A Feature Review of
Unleader: Reimagining Leadership … and Why We Must
Reviewed by Mike Bishop.
Ten years ago I was in the middle of an identity crisis. To be more precise, it was a pastoral identity crisis. I had trained for several years to be a church planter and had moved to South Florida in 2001 to do just that. But things did not go according to plan. In fact, any plans I did have were probably not going to take shape for ten years at least. We were asking big questions: What is church? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this new century? And of course, what is the true nature of Christian leadership?
That last question had wrecked me as a pastor. Everything I thought I knew about leadership had been challenged, and frankly, I was paralyzed. It wasn’t that the models of leadership in my past were bad, it was that God was now asking me to pastor a group of people in a way completely foreign to me or anyone I knew. Could I be a pastor without being “the guy in charge?” Could I create an environment where there was trust, mutual submission, love… true community? Would those who God had given me to serve willingly choose to apprentice themselves to Jesus? These were the questions that kept me up at night, and I did not feel up to the task. What does a leader with these questions in mind, well, lead? Eugene Peterson counseled me through his writings that I needed to pray, so I prayed. My background in the Vineyard taught me to wait on the Holy Spirit, so I waited. But most of the time I felt hopelessly lost, alone, and not much like a leader.
In fact, I had come to the point where I began to question the need for leadership at all. There were so many bad examples of what not to do, that it made pursing anything different seem impossible. Maybe the answer was to just do nothing and hope for the best. About this time, I was at a seminar with one of my mentors, Todd Hunter. During a conversation on this topic, he made a comment that freed me from my paralysis: “The answer to bad leadership isn’t no leadership, it’s good leadership.” Right then, I knew there was no turning back. I had to learn how this good leadership worked and try to become one.
Around the same time, Lance Ford, the author of Unleader: Reimagining Leadership … and Why We Must was undergoing a similar transformation as a pastor. As a young church planter, a troublesome man had said to him in frustration, “You’re not a pastor. You’re just a church builder.” In spite of the anger behind those words, they were true. “He was right. It was not that I didn’t love people. The problem was that I was more into building a church than I was into building the people who were the church. Like so many other church planters, I was consumed with developing my vision of church. And though I constantly preached that the church was the people, my obsession with developing the systems, organization, and expansion of our church betrayed what I really believed in the basement of my heart. I was a leader, not a servant. I was building a leadership culture, not one of servantship.” (93) Through this experience, Ford succinctly describes what has been created over the past generation as countless pastors have built churches based on a leadership culture. We have become experts in organizations and programs and getting stuff done, but have forgotten that Jesus is calling us to serve.
Ford strongly argues against the idea of “senior pastor” (or a closed group of elders, depending on your denomination) who is the vision-caster, world-creator, and spiritual guide. Depending on the charismatic acumen of that leader, the church will either blossom into a viable organization or be trapped in the cycle of a benevolent dictatorship. Ford’s best challenge to “God’s One Dude” leadership comes from scriptures such as Acts 11:30, 14:23, 20:17, Phil. 1:1, James 5:14, and Titus 1:5. “What is missing in these passages and the entire New Testament is any intimation whatsoever of senior pastors, chief among equals, or one-man-rule/the-buck-stops-here leaders. The proverbial ‘buck’ stops at the feet of the Holy Spirit, who resides in those he calls as a collective body of wisdom” (121). Sadly, in place of the Holy Spirit, the church has accepted “Jesus jerks” who mask their aspirations and need for control with poor exegesis and threats about God-given authority. “When we go along with leaders like this, we are not honoring authority but enabling ungodliness” (79). The leadership culture creates a caustic environment of distrust where leaders and followers share an unhealthy codependency. The resulting, painful question is, “Why do we believe that Jesus can’t be trusted to lead his own church?” (140).
This is where Unleader shines as a prophetic voice to the leadership culture and those who are ensnared within. Ford encourages us all to first, relax. “We need to lighten up and just let the life of God flow through us. Children have the ability to self-organize enough to make the game work just fine without getting uptight about it” (124). This is beautiful advice for a church seduced by growth and success. He then lays out a vision for Christian leadership that is rightly subordinate to King Jesus and under the authority of the Holy Spirit. This vision – servantship – is one that agrees with fundamental scriptural concepts such as plurality of giftings, church as the family of God, and a culture built on love. He unequivocally affirms the need for Christian leadership. This is not a vision of a free-for-all church. On the contrary, it is a calling to lead like Jesus, the suffering servant.
Servantship, in practice, is the most difficult style of leadership. It’s easy to “build a church” if you have a strong enough voice and get enough people to listen. But creating an environment where the Holy Spirit is free to work in the lives of real people, as Lance Ford advocates here, to see them transformed into whole human beings, to nurture a true spiritual family, is a whole other matter.
Mike Bishop is the author of the recent book What is Church? [ Read our review… ]