Empowering Leadership over Empowered Leadership


Years ago I went to a conference on Multi-site churches. Most of those who had mega-multisite churches were Independents— not part of a denomination. But one of the main speakers did have a very large church that was multi-site and was part of a denomination. During the Q&A time, an acquaintance of mine and from my denomination, asked this pastor a very relevant question. It was, “As a megachurch leader but also a member of a denomination, what would you like for your denomination leadership do to help you be more effective in your doing your ministry?” Since the acquaintance of mine was in denominational leadership, it seemed an especially relevant question.

The megachurch pastor said at first, “Stay out of our way.” But then he laughed and said he should give a better answer than that. He then said, to the effect,

The difficulty that denominations have is that they are led by pastors. It makes sense that the leaders of groups of churches should have previously been leaders of churches. But there is a problem with this. You see, pastors are “vision-people.” That is, they embrace the role of guiding the church in the way it should go. They gain a vision of where the church should go and then try to instill that same vision in the membership of the church. That is fine, but when they move into denominational leadership, this tendency doesn’t go away. They still seek to be the visionary people. Now, however, they start to see the various churches in their denomination as the tools to carry out their vision.

But this is the problem, because churches already have visionary leaders and have their own vision which is appropriate to their own “Church-DNA” and setting. What is needed is denominational structures and leaders who do not see individual churches as the tools to carry out their own denominational vision. Rather they need denominational leadership that identify and affirm the visions of individual churches and embrace the idea that the denominational structures and leadership are tasked to help empower individual churches to execute their own visions.

At the time I thought that was a pretty insightful image… and I still do. I also think it is somewhat unrealistic. If the ministry as a vocation promotes visionary people (we tend to think the religious leaders SHOULD be visionary)… and ministry has a hierachical structure, it is hard to imagine a system that promotes vision up to a certain level, and then supports empowerers above that level. It is like expecting politicians to actually be “servants of the people” when the finances and process of move to higher levels politically require being a servant to political and financial allies.

But imagine for a moment if a system could be developed in missions that follows the ideas of the quote above.

Imagine a mission agency that seeks to support the vision of missionaries within their organization rather than seeing them as pawns to be mobilized for their own vision?

Again, these may be a bit unrealistic. However, I think that at least there is a possibility of some modest changes that can be done so that hierarchies can empower rather than disempower and embrace vision from others rather than crush it.

  • Set up a structure that embraces training, and supporting the troops on the ground to carry out their task. Reject a military war model of a group of generals far removed from the front lines moving around troops.
  • Seek top-level leaders whose vision is more about empowering others rather than being empowered by others.
  • Seek to establish patterns that affirm empowering leadership at the lower levels so that at the higher levels the pattern and process doesn’t have to change.

On this last point— Imagine a missionary who seeks to work with local leaders by empowering them to do what God has called them to do.  This would be quite different than the more common method of a missionary coming in with a clear vision of what he or she wants to do and seeks to find local allies who can be brought in to serve the missionary’s vision.  Imagine a church pastor who sees himself as one who as an empowering leader seeing the church as a priesthood of believers, and works with the church rather than rules over the church.

Who knows…. it just might work.

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