November 15, 2020

What Makes for Good Christian Leaders? (And Why Do We Keep Getting it Wrong?)

There are many books on Christian bookshelves that talk about leadership. Paul Tripp himself, even though he’s already written Dangerous Calling, has just released another one—Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church.

I know what you’re thinking: Is there really a need for another book on leadership? Does this book contribute anything new to this long-had discussion? Well, I would argue that Tripp’s new book is well worth the money and a must buy for your Christmas list.

Yes, We Need Another Book on Christian Leadership

Knowing that people will ask questions like the ones above, Tripp begins by laying out the reason for writing another leadership book. He knows there are many books that have been written about “the idolatry of celebrity, about pastoral immorality, and about seduction of power,” but what about the leadership community? What if the failure of many leaderships is not simply a moral failure, but a “weak and failed leadership community?” (17). Now, that’s an interesting concept that I haven’t read much about!

There is plenty on the bookshelves about having a plurality of elders to protect the church, but not much out there, at least that I know of, that talk about the culture of the eldership, diaconate, or leadership team. This caught my attention because, at 20schemes, we seek to revitalize and plant churches with teams of people. It’s one of our core philosophies that the old model of ‘one man pastoring the church by himself’ is unhealthy and also unbiblical. Leadership teams are important. Yes, we need to have a planter/pastor directing the vision and leading the church, but a strong team is needed to establish healthy churches, which includes holding leaders accountable in meaningful ways.

The question that Tripp raises though, is: What is the culture of your leadership team? Is it driven by efficiency, slick services, beautiful music, polished sermons, and building projects? Or is it marked by character, humility, faithfulness, honesty, dependency, and grace? Tripp is not arguing that the first set of principles are wrong in and of themselves, but they can become unhealthy, even sinful, when they are elevated above a gospel-centered leadership community.

As Tripp writes: “The church is in desperate need of a leadership community whose function is not just structured to achieve with efficiency but is more deeply shaped by the comfort and calls of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (29) This again is so important as we minister in areas of poverty, because our communities do not need slick services or efficient leadership teams, which are often superficial. They need honest, humble, faithful, loving leadership teams that are willing to lay down their lives for one another and for their communities, to see them won for Jesus Christ.

Gospel Principles

So, what are the principles Tripp identifies that should underpin a healthy leadership team? He gives 12: achievement, gospel, limits, balance, character, war, servants, candor, identity, restoration, longevity, and presence. I don’t have space in this blog to explain what he means by each one of them (you will have to buy the book yourself for that!), but let me pull out a couple of principles that I found particularly challenging.

Firstly, he reminded me that leaders are limited sinners just like everyone else. It can be the assumption of elders, members, and even leaders themselves, that leaders should not struggle. Leaders are seen, or present themselves, as super-human men and women who can do it all. They have unlimited gifts, time, energy, and strength. Also, they have it all together; they are on a special ‘leadership lane of sanctification’.

However, Tripp reminds us throughout the book that leaders are limited. They were never created to do it all! In fact, leaders are fallen sinners who need the grace of God each and every day. Tripp writes: “In order to be what we were designed to be and do what we were called to do as leaders, we need grace, which we are called to protect and proclaim to others, ministered to us in a way that progressively transforms our hearts. This means that in order to lead, we need to be rescued daily from ourselves.” (203)

Leaders need to know that it’s okay to struggle. They have the same fears, worries, concerns and battles as everyone else. This is important as we minister into poorer communities. So often, well-meaning middle-class Christians pitch up in a community thinking they’ve got all the answers to the problems of the brokenness that surrounds them and that they have to show the world they have it ‘all-together.’ However, this is just not true and puts a huge chasm relationally between the leader and the people they are trying to reach. Yes, a leader needs to be above reproach; but, no, he does not have to be perfect. The leader, and their community, need to forge a culture of honesty where the leader is able to share their burdens, sorrows, and struggles and find grace and mercy in their time of need.

Secondly, Tripp constantly highlights humility as a key character trait of the leader. He writes: “A call to leadership in the church is a call to a life of willing sacrifice and service.” (128) Leadership is not about building a platform for ourselves or reveling in our own achievements or getting people to serve us, but about laying down our lives for those around us.

Again, Tripp knows this is a battleground for us because the disciples struggled in exactly the same way. In our sinful state, we boast on Twitter about our achievements, or disrespect those around us with self-righteous statements, or resist loving rebukes. These are all symptoms of pride. However, a humble heart gives glory to God alone, speaks respectfully of those around us, and is always willing to hear the truth spoken in love. We are servants.

Humility in Leadership

Again, humility is so important in poorer communities. Many come into our communities with proud aspirations. They are going to ‘go where no man or woman has gone before’; they are going to ‘help the down and outs’; they are going to ‘redeem a broken community’. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, you soon see it’s all vainglory; they are seeking their own kingdom.

They want likes for their social media posts. They want recognition for their service. They want a book written about them. And so when their friends and family get sick of the constant photos, or one of their down-and-outs rejects them, or the community is not changing as they dreamed, they begin to get hard-hearted and want to bolt to another area. We need to remember that the attitude of a leader is humility and service. We are called to lay down our lives for the Lord Jesus Christ and His people. It’s not about us; it’s all about Him.

Longevity

Finally, Tripp reminded me that the key to leadership effectiveness is longevity (194). And one of the keys to longevity is having an honest and loving community around the leader. The two go hand-in-hand. It’s as we endure that we grow. And we endure as we are cheered on by other saints.

This is important in areas of deprivation. Our communities will not be won to Christ with drive-by soup kitchens or five-year church plants. They will be won as leaders move to the schemes and revitalize or plant churches that will be around for decades, even centuries to come.

Tripp, commenting on Isaiah 61:1–3, writes: “What is the gospel good news to the poor? That they will be ‘oaks of righteousness.’ Why is an oak tree tall and strong? The answer is longevity. Oak trees are powerful and majestic because they have weathered years and years of withering sun, gusting winds, and bitter cold….If this is a picture of long-term spiritual sturdiness that is God’s plan for all of his children, how much more is it needed for ministry leaders?” Our communities need leaders to weather the storms and who come alongside the poor so that when they respond to the gospel, they too can weather the storms of life and grow in maturity. They need mature oak trees, not adolescent twigs.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Tripp’s latest book. It won’t tell you how to write a vision statement or how to manage your budgets or how to reach people for Christ. But it will challenge you with the gospel again and encourage you to persevere in the ministry. It will remind you of the need to grow in grace, dependent on the lord Jesus Christ, and finish the race well!