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5 Images of a Gospel-Centered Leader (and the Need to Hold It All Together)

Don't Pick Just One

There is a leadership crisis in the local church. When we look around, we see different visions of leadership competing for our devotion. We set these visions against one another—the convictional theologian against the soulful contemplative, for example. We choose the one we think is best. Living from insecurity, we exaggerate our favorite leadership image, and it crowds out the others. God didn’t intend this. If we step back, we can see that God’s own leadership is a beautiful mosaic. God’s own complexity is the most appropriate model for leadership in a complex world.

Whether we know it or not, we all have an image in our heads that drives our work as leaders. I argue that, more often than not, our image of leadership is adapted from the images of leadership we see around us. My goal isn’t to compare and contrast them. Don’t pick just one. Rather, I believe each of these leadership visions can be rooted and redeemed in our doctrine of God. The best leaders exemplify them all. The best teams are those where each of the strengths is present. There are five distinctive images of Christian leadership in the American church:

1. All about Truth: The Theologian

He’s a thinking man. His congregation sits eagerly and attentively to hear his nuanced insights about the Bible. He also has convictions of steel. You admire how his tribe knows what is right and stays committed to truth in the midst of a hostile culture. He has something to live for, and he’s willing to die for it. His danger is becoming part of the “frozen chosen.” Exaggerated dogmatism stifles innovation. Frozen in time, he misses out on fresh ideas he’d learn by collaborating with others. If he lacks humility, he demonizes creativity and spontaneity. He loses the power to communicate his convictions with beauty and love. If he doesn’t take risks, he quenches the Spirit. He misses opportunities to win souls to the truth.

Convictional leaders embody their beliefs. Many leaders are blown and tossed around by the latest ministry fads. But when God speaks, he is always true to himself. We need conviction to listen to God’s voice and get in line with what he says.

2. All about Connection: The Innovator

He’s the young cutting-edge guy whose teaching is engaging and relevant. He doesn’t just preach it. He lives a life of creative contextualization, effectively reaching others and doing the work of an evangelist. This leader always has new ideas for reaching his community, and they always seem to work. He breathes new life where there was only dust. He transforms dead declarations into lyrics the whole church can sing. His temptation will be to place too much value on what’s original and “cutting edge.” If his dreams aren’t rooted in reality, his team accomplishes nothing.

Creative leaders imagine the way forward. God has a plan to take your leadership chaos and make it beautiful. He has given us imagination so we can inspire others to follow his redeemed vision for the future.

He has given us imagination so we can inspire others to follow his redeemed vision for the future.

3. All about Mission: The Activist

She’s the millennial dream packaged up as a professional minister. Her rapidly growing nonprofit feeds the homeless, cares for crisis pregnancies, or wins prostitutes to Jesus. When you’re tempted to become a complacent Christian, you hear her cry, “Take the hill!” Her passion is inspiring. She fights to the finish. The trouble is that sometimes the courageous leader isn’t leading the mission so much as running over everyone else. Daring leaders are dangerous when they lack compassion. The brave leader needs to look behind her—not just ahead. She needs a collaborative friend to help bring her followers along.

Courageous leaders take risks. Since God has sent us and the Spirit empowers us, we can leave behind what hinders and step out in faith. We can move forward to meet the challenges within and the challenges ahead.

4. All about Organization: The Good Manager

He’s a business executive who could do anything but has decided to order his church like a well-oiled machine. His motto: “Get it done.” He seems to have a discipleship program for every problem. He is the organizational CEO. The collaborative leader builds consensus and mobilizes an army. When he leads, every party feels respected and heard. Every player—from the janitorial staff to the financial accountability team—owns the mission and knows his role. The collaborative leader’s temptation is a lack of urgency. If a team becomes a bureaucracy, decisions come at a glacial pace. If they focus on one another more than results, the mission stagnates.

Collaborative leaders empower others. They know that working with others is better than leading alone. God has created us for community. We need a team to grow, develop, and strengthen one another for bigger and better things.

5. All about Depth: The Soulful Leader

She hasn’t been to a conference in years, but everyone at the Christian retreat center knows her by name. Her prayer life is powerful. Her life is marked by radical transparency, deep vulnerability, and holy desire. Her constant prayer is “Abba Father, I trust you.” You admire her, because she always seems to be at the pinnacle of emotional health. The contemplative leader never loses her first love. Even in the coldest season of life and ministry, her heart is warm. She practices God’s presence, and when she’s healthy, she comforts and leads with care. If she’s not healthy, contemplation warps and bends inward. She may become an experience junkie—filling her calendar with retreats and little else. She may lose herself in navel gazing, asking, “How do I get out of this prayer labyrinth?”

Contemplative leaders are fully awake to God. For leadership to be sustainable over the long haul, we need communion. We must abide in God in order to encourage the hearts of those we lead.

Putting It All Together

These differing visions of leadership are all necessary within the church, but unfortunately they often compete for our devotion. Sinful leaders often divide things God reveals as a whole. We see problems but then overreact by exaggerating one aspect of doctrine or leadership while neglecting or compartmentalizing others. Evangelicals tend to run in tribal packs. Culture-making, creative leaders join the church downtown near the gallery district. Justice-seeking, courageous leaders move into the poorest neighborhoods. Executives build a comfortable church in the suburbs. What emerges is a church made in the image and likeness of its leaders.

It’s tempting to surround ourselves with leaders who are just like us. A convictional leader has a tendency to marginalize a creative one. He loves his own style, so he clamors for more stalwart and dogmatic young leaders to join his team. In the process, he misses the complementary perspectives his followers really need. We must acknowledge our narrow gifts and perspective and allow others to challenge us. We are one body with many parts (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:12). We want God to work through our gifts and shine his glory through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)—even if that means our strengths fade into the background.

God imagines something better than our tribalism. He envisions holistic leaders who embody each aspect of the leadership mosaic. And he imagines all kinds of leaders working together to create a beautiful mosaic. He wants us to sharpen one another so that every leader grows in conviction, creativity, courage, collaboration, and contemplation—whether it’s our strength and preference or not. No leader and no aspect of leadership should be forfeited.

Jesus revealed a better way. He shows us how our fractured ideas about leadership fit together. When a leader hears God’s voice, he’s moved from a life of coveting and comparing to one of creatively applying deep convictions. When we make room to experience God’s presence, we see that he is big and people are small. There’s no reason to compete or confine, so we collaborate with courage. Through communion with God, we can step out of our compulsions.

Like assorted pieces of rock and stone, leaders come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re searching for a vision of leadership that encompasses the whole, it’s easy to get lost. The “big picture” is beautiful, but part of what makes it amazing is that it’s made up of small bits that are meaningless on their own. There is a difference between broken glass on the sidewalk and a shimmering mosaic hanging on a museum wall. On their own, these images of Christian leadership are just shards of colorful glass on the ground. But, together they form a complex, intricately beautiful work of art.

Leadership is: Knowing where people need to go (conviction & creativity) and taking the initiative to get them there (courage) in God’s way and by God’s power (collaboration & contemplation).

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