Over the past few years I have heard the same story from several different churches; a talented and popular pastor steps down under pressure from the church elders. Usually the pastor has been at the church for many years, sometimes he is the one who planted the church. The church grew under his leadership and to the average attender the church is healthy. There is no moral lapse, no money missing, no hint of scandal. Why did the elders force the pastor out? In each case the staff and leaders are worn down from the leadership style of the pastor. They are fearful, wounded and burned out. After months, or even years, of attempts to bring organizational health the elders finally decide there has to be a change. They ask, and then require, that the pastor step aside. How does this happen?
I believe it often comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of healthy leadership; the pastor confuses leadership with control, he operates through authority which flows from his position. He believes his role is to hire people who will execute his vision for the church. Staff members who execute the vision are promoted, staff members who do not execute the vision are punished or fired. The measuring stick for health is results, and for many years a talented pastor can get results. Eventually, however, the body count of discarded staff and wounded leaders becomes a price too high and the pastor finds himself on the outside looking in.
Confusing leadership with control is something we learn from a very young age.
“Why? Because I’m your mother!”
“Do what the teacher says.”
“When I say ‘Jump’ your only question is, ‘How high?’”
“The boss makes those decisions.”
We come to believe the higher we climb the more leadership (i.e. control) we can exert. We dream of the day we can call the shots, we can make the decisions, we can set the course because we are now in charge.
There are many situations where control is necessary. When my three-year old granddaughter decides riding her scooter in the street is her highest priority her mother uses her authority to curb Maggie’s enthusiasm. This, however, isn’t leadership. It is tight control for a specific situation. Leadership is something very different.
Subconsciously I held this erroneous view of leadership for a long time. Although I read everything John Maxwell wrote, as well as dozens of other leadership books, deep down I believed that to lead I needed authority. I could only exercise the skills I’d learned if I had the right position from which to lead. As I moved up the positional ladder I exerted control through authority. I thought I was leading, but all I was really doing was treating people like three-year olds. Inside I longed for more authority, a higher position, so I could exercise more leadership. I understand how this blind spot about leadership becomes destructive.
Over the past few years I’ve finally come to understand that leadership, the kind of leadership Jesus demonstrated, is influence that flows from relationship. Growing as a leader isn’t about exerting more control from a higher position, growing as a leader is experiencing more influence through deeper relationships. As a leader matures control and authority fade. People follow not because they are have to, they follow because they know their leader loves them, listens to them and wants to see them become the fully developed person God created them to be. They follow because they know the primary goal of their leader is to serve.
After three years leading a group of 12 men Jesus had a choice; he could exert his authority as God to force these followers to execute his vision, or he could get down on his knees and wash their feet:
“Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.” John 13:3-5 (NLT)
As pastors (and spouses, parents, managers and coaches) we live as though Jesus’ model of leadership doesn’t apply to us. We control, we dictate and we require rather than serve. Outwardly we agree that leadership is influence flowing from relationship but internally we believe leadership is control flowing from authority. That is why followers are fearful, wounded and bitter and elders ask successful pastors to step away from the church they love.
What are the implications of Jesus model of leadership? Here are a few ides on applying relational leadership to our everyday situation:
- A org chart doesn’t make a leader
- You don’t need more authority to lead at a higher level
- If you want to grow as a leader invest in relationships
- The ultimate test of a leader’s heart is how well he serves his followers
- Growth doesn’t always equal health; nothing grows faster than weeds
What about you, do you lean more toward leadership from position or leadership from relationship?