Followship: Part 1 – A Crisis of Followship

by Tim Woodroof

Open your Bible and show me a time when God’s people ever flourished in the absence of good and godly leaders. Point out an instance where “everyone doing what was right in his own eyes” resulted in kingdom accomplishments. Give me an example when murmuring, resistance, and revolt against God’s anointed leaders led to a healthier and more effective future.

Yet the whole concept of church leadership is under attack in our congregations today. There are voices being raised against any sort of formal leadership, certainly any bold or prophetic leadership. Congregations are structuring themselves to avoid leadership roles or dilute what roles exist to the point of impotence.

I can understand why. Our culture has taught us that leaders (in any arena) are not to be trusted. Many politicians lie and steal and put their own interests first. Numerous business leaders line their personal pockets at the expense and to the detriment of their employees and customers. The alphas among us prey on the rest. Causes to which we’ve given time, money, and enthusiastic effort have wound up being led by people who—repeatedly—disappoint and take advantage.

We don’t trust easily these days. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

This distrust of leaders is even true (perhaps especially true?) of people who congregate in churches. Most of us have had experiences with self-willed leaders, ineffectual leaders, leaders who confused “spiritual authority” with authoritarianism. The scars we bear from leaders-past make it difficult to embrace leaders-present.

“We would follow the right kind of leaders,” we tell ourselves, justifying our doubts about leadership with the rationale that the problem lies with the character and quality of leaders.

But having the “right kind of leader” does not guarantee churches will follow. Could I suggest the dance between church leaders and church members requires two parties to function effectively: Leaders who lead in godly ways … and members who follow in godly ways.

A great deal of time, thought, and writing has been devoted to the examination of one partner in this dance: the leader. But, increasingly, I’m noticing that the other party—the follower—is the one missing his steps and losing her rhythm and stepping on others’ toes.

The greatest leadership crisis faced by congregations today has less to do with unqualified leaders than with unwilling followers. Not that unwilling followers are a recent phenomenon. Take a few examples from the book of Numbers, describing events almost 4000 years ago:

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses … “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (12:1-2)

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and … the whole assembly talked about stoning them. (14:1-2, 10)

Korah … and certain Reubenites … became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (17:1-3)

Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. (20:2)

But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (21:4-5)

Moses was a good leader, called and anointed, equipped with leadership gifts, in close and frequent communion with God. But excellence of leadership, in this case, did not produce committed followers. Instead, followers became jealous. They felt threatened. They grew anxious and angry. They challenged Moses and his leadership. They shouted him down. They picked up stones.

Sounds like some churches today!

Our churches are chock full of bright, talented, successful, invested members. And they have opinions they are eager to share for the greater enlightenment of all. That is as it should be. No good leader wants to quash discussion or, even, dissent.

But there is a line that separates discussion from demand, when followers cross over from respecting their leaders to resisting (and, even, rebelling against) their leaders. When followers insist their opinions are holier and wiser than those of their leaders, when they act as though their opinions were written on tablets of stone and brought down from Sinai, and when they confuse the strength with which they hold their opinions with the validity or accuracy of those opinions, they may well have crossed over the followship line.

In many churches today, we have members who—by word or deed—send the clear message to leaders: “We will follow you anywhere we want to go.” That’s not followship. It is, rather, a form of toleration that ends at the first fork in the road where member’ preferences conflict with leader’ direction.

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