Our minister, Mark, runs a group on Monday nights for his interns and others interested in full time ministry. Last Monday, we spent some time looking at some leadership theory and in particular, the work of a secular writer, A. Mant. One part of the readings considered the key disqualifiers for leadership and got me thinking. The first disqualifier for a leader, according to Mant, is a lack of intellectual firepower, by which he means a failure to make sound judgement in the midst of complexity (not an inability to interact academically). The second disqualifier is unresolved psychological damage, the emphasis, of course, being on ‘unresolved’ — those who have experienced closure or healing are not included in this category. According to Mant, these are weaknesses that disqualify a person from leadership.
Weakness and leadership
Something about these disqualifiers didn’t sit well with me and, at first, I found it difficult to work out why. After all, in my few years in ministry, I’ve excluded people from leadership because they were unstable. Likewise, I’ve seen unstable leaders inflict great damage on those entrusted to their care. But there is more to being a great Christian leader than psychological stability. There are a few givens: character, godliness, commitment to the gospel, to name some of the more frequently mentioned. Reliance on God is another one. But what does that look like within a theory of strong leadership?
In the past I’ve seen churches fail to flourish because, while their good and godly pastors have taught the Bible faithfully, loved their people well and highlighted the importance of evangelism, they have lacked the charisma to lead their congregations on a mission or to a goal. And yet, theologically, I’m loath to require charisma or leadership skills as prerequisites for Christian pastors.
Weakness and 1 Corinthians
We’ve been looking at 1 Corinthians at church and Paul speaks of the message of the cross as foolishness, but some commentators believe his writing and style of arguing to actually be highly sophisticated, in keeping with the Corinthian love of rhetoric. Is that the model for Christian leadership — to preach the weak gospel but in a ‘strong’ way? If so, what do we do with Paul, who, for all his intellectual firepower, suffered deeply the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12)? Or Moses whose own charisma, and even willingness to serve, were questionable, if not a disadvantage?
I tried thinking about 1 Corinthians 1 in its wider context. Paul first reminds the Corinthians of what they were when they were called: not many were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth (v26). Yet God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (v27). They were foolish and weak when they were called and so, as God saves and gifts them, they remember that it is not because they are great. They cannot boast before him but they must boast in the Lord.
Weakness and Boasting
So what does it look like for the Western, well-educated Christian leader to boast in the Lord? In particular, one of my difficulties with Mant’s disqualifiers is that I have seen and known great Christian leaders who have struggled terribly with depression or other mental illnesses their whole lives. And yet, God has used them and their ministry greatly. These are men and women brought low by debilitating illness and horrific past experiences, and yet their weakness does not disqualify them from God’s purposes. Perhaps their pain brings them greater compassion and pastoral sensitivity; perhaps they publicly use their suffering to point to God; perhaps not; perhaps their suffering is a constant and private torment. But this is certain: it is part of who they are as Christian leaders. In these people, there is no chance of attributing their ministry to their own hand. Rather, God’s strength is all the more prominent, because there is no human strength to cloud its clarity.
I’m still uncertain with Mant’s disqualifiers, though I suspect that there is truth in them that would benefit Christian leaders. But fruitful ministry for the Christian leader relies not on their own leadership skills (or even gifts) but on their gracious God. I don’t think I’ve come to any great conclusions about what it means to be a ‘weak’ leader, or even what it means to be a ‘strong’ leader. But for the Christian, there is the comfort that God is not only bigger than their weakness, but can even use them and it in his purposes.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.