As a whole, I am very grateful for the emphasis given to the discipline of church leadership over the past two decades. Given the dearth of such training for pastors throughout much of the twentieth century, coupled with the enormous changes that have taken place in the pastoral role, the study and practice of sound leadership principles is absolutely essential.
At the same time, I have grave concerns over how a discipline that has provided great help to pastors is beginning, in some sectors of the church, to be viewed as a "magic pill."
From the turn of the 20th century until around 1930, American business culture subscribed largely to what has become known as "Great Man Theory." In order for a company to be a success, a "great man" with inherently extraordinary skills in leadership and management was needed, and all would be well. This age culminated with the celebration of Ford Motor Company and the invention of the "assembly line" of Henry Ford.
Over the next several decades, leadership theory evolved from the view of the "great man" to "group theory" (1930-1940), "trait theory" (1940-1950), "behavior theory" (1950-1960), "situational theory" (1960-1970), and "excellence theory" (1980s). While the history of western leadership philosophy is more complex than this, these categories are the generally accepted description of our philosophical evolution regarding this discipline.
The church of course, finally caught up with culture in the 1960s, when seminaries began to charge their schools of Christian Education with teaching leadership principles to aspiring ministers of the Gospel. Today, leadership as an academic discipline is viewed by many seminaries as equal in importance to the study of theology. While sound theology is an essential and foundational qualification for pastoral ministry, it is also true that sound theology without leadership skills results in knowledge wasted on onesself and a orthodox church immobilized by its own pastor.
Still, over the past few decades, leadership studies have grown to the extent that, in the church, we are almost seeing the return of the "Great Man" theory. Less than a decade ago in a conference on church planting, the late Rick Ferguson stated that if you have the "right leader," you could drop him into a barren area, with no money and no other outside support, and he would grow a church. Such statements are now commonplace in seminars and conferences on pastoral leadership.
I recognize these statement as a bit hyperbolic. Still, I ain't buyin' the point!
We spend an inordinate amount of time today with assessing potential leaders, and this is especially true in church planting. On the whole, this is as it should be. Certainly experience has told us that someone seeking to plant a church with deficient leadership skills will most likely fail. The problem come when we move beyond this base understanding of the neccesity of leadership to claim the mantra of John Maxwell that has reverberated in church life to the extent that most now look in Scripture to find it: "Everything rises and falls on leadership." But is this really true?
The fact is that great leaders fail. I have seen it personally. I remember the first church plant I ever had to "shut down." I remember meeting the planter over a four-hour lunch. I remember the bitter tears. I remember making plans with him to "re-locate" the remaining families. I remember hearing his exasperated prayers to God of "where did I go wrong?" I remember thinking with him about how he would now support his family. And I also remember thinking "we assessed this guy, and we told him he had the leadership skills to successfully plant this church." According to our "great man" mentality, this was all we needed, right?
This is the hypocritical irony I have seen in church planting systems across the methodological and denominational spectrum. We assess a guy, tell him he is the "right leader" for a plant, and then when it fails, 99% of the time our response is "this was a leadership issue."
I don't deny that many failures can be credited to a deficiency in leadership, but those who are always so quick to point out the failure at this level sometimes forget that it takes more than a "great man" to build a great church. If you question that statement, you need only take a brief look at the life of an Old Testament leader.
The time is just before the wilderness wandering. The place is Kadesh, and Moses has just sent out twelve spies in order to plot out the best way to take the land God had promised His people. Ten of the twelve return with "doomsday" predictions about their chances. Apparently, they had forgotten that their objective was to report on the "status" of the enemy, not give their opinion of whether they should do what God had already commanded.
Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, are ready to obey. Unfortunately, the people of Israel side with the pessimists, and God's people spend the next four decades wandering . . .and dying!
Without a doubt, this is one of the most colossal "failures" in the history of any nation! The question is, was this a "leadership issue?" Perhaps Moses should have spent more time discovering how to "develop the leaders around him."
Or, just perhaps, this was a "truth" issue. Just maybe, Moses really was God's man, whom God's people simply rejected. Bill Hybels wouldn't have been pleased at all with this kind of turnout, but in recounting his life, the writer of Hebrews certainly seems to think Moses a "great leader" (Hebrews 11:23-30)
Needless to say, if a man with a failure like this on his record is referred to by Scripture as a "great leader," and we are currently assessing nearly every ministry failure as a "leadership problem," we should probably rethink our definition of "leadership." And as we are rethinking our definition, maybe it would be helpful to look to Scripture to find our parameters. In the case of Moses, his great leadership was centrally characterized, not by "success" or "acheivement," but instead by faith, conviction, obedience, values, and boldness.
Contrary to Maxwell's popular cliche, everything does not "rise and fall" on leadership. Everything rises and falls on the Word of God. Effective, godly, skilled leaders are desperately needed, and the work of church planting in particular cannot happen without such individuals. But such individuals are not a "magic pill" that cures all that is wrong with the church. This realization will guard our hearts from bowing to the idol of "personality," and empower us to undergird the right leadership with all that is essential to grow God's Kingdom