April 18, 2024

The Futureproof Leader

The Need For Futureproof Leaders

In my new book Futureproof: How to Live for Jesus in a Culture That Keeps on Changing, I outline the manner in which the seismic shifts in the West are putting pressure on the church as well as the wider culture. And I point out how the church is equipped to deal with these pressures and changes in a way that the world is not. It is Jesus’ church after all.

But there’s a missing component in it, or at least something that I did not emphasise in the book, and that’s the topic of futureproof leadership – the types of leaders that the church is going to need as it goes forward.

Now that’s not to say that my book isn’t applicable to leaders in the church, as I run plenty of seminars for church leaders on the topic. However, it seems to me that the type of leader that the church will need going forward into the “away game” era of Christianity in the West is going to have to be different than in the “home game” era.

Futureproof Leaders Will Know Themselves

The biggest problem facing leadership in my theological tribe is the sheer lack of insight many current leaders have about their poor behaviour and problematic personalities. Too many leaders have low IQs, are insecure, insensitive and unwilling to think that they might need to change. They haven’t done the hard yards of personal self-examination.

But if you get to year fifteen of your ministry and you grumble about the fact that you can’t find good staff who stay for any length of time, then the problem might be you!

I say that off the back of some fairly unhelpful – and downright ungodly – examples of leadership within my own theological orb and experience over the past few years. Indeed the worst leadership examples I have seen, the most insecure and those displaying ungodly attitudes and behaviour, have been within my own tribe. At times it’s been shocking to hear the sheer self-interest and desperate deception being undertaken by terrible leaders whose main agenda is to self-justify and save their own position.

And as someone who has blown the whistle in a very public way in one such case, I have ended up being a person to whom many others who have fallen victim to such ungodly leaders, wend their weary way with equally familiar tales of woe. There’s nothing new or surprising about bad leadership stories. Nothing original.

Of course that’s not to say that such bad leadership is not to be found elsewhere and in other theological structures, and that I just haven’t seen or experienced it because I’m not familiar with other tribes. But it is to say this: the theologically reformed tribe to which I belong can often pride itself on its theological acumen, and not only on the acumen of their theology, but the safety that such acumen brings.

There’s often an implicit – sometimes explicit – understanding and it goes like this:

Get your theology right and the rest will follow

Now of course there’s some truth to that. Theology shapes practice. And it shapes your heart. But don’t underestimate your hard heart. And don’t underestimate your determination to use your good theology to justify your poor practise. I’ve heard the word “gospel” put in front of so many other words in order to shut down argument, reject correction, and control communities, that I’ve become suspicious of it being used. It’s become the tip of an iceberg that has sunk many a church community ship.

It’s simply not the case that once the North Star of theological orthodoxy is lined up, then the rest will pretty much sort itself out.

So you think your latent psychology, your upbringing, your unspoken expectations, your sinful assumptions, your subterranean drives, the types of people you can work with; all of that will follow in the train of your theological orthodoxy? Not true!

As I have experienced, and as I have heard from dozens of leaders and ex-leaders who have fallen under the wheels of the most theologically orthodox and ardent leaders they have ever known, yet who were at the same time, graceless, insecure, self-interested, greedy and vain, good theology is not enough.

Clearly it’s not enough. Character is so central. And two of the best preachers I have ever heard on an ongoing basis were completely lacking on godly character. Yet somehow their preaching gave them a hall-pass – for a time at least – among those who considered that the good (the public platform) somehow outweighed the bad (the private personality).

How we could ever come to that conclusion given how the God of the Bible constantly warns that he knows the heart, and that he will expose what is done in secret, is kinda beyond me. Yet we have done. And we continue to do.

The sheer shock people express at the huge gap between how they have been treated by a leader, and the leader’s platform or public ministry which ticks all of the theological boxes, is all too common. The questions are always the same: How did this person get into this senior leadership role? How did his or her peers turn a blind eye to allow this to happen? Why, if this person is supposed to be so godly and servant-oriented, are they so ungodly and so greedy for gain?

Now of course this has always been a risk for the church since Diatrophes in 3 John, who “likes to be first”. But from where I am sitting, it’s become an increasing problem. And at a time that the church can hardly afford it.

Futureproof Leaders Will Be Junkyard Dogs

But here’s the good news, I’m starting to meet a generation of leaderships – futureproof leaders – who won’t put up with these flabby vestiges of late Western Christianity. They’re realising that they’re going to have to be braver than many Christian leaders in the recent past.

Futureproof leaders in the churches that flourish will be more junkyard dog than thoroughbred. They won’t be waiting for the conditions to be right to go into leadership. They won’t be waiting until they get a tap on the shoulder from someone who gives them the “okay” to go and do it. They won’t be expecting that they will get a nice warm kennel and a friendly owner who makes sure life goes their way.

Futureproof leaders won’t fall over at the slightest change of the cultural winds. They won’t be looking over their shoulders anxiously to see if the theological academy is right behind them. They won’t be concerned that their theological convictions around the gospel might see them sidelined by their particular denomination.

Now that’s not to say that they should go in “greenhorn” in leadership – but from my recent experience, they’re not sitting around waiting for conditions to be perfect. Many of them are sizing up the costs now, and realising that they are going to be leaders in a time of deepening cultural hostility.

And they’re going to be leaders in a time of widening church heresy. Especially around matters of sexuality. The Sexular Age is shredding many Christian denominations, and many leaders are simply rolling over and assuming the cultural position and vision for human flourishing. And when they do, they are more than happy to denigrate, call out, and disown those who hold the biblically orthodox line.

We’ve had it so good for so long that many of our leaders and our leadership assumptions have been shaped by a sheltered workshop mentality. Christianity, although not taken up by all that many in the culture, has been a protected species, in which tax breaks and platforms have been made available.

One of the common laments is that the average age of a pastor in the West is around sixty. Where’s the next generation? That’s the mournful cry. Often the accusation is that leaders in the past were somewhat tougher, more gnarly and less “snow-flakey” than many of the younger cohort of potential leaders for the church today.

But to be honest I don’t think that’s the case. The young up and coming leaders I have met in recent months as I’ve spoken about where we are headed in the West are far more robust and realistic about what to expect not merely in ministry, but as a Christian, than many of their older cohort.

They will have less kudos, less opportunity for career advancement, less money to work with coming into the church (given how the Boomers were able to fund both their own homeownership and their churches at the same time, and on one wage), and less standing within the community.

They will also be dealing with less connected communities and ones in which people who do become Christian, do so from far more challenging backgrounds, and who have no underpinning assumptions about how one out to live, given how far from Christianity’s underpinning cultural framework we are drifting.

Futureproof Leaders Won’t Be Rent-Seekers

All of this means we won’t have a bunch of Christian leaders who are rent seekers, shamelessly scrambling around looking for the best positions, the cosiest gigs, the most influential roles, or the manse in the suburb that affords them access to the best schools for their children. In other words they won’t be rent-seekers

It saddens me to say it, but one of the most theologically self-assured and – I admit it – theologically correct, church systems that I know, is also one in which jockeying for position has become an art-form.There are still so many prizes on offer, so many places of influence, so many desirable roles that come with such praise and influence, that there is a terrible sense of entitlement.

Yet this will not last. It will eventually burn itself out. Poor leaders with too much time and too much money on their hands who have no idea how to reach a current lost generation, and no idea how to train their people to live in the Babylon of our big cities, and disciple them beyond an events-based ministry, won’t last.

Not that they see it yet themselves. Or if they do they may be thinking like King Hezekiah, that at least it will be peace in their time. These are not leaders who are prepared for wartime. They are peacetime leaders.

If any generation is “snow-flakey” surely it’s the generation that I had to write “Being the Bad Guys” for: My generation! We were so used to being almost liked by the culture. Our churches and our leadership approach was in the “If we build it they will come” or “Look how we can be as relevant and hip as the culture is“. We assumed we could “out-cool” our non-Christian peers and they would see that somehow we were worth giving a hearing to.

Those days are over baby! They are not coming back. The average young Christian today is under no such illusions. And the futureproof leaders who are set to lead them into the future are under no such illusions either. They have seen the headlines, they can see the hostility for holding to orthodox views on anthropology. They can see how they might never own a house, how the people they will lead may never be able to stump up the money for a building, or a new sound system.

Futureproof Leaders Will Call Out Toxic Leaders

Let’s swing this back to where I started. Futureproof leaders will call out toxic leaders early and often. And the reason they will do that is because they recognise that in wartime conditions such leadership isn’t merely an irritant, it an be fatal to the mission and its people. There won’t be the time to indulge poor behaviour. There won’t be the bandwidth to put time and energy into allowing it to fester and self-justify. At least that’s my prayer!

It raises the question of course? Are there more toxic leaders in the church than in the past? Are there less? Is it even an issue we have to worry about?

Or are we – as one self-justifying toxic leader wrote recently in an attempt to justify his own actions and lessen the heat he was experiencing – merely a therapy culture that can’t cope with good strong leaders who make decisions that we don’t like (i.e, his decisions).

So rather than recognising obviously strong leadership that breaks the occasional egg to make the ministry omelette, we are running away and crying “wolf” when all along we’ve merely experienced decisive, strong, robust leadership. And why are we using the word “toxic” anyway? Isn’t that paying homage to a therapeutic culture?

To be sure there are some examples of younger leaders not putting up with what many of us put up with growing up. But here’s the question: Why should they? Why should ungodly behaviour continue to be protected by church structures to the detriment of a younger bunch of leaders?

Perhaps some of the calling out in our culture is an over-reaction. But it’s an over-reaction to something. And that something is a past litany of abuse or bad behaviour that got overlooked or excused by self-interested institutional leaders. And the same it true of the church.

The mood has changed. The shoe is on the other foot. And perhaps a day of reckoning is needed. So many church structures have been dragged kicking and screaming to a place of honesty about toxic leadership, when as God’s people, they should have been at the forefront of change.

Why should we constantly have younger leaders shocked and surprised by how insecure, brittle and downright – yes – toxic – some leaders are? Why are we protecting bullies? Why is self-interest allowing other senior leaders to stay silent, even as they watch young leaders being fed on a continual basis to such bad leaders?

Is there more bullying than ever before? Probably not. But there are more platforms than ever before to expose it. Social media has seen to that. There is a way for information to get out quickly and widely in a way that there was not in the past. If you’re not a bullying, insecure leader with a track-record of wrecking relationships, you have nothing to worry about. If you are such a leader, then you probably do.

The church is under enough pressure as it is in the West. We should no longer be indulging poor leadership, or giving an airy wave of the hand to say that somehow it’s always going to be the case. We should deal with it. If we can’t do leadership structure any better than the world can, and if self-interest means we allow toxic leadership to continue, then we are not as ready for a revival in our culture as we might think.

Much more to say about the futureproof leader, and these are just some initial ramblings, and I want to write more clearly and succinctly on the matter, but for the moment let’s leave it there, and let it percolate. Keep what’s good, throw out what’s not so good, but let it start a conversation at least!

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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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