Why is there a debate over secular resources in Christian leadership?

Over the last six months I have interviewed a lot of leaders of missionary and support-raised ministry organisations and when I asked them whether they used secular resources for leadership development they fell into three loose categories. The first said they didn’t bother with anything out of a secular or business context, only reading things with a biblical or theological basis. The second occasionally dipped their toe into the business world reading things that came recommended by other Christian leaders, the kind of things you might find on the shelves of a Christian bookstore even if not explicitly Christian. The third group would look for inspiration more widely watching TED talks, reading the Harvard Business Review and scanning the shelves of the airport bookstore for recent releases. 

It got me thinking about why there would be such divergent opinions and whether there was a way to embrace the best aspects of all three approaches. When I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by far the most frequently recommended secular book in my interviews) I saw a lot of wisdom and compassion. His writing was full of ideas I could apply as I built trust in my teams. I also had a nagging sense that there were limits to some of the particular strategies in my own context, that some of the suggestions might actually be counterproductive to building trust in the very unique environment of a multi-national, cross-cultural mission organisation. But, I confess to have some of the same reservations reading books written for pastors leading in a church context. The small staff team, larger group of volunteers and even larger set of members in the pews are not a particularly comparable organisational context, even if the biblical principles are helpful. I understand people’s reservations. One of the most thought provoking articles I have read on humanising management theory has the F word in the title. I love Simon Sinek in all his endless optimism even if he thinks the reason we should be better is chemicals like dopamine rather than any higher purpose or belief. Should I be recommending these to my colleagues in ministry? What reservations and advice should I offer with them? As I began to formulate a framework for secular resources I realised I first needed to answer the question of why bother at all. 

Christian leaders have been grappling with the place of secular business resources for some time. A post by C. Kavin Rowebegins: “It is stunning that books that present Jesus as a model for a CEO, lead pastor or community organizer ever leave the shelves. After all, Jesus was killed. Moreover, his best workers abandoned him in his hour of need, left the project incomplete and ran for the hills. What CEO wants that?”

Another post by L. Gregory Jones  reads: “Too often, we Christians, troubled by the malaise that afflicts many of our congregations and institutions, have turned uncritically to secular business and leadership literature desperately searching for quick fixes and one-size-fits-all techniques. As a result, we have found ourselves swirling in intra-Christian polemics: some leaders loudly commending the latest books on effective leadership, with others equally loudly claiming that Christians are called to be faithful and prophetic rather than selling out to popular notions of success. The polemics are tearing us apart rather than building up the Body. Adopting an either-or position will not equip our institutions to act as incubators of transformative leadership and cultivators of thriving communities.” 

The first chapter in Craig Hamilton’s Wisdom in Leadership is called ‘The biblical model of leadership’ which he claims is “a really stupid title”. He discusses the fact that the Bible doesn’t use the word “leadership” much at all. The Bible talks about authority, responsibility, ruling, wisdom, godliness and obedience. He says “The Bible doesn’t talk that much about leadership in the sense of the package of skills and knowledge needed to lead effectively.” There are lots of images we can draw on to inform our picture of a good leader. The Bible repeatedly refers to people in leadership positions as shepherds. It mentions leaders being servants and stewards. It doesn’t provide any real guidance on how to cascade vision through an organisation, how to encourage input from a diverse range of voices, how to integrate new workers.

The doctrine of common grace helps us remember that Christians aren’t the only ones capable of understanding the human condition and producing good in the world. In Timothy Keller’s words “Ironically Christians who understand biblical doctrine ought to appreciate the work of non-Christians the most because we are saved by grace alone – we are not better fathers, mothers, artists or business people” (Every Good Endeavour). We as Christian leaders can be blessed by the rigorous peer-reviewed studies coming out of business and management schools in the same way a Christian doctor benefits from the research being done into new methods for diagnosis and treatment. 

There is so much research being done every year that can help us understand how to motivate and engage our people, understand different cultural perspectives on leadership, provide workers with clarity and safety and build an organisation where people flourish. As Hamilton reminds us “As long as our trust in the Bible as God’s very word is secure and unassailed, we should seek to learn from as many sources as we can.” During the COVID pandemic, the avalanche of tips on remote working, many of them backed up by research and experience, were invaluable for ministry teams navigating the Zoom life for the first time. There are so many examples like this where it would be foolish to ignore the people around us who are trying coming to grips with a rapidly changing world. 

The trend towards evidence-based management is growing and is calling into question guru-driven or purely experience-based ideas that have dominated a lot of management and leadership literature. For decades a successful leader would share his personal insights, but the value of this would vary wildly depending on the context and his values. We would tend to choose whichever author we felt most personal affinity with and reject resources from authors who looked most different than us. 

Copying the gurus might create successful companies for a time, but it doesn’t necessarily contribute to human flourishing or the promotion of diversity. These are two things we care deeply about in ministry and cross-cultural work. I understand the reluctance to spend precious time engaging with something with a very different worldview and with incompatible idols but there are two times when this is exactly where we should be looking. The first is where the theories are based on rigorous research and peer reviewed process. The second is where the author may not look like us but may look more like the people we are trying to lead or trying win. Engaging doesn’t always mean accepting but our leadership will be richer for it. 

To get past the polemics we need to embrace true wisdom from a variety of sources. But this should not be done uncritically or haphazardly. Ever since Robert Greenleaf’s essay in 1970, servant leadership has become more and more mainstream in leadership thinking. The roll call of thought leaders contributing to the 2018 book Servant Leadership in Action only confirms this. The idea that a leader could be a servant is a deeply biblical idea rooted in the picture of Christ we see in Phillippians 2. It makes sense that given what we know about common grace, the secular world would realise the benefits of humility in leaders. However, I saw some comments on Twitter by leaders of colour who felt uncomfortable with the use of servant leadership language in corporate training because their ancestors had been once enslaved or colonised. It made me reflect on how deeply countercultural and disruptive it would have been for Jesus and the early church to use this language. Is the kind of servant leadership that is being espoused by secular business schools the same as Jesus’ humility, the same as the cruciformity we see in the Bible? Has the idea lost its power by being coopted, as a means to an end, like increased employee satisfaction and higher profits. Even if it is, what does that mean for us who know, really know the person of Christ on whom it is modeled? 

What is needed is a framework that embraces our biblical knowledge, a comprehension of different worldviews and secular idols and a deep understanding of our own context. 

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