The Death of Leadership: Christ, Co-Leading, and Missional Living

October 6, 2011

by Geoff Holsclaw / Read Geoff’s blog / Follow Geoff on Twitter

In these postmodern times we are used to hearing of the death of the author, the death of the text, and even the death of the book (unless you have a Kindle).  Well, today, it is the death of leadership, for Christ our leader is the Crucified One, and what servant is greater that his master?  But many have not heard of this death.  It has been drowned out by the dearth of leadership books, even Christian leadership books, and I’m sure many of us, and myself included, have read them.  But while these leadership books, and conferences, and seminars tell of many helpful things, but they do not know of the Crucified Christ.  And this makes all the difference.  They lack a leadership that lives through the cross.  According to the pattern of the Crucified Christ I believe missional leadership must nurture new structures, new processes, and new people who will lead through living and dying in Christ.

Philippians Hymn

Few turn to the hymn of Philippians 2 as a leadership model, so hopefully we are on the verge of something indeed.  Here we find a pattern, or model of Christian leadership and community.  It is the narrative of Christ, of the incarnation, of the gospel.  And if leaders do not practice it, then the community will not follow it, and then the lost will not see it, and they will not get it even when they hear it.

Philippians 2:5-11

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

6 Who, although being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest placeand gave him the name that is above every name,10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There is a three part pattern to this passage.  It is the pattern of althoughdid not—but. Although. Christ has the very status, or being, of God, he did not take advantage of his status and use it selfishly.  But rather humbled himself in his incarnation (“being made in human likeness”) and crucifixion (“by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross”).  And the result is that God works, God exalts, God saves in Christ.  This hymn to Christ reveals the pattern of our lives, the pattern by which we related with one another.  It is the pattern by which we learn the death of leadership.

Indeed, the apostle Paul who uses this hymn to exhort the Philippians to Christ-likeness.  But Paul did not leave them without an example, but rather understood and practiced his own apostolic ministry according to this same narrative pattern.  In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul speaks about the rights of an apostle to receive funds for their ministries.  But Paul did not exercise this right, but worked to pay his own way.  And he also claims that while he has the right of freedom in all things, he does not exercise this right selfishly, but rather became a slave of all for the sake of the gospel.  What does that sound like?  It sounds exactly like Christ in the Philippians Hymn.  And even within the very contentious issue of slavery Paul did not lay down the apostolic hammer on Philemon so that he would release Onesimus.  But instead he acted in love toward Philemon, seeking his consent on the matter.  This, then, is the death of leadership that Paul points us toward when he speaks of Christ, a cruciform leadership that lays down it rights and its status in love and becomes a servant to all.

At Life on the Vine

Because of this pattern in Christ I believe missional leadership must nurture new structures, new processes, and new people who will lead according to Christ’s example.  At Life on the Vine we try to live this out.

For us, leadership at the highest level is structured as a co-pastorate.  There is no ‘senior’ or ‘lead’ pastor where the buck finally stops, where the decisions are finally made, where final authority resides.  While our community was planted by one person, David Fitch, he very quickly brought me on as a co-pastor.  And then later we brought on a third co-pastor to balance out the giftings among us.  We did this in order to spread out the ministry, offer opportunities for younger leaders to grow, but most importantly, as a structured model of shared leadership.  As co-pastors we had to practice the pattern of althoughdid not—but.  Although we were called as pastors and therefore elevated by a certain authority, we did not, we could not practice unilateral power, but mutually submitted to one another as we lead the community.  This was embedded in our pastor structure because Christ-like leadership is not merely servant leadership.  It does not function on top but then not act like it.  Rather we have given up having a ‘lead’ anything at all by creating an alternative structure.

In addition to having a structure of co-leadership, we practice various processes of communal discernment that hand leadership to the entire community, or parts of the community.  For example, according to the same pattern, although all the pastors were in complete agreement regarding how we should move forward concern the issue of women in church leadership, and we had the authority of make a decision, we did not lead from position and privilege.  But instead we submitted to a year long process where different members of the community presented biblical perspectives on the issue, culminating in a 2-month long council to discern the issue.  In another case, an issue with someone on our shepherd board, the pastors were again in complete agreement in how to proceed, but the person involved was not receiving things particularly well.  So we brought the whole issue to our shepherd for their discernment, trusting that Christ would lead through this process and that all involved would both be formed into Christ-like character and that the issue would be resolved not through the imposition of a position, but through the constant relational work of the Spirit opened by practicing the death of leadership.

And while these types of processes are bolstered by a structure of co-leadership, it really comes down practicing the death of leadership on a personal level.  This is living without having to justify yourself, without having to constantly defend yourself to others.  It means not needing everyone to always understand you.  In the midst of arguments it means just sticking to the issues without getting personal or taking things personally.  It involves actively creating spaces for other to flourish while not receiving any credit and minimal appreciation.  It means giving over tasks and responsibilities that you really enjoy to someone else so they can grow.  It means submitting to others in the little things even when you have a sense they are wrong, and then only forcing issues when it is essential for the group to move forward.  In all these ways following Christ through the death of leadership entails overcoming personal insecurity and immaturity, so that one can rest in the work of Christ in the community rather than seeking to manage and control everything that is going on.

Now, you might be thinking that every Christian leader should exhibit these characteristics, the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit.  Of course!  But it is much easier to hide immaturity and insecurity, to mask a lack of the Spirit’s work in your life in a hierarchical leadership structure which does not demand processes of communal discernment.  When someone knows exactly who is their superior and who is under them, then they know exactly how to get whatever “ego” fix they need, whether it is seeking approval or asserting authority, even while masking it as servant leadership, even while they excelling in various ministry results.  It is for these reasons that missional leadership, under the sign of the Cross, must nurture new structures, new processes, and new people who live, lead, and die, laying down their rights and status in love and becoming a servants to all.

Missional Leadership

So, then, how is the death of leadership also missional leadership?  First, the structure of co-leadership, the processes of communal discernment, and the practice of personal cruciformity are all ways of saying the same thing, namely, that this community is marked by the gospel, by Christ-likeness.  As I said before, if leaders do not it, then the community will not do it, and then the lost will not see it, and they will not get it even when they hear it.  Second, communities marked by the death of leadership will always be marked my brokenness growing into life.  When you lead this way it is impossible to put leaders on a pedestal, which opens the door for everyone to lead out of brokenness and into life.  When everyone is emptying themselves as Christ did, it has the strange effect of raising everyone up as they are deployed in creative expressions of the gospel.  Lastly, this is missional leadership, at least for us, because God moves in mysterious ways.  It is funny.  There are people in our congregation who literally say time and again to me, “I don’t know why I stay at Life on the Vine.  I don’t fit here, I’m not even sure that I like it hear, and I don’t like they way you do things.”  But it is those exact people whom God has used to bring others to Christ, and those people feel at home with us.  Isn’t that weird?  One man told me two years ago that he was discerning leaving our community.  But he had started a letter writing friendship with a man who was in prison for breaking into our sanctuary.  He eventually received Christ and was baptized on Easter Sunday.  There are at least two other stories I could share about people who really are upset with the leaders at Life on the Vine, but God is using them to bring people to Christ and then those people are finding a place among us.  I believe it is because the leaders at Life on the Vine have embraced a missional leadership of the cross, and out of that death the Father is exalting Christ and bringing others to life.

Conclusion

Some much more could be said, but my hope is that the next big thing the church is on the verge of will be the death of leadership as an expression of the gospel, as living in Christ-likeness, as a bearing the cross, not only personally, but structurally and procedurally.

This kind of leadership is certainly not from the top-down as in a hierarchy, nor is it merely from the bottom up, as some form of leaderless organization, nor is it a leading from the front as those who have gone before, as some missional books describe it.  But it is leading from below while running forward, as if one were trying to fly a kite when there is just not enough wind.  You are down on the ground, down below, yet moving forward, for the whole purpose of the church rising up on the breath of the Spirit, roaring high.  And people don’t watch the person holding the string, they watch the kite in its glory, rising to new life and love, and at the center of its frame it bears the sign of the cross.

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