Last week was the final time our church at the botanical gardens would meet together before splitting apart to multiply into several new church groups. This has been our intention from the inception of this group. Even so, it has been something of a poignant departure: as we withdraw from the primary facilitation of this church and turn over central leadership to those who, when we first came together as a group, were relatively new in the faith. It was coincidental then that the next to last time we met as a large group one of the new leaders said that he wanted to read John 16. He had read it for the first time the night before during some time of prayer, and felt that God had put it on his heart to share with the church. And it struck me, because this was a time I identified with Jesus more than I normally do. “It is good for you that I go away,” Jesus said. “For the time is coming when you will be scattered.” Of course it is obvious and appropriate to interpret Jesus’ words in light of his coming death, but it strikes me that he is speaking of his ascension as well. Jesus has reached the point in his ministry where he must let go for the sake of his disciples. Jesus’ work has matured to the point where he must leave in order to continue leading. And perhaps I was overly influenced by my context in how I heard this passage; then again, perhaps there is something in the leadership of Jesus which we sometimes fail to emulate in our ministry today.
In my cursory investigation, it seems that leadership is perhaps the most popular topic in every field, ministry being far from an exception. At times it seems that there are endless conferences and books about “Christian Leadership;” the last years have seen the entree of “servant leadership” into the vernacular of the evangelical world; it seems, at times, that there are ministers who have made entire careers of public speaking tours about how to lead. So it is natural that we, too, would be asking the question in our work: what is the mark of good leadership? It is a question we are struggling to answer in our context.
I have heard it said that if you want to know whether you’re a good leader, you should look behind and see who is following you. I don’t disagree. There is no such thing as a follower-less leader. But in a culture which obsesses over leadership in the way which ours does, I wonder if there is a more helpful metric for healthy leadership in ministry. What if we set the paradigm differently, perhaps something like: if you want to know whether you’re a good leader, you should see if the work will continue without you. With such a metric, I am inclined to think that we would have fewer ministries which pass muster. Not for lack of skill, I am sure, but perhaps a lack of trust. There are so many skilled ministers who have all of the qualities one would hope for in a leader. I often feel intimidated by the competency and charisma typical of many ministry leaders. But I frequently wonder: how many leaders, particularly in the mission world, are seeking to make themselves replaceable? Although my experience is admittedly limited, I cannot recall many. So many ministers, church planters, project managers, small group leaders, and overseers seem unable or unwilling to replace themselves. We seem to believe that things couldn’t be better off if we weren’t there to manage them, to keep account and oversight.I’m beginning to understand the temptation too. I went to school for a decently long time to develop some skills which didn’t come naturally to me; and I can perform some tasks with greater efficiency and professionalism than many to whom I minister. But at the same time, I limit the effectiveness and reach of my ministry to my own gifts when I don’t see my position as one of empowering others to reproduce or replace me as a minister. And when I search my own heart, I find myself caring about the expertise with which my work is executed more than I do the multiplication of the ministry. I find that when it comes to teaching, facilitating, coaching, mentoring, evangelism, and making decisions, I am probably more concerned with the professionalism of our work than I imagine God is. And I think I sometimes hold tightly to my position, not for the health of the church, but because it makes me feel validated and needed. I think that may be what I really don’t want to give up. Because it’s really messy when you give leadership away. It is difficult to manage the workers when you scatter them out and trust them to do the ministry without you present. And when you’re no longer in charge of the work then you don’t get credit for its success, but you definitely identify with its failure. And ministry requires a lot of failure. But maybe it’s good for the ministry for me to leave. Maybe it’s good for me too. Maybe that is truly what it means to lead like Jesus: to lay down your life and then leave.