Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 6

Cruciform leadership is marked by a determination to live authentically and relate honestly.  Jesus-shaped, cruciform leaders don’t hide their weaknesses, inadequacies, and failures.  They aren’t self-promoting, they don’t seek power, and they don’t trumpet their strengths.

Their ultimate goal is the blessing of others, the arrival of God’s transforming grace and overpowering love into their lives.  Their goal is not to appear ultra-competent and amazing, but to serve others.

Worldly leadership, on the other hand, is consumed with image-consciousness.  Worldly leaders manipulate situations in order to put the best face on things.  They try to control how people see them and what others think of them.

This pursuit leads to denial of one’s failures and even to deceiving others in order to keep from being seen as a failure.  This is serious inauthenticity.

While such leadership postures are tempting, they are ultimately destructive in so very many ways.  Such an approach breeds anxiety.  If I portray myself as better and more successful than others, I’ll always be worried that people might encounter the “real me”—the one who struggles with sin the way everyone else does; the one filled with self-doubt; the one who needs the help of others; the one who isn’t always up to the task.

This can also be crushing when failure actually occurs.  If a person weaves a public image and takes great pains to hide behind it, there’s almost no way to recover when the “real me” is revealed.

Further, such an approach discourages others from participating in ministry.  People who are honest with themselves will be too afraid to fail if only the super-competent or “experts” are qualified to serve.

Cruciform leadership resists such strategies.

Paul portrays the anti-image character of cruciform leadership in a powerfully counter-cultural passage.

…but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.  For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me (2 Cor. 12:5-6).

If he talked about his strengths and his mind-blowing experiences, he wouldn’t at all be exaggerating.  He’d be speaking the truth.  But he resists this because he doesn’t want the Corinthians to think of him as a bigger deal than he is.  He refuses to construct an image.

His ultimate goal is their blessing, their communal flourishing, their enjoyment of the goodness of God in Christ by the Spirit.

Cruciform leaders refuse to try to control what people think of them.  They don’t cultivate an image.  They don’t try to make others imagine that more is true of them than matches reality.

Such leadership frees others to participate in ministry without fear of failure.  I’ll never forget the first time this hit me.  I have heard preaching my whole life and have hardly ever heard preachers relay anecdotes in which they don’t come off as spiritual superstars.

When I was in seminary, I had a pastor named Rick.  Rick was a great speaker and decisive leader.  He was impressive in so many ways, but was also unconcerned with his image.

After returning from a ministry trip to South Africa, he began his first Sunday back with an anecdote about his airplane ride.  He said that he was so jacked up to be going on this trip that he initiated an evangelistic conversation with the two people sitting in his row.  After an initial back-and-forth, Rick said that out of nowhere his brain locked up and he couldn’t think of a response to one of their questions.  He sat there tongue-tied and gape-mouthed as they stared at him, awaiting a response.

Mortified, he slunk back in his chair for the torturously long plane ride to South Africa.

I’ll never forget how that made everyone feel.  We all looked up to Rick and thought he could hardly put a foot wrong in ministry.  But his anecdote reminded everyone that he was just like us and that it’s okay to fail.

He would tell his ministry interns later to seldom be the hero of your preaching anecdotes.  I’ve never forgotten that.  That’s one way of embodying honesty and authenticity.  It resonates with people who are honest with themselves and are tired of a superficial culture dominated by inauthenticity.

Cruciform leaders aren’t paralyzed with fear that others will see their shortcomings, weaknesses, and inadequacies.

Authentic ministry is built on the truth.  Cruciform leadership cultivates authenticity and invites others to develop similar habits of truth-speaking and truthful modes of life.

Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 5

I’ve been contrasting Jesus-shaped, cruciform leadership with worldly leadership.  Key texts that shape my reflections are Phil. 2:5-11 and Mark 10:37-45.

Worldly leaders are captivated by a craving for more and more influence.  Cruciform leaders, on the other hand, are content with current responsibilities given by God and seek to grow in faithfulness.

I had defined cruciform, Jesus-shaped leadership as an unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

Cruciform leaders sense a compelling call to the delivery of God’s transforming grace and redeeming love to others.  The scope of ministry may involve one’s own family.  It may extend beyond that to a one-to-one discipleship relationship.  Or, it may involve leadership in larger groups.  Size doesn’t matter.

In any and every case, cruciform leaders are focused on faithfulness to the task.  This involves self-sacrificially serving others, getting to know those to whom we minister.  Cruciform leaders take the initiative to cultivate relationships of mutuality and authenticity shaped and oriented by the love and grace of God.

I described worldly leadership as a desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve personal advancement.

Worldly leadership manifests itself in the church by a lack of contentment with current ministry circumstances.  Worldly leaders desire more and more influence.  They are always looking beyond their current scope of ministry to bigger and better and more.  Such pursuits are incompatible with faithfulness in ministry.

This form of leadership has a corrosive effect on one’s soul, one’s ministry partnerships, and one’s family.

Worldly leaders are captive to destructively competitive impulses.  They envision the ministry “successes” of others as losses for themselves.  They cannot delight in the giftedness of others because they are threatened by them.  Good things happening in other churches or ministries are provocations to anger and resentment.

Worldly leaders grow anxious when they are not recognized and praised.  They are jealous when the gifts of others are noted or praised.

A worldly leadership orientation also has a destructive effect on one’s family.  Ministers who seek greater influence cannot afford to spend time cultivating rich and joyful relationships at home.  Those take time and effort.  They are messy, complicated.  Our families see our faults and failures.  Fruitful family life demands relationships of mutuality in order to flourish.  That means we must give ourselves fully to our families, blessing them and being blessed by them.  That means we work hard to cultivate the skills of forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

Worldly leadership draws us away from our families, seducing us to see it as far easier to be out there “ministering” where people don’t see our faults and failures.  We can get by on charm and surface encounters.  Such behaviors are exposed as obviously hypocritical at home.  Families can’t run on such relational shallowness.  They demand serious love and regular reconciliation.

Worldly leaders see their families, therefore, as obstacles to greater influence.  Spouses and children who demand my time are taking away from my efforts to grow the reach of my ministry!  They’re in the way!

Too many pastors have given in to such worldly and destructive temptations and have sacrificed their spouses and children on the altar of growing a ministry or extending the reach of their influence.

Whatever influence they might have may prove either ephemeral or destructive.  In speaking about leaders among God’s people, Paul asks, “if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church?”

Cruciform leaders discern the worldly lures of bigger and better and more as the destructive and soul-destroying corruptive ideologies that they are.  They resist such temptations and their associated practices.  They take joy in their relationships, serving faithfully, loving others and receiving their love in the name of the One who gave his life for the church.

Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 4

Cruciform leaders do not view people as the means to achieve other goals.  The people to whom we minister are the goal.  The whole point of Jesus-shaped leadership is to take the initiative to see that God’s grace and love arrive into the lives of others.

Christian leaders are servants of others on behalf of God, so people are the point—not my goals, plans, vision, or ambitions.

This may be obvious, but there is a vocabulary set used among ministry leaders that very subtly perverts and corrupts our vision for cruciform ministry.

We talk about “results,” or we want our ministries to be “effective.”  We look for ministry strategies that “work.”

When we talk like this, we reveal that we are envisioning something bigger than or beyond the people to whom we minister.  We subtly become the servants of that other thing and we look at the people as the means to get somewhere else.

This is one way that pastors’ hearts function as idol factories.

When we set our hearts on certain goals and ends, we can become very frustrated at our people when they don’t perform the way we want them to.  When we’re not seeing the results we expected, we put pressure on people, demanding more from them.

When we do this, we are no longer delivery agents of God’s love, mercy, and transforming grace.  We begin embodying in our churches the reality of a very harsh, exacting God who demands performance and greater effectiveness.

Pastors may find themselves berating and scolding their churches.  They may lament that there are so many things the church could be doing if only the people would just “get on board.”

These are signs of worldly leadership.

There is no greater end in ministry than cultivating a flourishing community for the renewal of the people to whom and with whom we minister.

Cruciform ministry leaders are patient with people, ministering to them in love.  Cruciform leaders are careful to avoid being seduced by worldly values that fly under the banners of “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “results.”

Cruciform pastors must constantly check their motives, aims, and ambitions for their churches.  They must constantly put off the temptation to manipulate people so that goals may be met.

Christian ministers must resist putting pressure on people and subtly turning churches into institutions that oppress.  It takes strong leadership to cultivate flourishing communities that provide rest, relief, hope, joy, and life for people worn out and broken by the world.

Cross-shaped leaders remember that people are the point.  They are the end.  They are never the means.

Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 3

Cross-shaped leadership constantly adjusts to God’s agenda.  This is significantly different from worldly forms of leadership, which are oriented by the leader’s agenda.

Worldly leadership is leader-determined.  It’s all about “my dream,” or “my vision for this church.”  Churches with charismatic leaders are often compelling communities for a time, but they seldom manifest cruciformity.

I remember talking with a pastor about his church.  He was looking for people who would “buy into” his vision.

We spoke some time later about his struggle with one person who didn’t fit the profile of his ministry target audience.  He was struggling to figure out how to gently move this person on to “where she belonged.”  He was caught between genuinely caring for people and his training in a corrupted style of ministry.

Churches oriented by a singular leader’s vision that require “buy in” on the part of those participating don’t manifest cruciform leadership.  They can’t afford to.  The leader’s vision is the ultimate end and people become the means to that end.

In a tragic irony, the leader is going around putting people on crosses in the name of the ministry vision.

What happens when people who don’t fit the profile find a home in that community?  They may be seen as obstacles rather than gifts.

Cruciform leadership, on the other hand, is God-oriented.  Ministry goals and ministry means are shaped by God’s program and God’s agenda. God’s aim is to break into peoples’ lives with love and grace and blessing so that God might redeem, reclaim, restore, and save.

God’s agenda must become our agenda.

We serve on behalf of God, who sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to seek and to save what was lost.

We minister in the name of God, who sent Israel into exile because they were neglecting the orphan and the widow, oppressing the poor and the needy, exploiting the weak and defenseless.

God, who heard the prayer of Hannah—the marginalized wife of Elkanah.

God, who is exalted above the heavens, but who bends low to look into the face of the lowly and the neglected.

God, who puts himself on the cross for the redemption of the world.

Cruciform leaders regard people out of a healthy fear of the Lord who gave his life for those who “don’t fit the ministry profile.”  They are careful to treat people the way that God treats people.

If we sacrifice the awkward and marginalized on the altar of our cherished “vision” for what we think our churches should become, we invite the fearsome judgment of the God who passionately loves and pursues those who don’t fit the mold, those on the margins.

Cruciform leaders go the way of the cross.  This means that their pride, ambition, and ministry goals are on crosses, too.  This is the only way to unleash resurrection power into the lives of those to whom they minister.

Cruciform leaders stay on the cross, knowing that this is the only contact they have with the life of Jesus.  And they constantly evaluate the extent to which their visions become idols that put others on crosses.

Luther on Paul’s Appearance

I came across this bit of speculation as to what Paul would’ve looked like by Martin Luther. It’s just priceless.

“I think that Paul was a pathetic, ugly, and scruffy little man — like Philipp,” referring, of course, to his friend, to that point, anyway, Philipp Melanchthon.


Icon of Paul

I’ve written before on what Paul might have looked like and I’d have to agree with Luther!


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 2

The Bible has much to say about leadership generally, but two specific texts contrast God’s aims for leaders of his people with corrupted forms of leadership—Mark 10:42-45 and Deut. 17:14-20.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

Mark 10:42-45

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Taking a cue from these texts, over the next bunch of posts I will sketch cross-shaped leadership in broad strokes by contrasting it with worldly leadership practices.  This may help us discern how perverted ambitions, hidden idolatries, and destructive practices subtly affect how leadership works in Christian communities.

To begin, I’ve come up with these alternative descriptions:

Worldly leadership: A desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve these things, even if it means neglecting or hurting people who do not appear to be means of one’s own personal advancement.

Jesus-shaped leadership: An unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

I’ve drawn these up from reflection on biblical texts and my own experiences in ministry.  I’ll elaborate on these two forms of leadership as our discussion progresses.

Cross-Shaped Leadership

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about leadership recently and I thought I would revise some previous meditations on the topic from a cruciform perspective.

The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and it shapes  and determines everything about being Christian. Cruciformity — or, being “cross-shaped” — means having our lives and church community dynamics oriented by the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Cruciformity is a powerful reality because it is the only way to gain access to the resurrection power of God.  When we shape our lives according to the life of Jesus, we experience his presence by the Spirit, and God floods our lives, relationships, and communities with resurrection power.

When I talk to people training for Christian leadership about cruciformity, however, I discover the assumption that it isn’t easily practiced in ministry.  Many assume that cruciformity may be good for ordinary Christian people, but it won’t work in leadership situations.

I wonder if this is because our imaginations are shaped by worldly conceptions of leadership and of power.  We assume that at some point cruciform leadership would fail.  It wouldn’t be up to the challenges of “real world” situations where power must be wielded over others.

In my view, we simply haven’t given enough creative thought to how leadership in churches and Christian organizations can be shaped by the cross, generating and unleashing the life-giving power of God.

For Jesus, this isn’t negotiable.  He addresses forms of leadership in Mark 10.  The disciples are agitating for positions of privilege, power, and prestige in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus responds:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Leadership in the Kingdom of God must be shaped by the life of the King, who gives himself for others.  This is contrasted directly with worldly forms of leadership, which has to do with power over others.

This form of leadership for God’s people isn’t all that new, actually.  Moses had already outlined a counter-cultural form of leadership in Deut. 17:14-20.  Israel’s king was to be radically different, having the Law read to him daily so that “his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen” (v. 20).

Christian leadership, then, ought to be cruciform since those who lead do so on behalf of the One whose identity is determined by the cross.

Over the next handful of posts, I want to think through some contrasts between cruciform leadership and worldly leadership in an effort to provoke imaginations with hope in leading God’s people according to the ways of God revealed in Jesus.

The Fragile Mission

I’ve been reading and re-reading Mark 3:13-19 in which Jesus appoints the Twelve “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”


I recall wandering through an airport bookstore and flipping through a book titled something like “Leadership Lessons from Jesus.” One of the “lessons” was that Jesus was a great team-builder. Just look at the team he put together! He was the model CEO! You, too, should look out for people who are effective and take initiative! Like Jesus!

How foolish.

As Mark’s narrative proceeds, the team is a near-disaster. In listing their names, and taking the whole context of the Gospel into account, Mark hints at their fragility. There’s Simon, the violent revolutionary; Peter, who denied him; Thomas, who doubted him; and Judas, who betrayed him.

Mark is indeed a mysterious Gospel, and Jesus’ “calling” and “wanting” (v. 13) these people is surely an instance of God’s mysterious grace rather than the disciples’ effectiveness.


Being with Jesus

From Joel Marcus’s commentary on Mark 3:14-15 — “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”

But the Twelve are not only summoned to perform acts of proclamation and exorcism; those acts flow out of a prior commission, the call to “be with Jesus.” This tension between being with Jesus and being sent out by him is most simply resolved by interpreting 3:14 and 3:15 sequentially: now the disciples are with Jesus, but later he will send them out to preach and exorcise (cf. 6:7, 12-13). But Mark’s odd formulation probably also contains another layer of meaning. Throughout the Gospel, Mark speaks of the disciples being with Jesus or his being with them (1:29; 2:19; 3:7; 4:36; 5:37, 40; 6:50; 8:10; 9:8; 11:11; 14:7, 14, 17, 18, 20, 33, 67) . . . In other cases Mark seems to have introduced references to the Twelve or to the disciples generally (e.g. 2:15; 3:20; 6:1; 11:11) or to have highlighted their presence rhetorically by his use of plurals (e.g. 11:15, 19, 27). These features have the effect of portraying Jesus as one who is almost constantly surrounded by a circle of disciples; he does not exist primarily as a solitary individual but as a being-in-community, and living the Christian life means “being with him.” . . . In this light there is another way of reconciling the tension within 3:14: now, in the post-Easter period, it is possible both to be with Jesus and to be sent out by him; Mark, in fact, would probably say that any mission not rooted in “being with Jesus” is doomed to failure (p. 267).

More on “The Plight” from Wright

I’ve been reviewing some older critiques of “the new perspective on Paul” that mention specifically its lack of a theology of sin and salvation. It seems to me, however, that it’s more accurate to say that “the new perspective” broke the hegemony of a certain account of what Paul must have meant by the plight and the solution.

That is, many interpreters had assumed that for Paul, the problem is that humans are sinners and the solution is salvation. Humans are unrighteous and are at enmity with God, and they need righteousness and must be set right with God.

The revolution in Pauline studies that led to a global re-reading of Paul’s texts (all of them, not just our favorite ones) demonstrated that while all this is true, it is part of a much larger picture of what is wrong and how God has acted to set things right.

Grasping this more robust and far-reaching Scriptural depiction of what is wrong leads to a greater appreciation for God’s manifold action in Christ, and to a greater understanding of how God’s people inhabit and embody the massive (and under-explored) reality called “salvation.”

Wright PFG

I say all this just to note that N. T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God does a very nice job of demonstrating what Paul saw as “the plight.” It wasn’t just that humans needed righteousness. In fact, the problem went beyond humans. It was cosmic in scope, including the entire creation.

What happens, then, when we put together these three elements, cross, resurrection and spirit? Paul has revised his previous understanding of the plight of the world, of humans and of Israel in line with his revision of monotheism itself. Standing behind it all was the strong early Christian belief that in Jesus and the holy spirit the covenant God had returned at last, and had acted decisively to judge and save. The sudden brightness of this light cast dark shadows: if this was what it looked like when YHWH returned, all sorts of things were called into question. The resurrection of Jesus constituted him as Messiah, but he remained the crucified Messiah, and if in the strange purposes of the One God the Messiah, his one and only true ‘son’, had had to die, it could only mean that the plight of Israel was far worse than had been thought. The resurrection itself demonstrated that the real enemy was not ‘the Gentiles’, not even the horrible spectre of pagan empire. The real enemy was Death itself, the ultimate anti-creation force, with Sin – the personified power of evil, doing duty apparently at some points for ‘the satan’ itself – as its henchman. Finally, the experience of the spirit revealed the extent to which hardness of heart and blindness of mind had been endemic up to that point across the whole human race. All these were there in Israel’s scriptures, but so far as we know nobody else in second-temple Judaism had brought them together in anything like the form we find them in Paul. It looks very much as though it was the gospel itself, both in proclamation and experience, which was the driver in bringing Paul to this fresh understanding of ‘the plight’ from which all humans, and the whole creation, needed to be rescued (761-2).

Earlier Jewish writers had seen quite a bit of this, of course. But for Paul the nature and extent of ‘the enemy’ and ‘the problem’ were revealed precisely in the act of their overthrow. The full horror of the threatening dragon became apparent only as it lay dead on the floor. The hints had been there already, including the biblical warnings about the corrosive and destructive principalities and powers standing behind outward political enemies and operating through the local and personal ‘sin’ of individuals. Neither Saul of Tarsus nor Paul the Apostle would have supposed one had to choose between the partial analyses offered by Genesis 3, Genesis 6 and Genesis 11: human rebellion, dark cosmic forces and the arrogance of empire all belonged together. A thoughtful and scripturally educated Pharisee could have figured that out already. But for Paul all of these were seen afresh in the light of the gospel. The fungus that had been growing on the visible side of the wall could now be seen as evidence of the damp that had been seeping in from behind. The worrying persistent and ingrained sin of Israel, not merely of the nations, was the tell-tale sign that the principalities and powers of Sin and Death had been at work all along in the covenant people, as well as in the idolatrous wider world (763).

Paul’s robust monotheism allowed fully for the fact of rebellious non-human ‘powers’ luring humans into idolatry and hence into collusion with their anti-creational and anti-human purposes. Sin in the human heart, darkness in the human mind, dehumanized behaviour in the human life: all went together with the rule of dark forces that operated through idols, including empires and their rulers, to thwart the purposes of the one creator God. And Israel, called to be the light of the world, had itself partaken of the darkness. Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (771).



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