Have we been trained for the wrong kind of leadership? I’m increasingly thinking that most of us have, particularly western church leaders. It’s not that we’re not good leaders. It’s just that we’ve been trained for peace-time leadership, not leadership in war.
We are probably the best educated, most invested church leaders ever to live, and yet so many are struggling to know how to lead as we watch church numbers decline, church squabbles dominate and church influence wane. It feels like there’s a war going on around us, and so many of us don’t know what to do, or how to lead. Maybe that’s because we’ve been trained for peacetime leadership.
Twenty-First Century Culture
The twenty-first century western culture in which we live is a fascinating mishmash of beliefs, philosophies and world-views, all competing for attention. The ones that get the least airplay are the meta-narratives that have one big story that enlightens everything. People are sceptical about such things, so anything ending with -ism or -ity is met either with suspicion or with hostility, being deemed untrue, too simplistic or having been tried and found wanting. Christian-ity is viewed this way by many. This means that church leaders are in a fight. A battle. An increasingly uphill war in a cultural context that most of us don’t have a clue how to fight.
On top of all this, there’s also another battle raging. It’s a deeper, more subtle battle against ‘powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ which we can only stand up against as we are clothed in the armour of Christ and pray (Eph. 6:10-20). But surveys show that many leaders in the western church hardly pray, not for any length of time, and not with conviction and faith. It seems we’ve stopped taking seriously the trumpet-call to ‘pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kind of prayers and requests.’ This means that the battle-order to ‘keep praying for all the Lord’s people’ and to especially pray that evangelists and apostolic pioneers will ‘fearlessly make known’ Christ, is not being followed (Eph. 6:18-20). The forces of darkness, who scheme to see leaders tumble and ‘fall … into the devil’s trap’ (1 Tim. 3:7) must love this. They want to paralyse our prayer-lives, to disable us for war.
Peace-time leadership is important. Peace-time leaders lead with clear vision, simple strategy, great teamwork, having the crucial traits of warmth and empathy as they lead teams and encourage people. In the church, this is usually the role of the pastor and teacher, who lead with kindness and care. In UK politics after the long and exhausting Second World War, it was the leadership of Attlee, rather than Churchill. In the US, it was Truman, after Roosevelt. In West Germany it was Adenauer after the horrors of Hitler. Peace-time leaders are crucial. In peacetime.
But in war, a different kind of leadership is needed. While being no less visionary or strategic, war-time leaders must also have a great sense of urgency which requires sharp thinking and, when needed, decisive actions. They are deeply disciplined leaders who work incredibly hard, plan meticulously and communicate clearly and regularly, even when under pressure. They are adaptable and pragmatic, able to hold nerve in the complexity and messiness of war, are always raising new leaders and creating teams of skilled people who execute plans bravely and boldly. In the church, this is often the role of the apostle and prophet, who lead with pioneering enterprise. In the Old Testament, people like Joshua, Deborah and David had these kind of leadership skills. They knew that God not only called them to be leaders for testing times, but also that he equipped them, which is why in Psalm 144:1 David gives praise to the God ‘who trains my hands for war.’
Lessons from History
History is littered with wartime leaders – some good and some not so good. Interestingly, it’s the wartime leaders that we tend to remember, especially those who led with brave endeavour. Today’s wise leaders must learn from them, which is why Winston Churchill, when asked about good leadership in May 1953, replied that one should ‘Study history. Study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ The historian Andrew Roberts agrees, saying in his book Leadership in War, that the best war-time leaders know their history. He also makes the perceptive comment that ‘you can tell a great deal about leaders from their heroes and their choice of historical moments from which they draw their inspiration.’ In our leadership studies, in church and in the academy, there is a notable lack of historical knowledge and input. If we want to train hands for war, this must be put right. Perhaps books such as Henry Kissinger’s recently-published Leadership, as well as all the wartime writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, should be on the Christmas list of the discerning church leader. We have much learning to do.
We also have much unlearning to do, because many of us need to become different kinds of leaders. Unlearning is difficult. In fact ‘unlearning is twice as hard as learning,’ according to Mark Batterson. He says ‘It’s like missing your exit on the freeway. You have to drive to the next exit and then double back. Every mile you go in the wrong direction is really a two-mile error. Unlearning is twice as hard, and it often takes twice as long. It is harder to get old thoughts out of your mind than it is to get new thoughts into your mind.’
Existing leaders like me need to learn to change, and adapt. We may not like it, but we must. And new leaders must be trained not for a tranquil settled world that might have existed some time in the past, but for the very real ongoing battles of the contemporary context.
I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable when hearing Jesus’s words that he came ‘not to bring peace, but a sword’ (Mt. 10:34), but now I read them through the lens of warfare, they make more sense. For we’re called to fight – not physically against people, but spiritually and culturally with great love and compassion for the souls of the people of our villages, towns, region and nation. Leaders like me need to learn afresh what it means to take up the sword of the Spirit in our generation. We urgently need training for the right kind of leadership.
Church leaders (and all Christians) do need to have a dichotomous approach: Spiritual warfare and also appropriate leadership. Many of your points are exceptionally well made Matthew (as always!) but I am not sure I would say that in this day we need war leaders. People tend to react confrontationally to a war approach as the wording sets their instincts up to do so. Those country leaders in times of conflict could be described also as crisis leaders – Churchill was a crisis leader, the leader in Ukraine is a crisis leader. The people of this world take sides when we have a war leader but people typically get behind a good crisis leader. Yes spiritually we want people to take sides which is why that is a spiritual warfare. In this world though we want to get alongside people and people alongside us, which is why we need good crisis leaders. This does not impact greatly on what is being done now such as the new York CAP Centre, but it does affect the road forward. Crisis solving together or war like taking sides?
Hi Graham. There are lots of models of leadership and metaphors that help and guide. I agree that ‘crisis’ is also a good way to consider leadership. War for many (including me) is an uncomfortable image but it is a biblical one, and one which church leaders have often neglected. I’m not suggesting we suddenly get all confrontational or force people to take sides. Wartime leaders unite around a common cause, and go forward together, recognising the urgency of the hour. Certainly in the church I don’t think I and many leaders have been trained for that.
Thanks for the comment.