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Common Myths of Leadership

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Common Myths of Leadership

By Glenn Daman

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books and articles written about leadership, each sharing the latest principles that assure the reader that they will guarantee success if faithfully applied. However, there is little difference between secular books on leadership and those that propagate the Christian bookstores. Since they work in the business world, the assumption is that they will work in the church. The problem is that this redefines the church as a business where people are consumers and the product being pitched is the quest to a fulfilled and happy. Consequently, we adopt the principles without question. Yet many of the accepted leadership principles, while having some benefit, become a myth when we make them absolutes for all those called to be biblical leaders. When we look at Christ’s comments on leadership and Paul’s qualifications for leaders, we find a radical difference between the biblical concept of leadership and the secular business model. In Mark 10:35-53, Christ points to greatness and leadership as being defined not by achievement and power but by service and sacrifice.

Furthermore, in the parable of the stewards, Christ points to faithfulness rather than results as the basis of our evaluation. In John 7:18, Christ points out that a true leader within the kingdom seeks to bring glory to God rather than attention to himself. So also Paul points to the character and the proclamation of truth as the measure of leaders. But this radically differs from the model adopted by the church Today. In formulating our view of leadership, we have made certain qualities and characteristics to be prescriptive and, in so doing, created a number of false myths regarding leadership within the church.

Myth #1: Effective leaders achieve significant accomplishments.

We are enamored with achievements. We evaluate people by what they accomplish rather than the character they possess. Our culture celebrates the athlete who brings wins to their team even though the person continues to manifest a lack of character. The same attitude permeates the church. Speakers at conferences are chosen because of their accomplishments and popularity, even when their theology is suspect. We reward and celebrate the pastor who has the fastest growing church rather than the one who has remained faithful in his service. But there are several problems with this view of leadership. First, Scripture continually points out that actual, eternal accomplishments are the work of God rather than the work of man. In the end, we can do nothing. John the Baptist understood this when his disciples became concerned that John was losing his popularity with the people. In response, he reminded them, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven” (John 3:27). If we accomplish anything, it is not due to our abilities but God’s sovereignty. Second, the accurate measure of an effective leader is not accomplishment but faithfulness. Far more important than what we achieve is how we went about our work. Were we faithful to our calling? Were we faithful in obedience? There are many pastors throughout the history of the church who have never accomplished great things; they were never recognized for great achievements. Still, they faithfully proclaimed the scriptures and lived before Christ and, in the process, influenced the people that they came in contact with. Third, a great leader is not someone who accomplishes great things but one who faithfully fulfills the task God has given him, no matter how small or insignificant. In Luke 16:10, Christ reminds us, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.”

Myth #2: Effective leaders are successful.

We are a society enamored with success. No one sets out to be a failure, to work diligently, and, in the end, have nothing to show for it. We measure success by accomplishing goals, the attainment of visible results, and the numerical growth of the church. When these are not attained, then we consider our efforts to be a failure. Yet, the reality many in the scriptures were failures by these standards. Elijah failed in bringing about a national revival on Mt. Carmel. Jeremiah failed to turn the tide towards spiritual idolatry. Moses failed to take the people into the Promised Land. Even Christ was seen by the world as a failure, for he was not able to bring about the re-establishment of the kingdom of Israel. At the end of his life, we find that he was a king without a kingdom.

The only reason we regard these individuals as successful is that Scripture pulls the curtain back and reveals a different story. God did not call the prophets to orchestrate revival but to affirm the justice of God in judging Israel. The failure of Christ was, in reality, the foundation for an even greater triumph—the salvation of lost humanity and the establishment of a spiritual and eternal kingdom. While the world celebrates success, biblical leadership often is not about success but failure. We need to recognize that what we view as success may, in reality, be a failure, and what we regard to be a failure may, in reality, be a success. In God’s economy of leadership, the strong are weak, and the wise are foolish. There is no formula for success, for success is determined by God. Instead, we need to have the same mindset as John the Baptist when he states that Christ must increase and he must decrease. It is in our failure that God often becomes the most evident.

Myth #3: Effective leaders rise above obscurity.

If we are honest, you and I have to admit that we would love to be the one whose name picture is on the latest brochure of some conference, where people know our name. Even if we do not openly admit it, we have our “superstars” even in the Christian community, people whose names and faces are recognized and people who are regarded as the game-changers of church history. However, the problem with any book on church history is that it does not tell the whole story. It draws attention to those who became recognized but fails to recognition to the obscure. Yet the reality remains that the church is not built upon the accomplishments of the famous but upon the shoulders of the unknown, those who never were recognized beyond the realm of their small parish. These were the people that took the gospel to unreached tribes and towns. If your denomination never recognizes you, if your ministry has been in the forgotten corners where no one seems to notice, take heart for your ministry is the very foundation upon which Christ builds the church. When Christ was with the disciples, observing the people give their gifts to the temple, he did not draw attention to the person that the rest of the crowds recognized; instead, he drew the disciples' attention to the obscure widow who gave the smallest gift. She, not the recognized religious leader, was the one that God praised. It does not matter whether our peers recognize us. It only matters that Christ recognizes us. The real measure of a leader is not one that brings glory to himself but one who brings glory to God (John 7:18).

Myth #4: Effective leaders demonstrate exceptional abilities.

In the secular world, leadership is based upon charisma and abilities. These very qualities become the standard by which pastors are measured. An effective leader can rally people to his vision and possess communications skills that can capture people’s attention. But oddly enough, these are the very things that Paul saw as a hindrance to his ministry. Instead of seeking to be the skilled orator who draws people to himself with his charisma, Paul sought to divest himself of these very qualities. We read in 1 Corinthians 2:1-4, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom.” Instead of great oratory skills and personal charisma being a strength in ministry, Paul saw it as an impediment for it drew people to him rather than to Christ, “So that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (vs. 5). We have too many people in the church who have fallen prey to the very sickness that plagued the church in Corinth. Instead of following Christ, they were following their favorite preacher (chapter 3).

Consequently, we become enamored with the messenger rather than the message. We see the power of the gospel to be in the communicator’s ability rather than the intrinsic nature of the Scripture. Like Paul, we need to rest in the gospel so that people will not be following us but Christ.

Myth #5: Effective leaders make significant decisions.

We are told that a great leader is a great decision-maker. He is the person who lives by the motto, “The buck stops here.” These individuals have a knack for understanding the situation and making wise and relevant decisions that lead to positive outcomes. When others are unclear and indecisive, they can make a decision quickly and confidently. While making decisions is important, the problem is that the focus becomes on the wisdom of the leader rather than the guidance of God. We do not leave room for God’s sovereignty and his unseen hand. Biblical leadership is not about leading but following. Proverbs 16:33 states, “the lot is cast into the lap, but every decision is from the lord.” The point is that ultimately it is not our decision but God’s sovereignty that determines the outcome. In reality, most of the significant events that shape our life and the direction of the church are not seen as a major decision but turn on what we might consider being a small insignificant decision at the time. Those events and decisions that change the direction of our life we consider trivial at the time. It is often more “blind luck” than wise decisions that determine our effectiveness. Yet, in reality, it is not “blind luck” or being at the right place at the right time or chance, but the unseen work of a sovereign God who orchestrates even the trivial events to move us in the direction he chooses. This is why great leaders are not necessarily great decisions makers. Instead, they are individuals who allow God to lead through the unexpected and the trivial and, in the process, trust God to guide them to accomplish what he desires.

Myth #6: Effective leaders advance in positions.

When a person graduates from seminary, there is the unspoken assumption that the person will either start as a small church pastor or as an associate on staff at a larger church. Still, as time progresses, he will move upward to a senior pastor position or a larger church. Just as in the business world, we often have the same mindset in the church: a successful leader will advance in positions of prominence within the church. A pastor who spends his whole career in a small church is often regarded as someone unable to “make it.” We view such a person the same way we would consider a person who spends his whole career in the mailroom of a large corporation. They may be effective, but not someone we should take seriously. Just as a truly talented and hard-working employee will move out of the mailroom to bigger and greater responsibilities, so a genuinely effective pastor will eventually become a pastor of a larger church. If they fail to do so, something must be wrong. However, what is wrong is not the abilities or work ethic of a small church pastor but of our misguided perception that position and the size of the church reveal the effectiveness of a leader. The influential pastor is not the one who attains a particular position but understands the importance of positioning. Ministry is not about what role we attain in the church's hierarchy but allowing God to position us to achieve his purpose. What the church needs today are not position seeking pastors, but pastors who are submissive to God’s positioning of their life, who see the value and worth of every act of service and every place of ministry who embrace the lowest of positions and are willing to be a servant rather than a king, even in the church.

Myth #7: Effective leaders lead the church in numerical growth.

We live in a society where bigger is always better. Every time we turn on the TV, products are sold with this mantra. While this may be true of the size of the bag of dog food, we have mistakenly adopted it into the church. Recently, a pastor of a mega-church said what most pastors think it is all about numbers. Over and over again, we are told that the healthy church is a growing church, and if our church is not growing numerically, then it is dying, and something is wrong with the church or with the church's leadership. Programs offered are touted as the latest program to bring about larger numbers. Attend a church conference, and recognition is always given to the church with the most increase in attendance and the largest number of baptisms. Small church pastors often dread or even avoid going to the very conferences that are designed to encourage them because they come away feeling a failure. The messages proclaim that if we prayed more, preached better sermons, and had better programs, we would experience an increase in attendance. But in Scripture, we see the opposite. Gideon was only effective after he pared his army down to a small handful. Christ focused more upon spending time with 12 men than the masses of crowds. Even when the masses were flocking to him, he recognized their consumer-driven adulation would eventually cause them to abandon him. The kingdom of God is built upon the narrow way that few find. Does this mean that the mega-church is driven by faulty theology and practice? Not at all; there are many large churches that effectively lead people to Christ. But they are the anomaly rather than the norm. The kingdom of God is not recognized by its growth but by its message. The pastor of a small church who faithfully communicates the gospel is just as effective as the pastor who proclaims Christ to thousands.

Myth #8: Effective leaders have a clear vision.

Read any book on leadership today, and the common theme is that great leaders have a clear vision and are able to “sell” the vision to the people who rally to the cause. To support the importance of vision as a necessary quality of an effective leader, the latest books on leadership lament that only 4% of pastors have a clear vision. They argue that the problem in the church is a lack of vision on the part of the leadership. In support, they point to the mega-church and the rapidly growing church as the model. In many ways, we have been doped like the Emperor wearing his invisible new clothes. If only 4% of pastors have the necessary clear vision, then either God has lost the church, or our understanding of leadership is faulty. I suspect the latter. What the church and people need is not a clear vision but a clear message and the unwavering trust that God will guide the church. But this goes counter to the refrain of business where goals, performance standards, and organizational growth determine success. In his book “Upsidedown Leadership,” Taylor Field writes of Oswald Chambers, “He was dubbed by another missionary as the ‘apostle of the haphazard,’ because Oswald emphasized so strongly that we discover God’s will through what he called ‘the haphazard circumstances of life.’ He was the anti-planner. He wrote to his wife, Biddy, these words in a letter: ‘I never see my way. I know God who guides, so I fear nothing. I have never farseeing plans, only confident trust.” (p. 65). Abraham did not understand God’s will and vision when he left Ur to go to a land he did not know. Paul had a vision of going to Asia Minor, but God redirected him to Macedonia. The apostles’ vision of the future was shattered on the cross. James warns us against the danger of thinking that we can see and determine the future, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go such and such a church and spend a year there and develop this program or get these results. You do not know what the church will be like tomorrow. All your plans are a just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will establish this program and do this or that. But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil”(Paraphrase of James 4:13-16). Our task as leaders is not to see the future but to trust God for the future and do the things he has set before us.

Myth #9: Effective leaders are seen as cutting edge.

Woe to the pastor who is doing ministry in an old-fashioned way. An effective pastor is on the cutting edge, who is leading the church in dramatic changes. They employ the latest techniques for worship, evangelism, and program development. Bible Colleges and Seminaries seek to recruit students by advertising to prepare them for the cutting edge of ministry. Can you imagine how effective a college would attract new students if they advertised, “Come to our school, and we will teach you to lead a church as your parents attended?” Those graduating from Bible College and Seminary are encouraged to start new churches to establish a church that is not confined by traditions. Suits and ties, hymns, choirs, long messages, Biblical and exegetical preaching, the biblical story, seminary education, church buildings, traditional church, and denomination tags are out. Jean and shorts, contemporary chorus, worship bands, short-topical homilies, hip church names, “my story,” and metanarratives are in. This is not to say what we should not adapt to the culture in which we live. Certainly, Paul recognized the importance of cultural adaptation in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. However, the problem comes when we mistake relevance for substance. We can become so cutting edge that we lose our focus on the centrality of the gospel. The unchanging message of the gospel is what impacts people, not how hip we are. Worship is ultimately an expression of the heart rather than some musical style. The church loses its significance when it is more concerned about relevance than truth when marketing and program techniques are seen as the key to evangelism rather than the proclamation of the gospel.

Myth #10: Effective leaders are popular.

“If the world does not like the church, then something is wrong” has become a popular theme in Christian books Today. The world labels us as bigots, and we believe it. If our message is not popular we are told that something must be wrong with both the message and the messenger. To preach on sin is to be judgmental. To point to God’s justice is to minimize grace. To confront our cultural values is to be outdated. Yet, we have overlooked Christ warning that the world will hate us because they hated him. The gospel is inherently offensive to a world that seeks to accept their sin and affirm their lifestyles. The message of Scripture reveals the rebellious heart of people, and they will reject it, for people love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. One of the indicators of systemic sickness within the church is not the negative attitude the unchurched have of Christians but the church's acceptance by the world. If we are popular with the world, then we need to reexamine our message. Christ warns, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way” (Luke 6:26). Today, we need leaders who are more concerned about faithfully proclaiming the scriptures than they are about offending the sinner. The message of Christ was not “God loves you and accepts you as you are.” Instead, “Jesus began to preach and say ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’”(Matthew 4:17). He did not call us to accept everyone and overlook their sin; he called us to urge people to repent of sin and embrace a life of obedience. It was this message that led the people to cry, “crucify him.” We can expect no better response. People want a loving God but not a just and holy God. They will embrace us if our message is the former but reject us if we proclaim the latter.

Too many times in the church, we accept principles that are popular in the secular world without carefully examining their validity from a biblical perspective. If few are be effective as leaders, we need to avoid the danger of giving a biblical nod to secular principles. Instead, we need to carefully examine the pages of Scripture and develop a theology of leadership derived from Scripture where the focus is not upon accomplishment but character. Success is not measured by superficial standards but faithfulness in following Christ and proclaiming his word. We need to refocus upon these values, for then we will indeed be relevant and effective.

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