I found myself as the 33 year-old Executive Pastor of a 100 year-old church with 20 pastors. The five Associates who reported to me were all over 50. But, even though I was put in this position because the church wanted to change, everything – including all the history – was built on hierarchical power assumptions. I wanted to lead differently; but the system pushed back, Powerless Leadership.
Years later, as the president of a parachurch ministry, I stumbled into some new ways of leading – approaches I bumbled and botched as often as I succeeded. But I was on the road to learning a much more effective – and biblical – approach to church leadership: leading without power.
I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I’ve had issues with power, probably for most of my life. And it’s strangely paradoxical that my struggle with power (as in, I want it, too much) has played a huge role in me being put in roles where I had power. That twisted reality is, I think, a reflection of our church culture buying into broader American power values. No need to harp too much on that — we see nasty abuse of power all around us in the church.
My current employment status (as in, self-employed) is the first time in about 20 years or so that I haven’t had employees who report to me. And I’m starting to see these questions of power and leadership in a new light. Maybe it took a complete lack of power in order for me to learn something about this.
Of course, I’m challenged by Jesus. He’s certainly not powerless. So the question shifts from quantity to quality; or, the question shifts from if one can exercise power to how one exercises power. And, what form that power takes. I’m sure there are a hundred more forms, but here’s a short list of power forms, good, bad and indifferent:
- Positional authority
- Official dispenser of rewards & punishment
- Paycheck signer
- Ability to control
- Truth telling
Jim Collins’ notion of ‘level 5 leadership’, developed first in his book Good to Great, has been messing with me for years. In fact, it has haunted me. The Level 5 leader (a very, very rare leader, by the way) possesses a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” And, at the end of the day, isn’t that a pretty good description of Jesus’ leadership and use of power? It’s also, unfortunately, not the approach to power we see in most churches (or other places of leadership, to be fair).
Let me dive in with this proposal: power-based leadership has no place in the church. (And: power-based leadership is a culturally waning paradigm in all contexts, because we live in a wiki, prosumer culture.)
Sure, we can argue semantics and reframe power in positive ways (like the power of servant leadership). But, for our purposes here, let’s just stick with the more commonly understood (and exercised) concept of power — the ability and practice of exerting influence over others whether they want it or not. That’s the kind of power I’d like to see (mostly) excised from church leadership. (I concede with a little “mostly” there, because if I were the exec pastor or senior pastor of a church today, I’m sure there would be times when I would ‘exert influence over others when they didn’t want it’ — whether I’d be right or wrong is a separate conversation.)
Here’s a paradigmatic shift idea: church leadership needs to move from a paradigm of control to one of facilitation. In this context: facilitation = identifying and nurturing competencies
I picked up this language in a conversation with Dr. Robert Epstein, while talking about how his parenting has shifted, in the midst of a broader conversation about infantilization and extended adolescence. But I’ve started to see that shift’s applicability in so many other contexts of my life. And, really, doesn’t it make great sense as we consider church leadership, and the style of Jesus’ leadership?
Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. For information on booking him at your next event call 615-283-0039.