June 3, 2018

Natural Born Leaders Vs Supernatural Born Servants

Today is the first of a number of posts on church leadership this week. 

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.  (3 John 9)

What the church needs more of in these straitened times in the West is not natural born leaders, but supernatural born servants.

I hope you can tell the difference, because which of the two we preference will make all the difference in the world to the church, whether local or global.

The church has lots of natural born leaders.  There’s been a big push in the West, as leadership in general has been valued more and more, especially in the corporate world  to push leadership to the fore of our requirements, our desires, for churches.

If anyone is going to pull this thing around, arrest the decline in numbers, make the hard decisions, as the narrative goes, then it is going to have to be a natural born leader.

The trouble is that natural born leading is a gift.  It is what it says on the packet – natural.  A natural born sports leader, a natural born political leader, a natural born cultural leader.  They’re all highly prized by those who love sports, or politics, or a way to angle the culture.

One of the marks of a natural born leader is that, like Diotrephes in John’s third letter to the church he is writing to, they like to be first.  And often they will do whatever it takes to be first.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.  Sometimes that’s a bad thing.  For Diotrephes, and unfortunately for the church he was pushing himself to lead, that was a bad thing.  He did not acknowledge the authority of Christ’s apostle, who was bringing God’s word to them.

But it’s also a put down for Diotrephes.  For all we know the church he led was going great.  For all we know it was kicking along nicely.  His CV might have gotten him a bigger church the next time.

But that’s not what the apostle picks up about him.  He damns him with this description: “Who likes to be first.”

And here’s what that reveals.  It reveals that Diotrephes is a natural born leader.  Just like John the Apostle was back in the day.  John is not writing what he does not know.  After all this is one of the blokes who, along with his brother James, said this to Jesus:

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  Mark 10:35-37

John knows all about wanting to be first.  First right after Jesus of course.  That’s the pious way to put it at least.   And didn’t he learn the hard way!

John’s problem, Diotrephes’ problem, our problem, is that natural born leaders do serve – they serve themselves.  And that’s not the way of Jesus.

And if they’ve got a modicum of gifting, which they have, they can make serving themselves into an art form in the church.  Natural born leaders in churches utilise all of their Diotrephian skills to make serving themselves look like something other than what it is.

And natural born leadership gets results.  As it should.  Leadership is a gift from God to bring order out of chaos, direction out of aimlessness, and clarity out of confusion.

But in 25 years of ministry I’ve seen a fair share of leadership in church that is self-serving, that is brittle when challenged, and that likes being first – after Jesus of course.

There’s an obvious self-serving among church leadership that we’ve seen, lamentably and all too often in the past months and years.  That’s the self-serving leader who is a money-grubber or sexually licentious leader.  They’re gifted enough to keep that going for a while, with all sorts of caveats and theological explanations.

But there’s a Diotrophes’ natural born leadership that can say all the right words, exhibit the progress that the church feels is positive, and produce results, but which is still natural born.

There are a number of key factors to being a supernatural born leader.  In no particular order, they include:

  1. Being supernaturally born.  I guess it sounds obvious when we say it, but don’t assume all leaders in churches are born from above.  Scripture – Jesus – says that would be a wrong assumption to make.  There are plenty of wolves in sheeps’ clothing.
  2. Being broken.  Godly, safe leadership for God’s people in the church means that supernaturally born leaders have been broken by God.  As Tim Keller puts it, you can tell you’ve met with God because you walk with a limp like Jacob did.  The opposite of being broken is being brittle, and being brittle means you will do anything, say anything, throw anyone under a bus, in order to avoid being broken.  Brittle leaders are scared of exposure to anything that might break them.
  3. Attracting Other Leaders.  The problem with the Diotrephes’ of this world is that they ensure that no one can rise above their level.  They are insecure and scared.  Consequently other leaders either have a limited shelf life in their company and end up leaving, or they avoid them altogether.  Supernaturally born leaders defer glory to others.  Why?  Because they’ve had practice in deferring it to the Lord, so they have no problem praising and promoting those who are better than they.
  4. Being Dispensable.  Supernaturally born servant leaders never view themselves as indispensable and so consequently are always looking to train others to fill their shoes.  Succession plans are always in their mind.  Not that all such leaders are capable of putting that plan in place, but identifying the need to do so, and facilitating a process to encourage it, are key components of their leadership.
  5. Invisibly Serving.  How did the apostle John know that Diotrephes liked to be first?  Because he acted in such a way that demonstrated it.  He loved the acclaim, the public recognition.  Supernatural servant leaders conduct themselves humbly behind the scenes in exactly the way they do on the stage.  It’s at their funeral that you hear about thee true servant heart of a leader – or otherwise.  In other words, the eulogy is invariably about how this person liked to be second.


Tomorrow: Precipice Leaders for Precipitous Times




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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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