On Leadership

This past month, Todd Engstrom asked, “What are the necessary skills, character traits, and cultural understandings a leader should possess?” I spent some time searching through books, articles, and blog posts on leadership, and found a few common themes strung throughout the business, sociological world, and the world of church leadership.

I want to focus this blog from a Christian leader’s perspective, but to say that Christian leaders possess characteristics that are completely separate from leaders outside of the church would create a false dichotomy, so understand the purpose is not to say these skills, traits, and understandings are somehow “better” or “higher” than others. In fact, for the most part, they are incredibly similar, if not the same.

In focusing this post on Christian leadership, I want to say of first and primary importance, a Christian leader must be a follower of Christ.

Hard-hitting analysis, there, Travis.

And yeah, scoff, but according to Scripture, it would be entirely possible for talented men and women to do many incredible things for God, through Jesus’s name, by the use of their gifts, and still not know Jesus as Savior. We often point out Matthew 7:21 when wringing our hands about false disciples without reading on to verses 22-23 and solemnly considering ourselves as leaders. These should be sobering verses for Christian leaders, especially those we might consider “successful” in the use of their gifts. So, of first importance, a Christian leader must be a follower of Christ, not for the sake of his effectiveness – as it is God’s power who works -but for the sake of his soul.

We could stop and expound on this more, but for the sake of answering Todd’s actual question, I’m going to move on to three categories a leader must possess: necessary skills, character traits, and cultural understandings.


Necessary Skills

Vision – “Prof” Howard Hendricks, a professor of hermeneutics and leadership at DTS, was a quote machine. I guess teaching for 70 years of one’s life will lend you to that. He said many things on vision, but two statements that stick with me (and the rest of his former students the most, given some of the pages dedicated to Prof) are these:

My fear is not that you would fail, but that you would succeed in doing the wrong thing.

You are able to do many things. Be sure you find the one thing you must do.

Vision is a clear picture of what one must do to use his God-given gifts in the context of his God-ordained setting. The leader sees his role and he sees how others fit into the vision.

Flexibility – The ability to redirect or change one’s course of action or vision.

Communication – Communication is the ability to clearly and succinctly describe your vision to others in such a way that they understand and engage in their role within the vision.

I’ve always loved this quote about communication (or “vision-casting” if you’d prefer).

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Character Traits

Conviction/Passion – Quoting Howard Hendricks again, “A belief is something you will argue about. A conviction is something you will die for.”

A Christian leader is marked by a conviction for the gospel, and he is passionate about God’s glory. He is someone who will lay down his life for God and for others to know and worship God.

Commitment – A blog posted on Acts 29 recently mentioned commitment. The advice was for prospective church planters and said “Commit to outlast, put down roots and commit to one city.”

Commitment goes hand in hand with conviction, and in many cases they could be interchangeable. Commitment is the trait marking a leader who will not give in when things get difficult or painful.

Humility – A Christian leader must understand his role in ministry is not to be the catalyst. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. Humility keeps the Christian leader from making more of himself than Jesus. It also allows for the leader to accept rebuke, correction, and instruction.


Cultural Understandings

“Culture” could be defined as a group of people whose shared beliefs, values, behaviors, and experiences shape their way of life. A Christian operates within the context of a certain culture (as believers we are a new creation, no longer a product of the culture around us, but aliens placed in that culture as ministers of reconciliation), so the Christian must understand the culture in order to share the gospel. There are three specific understandings that I believe have higher importance:

Language – How does the culture speak about itself, about those outside of itself, and about its beliefs and values. To properly understand what anyone believes about anything, you have to first understand the language it is using. (Example: Christians and Mormons both believe that Jesus is the “Son of God”, but both only one believes Jesus is God.)

Values – What ideal does the culture hold as highest importance. These values will create action or esteem within the culture. Values could range from individuality to self-sufficiency to social justice.

“Places of Worship” – Where does the culture go to engage in its beliefs and values, either by meeting with other people to enjoy the value or actively pursue the value. Places of worship could be music venues, bars, sports venues, schools and universities, or even certain homes within a neighborhood.

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