Should secular leadership theory influence Christian ministry?

At the recent Festival of Theology, we heard eight fascinating presentations on a range of subjects, and I am hoping to post them all here in due course. This was the text of John Allister’s presentation “What has Wall Street to do with Jerusalem?”

In November, I was at a gathering of local church leaders. We were shown a video of business thinker Patrick Lencioni summarising his book The Ideal Team Player, saying that there are three qualities people need in order to work really well on teams: they need to be humble – more interested in others than themselves; the need to be hungry, with a strong work ethic: and they need to be people-smart – good at working with those around them. After the talk, we were asked for questions and observations, and one of the first to speak pointed out that his son was autistic, and therefore that it felt like Lencioni was saying that his son should never be fully involved in the life of the church.

That’s one example – there are hundreds of others. Secular leadership thinking “Wall Street” is increasingly influential in the church “Jerusalem”. In some quarters it is welcomed and encouraged; in others it is causing a lot of resistance, some but not all of it thoroughly deserved. This isn’t new, of course. It happened in the early Christian centuries with Greek philosophy. The African theologian Tertullian famously challenged it in around AD 200 with the question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” but ultimately he was on the losing side. It’s generally agreed that the church let Greek philosophy have far too great an influence, whether Augustine’s Neoplatonism leading him to see sex and the body as bad things, or the church absorbing Aristotelian physics and the Ptolemaic model of the universe so deeply that Galileo was accused of heresy for questioning it.

Arguably you see the process starting in 1 Corinthians. Paul is writing to a church that is starting to take its values from the Greek secular culture, rather than from Christ and the Scriptures, and he strongly rejects the wisdom of this world. In Britain, the loudest rejections of management thinking tend to come from who have more of a priestly or caring picture of the role of the minister, but in the US, there’s also a strong backlash from the more conservative end. Here, for example, is John Piper:

We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt 18:3); there is no professional tenderhearted-ness (Eph 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps 42:1).

Banish professionalism from our midst, Oh God, and in its place put passionate prayer, poverty of spirit, hunger for God, rigorous study of holy things, white-hot devotion to Jesus Christ, utter indifference to all material gain, and unremitting labour to rescue the perishing, perfect the saints, and glorify our sovereign Lord (Brothers, We are Not Professionals, extracts from pp 1–4)

Many of us would want to say ‘Amen’ to that—but there’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You see, there’s a better model for how to react to those kinds of ideas from outside the faith.

It’s all to do with the Book of Proverbs. Lots of other cultures at the time did similar sorts of things to the book of Proverbs – the Egyptians did, the Akkadians and Sumerians in modern Iraq did; it’s likely that the Arabians did as well. And it’s clear that there’s some level of sharing going on. We’re told that Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of the East and the wisdom of Egypt (1 Kings 4:29-30) and that people came to listen to him, which tells us both that those sources of wisdom literature were known in Israel at the time and Israelite wisdom was known there. It also seems that some foreign wisdom literature had an impact on Proverbs. The enigmatic King Lemuel, whose mum wrote a bit of Proverbs 31, for example, isn’t on any of the lists of Israelite kings. Another example would be Proverbs 22:17-23:11, which is often said to borrow from the Egyptian book The Wisdom of Amenemope (shown on the right), which probably dates from the period of the Judges in Israel. Here’s an example. Amenemope says this:

Beware of robbing a wretch, of attacking a cripple.

Proverbs 22:22-23 says this

Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will exact life for life.

Does Proverbs lift bits from Amenemope? I’m not qualified enough in comparative ancient languages to say. There are certainly similar ideas, expressed in similar ways in Proverbs to Amenemope and some other texts from the period, and even the conservative scholar Tremper Longman argues that chunks of Proverbs 30 and 31 are by non-Israelites. But Proverbs doesn’t just accept pagan wisdom wholesale, like the church often accepted Greek philosophy.

There’s a process – the wisdom of Solomon, if you will, for how to relate to secular wisdom literature:

  • filter out the bad. For example, the bit of Amenemope that corresponds to Proverbs 22:28 has those who move boundary markers being caught by the might of the Moon (a symbol of the god Thoth). You don’t get that in Proverbs.
  • re-theologise the good. We see that with the quotation we saw earlier. What Amenemope says as a bit of advice, Proverbs notices ties in with the Law, adds God’s name, and is clearer about the motivation being that it’s wrong to gain unfairly at others’ expense because of God’s judgement.
  • Treat it as wisdom, not law. It’s striking that Proverbs is the big example of this in the Old Testament, because Proverbs is also the book that is happy contradicting itself. By and large, it doesn’t offer binding commands; it offers advice, and that sometimes contradicts itself (e.g. Proverbs 26:4-5). The whole idea of Proverbs is that we need to think and pray about it, and use what is best for our contexts.
  • Use it. It’s striking that after filtering out the bad, re-theologising the good, and treating it as wisdom, not law, the ancient Israelites were willing to include in Scripture even literature written by outsiders to the covenant, like Lemuel’s mum, Agur and maybe Amenemope.

It seems likely that Paul follows the same process. After all, he passionately rejects Greek wisdom and rhetoric at the start of 1 Corinthians, but then goes on to use a number of rhetorical techniques in the rest of the letter. If you read the commentaries, it’s generally agreed that what Paul is rejecting isn’t all of Greek wisdom, just the very popular style known as “public display oratory”, which is all about getting applause and making people think what a wonderful and clever speaker you are. [At this point, we all offered some ironic applause for John as a wonderful and clever speaker!] Instead, Paul uses every means at his disposal, including logic and rhetoric, to show how amazing Jesus is and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection.

And when it’s done well, even the likes of John Piper approves – he wrote a glowing foreword to a book which takes secular wisdom on time management, re-theologizes it, and applies it effectively to Christians.

So what does it look like to read Lencioni’s book and apply it to church the way that the writers of Proverbs treated pagan wisdom literature?

Well, there are a couple of things we need to filter. In the secular world, the leaders of organisations choose who they want in their teams. Lencioni assumes that. But we aren’t really the leader. God is. He picks the team, and he often picks those who are weak and foolish in the eyes of the world. As a church, we are the local body of Christ. Each member is gifted individually with gifts that ought to be used for the benefit of the whole body, and indeed the world. Another key factor is that God is in the business of transforming hearts. Especially, we are told, he humbles the proud and gives grace to the weak. When he commands us to love our neighbours, he also helps us to do so.

What’s good in Lencioni’s work? Quite a lot. For example, it’s interesting to look at his three key attributes for a team player theologically.

Humble – humility is one of the key effects of understanding the gospel. In Philippians 2 we read that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, therefore we should look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others.

Hungry – strong work-ethic. In the church context, isn’t this fundamentally about loving God more than life, about seeking his glory far above everything else, about that stuff that Piper was talking about in the extract I read earlier?

People-smart – this is fundamentally about loving others well, isn’t it? It’s about caring about them enough to find out what they like and how they want to be treated, and then doing that.

In the church context, this sounds like it boils down to “trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection”, “love God”, “love one another”. I’m sure I’ve heard those before somewhere, and we’re all called to do all of them! But Lencioni unpacks how these enable us to get on well, and to work productively together, as well as seeing what can go wrong. Which for those of us church leaders who have the privilege to hire staff or to put people in positions of responsibility in church, is a wonderful reminder that we look for signs of gospel humility, of loving God and loving neighbour before we necessarily look for technical competence.

It also means if a team in church isn’t working, according to Lencioni, the problem is often basic discipleship – loving God and loving others. We can use Lencioni to help to find the problem and then what we do about it. There’s a lot of wisdom here about how to speak the truth in love, and how to help us hear the truth spoken in love about where our strengths and weaknesses lie.

As Solomon recognised, we should neither go along blindly following the wisdom of the world, nor should we reject it outright. We need to engage with it, and to do so intelligently and faithfully. When we learn to do that, then we will surely be even more effective in using the gifts that God has given us for his kingdom and his glory.

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16 thoughts on “Should secular leadership theory influence Christian ministry?”

  1. Interesting.

    I think a basic problem in most churches is a lack of scriptural definition of biblical, spiritual leadership. It is missing from most of the literature as well. I taught a masters course in church leadership for a number of years and was always struck that the students (including many pastors and missionaries) had no categories through which to approach the question “what is biblical, spiritual leadership?”

    With no basic definition – and therefore no theology of leadership – of course we fill the vacuum with secular thinking and assume that secular practice imported into the church = Christian leadership.

    But it’s not like the Bible doesn’t have a huge amount to say on the subject. And neither is common grace wisdom a bad thing. But we need to get the order right. Establish biblical foundations and framework first and then bring in the best wise practice we can get from elsewhere.

  2. “Reward you best performers – remove your non-performers” – this is a leadership axiom associated with a thriving ministry in the USA. I wonder if any of the apostles who denied Jesus and abandoned him in Gethsemene would have got a job on their church team? Thank goodness the kingdom works on grace not performance.

    • Amen. What you wrote, Simon, put me in mind of this:

      ‘And I, brethren, when I came to you,did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom, declaring to you the testimony of God.
      For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
      I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.
      And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God…’

    • Hi Simon,

      I think that we need to clarify what’s meant by performance.

      The five-fold ministry gifts have a clear purpose:
      ‘to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

      Paul even encourages Timothy to reward good ‘performance’, when he writes : ‘The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.’ (1 Ti. 5:17)

      In contrast, he established specific moral qualifications for leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Titus 1:6-8) and advocated public censure for those leaders who set a poor example, (1 Tim. 5:19-21), albeit insisting on the dismissal of accusations which lacked reliable eye-witness corroboration.

      Nevertheless, Paul himself received mentoring (from Apollos – Acts 18:26) and advocated comfort for the penitent (2 Cor. 2:5-8). Although secular organisations are generally supportive of mentoring approach, its implementation is usually preceded and accompanied by a ruthless elimination process.

      So, I’d agree that the ‘reward or remove’ dichotomy, which you’ve quoted, doesn’t overtly make allowance for this.

      Despite this, we should not overlook Christ’s parabolic reference to the fruitlessness of response to His ministry in Jerusalem::‘So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

      So, although the practical outworking of grace is expressed through imitation of Christ in forbearance, discretion, forgiveness and encouragement, grace does not mean that we should abandon the apostolic expectations for Christian ministry.

      Instead, we should resort to every means possible in helping each other to achieve them.

      • Thanks Dave – yes, agree with all you say. Ministers are to be ‘faithful stewards of God’s grace’ (1Pet4v10), planting and sowing as best they can, but recognising all the while it is God who causes things to grow (1Cor3v7), and Jesus who promises that “I will build my church”. (Matt16v18).

        I am an asst minister at one of the largest Anglican churches in Britain- and we have been blessed by growth and life. Part of that is due to long obedience in the same direction (saints prayed here for over 1000yrs), part by a succession of truly gifted Rectors who inspire and equip and release, partly by the demographics of the city, but mostly by God’s grace.

        I have the privilege of travelling widely and ministering at many churches and I see good, godly and gifted pastors giving their all, leading a church into steady decline. They love the Lord more, and work harder than me, they do not have the benefit of team or finances, they are faithful in a rising tide of aggressive secularism. They are doing what they can, as Paul exhorted, ‘stand, stand, and when you’ve done everything, stand’ – they have taken a stand, are seeking to equip the saints, and be faithful to the gospel, and reach their community. Their congregations of 60 are as much graced by God as ours of 1200. And they are as worthy of reward, more so, than the mega church leaders i’ve known.

  3. The reality is that much of what is seen as secular leadership teaching has Christian origins. Patrick Lencioni speaks from a Christian worldview. John C. Maxwell is another example of a prolific writer on leadership with a strong Christian ethos. Concepts such as ‘servant leadership’ and ‘mission’ are Christian ideas. Servant leadership is so deeply embedded in Western culture that we have a ‘Prime Minister’ and politicians are ‘public servants’.

    Discernment Is definitely required but I’m happy with the concept of appropriate qualifications for leadership – the narrative of Jesus (with divine foresight) choosing some unlikely apostles needs to be held against the biblical qualifications for eldership which are mostly related to godly character. The biblical principle of allocating roles according to God given giftedness is also crucial. When I hear people complain about secular models in the church (in the context I’m in), it’s often because they undervalue leadership competence.

    As a Presbyterian, shared leadership is crucial for me as a biblical ideal but often the church culture works against that ideal and focusses leadership on one person. My perception is that the ‘threat’ is not from secular leadership models as much as it is from fallen human nature and the concentration of power in individuals. That elevation of the individual leader was the leadership model of the pagan world in which the New Testament was written. It reared it’s ugly head in Western culture in the ‘hero CEO’ model in the corporate world and in the celebrity pastor model in the church but thankfully in the corporate world, the ‘hero CEO’ model has lost influence because it was proven not to work.

    • In the secular non-profit world there is a pretty good understanding of stewardship and accountability (which ultimately go to the element of responsibility that is part of leadership) within an overall context of charitable objectives (as opposed to business success). This ultimately goes back to the mediaeval church with its involvement in education, land management, and so on. It shouldn’t be a problem !

      But I have to admit that a couple of things really get my goat, in relation to how this is discussed in the church. I should that these observations specifically relate to a few vocal people on either side, who get a lot of airtime.

      (1) promoters of business-type concepts of leadership tend to adopt the flaccid buzzword prose of the management gurus, most of whom have never run a business with the exception of their own efforts at self-promotion. “Leadership traits”, “skills and competences”, “facilitators”. This leads to a cargo-cult simulation which mimicks the externals of management activity in the hope that the activity itself will be successful. Somewhat like those “targets” in the NHS which had perverse consequences for patient care.

      (2) decriers of business-type concepts of leadership, by contrast, I suspect often hold an evasive attitude towards accountability. Example: All of the visible innovations in the church since the late 1960s have been presented to the rank and file as measures that will stem the decline in numbers. In any normal business, (a) the presentation would have been critiqued at the time with no particular respect for the office of those arguing for change, (b) after the decline in numbers continued unabated, those responsible would have resigned to spend more time with their families, and the innovations would have been reversed.

  4. Hi Tom – yes, much wisdom in what you write. And yes, Jesus certainly had ‘Divine foresight’ and prophesied Peter would suffer, and had already prophesied before Peter’s denial that Jesus would build his church on him (or his example of faith or his confession of Christ ) – however I still think in the end the call was not based on either Peter’s character or competence. Peter was a fisherman and on both occasions we see him fishing he has caught nothing 🙂 Professionally useless. I am concerned by increasingly seeing ministerial job adverts requesting “proven track record of leading a church into growth” – Peter had non when made Apostle. But i never see jobs where they request faithfulness in an aggressive tidal wave of secularism? Indeed I can’t recall seeing job requests for godly character. Never seen the Beatitudes used on a job requirement list.

    And having seen a litany of ‘growing & successful’ churches & ministries train wrecked in recent years, it is always character that brings them down. Moral failure – bullying, immorality, greed. So increasingly I believe the minister must above all work on character and faithfulness to the Word and where possible employ an ops director willing to take a pay cut who has all the secular prized (and church useful) skills.

    • Hi Simon, totally agree with you about godly character – although it’s interesting that Peter wasn’t released into leadership until after he had had that formational experience of betraying Jesus and then receiving grace. My take on the ‘growing and successful’ track record is that it is insufficient to show true competence as well as character.True growth is more than numbers although there is normally no virtue in shrinking a church!

      There is a CPAS booklet, ‘Growing Through a Vacancy’ which makes the observation from research that vacant congregations that have had a ‘successful’ leader are more likely to decline in a vacancy than those which had a vicar who didn’t lead them to numerical growth. The reason given is that the ‘successful’ leader had failed to do their job in equipping the members of the congregation and had created a culture in which everything revolved around them. True competence goes beyond numerical growth data. But true competence is required all the same – and in response to Christine above, that Paul was an extremely gifted communicator of the gospel is not in doubt – it’s just that he didn’t need the sort of gifts ancient Greek rhetoricians had. The response to the wrong sort of competence is not to allow incompetence. Reliance on the Holy Spirit is also important – but that reliance should only make us more competent in God’s purposes.

      • Hi Tom

        I’d say that sounds more like an argument against vacancies than an argument to change our definition of successful leader to exclude those who bring numerical growth!

        Also, if a leader didn’t bring numerical growth then we can assume that most of the congregation when he or she departs are the same as when he or she arrived, so it stands to reason that they are less likely to leave merely because the leader has. On the other hand, the congregations of leaders who bring numerical growth will include people who have only known that person as leader, and perhaps began attending in part because they particularly appreciated his or her ministry, meaning they are more likely to look elsewhere when the leader departs.

        • Hi Will,

          I agree with your analysis about why people might leave – and I have seen this happen. However, I’ve also seen congregations thrive in a vacancy because the previous leader had created a culture of equipping and empowering and there was a strong team of people left to continue the ministry. That’s not to say they might have done even better if the leader had stayed – but the point is that a vacancy highlights the permanence of the previous leader’s work.

          There is an argument to be made for better and less drawn out leadership succession planning in traditional denominations – in mine a vacancy typically lasts a year because of all the processes involved.

  5. Recently, I have done a course in Christian Leadership, and the book all the students loved was the little mongraph “In the Name of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen, subtitled “Reflections on Christian Leadership”. Rooted in the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, and Jesus’ commissioning of Peter (John 21), it presents three temptations and their antidotes found in disciplines. The contents pages gives the outline:

    The temptation to be ‘relevant’ faces the question “do you love me?”, and the response is contemplative prayer.

    The temptation to be ‘spectacular’, is given the task “feed my sheep”, leading to the need for confession and forgiveness.

    The temptation to be ‘powerful’ faces the challenge “someone else will take you”, and the discipline that follows is theological reflection.

    While there is some correspondence with the ideas in the post, what comes out of this is leadership which is firstly rooted in the leader’s relationship with Jesus, and their call and commissioning.

    • David Wilson,
      I can peacefully submit to such a leader. We had such a leader, who left just four days ago to honour a new calling. I would find it challenging to submit to a leader who seemed to regard the church as an organisation, rather than as ‘ A Divinely constituted organism’.

  6. Thank you, Ian, for reproducing the talks from the Festival, which I and many others weren’t able to be at. On the other side of the coin, how can I cope with so many thought-provoking Psephizo posts pouring out day after day? 🙂

  7. I can recommend the book ‘The faith of the managers (when management becomes religion)’ by Stephen Pattison [Cassell, 1997]. Written from his perspective of having been an NHS chaplain, and then working in the NHS during the late 80’s early 90’s, he puts forward an argument that what was being presented as “Management Science” was best critiqued as if it were a deviant, fundamentalist Christian sect. The book ends with chapter containing his own warning to the church about blindly accepting ‘management’.


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