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Issues Facing Missions Today 24: Some Methodological Questions for Leadership Studies

Issues Facing Missions Today 24: Some Methodological Questions for Leadership Studies


In the following essay, I would like to ask three questions related to the study of ministry and challenge the idea that ‘leadership’ helps us in this study.  The questions are: (1) How should Christian ministry appropriate the social sciences? (2) Is ‘leadership’ an appropriate concept for Christian ministry?, and (3) What exactly are terms for ministry in the Church, and do they involve the notion of leadership?

Three Questions

First, ‘How should Christian ministry appropriate the social sciences?’  The issue here is not whether the social sciences are worth investigating, but how they should be engaged.  One approach might be to adopt a theory from the social sciences as a starting point.  Another, opposite approach might be to try to derive a theory from Scripture.  For example, methodologically one might begin with pedagogical theory from the field of education or one might attempt to discover Jesus’ teaching methods.  Another example might be that one might adopt a counselling theory from the field of psychology or one might try to articulate an approach to counselling that is somehow derived from Scripture.

In either case mentioned in each of these two examples, we need to ask whether Scripture is actually teaching something or whether we are merely using Scripture to illustrate a notion—in which case Scripture is not functioning authoritatively.  If we were to say that we can illustrate facilitative and active learning, analogical reasoning, or the use of figures in rhetoric in Jesus’ teaching, we would not be using Scripture authoritatively.  Jesus would merely be our illustration of teaching methods and communication theory (or rhetoric) that we derived from those fields of study.  If we were to argue that Scripture teaches us something about what it means to be human, that there is a struggle with passions of the flesh and desire, and that we are more than physical beings, we would be working towards an approach to counselling based on the authoritative teachings of Scripture that will certainly challenge reigning ideas in the field of counselling.  As a teacher, I may learn much that is helpful about teaching from the field of adult education.  In fact, I am far more inclined to turn to the field of education than to Scripture to learn about teaching, since Scripture is not a textbook on teaching.

Such examples are offered so that we might consider the idea of leadership when discussing ministry.  When Scripture is engaged in leadership studies, we must ask whether a contemporary author is (1) merely illustrating some notion derived from another field of study altogether (‘Leadership Studies’) or (2) is identifying an essential Biblical teaching.  Even if we have derived a part of our theory from what Scripture actually teaches, we further need to realize that Scripture is not teaching our entire theory.  A collection of different points, even if Biblical, does not make the whole—a theology or theory—Biblical.

The even more basic question to ask with leadership studies is whether leadership is in fact a helpful notion at all for discussing Christian ministry.  It may be an established field of study in the social sciences, but is it relevant for ministry in the church?  For example, a student once asked the question whether we do not need a theory of leadership in our day because we have so many large churches.  We might, I would suggest, rather ask, ‘In what way does a large church strain the Biblical notion of a ‘gathered community’ that experiences spiritual gifts and fellowship?  Is a large ‘church’ really a ‘church’—especially if we find ourselves forced to move from the concept of ministry (service) to leadership because of our new ecclesiological focus?’  I realize that I am pushing hard here, but not inappropriately, against merely accepting categories that come to us already endorsed by our contexts, our present state of learning, our assumptions, and our cultures.  We might find ourselves adopting certain theories from the social sciences, but we need to be careful each step of the way that we have not distorted our reading of Scripture.

As an alternative, for example, consider the consultancy work of Greg Troxell, called Professional DynaMetric Programs or PDP.[1]  Instead of discussing ministry in terms of leadership (although he does use the term on occasion but not in his analyses), he uses the field of psychology to explore ministry discernment and discipleship.  He uses simple testing to clarify a person’s ministry (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher),[2] spiritual gifts (prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, administration, and mercy), availability, experience, talents, Christian spirituality, personal and behavioral style, and motivational needs.  The method of research is not about defining a single category but working with multiple categories: it is not about what makes a good leader but about (1) who makes a good colleague for this team and (2) what various personalities (and other factors) aid or hinder a person in his or her calling to that ministry.  Such a method seems to leave Scripture to define gifts, ministry, the church, and so forth while it uses psychology and testing to facilitate forming a staff and to help persons be more self-aware of their strengths and challenges as they offer their services within certain contexts.[3]

Second, Is ‘leadership’ an appropriate concept for Christian ministry?  One question I would like us to think about long and hard is whether we need the category 'leadership' when we speak about people in various oversight roles. ‘Leadership’ is not the same thing as ‘oversight’.  Think about the difference between the words 'authority' and 'responsibility.'  The former moves us to speak of power and its use, the latter to speak of obligation and obedience.  The former is a 'leadership' term, the latter is a 'servanthood/discipleship' term.  If I have oversight of something, I think of my responsibility in regard to that thing.  For example, if I am entrusted with oversight over a classroom of students and their learning in my class, I am not approaching this task as a ‘leader’ but as a teacher, responsible to educate these students in the right ways with the right curriculum. The concept of 'leadership' is irrelevant to my service or ministry as a teacher.  In fact, it would confuse the ministry I am called to do.  I think about gifting--my gift is teaching.  I do not think about holding an office, wielding power, how to control people, and the like.  I think about responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to teach students the Scriptures.  So, my question is, if we want to speak about elders, overseers, deacons (the word means 'servants'!), pastors, teachers, etc., would it not just be best to explore what these roles of service are and how to go about them?  Do we need some catch-all concept like 'leadership' to understand them?  And, if we are to have a catch-all term, why ‘leadership’ instead of ‘ministry’ (that is, service)?

Third, What exactly are terms for ministry in the Church, and do they involve the notion of leadership?  When we find persons in some oversight role in Scripture, such as 'apostle’, we need to examine in great detail what in fact is said about this.  So, e.g., Paul is aware that 'apostle' could carry rights and authority (1 Cor. 9; 2 Cor. 11), but he radically undermines this understanding for his own role as an apostle.  He rather turns his role as apostle from being a leadership notion into a responsibility and service notion having to do with faithfully discharging the Gospel (Gal. 1.8) or servicing of others (1 Cor. 9.15-27).  His apostleship is not the exercising of authority over others but the fulfillment of a charge, like an ambassador (2 Cor. 5.20). 

From 1 Tim. 3, we see that the overseer (or elder) and the deacon in the church are entrusted with responsibilities such as teaching, finances, and other ministries of service.  Their roles are understood in terms of responsibility rather than authority, service instead of office, function instead of status, and the qualifications for these ministries have to do with whether candidates have proven themselves over time and can be trusted to fulfill their responsibilities.  There is only the slightest element of authority over others in the qualification that they have control over their own households (vv. 4-5), but even that could be understood more from the perspective of responsibility (‘how will he care for the church of God so that members are guided in the right direction of truth rather than false teaching?’) than how to exercise authority over others. 

Elders are called ‘shepherds’ in 1 Peter 5.  They are not to lord it over others but to be examples to them (v. 3).  In Hebrews 13.7, where the word ‘hēgoumenōn’ is translated as ‘leaders’ in the NRSV and ESV, we should probably have more in mind ‘those who guide you,’ since that is the idea.  The passage goes on to say to those following these ‘leaders’, ‘consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.’  Finally, in Rom. 12.8, the word translated ‘leader’ in various English translations comes from two Greek words: to ‘stand’ ‘before’.  A leader stands before people, but also the person who shows others how to do something.  It likely is to be understood in the same sense as 1 Pt. 5.3 and Heb. 13.7: there are people in the community who set the example for others.  The community recognizes them in this role, and they can carry responsibility.

If we think it appropriate to call this ‘leadership,’ we need to recognize that this is not ‘servant-leadership.’  Servant-leadership is a notion of the use of power to serve others, but such passages have in mind serving and caring for others by showing them the way to live, and being faithful stewards.  Is this Biblical understanding of ministry at all enhanced by speaking rather of leadership and deriving information from leadership studies from the business world?


The way forward in considerations of Christian ministry is to be radically Biblical, avoiding the appropriation and misuse of Scripture in ways that give the appearance of being Biblical while really deriving notions and practices from other sources.  This does not mean jettisoning the use of the social sciences, but it does require us to be clear about what is Biblical and what is not.  Psychology can be used to discuss various types of ministries and ministry settings, for example, without suspiciously trying to implant notions from the sciences in Scripture.  We need to be aware of our assumptions and methods all along the way.  Ultimately, ‘leadership’ proves to be too problematic a concept to discuss Christian ministry, bringing with it misunderstandings at so many levels that it can only distort Biblical teaching.  This is true even where we think that we have ‘leadership’ terminology in the New Testament Church.  An appropriate Biblical understanding of ministry will best be derived from careful study of each ministry role on its own and by understanding these roles in terms of the responsibility, not authority, that each carries.

[1] See the description at
[2] This list comes from Eph. 4.9. It is worth noting that the list of ministries is neither incomplete nor mutually exclusive.  In fact, Paul’s syntax with ‘pastors and teachers’ in the list suggests some overlap between the two.  Still, if such categories are used to probe discussion rather than restrict a person to a certain ministry, they can be helpful.
[3] My purpose in mentioning this is only to offer one way someone might explore things differently that others have tried to discuss under the terminology of ‘leadership’.  I am not sufficiently familiar with Troxell’s actual work to endorse it as such.  I remain wary of simplifications, classifications, and categories that get overused and end up limiting rather than opening up considerations.  For a simple example, Moses had a speech impediment that would have, in his mind, hindered him from the ministry to which he was called.  For God, that was simply an issue to overcome rather than a limitation that disqualified him.