Idolatry American Style: Leadership

I am sick to death of people talking about leadership – people going to leadership training or leadership conferences, studying leadership for their bachelor’s degrees, reading books that tell them how to be leaders. I’m not sure that, in most cases, these efforts are actually fruitful. I think that this falls into the larger category of self-improvement, which seems to be massively unsuccessful at anything but making self-improvement authors rich. For every 1,000 books published on the topic, maybe 1 or 2 has anything interesting or useful to say. There’s a quote from Fight Club that pretty much covers the topic of self-improvement. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the quote I’m talking about.

I think that the church, particularly, should shy away from this kind of leadership thinking. It is imported from the business world, which functions according to values which are in absolute opposition to those of the church. What works in the boardroom will not work if your goal is to be a disciple of Christ. It works great if you want to Pontious Pilate, or Herod. But we buy into this when we obsess about being leaders – we go out and produce Herods. We read books on how to be Herod. We go to seminars on how to be Herods.

Our models, from scripture especially, are highly ineffective leaders. Jesus Christ and Stephen R. Covey have almost nothing in common, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. We are not called to be effective leaders.

I think we are inclined to worship our leaders, and to try to acquire this thing called leadership, as if it will solve problems. But when we buy into the business paradigm of leadership that is so incredibly popular right now, we end up worshiping ourselves. We end up relying on ourselves to be effective, to accomplish what needs to be accomplished in the world.

First – better leadership has failed us thus far. This are still messed up pretty royally, regardless of how many “leaders” we produce. How many leadership seminars do you think it’ll take to make peace? To do justice? To love our neighbors?

Second – we’re looking in the wrong place. You can go be an effective leader. Talk to Leadership Gurus (or your leadership training program of choice – they are interchangeable) and let them walk you through the ten habits of highly effective blah blah blah, the eight steps to whatever, the secret of stuff that doesn’t matter. You’re learning how to organize a crew to arrange deck-chairs on the Titanic.

We hope in God because another leader isn’t going to save us. We’re not going to figure it out. We can’t fix it. We can hold it off, but ultimately, we are overwhelmed. We hope in God because hoping in the next clean-cut wanker in an expensive suit isn’t going to do the job, unless the job is to earn more money for other clean-cut wankers. But if the job is being the church, then we need something other than more “effective” leaders. A church full of middle managers is long dead.

…I’ve got more to say, but I’m trying to keep these short.

26 thoughts on “Idolatry American Style: Leadership

  1. boy, isn’t this true. It’s right up there in the pantheon of American deities with “success”, “wealth” and “square jaws”. Leadership is not what it is about.On the other hand, I don’t think the gospel is about mediocrity either. “Be perfect as your father is perfect” and all that. The question is, how do you steer away from these idolatrous measures of faithful discipleship like “leadership” without implying that apathy and mediocrity are ok?

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  2. Doug. Totally agree, but would ask then, “How are we to be lead?” or “How does communal movement happen?” or “What then do we strive for and who determines our worth as leaders?”Again, I very much agree with you despite my current activities to the contrary πŸ˜‰ – but I would love to hear the follow up post.

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  3. Aric: I don’t think that rejecting the business paradigm of leadership means mediocrity or apathy. Much the opposite, actually – I think that all of this “leadership” garbage is almost universally mediocre at best. I think the way that our society functions is eyeball-deep in mediocrity and apathy. American Idol gets more votes than the president. That’s worshipping mediocrity and radical apathy I’d say. All those “leaders” aren’t getting it done…and I think they never will.P.S. Interestingly, the quote is from my text for Friday. We’ll see what I do with it…Bruce:“How do we lead?” In a way that will be unrecognizable to those enmeshed in the paradigm I’m talking about. Reject an obsession with effectiveness or efficiency, of authority, of personal charisma, of manipulation. How did the “people of the land” lead? How did the Judges lead? How did the prophets lead? How did Jesus lead? How did the early apostles lead? That’s another huge issue that I’m not going to tackle right now, honestly. I’ve got too much else on my mind. But it isn’t what we call leadership now. Not at all. We’ve imported a management paradigm that is poisonous and idolatrous. If we can excise it, what then? Something better. Something more faithful. That’s the hope anyway.

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  4. Doug – Yeah, I guess the struggle is to know what those biblical models of leadership look like today. I suppose we all THINK we are doing that, but are all doomed to slip into unhealthy models. Look forward to hearing what you think when things clear up. Important stuff.

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  5. Bruce:I’m also going to take a position that is radically anti-authority, so I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m talking about you here. (Though I guess I could be – like I said in the Introduction, I’m not going to get into that here at least. But I doubt it πŸ™‚In Christ, I think we have a paradigm of “leadership” which first relinquishes all power, then identifies itself radically with the powerless, then challenges unjust authorities, then is killed for it by those authorities.So, yeah, tough act to follow…

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  6. Doug – I think you are really on to something here and you indeed talking about me and to some extent a part of of our US-driven DNA. I really am intrigued by what this might look like in a US setting or is it possible or is this a bigger picture. Again, good stuff! Take care.

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  7. Doug,My first impression is that the broad brush nature of you attack on “leadership” doesn’t seem very helpful. If you have something specific then throw it down, but to simply attack leadership in general seems like the kind of thing you jump of conservatives for.Specifically, I have seen the carnage wrought by poor leadership (or lack thereof) in the Church.You are right, the Church is not a buisness, the stakes are higher. So if anything the bar for leadership should be higher rather than lower.I’m not sure why you randomly chose the links you did, since neither of them seem to be specifically about Church leadership.Yes our hope is in God, and no leaders aren’t going to save us. That’s not what a biblical leader should do. That’s all for now, because while I would like to, I don’t have time to get into what a biblical model of leadership should look like.I’ll leave you with this. If you are to lead then “lead dillegently” Romans 12:8Doug, you are preparing to be a leader in the Church, do those you lead a favor and be dillegent.

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  8. Craig: As is sometimes the case when you comment on my blog, I think you’ve missed my point entirely. I’m not sure how I could be more clear. Aric and Bruce seem to think that I have a legitimate point. I am even ahead of you talking about a Biblical model of leadership, though like you, I don’t have the time to flesh it out.The links I chose were chosen as examples of the business model of leadership, which I made it clear multiple times in the post that I was talking about. Part of my point is that there is no model of church leadership functioning broadly right now. I have never seen “church leadership” training that didn’t seem to just be warmed over middle-management seminars – with perhaps a few exceptions like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference…though of course that’s probably too liberal πŸ˜‰ (did I say liberal? I meant to say Biblical)Romans 12:8 is pretty vague. Diligence? I can be diligently bad, or diligently good. Ideally, a responsible person is diligent about everything he or she does.Ironically, I think the SCLC embodies Romans 12:9-21, which I would commend to anyone seeking a model for Biblical leadership. Yet another example of the Bible being very clearly in favor of nonviolence πŸ™‚

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  9. Doug,I don’t think I missed your point, I think I’m coming at this from an angle you don’t get.Let me try it this way. Leadership in the Church is a biblical concept. Leadership training is (in and of itself neutral). It is how the training is used that is the problem.I think it is interesting that you have posted without a grasp of the scope of Church leadership training options available. The two links you posted were (maybe) reprentative of “leadership training” but from what I could see neither was aimed at Church leaders. I am also finding it fascinating that every group doing missions in the developing world, places a high priority on training local leaders.Finally, Rom. 12:8 is only as vague as you want to make it. Strangely, I think you missed my point. Which is your broad brush smearing of leadership training as all bad.

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  10. Craig:Give me an example of a church leadership option that is not modeled after business leadership. Your critique is at least as vague as my condemnation. Demonstrate how I have it wrong, don’t just hand-wave.Also, how is “be dilligent” not vague? I’m not making it vague – its describing leadership in one word. I still like Romans 12:9-21 much better. You can’t say “be dilligent” as if that is meaningful instruction. Be dilligent doing what? When? How? With whom?So I’m just going to end on the notion that my blog post has a 66% hit rating among readers who have commented. That’ll have to be sufficient.

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  11. Craig,The whole point of this article is the way in which we <>idolize<> leadership. By definition Doug is talking about bad forms of leadership. In the comments here he has already addressed the idea that there are biblical and other forms of leadership which would be better, but AREN’T FOUND IN THE CHURCH TODAY by and large. I’m all for productive conversation from differing points of view, but you’ve yet again managed to miss the point of the article entirely which everyone else here seems to have gotten. This is a repeated cycle. You’ll come back with something that suggests Doug or I have been intolerant or there has been a miscommunication on our side and we’ll apologize because we want to be the kind of people who keep lines of communication open even when we disagree, but then two weeks later Doug or I will write something which, once again, you will misinterpret and we’ll go around in circles about it. Has it ever occurred to you that the problems you are encountering on our blogs have nothing to do with what we write or think or say, but with something going on on your end?

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  12. Doug,I agree that 12:9-21 would be an excelent model for leaders. i think if you look at the context of 12:8 it becomes more clear what dillegent means.I have heard a number of people talk about Church Leadership without using a buisness model. Bill Hybels springs to mind, If I wanted to spend the time I could come up with others.My “criticism” was not with your criticism of “bad” leadership training. It was with what appears to be your broad brushing of leadership training as bad. So I give you the same challenge, point out some specific Church leadership training that you disagree with. I don’t dispute that there is good and bad leadership training, just ask that you distinguish between the two.Finally, I get the point of your post, I just don’t agree with it. Aric,The point of my replies has been that “leadership/leadership training” is objectively neutral. Of course some people idolize leadership. Some people idolize leaders. Some people idolize money (addressed in another post). Some people idolize ego. Some people idolize criticism. My point is none of these things are bad by definition. The problem is idolization not leadership. Doug, has made what appear to be blanket condemnations of leadership training, I asked for specifics.I am intrested in your comment that, “biblical and other forms of leadership which would be better, but AREN’T FOUND IN THE CHURCH TODAY by and large.”. I would love to know what your source is for that comment. Or what leads you to believe it to be the case. Further, since you and Doug both plan to put yourselves forward for positions of church leadership, I’d be interested to know what you plan to do to counter this dearth of leadership.As I said to Doug, I get the point of his post. I just disagree with his position that there is no value in leadership training. I have agreed with a number of his points, and fully agree that idolization of leadership is wrong. As to your characterization of our inetractions, I can’t help but notice that you have leave out the times when I have agreed with you both, and the times when I have apologized, or retracted things I said because of either misunderstanding or less honorable reasons. I understand that we approach many things from completely different paradigms, and the inherent difficulty this can bring. I will try to do a better job of responding in the future if that will help things out.

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  13. Craig:Bill Hybel’s leadership training summit last year had guest speakers including a few executives, an expert in “competitive strategy” (seems the polar opposite of the church), Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell, some authors, and a few church people. I don’t see any reason to expect that it will be different from your average high-profile management training seminar, except for a person or two who will talk about spiritual disciplines. So I guess I’d mention Bill Hybel’s leadership training summit of 2007 as a church leadership event that I don’t seem to agree with.Another hint is that it mixes church and business leaders – as if they two were interchangeable.So, yeah, Bill Hybel is a good example of what I don’t like about leadership training that is supposedly aimed at church people. Its the gospel of bureaucratic effectiveness, efficiency, competition, motivational speaking, but not of Jesus Christ from what I can tell. Even with Jimmy Carter there talking about Africa.(And you’ve got a point – our interactions haven’t been all bad. As I’ve said a lot before – we’re on different planets most of the time I think.)

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  14. Doug,This is a great example of criticizing something based on surface. I have been to several, leadership summits and, while they have had a variety of speakers, (both church, and non church) the emphasis has always been on leadership in the church. If you were to take this as a whole, it would be more difficult to dismiss it as you have. Especially this years since, theyhaven’t announced the lineup yet. For one thing, it has benn suprising to see the number of “non church” guests who have taken the opportunity to share how their faith informs their positions and how they lead. In all, while I don’t agree with everyone they’ve had (the Clinton debacle being a notable exception) the majority of the speakers are not there to impose secular buisness principles on the Church. But to help people in Church leadership positions be effective. For example, Jim Collins (Good to Great, used his last appearance to present his case, that the principles in his book do not apply to the “Church/non-profit sector” and how to avoid precisely what you are talking about.I have never seen the gospel that you assume is presented. I’ve seen a lot of the “real” gospel. Again, my problem is not so much that you don’t like leadership training. It is that you are prepared to write something off with so little knowledge of the actual content. “bureaucratic effectiveness, efficiency, competition, motivational speaking” don’t seem to be a big feature at Willow Creek. Again, I’m not saying that I agree with everything or everyone they have had speak. I just think that a balanced objective assesment of the totality of the leadership summit, would indicate something different from your perceptions. Thanks for the vote of confidence. We may not be on different planets, just different hemispheres.

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  15. Also, for what its worth, of course I could be wrong. I’ve said that a lot and will continue to say it.But I’m pretty sure I’m not entirely off-base. Bruce seems to jive with what I’m saying, as does Aric and some other people I’ve talked to. I’ve also held various leadership positions (mostly volunteer) in churches for about fourteen years now, in the PCUSA and the Community Churches. I’ve seen precious little of the gospel, as I would identify it, in leadership training in the churches. It isn’t as if I’m just trying out this “leadership” thing for the first time ever, and I’m talking about things of which I have no experience.What I have seen a lot of is what I would call an obsession with leadership models that have nothing to do with what makes the church the church – what makes the church emphatically *not* a business or just another non-profit.I often get the longest comment threads on posts I’d never expect to occasion that much comment. Ah well.

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  16. Doug,In this case I believe that “effective” can be defined differently for different church leaders. Effective leadership for a missionary in Haiti, looks different from effective in a mainline church in the US. Having said that here goes.I would define effective as being able to discern Gods plan/calling for both the leader and the “congregation”, and being able to faithfully follow that plan/call.Not knowing what experiences you have had, I am at a loss to respond to your comments. I’m not saying you have no experience with leadership per se, just that you are drawing conclusions based on your preconceptions rather than evidence. I’m not saying you are totally off base, I’m saying you are lumping good leadership training with bad. As I said, leadership/leadership training is neutral. Maybe, there is more out there, that might change your mind. My concern in all of this is the damage that can be caused to the body of Christ by poor/lack of leadership. This can be at least as damaging as what you have experienced.Frankly I’m more curious as to what “the gospel as you identify it” is.

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  17. Craig:Good question. I’d say that I’ve written about 250 posts on that so far, one way or another, and I would not say that I’d nailed it down yet, so I encourage you to keep reading πŸ™‚

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  18. Doug,I guess that begs the question; if you haven’t nailed down what the gosple is, then how do you know that these people (who who haven’t actually heard) aren’t communicating the gospel.Craig

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  19. Craig:Actually, I would say that for me it begs the question – have you been reading my blog this whole time? If you’re looking for an elevator-pitch gospel, I will disappoint, but if you’re been reading this blog, then you probably know what I think the gospel is. If not, well, I guess I have more work to do.

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  20. Doug,Yes, I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time. However, I’m not going to go back and re read evrything to see if you’ve defined gospel. Serioulsy, if you can’t summarize your definition of the gospel in a paragraph or two, how could you know what it isn’t. Or are you saying that those who can (that would inlcude Paul) somehow have it wrong. Craig

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  21. Doug,I don’t know if you will even see this, but I thought is made a nice point. The speakers for the Leadership Summit 2008 have been announced. And the winner is (out of 10 speakers)5 Church or Ministry3 Non profit (Education, Prison, Justice)1 Buisness/Academia1 Buisness (who I am pretty sure is a believer)So it would appear that the line up does not conform to your preconceptions that it would just be more of the same.I personally think it would be interesting to hear the CEO of a fortune 500 company talk about how his faith affects how he leads. It could be interesting on a couple of different levels. Especially if his buisness life calls his faith into question.

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  22. Yeah, these comments are only being read by us and Google at this point, as an acquaintance of mine likes to say.I wouldn’t say your information “proves” anything, since the problem I see is in the church, meaning that having church people speak about leadership doesn’t really prove anything. The line-up doesn’t say anything about the content, which you content is great and which I contend likely reflects the problematic paradigm of leadership I see in the church over and over again.Obviously, I won’t know unless I attend the thing, and there’s no way I’ll be able to afford anything of the sort any time in the near future. So I’m afraid this blog will have to remain what it has been for almost three years now – stuff I want to talk about, and really nothing more. And, again, I see a problem that some others see, and you don’t see a problem, and most agree with you.

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  23. Doug,I don’t know that I was trying to prove a point as much as point out the fact that you have judged this particular event with little or no actual knowledge of it. You have also based your judgement on your preconceptions of what you believe these type of events to be. Maybe that is trying to prove a point. The point is not the worth of these events, as much as the way you have judged the events and the people who find value in them. I would hope that you might be able to open yourself up to the possibility that something like this isn’t all bad. Obviously this blog is about things you want to talk about. It is also about (I hope) being able to have some give and take with others. If we all agreed on everything life would be boring anyway. You do see this as a bigger/different problem than I do, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Anyway, I just wanted to give you the update in the hopes that you might reconsider. I guess not.

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