Australians are preoccupied with leadership. We behave as if getting leadership right will fix most wrongs. What we learn from one of the most successful authors of history is that leadership at its best cannot save us, it can only serve us. [Article]

Michael Flynn

At Swinburne University in Melbourne, the School of Business is teaching servant leadership because evidence for the effectiveness of Jesus teaching on leadership has been building for decades. Harvard Business Review famously called it ‘Level five leadership’ – a humble, eclectic, teachable and even wise form of leading that puts the goals of the corporation above the personality of the leader. There is nothing sentimental or ideologically skewed towards championing introversion here. This is business. This form of leadership is justified by the superior results it achieves.

But leadership is complex for us in Melbourne. We know that our city is obsessed by critiquing, seeking, and removing leadership. Leadership is one of the ordinary goods we have anxiously made into an ultimate purpose as we seek the keys to a meaningful life on our own terms. This is why we need to believe that if we just get leadership right… all will be well.

But this is Australia, and we practice a brutal form of egalitarianism. We cut down without mercy even the most beautiful and deserving of our tall poppies. Many people would have excelled amongst us given time, grace and opportunity but we make them fall and we move on quickly. Then we complain when only hardened weeds are left standing while wise people steer away from leadership in public, corporate, and church life.

Yet, despite our impatience with leadership and our anxiety to burden triumphal leadership with the weight of human meaning, it is servant leadership that remains the most effective version of this inexact skill.

The Apostle Paul in his letters to the churches in Corinth demonstrates that the social media phenomena of likes, followers and influencers is not new. Different leaders accumulated different groups of followers. People were lining up behind Paul, Cephas (Peter) and Apollos and by 2 Corinthians, possibly Titus, and certainly the Super Apostles who were abusing and misleading the young church.

Paul wonders if the Corinthians are crazy… why make idols out of leaders? “Was Paul crucified for you? Where you baptised in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). His point is that leaders in the church are not saviours, they are farmers.

I planted [did mission] and Apollos watered [taught and pastored] but it is God who gives the growth.”

1 Corinthians 3:6

As Paul unpacks the teaching of Jesus on servant leadership for the churches in Corinth, we learn that church leaders, ministers and pastors are both more important and less important than we think.

Church leaders, ministers and pastors matter more than we think.

There is a line of thinking in contemporary chuches that claims ministers don’t matter. This is because we know better than our pastors. We are educated, often professionals with our own standing in the community beyond the church where we exercise our own brands of leadership every working day. We can do a better job and, after all, the Bible itself teaches that the church is a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9) and we all have ministries and gifts to contribute (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). But for Paul for a church to say that it does not need people in the ministry to lead them is like a city saying it does not need farmers.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul notes that some gifts are fundamental to establishing the church and enabling the other gifts of the church.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, thrid teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues…”

1 Corinthians 12: 27

This is consistent with what Paul writes in Ephesians 4…

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledg of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11, 12

In other words, the task of people in the ministry is to build up and equip the rest of the church do to the ministry of the church wherever and however they find themselves. Our church leaders, our ministers and pastors do not have all the gifts a church will need but they are more important than we think.

Church leaders, ministers and pastors matter less than we think.

There is a line of thinking in contemporary churches that claims a good leader is essential to the success and growth of the church. Typically we look for a charismatic personality with many spiritual and academic gifts, especially winsome teaching gifts. An extroverted and welcoming personality is essential for attracting people into our churches. For putting us on the map. We note that large and successful churches have big ‘L’ leaders and we want to train people going into ministry to be those sort of people. That is how we want to be led.

However, again Paul says, no.

What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake… for God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory… displayed in the face of Jesus Christ… but we have this treaure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

2 Corinthians 4:5-7

How odd that one of the most successful authors of history, the co-founder of the largest volunteer movement in the world, one of the church’s most influential and successful missionaries, should have the view that it is the weakness of our leaders, their lack that allows others to see the grace of God at work in them… rather than their competence and brilliance. And again, writing about leadership he says:

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”

2 Corinthians 10:17-18

Why do we need to be reminded of these things? Because as Paul says, it is too easy to lead a church by the appearance of success (what our culture defines as successful) rather than substance – which Paul tells us is Jesus Christ in 2 Corinthians 10:7.

So, to apply Paul’s teaching…

The future of the church is not contained in how well crafted and presented our strategic plans are. They will not give life or growth or resurrect the dead. The future belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the one who was raised from the dead. (for example, on planning see 2 Corinthians 1:12-22)

The truth of the church is not in our academic qualifications or publications or clever apologetics or learned sermons. It is in Jesus Christ because he is the truth about God. (for example, on truth see 1 Corinthians 1:20-31)

The lifestyle of the church is not in our community social gatherings or friendship networks or small groups because the power to live well, love well, forgive well is in Jesus Christ. (for example, on community see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

The mission of the church is not in our programs, it is in Jesus Christ and what he is already doing in people’s lives which we need to discover and participate in. (for example, on cross cultural mission, see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

Of course our planning, teaching, community and mission efforts matter, but only in the way that farming matters. They are essential to do but they do not achieve, on their own, growth. They are not our salvation or purpose because it is God who gives the growth. Our effort is the appearance of the church but Jesus is the substance.

What we and our leaders are to do is to point people away from ourselves to Jesus Christ. We are the jars of clay but the treasure of the good news about Jesus is placed within us, so that through our faults and weakness, rather than our accomplishments and strength, as we do the work of the church people can see grace and gift in us and then want to seek it for themselves.

In so far as our ministry does this it is a success. Is so far as it points to ourselves or builds likes and followers or influence for our leaders and church brands, it is a sadness.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1 that “All the promises of God find their yes in him.” It is Jesus whom our servant leaders are to serve. And, to be simply pragmatic, that is what will work.