Christian leadership

This page last updated March 7th, 2012

Leadership is an important matter for christians. A fundamental aspect of being a christian is meeting with other believers in churches and other groupings. How these groups are led – that is, make decisions, form attitudes, gain knowledge and encourage each other – will have an enormous impact on our success in carrying out the mission entrusted to us. What if we have got it badly wrong?

Leadership and authority in the New Testament

Jesus gives us very clear teachings and example on leadership. Leaders are to be servants. Consider these passages:

  • Mark 9:35: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
  • Luke 22:24-26: A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”
  • Jesus left us an example of servant leadership in John 13:3-14 when he took on the role of the lowest servant and washed his disciples feet.
  • Philippians 2:5,7: In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who …. made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant ….

Presumably partly as a result of these teachings, the early church worked out a style of leadership where authority and power were shared among many.

  • Paul established groups of elders to lead new congregations, not single leaders (Acts 14:23).
  • Most, if not all, decisions were made by a body of believers (Acts 6:5; 13:1-3; 15:2-6, 20:17-31, 1 Timothy 4:14) and even when James pronounced the decision after discussion by the larger group, it was promulgated as a decision of the whole group, not just James (Acts 15:22-23, 16:4).
  • Leadership was based, at least partly, on a person’s gifts (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 12:5-8; Ephesians 4:11-13).

Thus many people shared in church leadership, and there wasn’t a single head of the church in any place. It is true that the apostles exercised special authority and respect, but it seemed to have been over the overall teaching of the church and not individual groups.

Modern church leadership

Some church today have shared leadership in practice, and many more have it in theory. But increasingly, churches seem to be adopting in practice what we might call a Presidential model, where ultimate leadership, power and authority rest in one man.

  • Catholic, Episcopal/Anglican and Orthodox generally have a hierarchy ‘above’ the local church and minister/priest that determines many aspects of church life, including appointments. Clergy generally dress in strange costumes that accentuate the difference between them and ordinary people, and some important aspects of church life (e.g. preaching, Eucharist, baptisms, sometimes counselling) are often the preserve of these leadership clergy.
  • In many Pentecostal and independent charismatic churches, the Senior Pastor’s word is law, perhaps even more than in these hierarchical churches, and it is not uncommon to hear it said that if a member doesn’t agree with the Pastor’s vision, it would be best for them to leave.
  • Even in churches which in theory have shared leadership (e.g Presbyterian, Congregational and Brethren), clergy or lay leaders can gradually take on extra power and become “little popes” who rule their fiefdoms with rods of iron.

Centralising leadership in one person has some superficial advantages (e.g. a recognised authority; quick, simple and consistent decision-making) but the results of this usurpation of power by one individual are dire:

  • The leader carries too much responsibility, so some things don’t get done and/or the leader gets overworked, and perhaps even burns out. This quote from the New York Times is based on several studies: “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Various causes and remedies are given by various people, but many of them relate to overwork, unclear expectations and confusion about roles.
  • If a leader takes overall responsibility on his own, his self esteem is bound up in the ‘success’ of the church. This form of leadership is almost Darwinian (“survival of the fittest”) and studies show that in the US “1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.” (
  • When the senior pastor takes over decision-making, and church staff carry the responsibility for ministry, the congregation is left largely under-utilised. Good decision-makers, strategists, planners, managers and workers are often left out of the loop, and their skills and talents remain dormant.
  • The leader won’t have all the gifts necessary, whereas the body probably will. So the church doesn’t just have a lack of workers, but is functioning without all the gifts needed.
  • The prominence of the single leader means some people become over-dependent on that leader, which sets up a situation where abuse is more likely to occur – see Barriers to belief: church abuse.


It is well-recognised that things need to change. But to change will require clergy to relinquish some control, delegate authority and share decision-making, and for ordinary members to demand less of their leaders and enthusiastically take up ministries they are gifted to do. Clergy need to become servant leaders, trainers of disciples, as envisaged in Ephesians 4:12, more than ministers themselves.

There is plenty of material around to guide this process (NCLS, Australian Psychological Society, Christian Leadership) but are we all willing?

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