Leading Without Power

A call to radical submission

By Jim Van Yperen

Most churches fall into one of two leadership structures: top-down or bottom-up. Each structure points back to a historical concern and a specific way of interpreting Scripture that informs how people think about leadership and authority. In this article we will summarize a few strengths and weaknesses of each structure, and then suggest a third alternative--the kind of structure Jesus led by, at least how we would diagram it today . . . 

TOP-DOWN: DEPENDENT

Most conservative and liturgical churches employ a top-down structure that is protective and dependent. Their philosophy of ministry holds that the spiritual care of a church is too important to be left in the hands of unqualified people. Doctrine must be guarded; heresy corrected. Thus, we ordain pastors or commission elders with special authority to serve. The top-down structure entitles a few select people to lead; to pray over and discern God’s will for making decisions. This is an “elder-rule” or “autocratic” system. A top-down structure places authority in one person, such as a priest or pastor, or in a small group, such as a Session, Elder or Deacon board. 

Top-Down: Dependent, Protective

Top-Down: Dependent, Protective

In diagramming the dependent structure, the leader or leaders are always at the top. Everyone else is below. The gap in-between is intentional, distinguishing who has authority and who does not. Decisions are made by the leaders who tell the members what God says and wants them to do.  In a dependent structure, authority is located in the title or position, usually distinguished in some way from others by ordination, education or maturity. Everyone else is under the leadership. They are expected to honor and submit to the leadership. 

I once asked a pastor about his view of authority. He said, “I see myself like Moses. I go up the mountain, hear what God says, then tell the people.”

I responded, “That didn’t even work for Moses!”

The benefit of a top-down structure is that authority is clear; everyone knows who is in control. Decisions can be made consistently, efficiently and quickly and only by those who, presumably, are most able to make them. Conventional wisdom suggests that the larger the organization, the more some kind of hierarchical structure becomes necessary. 

Dependent, protective structures can easily become institutional. Leaders become “professional,” and begin to think and to act with entitlement. They become isolated, in-grown, and controlling--increasing demands of others that they are often unwilling to do themselves. Once in power, the leader is reluctant to be without it. Thus, many autocratic structures are self-perpetuating and closed--leaders appointing leaders who think like themselves. Consequently, diversity is rare. The gap between leaders and members widens. People become marginalized. For example, if only men can serve as pastor or elder, women are subtly and not so subtly put down. This creates conflict and in conflict, authority may be abused. Leadership becomes, “My-way-or-the highway.” Now the danger is not someone thinking he is Moses, but someone claiming to be God.

Jesus told His disciples: 

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

If you exercise great responsibility in your church, could you worship and fellowship without it? What would it look like to lead without power?

BOTTOM-UP: INDEPENDENT

The opposite of a dependent, top-down structure is, of course, independent, bottom-up. In this structure power is given to many over the few, (at least in theory.) In a church, the congregation is the final authority on major decisions, including budget, hiring and firing of staff and other significant decisions. Authority is granted to members to approve or correct proposals by the leadership. This is a “democratic” or “representative” form of government. Decisions are made by majority vote. So, fairness, voting and rights are high ideals. Leaders are elected by the people. They can propose ideas or recommend change, but nothing can happen without majority approval.

Bottom-Up: Independent, Democratic

Bottom-Up: Independent, Democratic

The benefit of this structure is that all are invited to participate. People feel ownership when all have a voice. Many can use their gifts alongside others.

But there are problems with this structure also. Members can treat leaders like “hired-hands” who the church can hire and fire at will rather than valued brothers or sisters. Leaders are often people pleasers. In a system where every voice counts equally, a few with a selfish agenda or evil intentions can thwart good decisions. Fifty-one percent can elect a president, but it does not equal God’s will. Indeed, in the same way that relatively few people vote in political elections (at least in the United States), churches struggle to reach quorum also. The larger the church, the less likely people will participate in decision-making. Ironically, this gives more power and influence to those who do, welcoming the dangers of competing coalitions.

When conflict comes, the bottom-up style frequently turns top-down. Factions arise between parties. Leaders emerge on each side against the other. Those who trumpeted equal participation before, now seek to control or stifle all disagreement. The ugly face of anger explodes in the annual meeting as people vent pent-up emotions. Sides are taken and people who are surprised by the tumult find themselves forced to choose between factions. 

Have you been through a church conflict where people appealed to the by-laws, rights and voting more than God’s Word and character? Can you submit to others even when you disagree?

Dependent and independent structures are the two classic models of governance. Each derives authority from passages of Scripture where God used individuals or groups as agents of change. These two leadership structures, and others like them, are sincerely held and find their legitimacy in both Scripture and tradition. So, when Metanoia Ministries serves a church with either of these organizational styles, we respect and seek to work within their governing structure. At the same time, we believe that the Trinity and the ministry of Jesus invites us to discover and practice a completely different kind of leadership model--one that is neither dependent nor independent. 

A THIRD WAY: INTERDEPENDENT 

Scripture introduces us to a triune God, the God of community; the God who leads inter-dependently. Perhaps we have forgotten what it means to name God as Father, Son and Spirit: three distinct Persons; yet One God; interdependent and never in competition; each submitting and deferring to the other. What can the Trinity teach us about leadership? When Jesus prays for the church to be one with the Father as He is with the Father,1 what does that imply for how we are to lead?

Jesus’ leadership style is simple yet radical. He says “Follow me.”   The Apostle’s Paul and Peter echo this by saying, “Follow me as I follow Jesus Christ.”   Further, the destination is not success, but the cross! Consider these Scriptures:

“Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. . .” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mat. 10:38; 16:34 
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Php 2:2-8
“Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Gal 6:4

In the face of the cross, all talk of authority and power and success and church attendance and control becomes mute, and so obviously not the point. Hands with nails driven through make no grasp for power. The leadership that Jesus invites us to is radically cruciformed, a life shaped by the cross where power is turned against itself through submission.

Interdepent

Interdepent

To picture this model, we need to imagine placing a crow-bar under one side of the triangle and tipping the triangle over so that all the top-down and bottom-up roles and expectations are disturbed; leaders and members become inner-twined.

Note that the focus of the church is outward and “cross-ward,” in contrast to the inward looking perspective of both top-down and bottom-up structures. The interdependent model is a missionary model. It seeks to honor and respect the role of spiritual leaders as well as welcome input from members through communal dialogue and discernment. Thus, leaders and members share the common vocation and spiritual responsibility to discern God’s voice and implement God’s redemptive mission for the world. Leaders still lead but always in a way that they are in constant relationship and dialogue with the congregation. This how Jesus led His disciples, and how the Jerusalem Council resolved a dispute guided by God’s Word and Spirit in the gathering of people. Discernment and decision-making are communal exercises, the family of God hearing and interpreting God’s voice as it is revealed to the body. The place of the leader is neither top nor bottom; rather, like a shepherd with flock, the leader goes before and with the congregation. There are still leaders, but they emerge from and are recognized within the community where everything is held in common.

This is leadership without power, leading without coercion or control. Yet, there is order. Roles may distinguish one person from another, but authority is based upon spiritual gifts recognized and affirmed by the community. People defer to one another. The body affirms leaders--apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers--according to gifts, not by gender. In fact, this model is neither complementarian nor egalitarian. Women are neither subordinate nor equal to men. The very terms are wrong-headed. Instead, women and men are called to mutual6 subordination--all submitting to each other following the fruit of God’s Spirit active (or inactive) in the life of the believer. Character is more important than personality or skill. Conflict is resolved by mutual submission, not claims to authority.

WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE

When I describe our philosophy of ministry to people, push back comes from two directions. First, I’m accused of ignoring Scripture. “What about what Paul says regarding women!” I understand the argument. Indeed, Scripture allows for many kinds of roles and interpretation of authority, including relational, positional, experiential, and constituted authority. We need to listen to and respect the reasons given for all of these. After all, every system of governance is inadequate in a fallen world and all interpretations, including my own, are inevitably tainted by human culture and tradition--the stories that inform how we live and ascribe meaning to our lives--whether Roman or Reformed. At the same time, and for those who are open to hear it, top-down and bottom-up strategies feel forced instead of falling easily out of Scripture. Rather, the emphasis of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, the practice of the Apostle Paul (despite his words to Timothy), as well as how the early church was formed and appears to have functioned ,all point to a radically non-hierarchical, non-democratic way of leading. 

The second criticism of the interdependent model is that it is impractical and inefficient. To this I reply, “guilty as charged.” Interdependence is both messy and time-consuming. The leader who wants clarity, efficiency and results will suffer great frustration under interdependence. On the other hand, if clarity, efficiency and success are the measuring rods for effective leadership, we will have to recognize that Jesus was an exceedingly lousy leader. Jesus was often unclear. He told parables his followers did not understand. He answered questions with questions. Jesus did not seem concerned about time or efficiency. After all, he spent thirty years doing, well, who knows what? He told his brothers, “The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right.”  What about success? Was Jesus successful? Not during his life on earth, at least according to common understanding of success. He refused all outward markings of power. When he died, all but a few abandoned him. 

Think of the most successful churches and ministries in the world--those that are growing the fastest and achieving the most, by common standards of success. Can you picture Jesus fitting well as the leader of any of those churches or ministries? Would Jesus’ leadership style fit in your church?

Our work in churches during the past twenty years has brought us to the conviction that top-down and bottom-up organizations do not reflect the nature and character of a triune God. This has forced us to rethink spiritual authority through the lens of Father, Son and Spirit. Our experience leads us to the conclusion that healthy spiritual leadership must be interdependent and communal. So, we’ve developed ideals and practices of community that guide our actions and initiatives. For example, we do not teach or practice hierarchical or democratic leadership. Since our inception, our ministry board and staff have sought to establish collaborative systems and practices that recognize and empower interdependence of many people working together in a team environment. Practically, this means we follow spiritual character and gifting over gender or title. Additionally, we seek to recognize and build interdependent teams around competency (spiritual gifts), capacity (strengths/experience) and virtue or character. In the church, we seek to recognize and empower the five-fold leadership gifts of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” A high value driving this model is mutual submission in team accountability. There is authority but no power (as commonly understood) in individuals, positions or titles. In fact, emphasis on positional power is one of the primary areas of abuse in the evangelical church and an issue we are frequently called in to address. 

When we serve in churches, our role is to facilitate spiritual transformation by asking questions, not telling people what to do. We lead but have no vote. In fact, we only ask the church to vote as a forum of affirmation when it is clear leaders and members know God’s will. 

In our ministry, Metanoia has always operated by a de-centralized, non-hierarchical structure that spreads authority, responsibility and accountability among a collaborative team. Titles and roles are functional, describing focus and the nature of duties, not power. This is the foundation upon which our staff has always worked and the principle guiding the formation and leadership of teams formed in the churches we serve. This structure allows us to serve interdependently with functional diversity and to adapt quickly to changing environments while holding fast to certain core beliefs—both within Metanoia and with the churches we serve. Furthermore, our emphasis on one another community is a hallmark of our approach to serve the church and major distinguishing factor between Metanoia and other ministries. Our experience is that this approach is both liberating and transformative. 

However, this model assumes a certain kind of work ethic and commitment to ideals, including:


  • Open Communication: the ability to listen, dialogue and speak truthfully to one another such that each member knows and is able to communicate why we exist, where we are going and what makes our approach unique. 
  • Leadership-initiative: the ability to “see” and initiate what will advance vision and goals in conjunction with the efforts of others. Personal motivation for growth in oneself and the ministry.
  • Collaboration: the ability to work “with” instead of “for,” “over” or “under.” The willingness to recognize, differ to, and empower people whose strengths, gifts, experience and expertise are greater than one’s own.
  • Communal Discernment: the ability to practice communal discernment and collaborative decision-making, and the freedom to execute efforts consistent with shared decisions. 
  • Mutual Trust: the ability to care for, support and encourage, while holding accountable others. 
  • Humility: the ability to lay down control and pride of position.

The great benefit of this structure is that the focus is on God’s will and vision for the church, measured by spiritual fruit.

The problem is that thinking like this is so alien to Western sensibilities and to how most pastors are taught. Mutual submission threatens members and leaders alike, as does a cross. But these are the distinguishing marks of the Jesus’ way of leadership. It is a way most uncommon; a way that will take time and commitment to enact: time to learn, often through failing, confessing, forgiving; time to develop trust in God and, through Him, with one another; a commitment to spend time listening to God through His Word, Spirit and with one another; a commitment to open our disordered lives to God and each other that we might be re-ordered by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

So, if you find yourself in a top-down or bottom-up structure, don’t try to change the structure, change the way you lead. Begin doing what Jesus did. Learn how to lead with interdependence. Practice the principles mentioned above. The Jesus way of leadership is not easy, but it is simple. All it takes is a willingness to give up control.


Footnotes:

1 John 17:21

2 Matthew 4:19

3 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1Pet 2:21 

4 Triangle diagram idea came from Alan Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality, Trinity Press 1997

5 Acts 2:42-47

6 John Howard Yoder 

7 John 7:6

8 Ephesians 4:11

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required