Transformational Leadership from an Anabaptist/Pietist perspective: part 1

Posted: March 24, 2011 in Theology


For more than a decade there has been an elevated interest in leadership and leadership styles throughout the world. Higher education has established business courses that deal specifically with leadership models. While there has been no place where this issue has received more attention than in the corporate world, there is no place this discussion is more relevant and necessary than in the church. And in the context of the church transformational leadership is of particular interest. Traditional corporate models of leadership define “transformational leadership” as leadership in which the leader “inspires followers to transcend their own self-interests for the good of the organization and is capable of having a profound and extraordinary effect on his or her followers.”[1] This definition appears to present an attractive model for leadership; and yet for the believing community “transformational leadership” goes far beyond this. Transformational leadership is essentially a gift of God’s Spirit for the transformational ministry of his church.

In this blog series, I will address transformational leadership as a lifestyle for Jesus’ followers beginning with the primary assumption that this form of leadership (within the believing community) is essentially modeled after the example and teachings of Jesus. And as such it is recognizable by a particular attitude, which is visible through distinctive markings. Secondly, I will argue that leadership which is transformational is pneumatologically driven, in that the Spirit empowers and equips the community for the practice of ministry. Thirdly, the practice of transformational leadership in the community is authoritative, bold in witness and reconciliatory in nature. Finally for this episode I will address the first attitudinal marking of transformational leadership.


Attitude of Transformational Leadership

First and foremost transformational leadership in the church reflects the example and teachings of Jesus and thus bears the attitude of the one who is the embodiment of this form of ministry. If this is the case then leadership that is transformational will not only conform to the teachings of Jesus but will also reflect the leadership he demonstrated. Therefore it will bear the distinctive marks of service, humility and love.

The gospels speak of the astonishing and difficult teachings from Jesus regarding leadership in the believing community. This particular teaching (Matt. 20:20-28) is that the one who will lead will be the servant (or more precisely the slave) of the whole community. Historically this has been a hard pill to swallow. As much as the church at large has waved this “banner saying” around as an ideological foundation for leadership, in many instances it has failed to live according to that standard. Later in the same gospel Jesus brings strong judgment against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees as those who set the standards but do not live according to them while simultaneously always seeking the positions of honor among the people (Matt. 23:1-12). As the reader continues following Jesus’ teachings on leadership, it becomes obvious that the posture and position of leadership among his followers is dramatically different than those modeled by the political and religious institutions of the day. Therefore the following sections describe the posturing of “transformational leadership” as represented in scripture.


Marked by Service

In one of the most often quoted passages, Jesus addresses his disciples after being solicited by the mother of James and John seeking specific positions of honor for her sons in Jesus’ kingdom. This proposition resulted in controversy among the disciples at which point Jesus responded with instructions as to how leadership would take place among his followers. While the instructions have been idealized in contemporary circles to the point of watering down just what it was that Jesus said, his statement is shocking if not scandalous. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26-27). Conspicuously, among most modern interpretations the words emphasized in this brief instruction are “servant” and “service.” And yet the title of servant is juxtaposed to the designation “slave.” As offensive as this statement must have been in this first century context, it is unacceptable to conceive of in the contemporary world, particularly in a culture that still suffers the effects of the dehumanizing slavery of the 19th century as well as a culture that values freedom to the point of idolatry.

Still Jesus’ words express the posture of leadership within his kingdom. This posturing is such that the leader lives a life of disciplined obedience (to God) through submitting wholeheartedly in service to the other. This requires that the servant or slave (leader) freely surrender his or her agenda in service of the brothers and sisters. It is not simply service, but self-sacrificing and self-emptying service in the same manner in which Jesus led. And yet this does not mean that the servant surrenders his or her agenda for that of the community. On the contrary, the servant is bound to the agenda of the master (Jesus), obediently serving as has been commanded.

This, however, fails to fully describe the leadership to which Jesus calls his followers. Mark’s gospel similarly presents Jesus’ instruction in the context of a controversy (or argument) among his disciples. This context is extended further as Jesus continues his instruction on what leadership among his people will look like as he uses children to illustrate his point. Much like Matthew’s telling of this incident, in Mark Jesus instructs his disciples with similar “first will be last” language. Jesus closes this instruction, saying, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). It is striking that in this passage Jesus emphasizes the term translated “welcome.” It appears four times in a short span. The Greek term behind this (dechomai) means to receive, welcome, or to show hospitality. Therefore Jesus concludes his instructions regarding how leadership will look among his followers with words about showing hospitality to children (or in Matthew’s words “the least of these”).

Two things should especially be noted in this instruction. First, it is not just service that leadership is to be about, but loving service. This means that transformational leadership is marked not simply by dutiful service but most notably by loving service. In this slight distinction is considerable significance. Dutiful service is done out of obligation to some moral code (or law), whereas loving service (or hospitality) is done out of a posture of grace and affection. Even when the one being served is difficult to serve due to conflict or personality differences, transformational leadership goes beyond the demands of the law to that of the Spirit which requires love of God and love of other (enemy).

In John 13 Jesus takes the towel, pitcher, and basin and demonstrates in an acted parable how life is to be lived among his followers. It is most often noted in interpretations of this passage that in the washing of his disciples’ feet Jesus demonstrated the type of leadership to which he was calling his followers. By serving at the table in this profoundly menial way, John’s telling of this meal demonstrates the words of Jesus in Luke 22:27 as he turns upside down the meaning of leadership. In the same way that Jesus illustrated this lifestyle, he also commands his followers to live this also. In 1 Peter 5:1-3, the writer exhorts the elders of the church to live as examples, not lording it over them, but tending to them as a shepherd does a flock. The imagery here is like that of John’s gospel. The reader is to understand this form of leadership in the model of Jesus. To this point it is essential to highlight that the writer of John introduces the footwashing event with the words, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the fullest extent.” Therefore, it was in this simple expression of leadership that Jesus loves his disciples to the fullest extent. And yet this event is not simply for those present, but Jesus concludes the didactive event with the command to his followers to do likewise. Therefore, transformational leadership is marked by service that is lovingly graceful and lived out in example for those who follow.

[1] Stephen P. Robbins, Management, fourth edition. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994), 514.

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