Followship: Part 2 – Selected or Called?

by Tim Woodroof

May I suggest one factor that makes leading and following so difficult in our congregations today? We (at least those of us who belong to Churches of Christ) have no functional theology of calling.

In place of such a theology, we have adopted the leadership ideals and perspectives of our democratized culture, taking church leadership cues from the models of leadership and governance we experience in the society around us. Church members assume (as good Americans and with considerable conviction!) that, if things are not going as desired in their churches, “we can always vote the bums out!”

Consider: If church leaders are “selected” by church members (in much the same way we select government officials or Kiwanis Club presidents), if they serve at the pleasure of the congregation (and—logically—shouldcease to serve when members are displeased), if they can be “fired” or disregarded as members think best with little consequence or accountability, then leaders (effectively) are subordinate to the will of the majority and primarily answerable to those they lead. This view of church leaders—so common in the Western, democratized, egalitarian church—reveals (and fosters) certain assumptions about leaders. “Good” leaders should represent their constituents and conform their personal views to the perspectives of the people who put them in office. “Good” leaders work hard to keep members happy, ensure their preferences prevail, and build “leadership capital” by making decisions in keeping with the desires of the led. “Good” leaders keep their ears to the ground, their fore-fingers in the air, and their eyes fixed on the will of the majority.

Of course, when you put it in such bold terms, even the most consumeristic and egalitarian members get uncomfortable. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Church leaders shouldn’t be politicians. We expect our leaders to follow God’s will, not the latest membership poll!”

Really? I suggest that—pragmatically—political leadership is precisely the type of leadership we expect of church leaders. We don’t take kindly to leaders who ignore our preferences to pursue their understanding of God’s will. We are frustrated by leaders who put their sense of the kingdom’s mission above our traditions and customs. We think so highly of our own opinions and viewpoints, it is difficult to trust leaders who claim to “march to a different drummer.”

The Difference “Calling” Makes

What if church leaders, instead of being “selected” by congregations are “called” by God? What if God still reaches down and grabs people by the scruff of the neck (as he did with Moses, the judges and prophets, David, John and Paul) and commissions them with leadership responsibilities? What if the process of nominating elders (for instance) is not so much about “majority rule” as about “communal discernment” of God’s call on godly individuals? What if ministers are not “hired” by churches so much as recognized by those churches as having a call of God, an equipping of God, in their lives?

We don’t have time (in this post) to develop a theology of calling, to follow the “calling” theme through Scripture, or to discuss how “calling” is recognized and respected in the context of the church today. I have written on this subject in some detail elsewhere.

Rather, for the moment, let’s assume a theology of calling exists and presuppose that legitimate spiritual leaders are still invited to that role by God … that they answer first to God and his direction and their understanding of his will … that the call of God on their lives makes them not only sensitive to God’s people but obsessed with his mission … that their primary duty is to keep their ears tuned to him, their eyes fixed onhim. And let’s assume, further, that this understanding of God’s call on the lives of church leaders is widely shared and deeply valued by members of our congregation. (I know; that’s a large leap!)

What practical difference might this make for the leadership “culture” of our churches? I will explore that question in my next blog post. Hope you will tune in and join me on the journey.

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