By Leslie Copeland
“You got to get your Jesus right.” Pastor Howard-John Wesley, Senior Minister, Alfred Street Baptist Church, Alexandria, Virginia
The most important principle for Christian leaders, upon which every other principle depends, is that the individual be a follower of Christ. It may seem obvious, even elementary, but anyone who would serve effectively as a Christian leader must believe in the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. This belief stands on the assurance that Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we might be reconciled to God and have eternal life. Many experts on leadership can offer advice and a checklist of guidelines to be an effective leader. But for the person to be a Christian leader and faithful servant, belief in Jesus Christ is paramount.
For any leader, who we model makes a difference in how we lead. If we want to model Jesus, we must know him. For Christian leaders, this means negotiating the ways our imperfections can influence others and sidetrack us. We seek to balance our need for perfection with our understanding of a Savior who inundates us with his love, grace, and mercy. We do not get what we deserve. Yet as disciples of Christ, mirroring him in our leadership as Christians is vital. In fact, our leadership either points people to Christ or points people away from Christ. If we model a leadership style that is more indicative of the world or corporate America, that is how people will engage with us. This is not to discount what corporate America, or any other model of leadership, has to offer that is consistent with Christian values. However, when behaviors, attitudes, and practices depart from what we say we believe and in whom we say we believe, namely Jesus Christ, then it ought to be a line that we do not cross. As Christians, we have a goal set before us that prods us to do the work that God has entrusted to us. The ability to do that work as ambassadors for Christ means that we must believe in him and what we are representing about him. What ambassador doesn’t believe in the one by whom they've been sent?
Christ makes the difference in who we are, how we think, how we treat others, and how we care for ourselves. Because of Christ, our minds and our attitudes are transformed so that we can serve. We have strength to endure and can help others to endure. We can tolerate fickle, erratic, and mean people, and our own attitudes and behaviors will change as we grow and mature. Because of Christ, we can humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness and help when it’s necessary. At the very heart of what it means to be a Christian leader is Christ. Christ is the chief cornerstone on which everything else is built.
Christ-like leadership means servant-leadership. I define servant-leadership as primarily focused on and invested in serving and meeting the needs of others. It centers the well-being and growth of others to meet shared goals and objectives and to measure success. Servant-leaders are team-oriented, humble, selfless, and concerned about the common good. Servant-leaders are trustworthy and operate with integrity. While they may have ambition, they do not operate out of selfish ambition. Like Christ, servant-leaders are sacrificial and concerned about the growth and maturity of those they are leading. They are interested in transformation—of people, organizations, communities, and beyond.
In the church as well as in other settings, a servant-leader model has proven to be effective in cultivating authentic and sound Christian leaders. The term “servant-leader” was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 in an essay entitled, “The Servant as Leader.” (i) In the introduction to The Servant-Leader Within: A Transformative Path, Larry Spears says this of Greenleaf’s model of leadership: “True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.” This idea encapsulates what it means to be a follower of Christ and to lead as a Christian. The servant-leader model is consistent with what a Christian leader should embody.
This definition highlights the importance of commitment. As Spears indicates, a servant-leader model is not a quick fix but requires time to cultivate a “long-term, transformational approach to life and work—in essence, a way of being—that has the potential for creating a positive change throughout our society.” (ii) Leadership comes with responsibility. Being a Christian leader means centering the needs and well-being of others in how we lead.
It’s not just what Jesus says. It’s in Jesus’ actions that we witness servant-leadership. Whether it’s washing the disciples’ feet, instructing them before sending them out to witness to others, his interaction with the woman at the well and Zacchaeus in a tree, how he engages with the Pharisee and scribes, or hanging between two thieves on a cross, Jesus’ interactions with those whom he came to redeem reflect his servant leadership. Indeed, Jesus served humanity and reconciled the world back to God. However, it wasn’t just about him, although it is profoundly and absolutely about Jesus for Christians. It is also about the transformation that happens in the individual’s life and the life of the community because of Christ. This is the charge of servant-leaders: to lead in such a way that transformation happens, and we are reconciled and drawn closer to God.
Servant-leadership is also discipleship. Leaders have such a profound effect on people’s lives. When Christians lead well, with the well-being of others in mind, discipleship happens in meaningful and life-changing ways. In a Christian context, discipleship is adhering to the instructions, teachings, and examples of Christ. Discipleship is crucial for Christians (especially Christian leaders) because it helps us to deepen our spiritual well and become spiritually mature. Discipleship helps us to negotiate life’s ups and downs and to do the work that God has entrusted to us. It is part of our becoming more like Christ and being equipped for the ministry work God assigns to us. Discipleship determines the tools that equip us for life and living along our journey together as a community of faith. Without intentional discipleship—putting ourselves in situations where we’re discipled and discipling others—we cannot lead effectively.
Another important aspect of leading as a Christian has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. Embodying the fruit of the Spirit and leading as a Christian is impossible without the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Before ascending to heaven after his resurrection, Jesus let the disciples know that they will not be left alone. Instead, they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they were to wait for this power from on high before doing anything else. As the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is integral to how Christians are empowered to lead. The Holy Spirit guides, corrects, convicts, settles, grounds, strengthens, and empowers us to do the work God calls us to do. An understanding of how the Holy Spirit works differs within Christian faith traditions. Yet for those who have the responsibility of leading, being in touch and attuned to the work of the Spirit is key.
Awareness of the Spirit’s work happens through prayer, Bible study, practicing the spiritual disciplines, in quiet time with God, and sometimes amid chaos and confusion. It is crucial for Christian leaders to be able to discern when they are being led by the Spirit in their leadership, especially when they are making decisions that will impact others. Being disciples and followers of Christ sometimes means that we will feel led to go in a direction that seems counterintuitive. The Holy Spirit fortifies us for the moments when being faithful requires boldness and courage. The Spirit leads and endues us to find the path we will have to take as we lead others. The Spirit sanctifies, molds, and shapes us to grow and mature in our faith and leadership, empowering us to operate fully as ambassadors, as treasures in earthen vessels: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Learning to let the Spirit lead us is a spiritual discipline for all Christians, especially Christian leaders.
We who are Christian leaders should also expect something different from ourselves because our standard is neither this world nor the latest leadership tips from business-school experts nor business magazines. Our standard is Christ. In our striving to be like Christ—to be Christ-like leaders—we are also showing the world something about the one who we say has sent us, who lives in us, and for whom we’ve committed our lives. In many ways, how we lead is a living testament to our faith. We witness to Christ by how we treat others and live in the world. This may seem like a high bar for Christian leaders, but I contend the standard in Christ Jesus is high.
Moreover, it also important for Christian leaders to understand our relationship with Christ, in addition to how we treat others. In church, we often talk about what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ. The personal impacts the communal, and this is nowhere more evident than it is in Christian leadership. Christ is not a spiritual bellhop who jumps when we ask for things or call out his name in our prayers. Rather, he is the one in whom we have our identity—in whom we live, move, and have our very being. Our belief in Christ ought to be—must be—reflected in how we lead others, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For effective Christian leaders, Christ is the cornerstone of our leadership as much as he is the chief cornerstone of our faith. This is when our leading becomes servant-leadership and spills over into our discipleship and our evangelism. It is the kind of leadership that we are called to by the one who calls us to serve and to lead others.
Excerpted from 24/7 Embodying Christ-like Leadership by Leslie Copeland, copyright © 2022 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press.
Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash