Transforming leadership

“You will lead, even if you do not know where you are going.” This is what my wife has said to me. The question is not first about leadership. It is about direction. Transforming leaders must be followers of the right direction. At the heart of leadership is a good vision of the future. Leaders guide with a vision, give a mission, guard the values, gather the resources and then go.

Image of God’s leadership
At the heart of good leadership is a good theology. Theology first is an understanding of God and how God works. How one sees God at work will significantly affect how one leads. Scripture gives us many images of God and calls us to be image bearers, those who reflect God and enact God’s work in the world. What are your primary images of God? How do they affect your leading?

We begin with God as the sovereign creator. This image is necessary to limit our leadership. We must always acknowledge God’s rule. We are creatures, not gods. Our first parents wanted to lead, not follow. Leaders are first followers: Faithful Obedient Listening Lovers Observing the Walk of God.

We are not sovereign, but we are creators. God has empowered us to create in his world. Leaders empower others to create. God is often misunderstood in Genesis 1. God commands with power to create, but when he speaks to the humans, he blesses, he does not command. We are not commanded to “be fruitful . . . to fill . . . to rule.” We are blessed. We are empowered by God to do these things. We are empowered to transform the creation as covenant partners with God and each other.

God shares his leadership in his creation. Some Calvinists make God the deterministic planner and controller of all things. This is even reflected in the NIV translation of Matthew 10:29 with the added words “the will,” whereas, the Greek only has that none of these things happen “apart from your Father.” God is here at work with us. This text adds the important image of God’s leadership, the Father.

This is a dangerous image in our culture. We have badly distorted family life and fatherhood. Our sexism causes problems with this image, so much so that it is a negative to refer to paternalistic leadership. Paternalism is seen as that which demeans others and treats them as inferior.

Can we recover a true father image? A true father is one who loves, who provides, who defends, who guides, who encourages, who supports. In Scripture God the Father is the one who lovingly gives and forgives. He is characterized by grace. This image transforms leadership and parenting.

We think so much in terms of power and authority. Leadership has elements of this, but again it is always subservient to the vision. We borrow too many images from the ways of the world and not enough from the ways of God. We even understand our images of God in worldly terms. What do we picture when we use the title “Lord”? Is this the world’s lordship of power? This is what the sons of Zebedee wanted, to which Jesus replied,

You know that the 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 your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:20–28, NIV).

We need to transform lordship or leadership to benefaction, doing good to others.

Leading images
With these and other images of God, we have a vision of leadership to follow. Read Psalm 23 as a guide for leadership. Here is the image of the pastor, not the reverend “dominie.” Explore the images of Jesus in the Gospels. In Matthew he is a teacher; in Mark a servant; in Luke a guide; and in John a counselor. The Scriptures are full of images to guide our leadership. Leadership is transformed by a good theology.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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