls his congregation to deeper obedience — that's serving the people by helping them become better disciples. The president of the nonprofit makes the call to lay off ten people — that's serving the organization by making it trim and financially viable. We've become quite facile at describing any leadership act as service. But I have my doubts. Frankly, a lot of servant leadership talk seems like an attempt to help us feel better about wielding authority.

Wielding authority, of course, has traditionally been the prerogative of men. That is changing, thank God. But little seems to be changing at the core. I've spoken with women who admit that they aspire to positions of leadership because they say they won't feel successful unless they wield authority. If they settle for positions that do not include upfront leadership that influences others, they feel slighted, demeaned. That many women today feel this way can hardly be doubted: men have felt this way for centuries. Men have believed that because a leader is a public figure of influence, well, this makes him the most important person in the community. What a self-esteem rush! I've been in many leadership positions in my life, and I know the drug well.

But of course, this is hogwash. Jesus knew that his followers would be tempted by this lie, so right at the beginning he told them, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you" (Mark 10:42-43). And we reply, "Yeah, yeah, but what about all that leadership potential I've been told I had?" And off we go to another seminar to learn about another six steps to effective leadership. Servant leadership, of course.

Leadership is one of the gifts of the Spirit, to be sure. So we are wise to pay some attention to it. We certainly need leaders who wisely exercise authority among us — which is why we need magazines like Leadership. And make no mistake: While Christian leadership is partly about service, it would not be leadership if it wasn't also about wielding authority. But such leadership is but only one of the gifts. And it's not by any means the most important. Any man or woman who imagines otherwise is, to not put too fine of a point on it, a fool. When it comes to spiritual gifts, St. Paul never suggests that is it something one should strive for — he thinks prophecy is much more important (1 Cor. 14:1). And when Jesus talks about the topic, he tells his followers to reorient their priorities completely: think less about leadership and more about servanthood.

Despite Jesus' strong and clear words, today you won't find many servanthood institutes — how many people would make inquiries of the Galli Institute for Sacrificial and Inconspicuous Service? Few are going to be able to make a career out of leading seminars and writing books that explain the seven principles for giving yourself away in humble acts of love. And you won't find many pastors who subscribe to Servanthood journal, or college presidents who say that they long to "raise up servants for the next generation."

And we wonder why an unbelieving world looks at the church and sees just another Disney Institute.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. Mark replies to comments here and on his blog.

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