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Leadership: (What is it Good For?)

By February 26, 2016 4 Comments


I’ve tried hard to stay away from the leadership jargon that gets thrown around organizations. I’m certainly not opposed to leadership; it’s a lot like beauty—hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. So it’s ironic that I’m teaching a class on leadership. I’ve taught the class before with a different name: Practical Issues in Youth Ministry. Now?—it’s Leadership: Issues in Discipleship and Formation. Catchy, I know. Funny how words are used in a particular cultural moment—like the word “ambassador”. While at the doctor’s office I noticed the receptionist’s name tag included the words “patient ambassador”. I looked around for foreign diplomats but I didn’t see any. “Service” and “servant” is another one, often combined with leadership, as in “servant leader”. “Service” is a bit strange, especially when schools implement a “service requirement”. Isn’t that a contradiction—forcing people to do service?  And those poor non-profit ministry organizations that have to put up with all that half [hearted] service. It’s almost less work to do it themselves. I’ll be honest, I still haven’t figured out the whole “servant leadership” thing. I think it might be a good thing if it means a form of leadership that empowers people to be creative and innovative, but it could just mean being nice when you tell people to do what you want them to do.

In preparation for the leadership course I thought I should check out some resources. I came across a book with the title Lead Like Jesus and started looking through it. As Matt Damon says in Good Will Hunting…I’ve been reading the wrong (type of) books. Lead Like Jesus talks about being relevant, and maximizing my potential as a “change agent”. It’s all about increasing influence by modeling  Jesus’ leadership style. Here I am reading Henri Nouwen and Eugene Peterson; I’m wasting time reading Serene Jones and Stanley Hauerwas. I believed Nouwen when he described the temptation in ministry to be relevant, influential, and powerful—you know, the three things Satan tempted Jesus with in the desert. I believed Hauerwas when he called the Christian community, not to efficiency or effectiveness, but to faithfulness. I believed Bonhoeffer when he called the Christian community—and Christian leaders specifically—to task for abdicating responsibility for our neighbor in the name of some high minded  ideal.

Seriously though, I did find an insightful book that has sparked excellent discussion with my students: Western Seminary professor Chuck DeGroat’s Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life—Including Yourself. In a way that resonates with Nouwen, Jones, and Bonhoeffer, DeGroat articulates a relational approach to leadership and ministry that could actually live up to the name “servant leadership”—assuming we still want to use the term. He provides a critique of leadership models, grounded in fear and anxiety, that use techniques, incentives, and moralisms as a means of control. Instead, he invites the Christian community to embrace a posture of grace, vulnerability, and relationality. He quotes Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp: “This is the strange paradox of leading: to the degree you attempt to hide or dissemble your weakness, the more you will need to control those you lead, the more insecure you will become, and the more rigidity you will impose—prompting the ultimate departure of your best people.” DeGroat goes on to say, “What we really need to do is to be human, while at the same time challenging others to become fully human themselves.” He ends the book with the following blessing:

“To lead and lead well, you must necessarily come to the end of yourself (your false self), and find that this is yet a beginning of new life, a new king of leadership, animated by God’s abiding Spirit in you. Living from your core, where the Spirit dwells, you can relinquish the need to fix, to control, and to conquer, and drink in God’s life, a life animated by peace, rest, wholeness, love forgiveness, and surrender. It’s the good life. God in God’s peace.”


Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Jason, this is excellent. DeGroat’s and Allender’s books are both ones I’ve enjoyed reading. I have become increasingly confused about the idea of servant leadership (and humility along with that) because although “leadership” is the popular topic to write/talk about, over and over I have seen such a disconnect between talk of servant leadership and the practice of it. It’s almost as if as long as we use the right words, our actions mean nothing.

  • Dale Zevenbergen says:

    I appreciate your thoughts, Jason, and you as well, Kelly (since we’ve talked about this very topic). I’ll check out DeGroat’s book, but I will tell you that servant leadership can be a real and sincere thing. I’ve worked with people who genuinely desire to serve, empower, and provide an environment where people can flourish in their work (or other setting), i.e. putting their needs first. But, of course, there are many who fall short of that level of altruism while still claiming to be servant leaders. Thanks for your thoughts, but from my experience I can tell you that genuine servant leadership (albeit through imperfect people) does exist.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Dale – Thanks for the comment. I don’t deny it exists; I do think, however, that the term gets misused to “Christianize” particular approaches to leadership. When this happens the gospel is in danger of being reduced to a manipulative technique as it is co-opted by “un-Christian” ways of being in the world.

  • I agree with both of you that real servant leadership does exist and that the term can get misused. As I’ve been thinking about this conversation, I’m remembering an experience a friend of mine had many years ago. She got a job at a Christian bookstore that we’d both shopped at quite a bit and we were both excited for her. After a while though, the excitement wore off. It ended up being a miserable job due to the leadership. However, *customers* would never have had an inkling about that. I think that is sometimes where we have a discrepancy: the leader is a “servant leader” in one aspect but not another. In this case, the leader was of course serving the *customers* but treating the employees as expendable. If you’d asked him, he’d probably think that he was being a servant leader because the *customers* were always so happy to shop there. One time one of them said to my friend “This must just be such a great place to work!” and my friend just smiled and nodded. I think it has to do with who the leader considers to be important. In too many cases, the employees are not considered valuable or worthy; *they* can be replaced. Customers, not so easily. If this is the case, the customers may think the leader is wonderful and such a great Christian, etc. The employees saw a very different side. So in that kind of a situation, how do we talk about servant leadership when it doesn’t actually encompass *all* the people s/he is supposed to be leading, but only a certain segment?

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