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Issues Facing Missions Today 33: Jettisoning the Leadership Paradigm for Ministry in Africa

Issues Facing Missions Today 33: Jettisoning the Leadership Paradigm for Ministry in Africa

Three challenges to ministry posed by certain concepts of leadership are: (1) ministry from a position of power; (2) elitism; and (3) personal rule.  The present post examines these three points with respect to Africa through three authors.  Clearly, certain people rise to positions of responsibility and have to exercise certain duties in the course of their ministry, but understanding this in terms of ‘leadership’ rather than ‘ministry’ seems to open Christian mission and ministry up to various abuses.  Perhaps, I would argue, it is time to return to the simple notion of ‘ministry’ and drop the language of ‘leadership’ altogether.[1]

Ministry from a Position of Power

In 1990, Gottfried Osei-Mensah warned of a connection between power and Christianity in Africa.  He wrote,

The entrance of the Gospel in Africa through the modern missionary movement coincided with the spread of western colonial power and commerce in the same regions.  It is not difficult therefore to see how Christianity came to be identified in the minds of many of our people with western culture, power and money….  Western culture, power and money seemed to be necessities if you were to take up the work of an evangelist.[2]

Osei-Mensah further notes that the spread of Christianity in the early Church did not come through money and power, and he asks whether it is not possible for Africans to do so as well:

We who by historical circumstance have been servants, former colonial servants, who still today have no economic power, no influence in the councils of the world, but who have the Holy Spirit indwelling us, can we not prove again in this generation that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who will believe?[3]

Modern missionary work in Africa by missionaries from the West, Osei-Mensah notes, also was not undertaken by the wealthy:

Many of the missionaries who brought the Gospel to Africa so many years ago set out with only a oneway [sic] ticket for the ship on which they travelled.  They did not have bank accounts.  All they had was faith in the One who was accompanying them.  We are the products of that kind of venturesome faith, and the Lord did not disappoint them or we would not be here!  That we are powerless materially is no disadvantage; it is in fact a qualification.[4]

However, he warns, ‘Because of their resources, missionaries today from the west are often not taken seriously.  People attribute mixed motives to their efforts.’[5]  The paper concludes with examples and statistics regarding African efforts in missions, particularly back to the West.


Also in 1990, Isaac Zoukwe warned against elitism among leaders in the Church.[6]  He says that Africa in particular has a propensity for elitism among theological educators and educated ministers in general because the literacy level of the population is lower than elsewhere.  Education becomes a means to elitism, which is unbecoming of the minister of God.  He observes the danger that education poses for meaningful, Christian ministry:

Certain aspects of African culture tend toward domination.  The priority due to the oldest person, the fear of the sorcerer, the servile submission to the chief, and the power of the healer are values that are projected onto the pastor or leader.  In the majority of our churches the pastor is considered to be the one who simultaneously plays the roles of elder, chief, healer, etc.[7]

Zoukwe is obviously not opposed to education or to educated ministers in the Church.  His warning is not about education but the use of education as a power in a culture ready to succumb to the abuses of leadership.  One might add that, in any culture, the educated might assume an air of elitism and disparage others for their lack of theological sophistication or institutionalization.  This has been a problem where more philosophical expressions of Christian faith encounter more experiential expressions, or where Western theologians and churchmen dismiss the orthodox faithfulness of believers in the non-Western world.

Zoukwe further notes that celebration in African cultures also involves the exhibition of titles and receiving of honours.[8]  Honouring elders and leaders is considered a virtue, and disloyalty and dishonor by Westerners is shocking to African culture.  Therein lies a challenge: not to promote elitism through African culture while still showing loyalty and respect to those in authority.

Personal Rule

Samuel Decalo examines the nature of leadership in African contexts.[9]  He argues that leadership is understood in terms of personal rule, which works through patronage and reward.  Servant leadership can easily be construed as personal power (and not only in Africa): ‘give me the authority, and I will do good things for the people.’  This is one reason that ‘servant leadership’ is an inadequate concept for Christian ministry.  As personal power, servant leadership easily devolves into nepotism, fraud, bribery, dictatorships, and psychoses of power.  Decalo writes,

Political power is highly personalized in Africa, and personal rule is virtually the norm….  The specific style of governance adopted by the personal ruler—whether active or passive, open or authoritarian—reflects his personality, thus allowing for a variety of possible typologies of personal rule, even though the centrality of the personal basis of power is common to all…. Personal rule can thus be seen as a fundamentally elitist style of governance that trades off patronage and societal rewards to other political aspirants or socially influential figures in exchange for personal support and political quiescence….  Such a system of governance rests, as one scholar has put it, on ‘mercenary support’ for the personal ruler who acquires ‘instrumental allegiance from influential individuals and groups through patronage.’ [10] … Personal rule need not be authoritarian, although, by definition, it is autocratic and inimical to the development of a completely open and competitive political system….  It opens the door for significant social waste, graft, and corruption (the necessary prices of securing the allegiance of the ruler’s cohorts) and thus inevitably serves the personal and sectional interests of the ruling group first and the wider society last.  When such a system of personal rule is headed by a totally illegitimate or venal leader, by an individual with headstrong paternalistic inclinations, or by one suffused by millennial or visionary goals, it may evolve into an autocracy (as in Samuel Doe’s Libera or Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire), a benevolent personal dictatorship (as in Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi), or a highly idiosyncratic authoritarian regime (as in Qadaffi’s Libya).

Personal rule potentially involves several other abuses: inertia; bureaucracy; lack of creative problem solving; and stagnation of social change.

Decalo did see the beginning of change in Africa at the time of writing (1989), but the issues he identified then are still present today throughout Africa.  Where change from personal rule is coming in Africa, according to Decalo, is through

a growing intelligentsia, the glaring inconsistencies of widening class cleavages and income disparities, the burdens of servicing onerous national debts with the dwindling resources of often shrinking or flagging economies, the rural-urban drift of an often nihilistic age-group of unemployed youth, and the increasingly coercive measures adopted by insecure leaders facing waning systematic legitimacy—all of these factors sap the founts of personal power in systems that are inherently ossified, where prospects of political choice, change, and peaceful transition from one set of rulers to another is precluded except through cou d’etat.[11]


A robust missionary effort by those with resources to accomplish it, a highly educated clergy, and persons in leadership positions motivated to serve others might all sound like good things for Christian ministry.  The notion of a ‘servant leader’ could easily include all three of these.  However, significant dangers lurk in the shadows of each one: power, elitism, and personal rule.  The switch to notions of ‘leadership’ have a way of cloaking these dangers in appealing ways.  Perhaps what is needed is to drop the term ‘leadership’ altogether—and the theories that surround the notion—when speaking of Christian ministry.

[1] This is not to argue that we cannot learn some helpful things from sociology about leadership.  It is, however, to challenge the notion of ministry that arises from either position or power.
[2] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, ‘The Challenge of Christian Leadership in Africa Today,’ East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 8:2 (1989): 1-10.  Here , p. 6.
[3] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, p. 7.
[4] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, p. 8.
[5] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, p. 8.
[6] Isaac Zoukwe, ‘Educating for Servant Leadership in Africa,’ African Journal of Evangelical Theology Vol. 9.1 (1990): 3-13.
[7] Isaac Zoukwe, p. 4.
[8] Isaac Zoukwe, p. 5.
[9] Samuel Decalo, Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships (London: Westview Press, 1989).
[10] Richard Sandbrook, The Politics of Africa’s Stagnation (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 83.
[11] Samuel Decalo, Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships (London: Westview Press, 1989), p. 188.  Decalo offers several reasons for coups: absence of political legitimacy, failures of institutionalization and leadership, economic stress, corruption, ethnicity, etc.—but especially the coup leader’s personal ambition to gain power (and with it wealth) (pp. 189-191).  The same issues, we might note, may arise in churches, theological colleges, mission agencies, and other Christian ministries—they are neither unique to governments or to Africa.  See further: Ronald Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993); David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany Pub. House, 2005).