Gentle approaches to leadership in the church

How does one lead?

It is an important question because it shapes the direction of the church. There are strongly differing opinions on this, in part because scriptures can be a little bit hard to reconcile on this issue.

Take for example two very popular passages.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you.

(Heb 13:17 NET.)

But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you 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.”

(Mat 20:25-28 NET.)

Looking at these two passages it can be very easy to get confused. Much ink has been spilled over these two passages and as a leader and follower I understand both sentiments expressed here. I would paraphrase Heb 13:17 like this: “Be open hearted towards your leaders, carefully consider their advice, and respect and follow the decisions they make for the community. They have a difficult role and it makes it so much easier when people aren’t constantly sniping at them or trashing them behind their backs. Far too many leaders have been wounded by people who treat them like their feelings don’t matter. There is a great advantage in heeding the wisdom and council of elders.”

Looking at Jesus I might rephrase what he said this way “You know how the world works where people with power use that power for their own gain. It might be politics, business or the church where people are pushed by those in charge to compromise themselves and their values. You cannot be like them. Instead of leading with power, lead with service. Whoever wants to be highly regarded in God’s eyes must serve. I didn’t come to serve, but to serve and give up my life as a sacrifice to free you from the bondage you are in. The path to greatness in God’s kingdom is a walk of sacrifice.”

I don’t think there is any question that Jesus believed that these guys were going to be leaders in the Christian movement. He wasn’t telling them that there would be no leaders, but that there needed to be a different kind of leadership. When sometimes the words of instruction aren’t clear what we can look at is examples. Paul was faced with an all-out insurrection against his leadership in Corinth. Other leaders, dubbed the “super-apostles” came in with their influence, the people of that church lost a lot of faith in Paul. It is interesting to see how he reacts. He doesn’t appeal to the authority he acknowledges he had, he attempted to appeal to them based on his knowledge of the gospel and the quality of his conduct. While in other situations, like one poor guy caught in a relationship with his mother-in-law, Paul uses much more forceful language. He seems very reticent to pull rank preferring to teach and persuade. As a father I understand this. While I have authority as a parent, I’d much rather help my children understand how to make good choices rather than just give them orders.

Peter’s take

I think Peter does a pretty good of trying to blend these passages together in a way that make sense.

Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock.

(1Pe 5:2-3 NET.)

Again we see the position or the role of elder acknowledge and they have the job of overseeing. It is interesting in that Jesus instructed his disciples to now use their authority over others, here Peter is telling elders not to be compelled in their roles as well. The word translated duty here is often translated “under compulsion” which seems to be the more consistent rendering. It is a very good notion because so much of what a leader ends up doing in the church today is “under compulsion.” There are many not so gentle influences the people in a congregation can have on a pastor that can corrode their confidence and self-esteem. I believe the dynamics of taking a salary create compulsions in leadership that can make ministry an obligatory affair. Peter says to exercise oversight not motivated by obligation, but because in your heart you are eager to do it. Do it because it is what you want to do. Part of the reason I find simple church ministry so attractive is because I’m not compelled by a career, a paycheck, or the expectations of hundreds of people. I do it because I love people, and just recently I stepped back when I felt like I was leading out of obligation because my emotional tank had run dry. In my experience I found that some of the people who love simple church ministry the most are ex-pastors. They find this form of ministry incredibly freeing. They get to do what they love without all the extras weighing them down.

How does one “exercise oversight” and “give a shepherd’s care” without, in Peter’s words, “Lording it over”? For Peter leadership is paying attention to where people are at. To watch people, to listen, and to care. I think this looks different from your more typical vision casting style of leadership to one that is more responsive. The leader watches what is going on in people’s lives and uses their gifts to respond, to help others respond. This requires less focus on an organizational agenda and more focus on just being a sincere trusted friend. I have a friend who I know cares for me and has lots of experience and wisdom. I know that if I walked in his office with even a faint look of worry on my face he would immediately ask me how I’m doing. It is so comforting having someone in my life that is watching me, not in the sense of spying and meddling, but in the sense of genuine care and compassion. I don’t know where I would be without people like my friend.

In simple church there usually isn’t much of an organizational agenda or goal. We who engage in the wider community look for the spaces in-between where we can share the gospel. We help establish communities of mutual care and concern centered on Jesus. When our communities get too big to do that, we create more. There is rarely any need for much in the way of strategic planning because the plan is largely the same. Some communities have to do the work of finding shared experiences and symbols that are relevant in their context. A ministry to indigenous peoples in the Canadian prairies is going to look different than a community of Chinese Christians in Toronto. There is some work and thought that goes in to leading a group through any specific call a group might have. But for the most part the very heart of things is the same. The work of leadership becomes more responsive and less assertive or directive. It isn’t about moving a group of people in a direction, it is about responding to the needs of the community. By helping people into a healthy place we promote the growth of the church and cooperate in the work of God’s kingdom. God has plans for each one of the people in our care and our job is to help them grow and be fruitful in what they are doing. I think a lot of pastors of smaller conventional churches understand this distinction.

Lord it over is an older English idiom that means to “to dominate, to direct and control.” If leadership is to be more about watching and caring and less about giving direction how does that work?

Be an example

Peter gives us one really great answer: be an example. I discovered this almost by accident in one of the first churches I lead. It was a group of people with a lot of hang ups about church and I certainly had my own critical convictions. I found that if I made derogatory comments about the church then others did too. When I stopped others stopped. If I was responsive and caring in a group meeting others did as well. If my wife and I were willing to disagree in our meeting than others were more free to share opinions that differed from mine. I found that if I opened up about my real struggles and pains then others felt the freedom to do so as well.

By doing things I opened up ways to give people the freedom to do it as well. It is gentle in that no one is forced or compelled to follow my example, people just did. When I participated in pastoral internship with a conventional church pastor I was taught the opposite of what I learned in simple church ministry. I was taught that I had live out my title and project an image of strength and competence. If I revealed too much weakness people wouldn’t follow me. This is probably true to a point. If am a complete mess then revealing that would likely discredit me. If however, I am a person of integrity that has problems and weaknesses like everyone else, opening up the community is a great support and resource. It helps people understand that they are accepted and cared for even though they aren’t perfect. I think 12 step groups like AA have known this for decades but the church generally hasn’t figured it out.

As I developed in my ministry it became a very common thing to share my struggles in ministry, in parenting and in my family life. I never felt the loneliness that so many pastors feel because I could be myself in the church community. I could look towards our gatherings as a place that could give to me more than it required of me. When a simple church community is healthy there is a synergy. The community as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. We can all receive more than we give.

For Paul being an example was a big part of his ministry. He encouraged those he mentored to be solid examples and he encouraged the Philippians to follow his example.

And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you.

(Php 4:9 NET.)

Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in your speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity.

(1Ti 4:12 NET.)

Encourage younger men likewise to be self-controlled, showing yourself to be an example of good works in every way. In your teaching show integrity, dignity, and a sound message that cannot be criticized, so that any opponent will be at a loss, because he has nothing evil to say about us.

(Tit 2:6-8 NET.)


Jesus instructed his disciples to not be like the Gentiles and use authority over each other but to serve. There are fewer activities in this life that bring us closer to God’s heart than taking care of the needs of others. There are few things that communicate more love and value than serving one another in a trusted relationship.

My dad always told me: you find out who your real friends are when you move. Moving is a pain, it is a lot of work and it can be chaotic. If someone is going to take time out of their day to haul boxes and heavy awkward appliances it means they are willing to sacrifice for you. At the heart of the gospel is an endearing sacrificial love that compels people to serve even those who can do nothing for them.

Matthew makes this clear in Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats found in Mat 25:31-46. This story is a picture of a great judgment the criteria are very interesting.

Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’

(Mat 25:34-40 NET.)

What did service look like to Jesus?

  • Hungry – gave food
  • Thirsty – gave drink
  • Stranger – invited me in
  • Naked – gave clothing
  • Sick – took care
  • Imprisoned – visited

Each of these acts embody the essence of Jesus’ sacrificial love. It is easy to ignore the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned. We can find very good rational reasons for not taking in strangers or ministering to those condemned by society. What each of these acts community is that the person receiving the service is worth something even if they can offer nothing in return. It is a beautiful picture of God’s grace.

Paul captures it well in Romans 5:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(Rom 5:6-8 NET.)

This is the heart of the good news, that while we could nothing for Jesus, we mattered so much to him that he would die for us. This is grace, and the more we reinforce that grace in our human relationships the more we reinforce the gospel for everyone involved.

Serving others a way to give legitimacy to the gospel message and the more people come to put their trust in Christ the more they will be transformed.


The metaphor of shepherding must have meant a lot to Peter as it figured strongly in what was likely one of the most pivotal experiences of his life. Peter betrayed Jesus 3 times in the last day of his life. After Jesus came back he had a little chat with Peter.

Then when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these do?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus said a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Shepherd my sheep.” Jesus said a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.

(Joh 21:15-17 NET.)

One component of a “shepherds care” is feeding the sheep or lambs. Jesus connected this with love for him. Love for Christ serves as the base motivation for Christian ministry. Feeding is often associated with teaching. So much of Jesus’ ministry was teaching and he is considered the great Shepherd is natural to see this connection.

I think Paul captures things well in these two quotes.

But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

(1Ti 1:5 NET.)

My goal is that their hearts, having been knit together in love, may be encouraged, and that they may have all the riches that assurance brings in their understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

(Col 2:2-3 NET.)

Paul taught people to know Christ. One of the greatest challenges for a teacher in the church today is to stay focused on abiding in Christ and the good news. Far, far, far too many stray from the simple message of Christ and try to become more advanced. In the absence of the rest that comes from knowing the simple truths of the gospel we’ve invented a thousand and one complicated pet theologies that end up distracting us from our true source of life and healing. Some stray dangerously close to requiring something other than faith to receive all the blessings that Christ has already given us through his life, death and resurrection. Our aim in teaching must always be to bring people back to the heart of the gospel.

In my ministry I felt I was always reaffirming the following:

  • Yes, God really does love you
  • Yes, he really did forgive all of your sin
  • Yes, he really is the author and the perfecter of your faith
  • Yes, all you have to do is trust in him

If we fail to come back to these simple gospel truths their reality starts to fade. The cares of this world and our own broken hearts lead us away from these truths so they become distant and dim. A good teacher brings people back to truths that people can rest in.

The first goal of teaching is to give people an accurate picture of Christ and the gospel. The person of Christ must be pre-eminent in the church. He is the author and the perfecter of our faith.

Teaching can be gentle but the way some people teach isn’t. Subject and methods must be consistent with each other. There is teaching that shames and makes people feel worthless because they don’t measure up. Then there is teaching that affirms, that makes people feel valued even though they don’t meet the standard. There is teaching that convicts, that points out destructive behavior and patterns that harm people and dishonours God while still affirming their value in Christ. Our teaching must always refrain from fear tactics, manipulation or other forms of underhanded coercion. Paul touched on this in addressing the Corinthians.

But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God.

(2Co 4:2 NET.)

Teaching in an intimate group offers unique opportunities to address the real issues and struggles people are dealing with. Broadcast teaching where one person is teaching a large group whether it be a sermon, a book, a conference or podcast has merit but they are all limited in a similar way. They require an attentive listener to apply the concepts to their own life. There will be times when people feel a spiritual conviction where the Holy Spirit uses the words, but that is just as true or even more true in an intimate setting. When people feel safe and loved they aren’t so guarded against others and God. As the wisdom of God is revealed through all the gifts of the body it opens up avenues for people to minister to each other and for the Holy Spirit to work as Paul describes in Corinthians 12.