The Barnabas Ministry

Thoughts on Followership
Most of us know a lot I know a lot more about being led than about leading. This article offer some thoughts about following leadership that encapsulate much of what I've learned over the years. I hope followers and leaders alike find this article useful.

The Place of Leadership
It seems to me that the place to begin a discussion of "followership" is the determining the place of leadership. I think most of the problems surrounding leadership and followership center on this one element. If we can reasonably determine the place of leadership, we are more likely to have a successful followership experience.

The Life Cycle Approach
Now here is where things get interesting (that didn't take long, did it?). My experience has shown that the place of leadership depends upon those being led. Let me use an analogy from human life. A baby is highly dependent upon its parents for all things. As children grow, they become less dependent upon the parents. When they become adults, they develop peer-like relationships with their parents.

Spiritual leadership and followership is a lot the same way. Young Christians need a lot of attention and care from spiritual leaders. They need instruction, direction and frequent contact from leaders. They need assurance when doing well, correction when erring, encouragement when striving but falling short.

Older Christians don't have the same needs from leadership. Having received much basic instruction, they don't really need more basic instruction. Having established themselves in more mature ways by experience in living the Christian life (ref. Hebrews 5:14), they need a different type of relationship with leaders.

Trouble brews when leaders and followers ignore the life-cycle reality about leadership/followership. Returning to the human life analogy, do we really expect a 14-year-old to ask the same questions of a parent as a 3 year old? How about when that teenager becomes a 25-year-old? Do we tell them that they key to their success is mimicking the pattern of a 3-year-old? How absurd!

Why is this such a problem? One reason may be that leaders often receive their initial leadership training working with young people, such as college students. This becomes their model of leadership/followership, and they often idealize the young Christian stage as some sort of standard. This is like canonizing the baby stage, and always comparing a child to the infant version of himself.

Those who lead older Christians may get frustrated because they don't understand the life-cycle approach. They might cite the "be childlike" or "return to your first love" passages in an attempt to provide something that appears to be scriptural instruction. What leaders usually mean by these references is "be a young Christian again, because I only know how to lead young Christians."

But Jesus treated the apostles one way as they began following him, and another way as they matured (ref. Jn 15:15). In fact, there is a large body of scriptural evidence on the topic of spiritual life cycles. I have elaborated on this idea in the Barnabas Ministry article "The Spiritual Life Cycle."

Older followers get frustrated being treated as young Christians by leaders. It hurts and is demeaning to be chastised when your only "sin" is having been faithful for a long time and trying to make sense of your faith and experiences. Instead of getting the leadership needed at that stage, older Christians often get criticized for being at that stage! As a parent of three growing children, I have seen that it is hard for children to grow up. It is also hard for parents to adjust to their children growing up. What makes things more manageable is realizing that there are different stages along the way, and that growth from stage to stage is a natural process. Leaders and followers would do well to apply the lesson from physical life to spiritual life and understand this life cycle growth dynamic. If we do this, we are more likely to have a healthy and beneficial leadership/followership experience.

The Goal of Leadership
What is the goal of leadership? There are several scriptural goals. Paul told the Ephesians:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Leadership is to focus upon equipping the saints for works of service, towards growth, unity and maturity. Other passages may discuss other objectives of leadership, but it is important to notice that the Scriptures never make persistent dependency upon leadership a goal of leadership. Leadership and followership should always be understood with the goal in mind, and those goals should be individual maturity and the ongoing work of the church.

Misconceptions About Leaders
Let us discuss some misconceptions about leadership that can get us into real trouble.

Leaders are not Divine
Those who teach us God's ways, especially when we are new to the faith, often attain a status of near God-likeness. But leaders are not all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise. They are not the final arbiters of all that is right and wrong. They are not "junior judges" somehow assisting God in his judgment and providence. When we put leaders in the place of God, we are in big trouble. That's called idolatry.

Leaders are not Infallible
This might be obvious, but it bears repeating: there is a huge difference between speaking God's word and actually being God. As we come to faith, those who teach us seem like a fountain of divinity-- every word seems to be graced with the touch of God himself. Yet the leader is not infallible; he only speaks God's word when he correctly applies the Bible to life's issues. Fundamental issues of faith often have direct biblical answers, which leaders may apply and thus appear infallible. Many other issues lack clear-cut answers from God. Attributing infallibility to leaders is foolish on our part and a quite heavy burden for them.

Leaders may be spiritual, but are also mistake prone. It is obvious that the more you do, the more mistakes you are likely to make. No matter how spiritual or how loving they might be, leaders are human. They make mistakes. This is not to excuse mistakes or minimize their impact. Nor does it absolve leaders from their responsibility concerning those mistakes. But too often we implicitly expect leaders to be infallible, and then blame them when they are not. Shouldn't we accept some responsibility for attributing infallibility to leaders in the first place?

Leaders are not Parents
Many people come to their faith in Christ as young people. It is natural for young Christians to treat leaders as surrogate parents, just as it is right for leaders to treat young Christians as their own children (ref. 1 Th 2:8-10). However, this is also fraught with risks.

The chief risk is that, even in the largest families, there are relatively few children compared to the number of people in a church. It is unreasonable to expect a church leader to persistently care about you as a much as your own loving father or mother, though for a time that care may be reasonable and beneficial.

In my experience, many Christians struggle with this issue. It is easy to put leaders in this position; indeed, leaders often put themselves in this position. But how can a church leader persistently have the same individual concern for us as our own parents? Scripturally, Christians need to mature and not continue to look to church leaders as surrogate parents.

It may be one of the harsh realities of life, but adulthood is expected and inevitable with the passage of time. A parent can provide a child security and direction, and "make all the hurts go away." Growing children need permission to venture into new areas of life. But it is unnatural to stay a child for all of one's life. Expecting church leaders to provide parental-level support is unnatural and a sure path to disappointment.

Leaders are not "Mr. Everything"
Along the lines of the God-expectation and the parent-expectation, many people expect leaders to be "Mr. Everything" in life. People sometimes expect leaders to be any of the following professionals: personal trainers, doctors, financial advisors, auto mechanics, real estate advisors, computer specialists, travel agents, mental health professionals, publishing gurus, paralegals and lawyers. The list goes on and on. What's up with that? How could these expectations come about?

Sometimes leaders are competent in various areas. Many leaders are talented people with a wide range of expertise and/or past professional training and experience. But not all leaders fit this bill. For example, just because one leader might have expertise as a physical trainer doesn't mean that all leaders have this expertise. And when people move from one field into another (such as a professional field into ministry), skill sets lapse.

Unfortunately, sometimes leaders get involved in areas they'd be better off avoiding, either due to pride (unable to not be "in charge" or respect the expertise of others), lack of expertise or experience, or simply because it over-extends their roles as leaders. When leaders extend themselves beyond spiritual matters, they raise an expectation of expertise that, if it even exists in the first place, they are not likely to be able to sustain.

Followers are wise to keep spiritual leaders as spiritual leaders, and consult experts in other fields as needed.

Leaders are not Theologians
Related to the topic of the training and expertise of leaders, the individual competency of leaders in various "spiritual" disciplines needs to be discussed. Some leaders have formal (degree-producing) education, but many do not. Some leaders are well-read and knowledgeable about many "ministry" topics--such as Biblical languages, theology, church history, homiletics, apologetics, and the like. Unfortunately, many leaders do not yet have competency in some of these areas.

Leaders need not have expertise in these areas to do the basic work of leadership, which will be discussed later in this article. Followers should not assume leaders have this expertise just because they are leaders; nor should leaders pretend to have this expertise, or act as though the expertise is unimportant.

Leaders are not your Conscience
Also closely related to the God-expectation and parent-expectation, people sometimes expect leaders to function as their own conscience. This is an abdication of our own personhood. The Scriptures place a high value on the individual conscience. For us to consider something in our own consciences, sometimes we feel as though some leader must "agree with" or "respect" our opinion. This is not a scriptural perspective on the conscience. All that the Scriptures require of one's conscience is that it be clear before the Lord. This is not to say that all things felt in a clear conscience are automatically right, but such things are to be respected by others. We don't need someone else's approval to have certain opinions or convictions in our consciences.

Right Conceptions about Leaders
OK, enough of what leaders are "not." What is the true place of leaders?

Leaders are Responsible for the Church as a Whole
By their very nature, leaders are responsible for the church. Certainly individuals make up the church, but leaders most often need to function as leaders of a group.

Followers set themselves up for disappointment when they expect leaders to treat them as individuals all the time. However, it is also reasonable to expect leaders to be sensitive to the needs of individuals in carrying out their role.

Sometimes things are said or done for the group that do not fit all individuals in that group. Leaders ought to temper remarks and actions accordingly, and individual followers should also realize this and respond accordingly. An old phrase that comes to mind is "If the shoe fits wear it; if it doesn't, then don't." If group-related things fit you as an individual, then take it to heart. If it doesn't, then don't. You don't need the leader's permission to make this evaluation.

God has entrusted his church to leaders. They are responsible for leading a group of people to faithfulness in God, and God holds them accountable for this as well. Some point to the teaching of Matthew 20:25-28 to suggest that there is no "positional" leadership in the church. However, the very point of this parable is that positional leadership does exist and that it should be carried out in a loving and serving manner, just as Jesus carried out his leadership.

Leaders are a Resource
God has appointed leaders for the training and direction of the church (e.g. Eph 4:11-12). Look to them as a resource for training and direction. What elements are "lacking in your faith" (1 Th 3:10)? Look to leaders to help you out in these areas. Dwelling on the failings of leaders isn't a spiritual trait. What good does that do? Look to how the leaders in your life can help you in your walk with God, and take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

The "S" Word: Submission
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about submission. Submission doesn't mean that leaders are infallible, God-like, "Mr. Everything" parent figures. It doesn't mean that followers agree with the leader (often the opposite is true). It doesn't mean the leader is 100% right about anything or everything. It doesn't mean that you have capitulated on every item on which you disagree with the leader. It doesn't mean that you throw your individuality, brain or conscience away in the act. It doesn't mean you aren't a mature Christian or that you are some mindless clone.

The fact is, submission to leadership is the free, willing act of a mature Christian with respect to God and his order in the church.

Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17).
It is immature to refuse to submit solely on the basis of the failings or shortcomings of leaders. Such a perspective misses the point of leadership and submission. God appoints some (whoever they are) to lead. Unless the leader drastically oversteps Scriptural boundaries, followers are to follow.

Problems with Leadership
Just as most of us have more experience following than leading, we are also likely to have a lot of experience with having problems with leadership from time to time. But there are some godly and spiritual solutions to these problems.

What if You Disagree?
You don't have to agree with leadership. Sometimes we get this warped idea of unity that agreement must be part of the equation. How reasonable is it to expect an entire church to agree with leaders on every single thing? Most leadership groups don't even agree with each other on everything! They work towards a consensus.

In the same way, people need to respect the fact that leaders are leading a large group and that they cannot always agree with everything. And that is "OK."  The Scriptures never mandate that Christians must agree with their leaders. Christians should agree with one another on fundamental issues of faith, but may disagree on all sorts of matters of opinion (Romans 14).

The problem with disagreements is that they can lead to division and even malice. But having disagreements in and of themselves doesn't mean that people are disunified or divided. For example, the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:10) were urged to agree with one another. Their lack of agreement didn't invalidate their faith or experience. Paul's urging towards agreement respects the fact that they disagreed about some things and urged them to move towards agreement lest they become divided. Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement (Acts 15), so did Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4). The point is that people will have disagreements, but they can treat each other with love and respect as they work towards unity. .

Part of the equation for successful leadership/followership is respecting each other's roles and places. Leaders need to realize that not everyone will agree with them, and that their direction won't always be the best for every single person in their group (ref. Phil 3:15). Followers need to also respect this and try to be easy to get along with for the leaders and the rest of the group. This is part of a loving response to leaders (ref. Hebrews 13:17).

Followers need not "knuckle under" leaders, following while kicking and screaming all the way. They can follow while disagreeing out of love for leaders and others, as well as out of trust in God.

When Leaders Overstep Their Boundaries
This topic has a way of being a lightning rod. Some leaders think it is impossible for them to overstep a boundary, as though they had none. Some followers feel like a leader doing anything more than "suggesting" is overstepping a boundary. So before we consider what to do when boundaries are overstepped, we must consider where that boundary ought to be.

In the big picture of spiritual life, leadership and followership is easy. Leaders lead, followers follow. When leaders advocate something that is overtly sinful, followers should not obey.

A far more likely and difficult scenario is when leaders advocate something that is not sinful in and of itself, but the thing being advocated oversteps the choice, judgment or conscience of the individual. Sometimes this might be through controlling, unbalanced  or misfocused leadership-- or leadership that is perceived in these ways. At other times, this might be through simple ignorance-- for example, if the follower knows more about the situation and needs to act based upon that knowledge. Generally, followers need to do what they consider to be right and best in each situation. As necessary, followers may need to lovingly and respectfully communicate their choice to leaders. The Barnabas Ministry article "Confronting Those In Authority" offers some thoughts and guidelines about this.

Followers also need to be aware that following their own choices on these matters might have other consequences-- hopefully leaders are mature enough to respect people who make difficult but contrary choices as mature adults. But, others might feel offended or awkward when people don't conform to the group pattern. Hopefully, there is more to these relationships than just these difficult instances, and mutual love and respect can reign over pettiness and inflated egos.

Healthy Boundaries with Leaders
When we have wrong perspectives of leadership, either through our expectations or their claiming more than they ought, an adjustment needs to be made. Redrawing the "boundaries" can be somewhat intimidating but it is necessary. I have found the books "Boundaries" and "Changes That Heal" are quite helpful in this regard. When we fail to re-draw the boundaries as mature adults, some very destructive problems arise.

The biggest problem with failing to draw healthy boundaries is that overstepped boundaries cause serious resentments. Another problem is that individuality is negated, along with the blessings that follow from it. For example, someone who is compelled to give by a boundary-crosser is subsequently robbed of the joy of giving freely. Boundary-crossers think they are helping by "making someone better" (at least their version of "better") but they typically do not realize the damage they do by disrespecting the individuality of others.

A more spiritual and healthy approach is for all to respect their roles and personhood. Healthier boundaries allow me to act in love and maturity instead of out of resentment. And it gets me out of trying to change things that I really cannot change-- namely, the opinion of the boundary-crosser who seeks to live my life for me. (The so-called "Serenity Prayer is a great thing to remember for followers: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.")

Golden Rule Followership
As Jesus summed up the "golden rule," followers would do well to treat leaders the way they would want to be followed if they were the leader. This means giving grace, submission, input and correction when necessary. One of the keys to practicing "golden rule followership" is to proactively work to develop healthy relationships with leaders.

Developing Relationships with Leaders
Followers need to foster relationships with leaders that allow for expressions of individuality. Leaders can't read followers' minds, though sometimes followers expect them to do so (part of that God-expectation, no doubt). But leaders can't know what followers think and feel unless they tell them. And the best way to do this is in the context of real relationships. These help in many ways: They help leaders know what is going on so they can meet needs more effectively (instead of just guessing what the needs are). They help followers feel like individuals instead of a faceless, nameless person in a crowd.

There are a few common-sense cautions with "speaking your mind" to leaders. Followers need to be careful not to overwhelm leaders with criticisms. Nobody likes to hear a steady diet of how he fails. If we feel the need to provide criticisms (and sometimes this is necessary), we need to be careful to balance the communication in the relationship with love and positive things as well. Leaders are human, too. Just because they lead doesn't mean they don't need to hear where they are doing right as well as where they need to change. And it doesn't mean they don't need to be loved, too. Remember to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).

Leaders need to be treated as individuals. It is unfair (though very tempting!) to lump all leadership failures one has ever experienced into the single individual who now happens to lead. But that is unfair. They are responsible for what they do, not for what others may have done.

Developing these kind of mature, real relationships takes work. But this is how mature Christians relate to leaders, through personal relationship and communication. It might seem intimidating or awkward, but will provide rich benefits in the end.

Check your Perspective on Leaders
Hopefully this article has given you many practical and useful perspectives on leadership. The best way to benefit from these ideas is to consider what your expectations are of leaders. Do you have any of the above stated misconceptions about leaders? How many of the right perspectives do you have? Also, how would you rate your relationship with various leaders? Would those relationships survive various disagreements and even potential conflicts?

It is my hope that as you allow these ideas to influence how you follow leaders, that you will have beneficial followership experiences for the rest of your life.

Copyright © 2002 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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