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Baptists and leadership 

The term leadership can split opinion among Baptists, but wholesome leadership is both biblical and vital in enabling others to thrive, says Nigel Wright. So what does it look like?

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Polarising views

Recent Baptist attitudes to leadership have been somewhat polarised, varying between those who believe it represents the skill above all others to be desired and those for whom it is a word from the Devil's Own Dictionary, along with others like 'success'.

For the former group the emergence of the language of leadership has several possible origins. At the most banal level it stems from the desire to be relevant to modern culture. After all, traditional descriptors such as 'deacons', 'diaconate', 'elders' and even 'minister' might be thought both archaic and opaque to modern hearers. Better to use a generic term that can be quickly understood, and 'leaders' is the most obvious. At a more reflective level are those who find the word 'minister' to be reminiscent of the old clergy/laity distinction and wish to insist that all God's people are ministers, not just one or several. So we find the church newsletter that proclaims, 'Ministers: the whole congregation. Leader: Joe Bloggs'. This might simply create another unhelpful distinction. At the most significant level comes the insistence that pastoral ministry inevitably involves leadership. It is implied in the biblical image of the shepherd who guides the flock by leading it rather than following it. The shepherd's voice is one that is known and trusted by the sheep, as Jesus indicated, and the sheep will follow (John 10:1-6). This offers a clear biblical basis, and others may be offered.

Some of the caution of those who are less enthusiastic about the leadership emphasis undoubtedly has its origins in the bruising conflicts experienced from the 1980s with the emergence of Restorationist churches, also known (inaccurately) as 'the house church movement' or (more accurately) as 'the new churches'.

However much such churches may now have attenuated their original stance, in the early days they placed a heavy emphasis on submission to elders within the local church and 'apostles' beyond it. The ideology of authority and submission, buttressed by an hierarchical understanding of the Trinity, was foundational to the movement and seen to be of the essence of what it meant to be in the kingdom of God. Elders were Christ's delegated authority and obedience to them was obedience to Christ. A sprinkling of Baptist churches moved over into the Restorationist streams and many others were influenced by them thus creating a near panic in mainstream Baptist circles and an enduring caution about the imagery of 'shepherding'. Much of this suspicion was justified at the time. After all, 'It is for freedom that Christ has set us free' (Galatians 5:1), not for a new variant of ecclesiastical bondage. At the same time the reaction placed certain entirely legitimate concerns, and some biblical texts, almost completely out of bounds (take, for instance, Hebrews 13:17). In Baptist circles you mention some of these things almost at your peril. It is all part of the legacy we have inherited.


Working in the church, not on it

Shortly I shall set out what I believe to be a wholesome definition of leadership. But first of all I wish to assert that the leadership paradigm should not be our primary framework for understanding either the ministry of pastors and teachers, the 'ordained', or that of deacons and elders duly appointed. As a paradigm, to stress leadership as the primary model risks deflecting attention from what is truly primary, namely the ministry and interpretation of the Word through preaching, teaching, the pastoral care of souls, the ordering of congregational life and the transmission of the faith to others. I suspect that the leadership paradigm subtly skews the work of ministry away from the pastoral engagement involved in the above towards a more managerial and detached way, working on the church rather than in the church.

Proper leadership is carried out in, with and through the activities I have listed and aims at the facilitating of a congregation in fulfilment of its mission. For this reason it is preferable to maintain the primacy of the ministry paradigm rather than the leadership paradigm. Ministers in particular are present in a congregation to stabilise its life through preaching, teaching and pastoral oversight, to galvanise its mission by motivating the people towards love for God, each other and God's world, and to maximise its potential as the people are enabled to share in the achievement of the congregation's primary purposes.

So, Yes to relativising the category of leadership and letting it take a lesser place. But this by no means implies that leadership is not part of what ministers, elders and deacons are called to do. This all depends of course on the nature and the style of the leadership we exercise. 'Servant' leadership, 'collaborative' leadership, 'indirect' leadership are all helpful clarifications but they all remain what it says on the tin, they are forms of leadership. Leadership is a necessary skill within ministry and everything depends of how it is exercised. Groups of human beings need forms of leadership to enable them to function healthily. Ministers who refuse to lead because they regard ministry and leadership as mutually exclusive are surely mistaken.

Leadership – a definition

Here is my preferred definition: Leadership is about creating the conditions in which other people can thrive. It is not about exercising command, gaining a following, boosting one's ego, compelling people to conform, using a congregation to achieve one's own ends or building a power base. It is about doing what is necessary to enable a godly, Christian community to thrive in the love of God and mutual fellowship. Of course, there are skills in the human community at large, and written about in a multitude of books, that might well inform Christian ministers in the exercise of their calling. And, of course, creating the conditions in which others can thrive might well require a wide range of styles to be adopted, not excluding at times an element of assertiveness when the well--being of the congregation is threatened.

But for the most part, most especially in a Christian setting, such leadership requires being with people, knowing them and loving them, listening attentively to them, understanding what they are capable of at this time and in this place, interpreting the Christian gospel to them and among them, and then seeking to interpret back to them what the onward call of God might be. In other words, leadership of this kind only becomes possible when ministry, as we have described it above, is being faithfully and effectively exercised.

What has so far been said can be applied to any branch of the Christian church. Is there anything distinctive that Baptists might say? Perhaps not, since whatever their ecclesiology people remain pretty much the same across the spectrum. The following might however be claimed: Amongst Baptists leadership and government are not the same.  Under Christ and by the Spirit the congregation governs itself in freedom. It is not compelled, and its pastors, elders and deacons do not govern it: they facilitate and guide it under the shared government of Christ, bonding it in love to the one who is Lord. As Paul put it, 'I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him' (2 Corinthians 11:2).

Picture: Riccardo Annandale / Unsplash

Dr Nigel G. Wright is Principal Emeritus, Spurgeon's College, London 

This feature appears in the Spring 2017 edition of Baptists Together Magazine

Baptists Times, 06/01/2017
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