How Should We Define ‘Leadership’?

By Randy Gariss

Do you remember the playful but mischievous kid who kept pulling pranks on the foreign exchange student by “coaching” him with the wrong definition to significant words? Well, someone has been playing with the definition of what it means to be a leader in the kingdom! Talking to individuals in the churches about becoming a leader has gotten harder because the term has become a bit blurry.

In the current church landscape there are three different models or templates in use for what it means to be a leader. As a consequence, most everyone who sees himself becoming more of a leader within the church begins to define his function through the lens of one of these models. The model he or she holds will define the kind of leader he or she becomes. These three models have become so common and familiar to us that we hardly even notice two of them are not biblical, and the church is desperate for real leaders.

THE STOREFRONT MODEL

In this model one begins to operate within the church much like the individual who runs the local convenience store or theater. As a leader, you take good care of the people who come to you and need what you have to offer.

The storefront model is used by the popular theme parks. They develop highly dedicated people who are very personable and able to pull off events with excellence. This model is attraction-driven, and requires excellent people skills.

From the church’s perspective it may at first seem like these are leaders we want in our children’s departments or meeting our visitors or teaching our Sunday schools.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with part of the picture this model draws. The problem is the paradigm it creates can never go far enough to be sufficient or biblical. Its major weakness is you develop leaders who are personable, but not personal. They can’t be, because the unceasing events each week with the numbers of people involved are demanding enough. Because this model is event-centered, individual follow-up and personal work with people is frustrated or made impossible.

A second profound weakness with the storefront model is that we are working only with the people who “come.” Our leader becomes focused on those spiritually or relationally healthy enough to stay involved and continue to attend. In essence, this model gives him almost no access to the spiritually weak or discouraged who are absent.

(When I was a kid on the farm, dad would send us boys out to feed cattle, but he was never pleased at our report that “we fed the ones that came.” Oh, they needed fed too, but the sick and the lame that didn’t come were the ones he seemed to think should have had our greatest attention!)

The storefront model of leadership is often the model that larger or active churches succumb to, but it is not the biblical model of leadership.

THE FOREMAN MODEL

In this model of leadership the leader begins to see himself as the decision maker who needs to keep the congregation or ministry “on course.” It can be illustrated by the gentleman who told me he desired to be “more of a leader” within the congregation. I encouraged him to do so, but when I asked him to define what he had in mind, he responded, “I just think I ought to be in that smoke-filled room where the decisions are being made.”

Obviously he was using some humor (I hope), but his point was clear; he viewed real leadership as something centered on control and decision making. It is the job-site concept, where you can identify a leader by the clean clothes he wears and the clipboard he carries. If large churches struggle with the storefront model of leadership, small churches struggle with “foreman leaders.”

This model of leadership does not require that I have an actual title or office, although the “Barney Fife” in all of us likes a badge! No, this is simply about others recognizing that significant decisions eventually have to come through me. There are tyrants as well as good and well-meaning people who hold this view. The problem is, it is exactly opposite of what the Scriptures teach.

Jesus never pointed out a harbor master, efficient Roman governor, or land developer and then said, “Now, imitate them!” No, the opposite is true. He warned his disciples against such leadership (Luke 22:25).

The truth is, decision makers are a dime a dozen and can be found quite readily. Don’t decisions have to be made? Of course! But the “foreman leader” is not the model taught in Scripture, and decision making will never be the primary function of a leader.

THE SHEPHERD MODEL

The unmistakable biblical portrait of a kingdom leader is that of a shepherd. In Ezekiel 34, God’s emotions explode off the page as you see his heart for his people and his frustration with the leaders who fail to be shepherds to them. In John 10, Jesus defines his own life in shepherd terms. Jesus’ “ordination of Peter” in John 21 is entirely couched in shepherd language. Also consider Paul’s or Peter’s passionate commission (Acts 20; 1 Peter 5). No other biblical metaphor on leadership even begins to rival the significance of this central concept.

The shepherding model, by its very nature, requires pursuit and personal involvement in the lives of the Lord’s people. It is the deliberate simplifying of our lives for the sake of investing in the lives of others. The shepherding model does not require offices or titles; it simply requires we come to the point in our own maturity that we are willing to pick up the mantle of responsibility for the care of God’s people. It is a personal decision and a lifestyle long before there is recognition or titles by others.

If you were to go to a land where tending sheep still occurs you would notice shepherding is remarkably simple. It is done by 12-year-old girls and 70-year-old men who simply pour their lives into caring for the creatures put in their charge. And you would also notice it is incredibly vital. The family’s livelihood and the flock’s ability to survive the winter is entrusted to this frail shepherd who keeps watch over the sheep.

From this model God has given us our charge. What a privilege and responsibility we each have!

The tools of a shepherd leader? They will vary according to giftedness and the needs of the flock, but shepherding will be some combination of the ministry of the Word, the ministry of prayer, and the ministry of compassion (Acts 6). So one Christian leader will be in a home studying with a family, another praying with a couple in crisis, while yet another is shingling a roof with a brother. Each shepherds a little differently, but each picks up the mantle of responsibility for the care of God’s people.

It is a high calling, this thing called shepherding. Will a shepherd run events or programs? Absolutely! But the shepherd leader will use the event less as an end unto itself and more as a base for a shepherding lifestyle.

If you teach the 4-year-old class, then teach and give those kids a wonderful experience. But recognize the 4-year-old class allows you to stand at a vital intersection—a shepherd’s intersection. And as a shepherd leader you must simplify your life so you may pursue those families and invest in them far beyond the event and program. Who is in their home praying for them? Who encourages the parents? Who sits with the little girl and mom the day her daddy walks out? Or who even knows? Oh God, please raise up more shepherds!

Do shepherds make decisions? Of course, but it is a sideline, not the central thing. Elders will need to have elders’ meetings, department coordinators will have to organize and administer, but woe to us when those things define our leadership.

The church has had enough clipboard managers and event specialists. It needs its shepherds!




RANDY GARISS is a Missouri native and for 25 years has been the preaching minister of College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri. He and his wife, Julie, have been married 30 years and have three grown children. In his spare time he is a woodworker, building custom furniture. He is author of the DVD series, “A Lifetime Love . . . Building a Marriage You Want to Come Home To.” His undergraduate degree is from Ozark Christian College with a master’s degree from Cincinnati Bible Seminary.

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