Some news this week has left me feeling very depressed indeed.

These thoughts have been buzzing round my mind for years, but I’ve been provoked to post by 2 friends’ unconnected experiences: both have suffered at the hands of autocratic church leadership. I’m very fortunate not to have to deal with this in my current job, as I work for and with someone who is the antithesis of such things. But I’ve had enough close contact with it (and counselled others who have suffered it) in the past.

A Crying Need

I remember going to visit John Stott back in 2000, in the months before taking up my job in Uganda, a context that he had some familiarity with. I asked him the question I asked many others before and during my years in Kampala – “what do you think the Ugandan church needs?” Uncle John barely blinked before responding: “Servant Leaders”. I certainly encountered a number of Ugandan Christians who are wonderful examples of such leadership. But sadly, they are far outnumbered by those who are not. Stott was absolutely right.

But this need is far from exclusive to Uganda. It is true everywhere – I’ve heard of its desperate lack on my travels in Eastern Europe and the US – and obviously know it’s a UK problem. As the two achingly depressing stories this week prove.

Handling Power Well?

We have SO much more thinking to do in the area of power. Power is a fact of life; it is a fact of church life. We can’t avoid it. It’s just that we must learn how to handle it well when we have it: in the pulpit, chairing meetings, appointing and managing staff and volunteers, discipling young believers etc. Yet too many naïvely assume it’s not really their problem. Others never consider carefully how to wield the authority they do have. While a few are so scared of the trappings of power that they try to avoid the responsibilities of their jobs altogether. We have a long way to go…

At the very least, we must heed the warnings and model of Christ himself. (Matthew 20:25 & Philippians 2:5-11) etc – and bizarrely enough, I took the theme of servant leadership when preaching on Phil 2 just before Easter.

One of the first things we must do is to identify the tell-tale signs. I’m not suggesting that you can find all these traits in one leader. But the combination of even a few of them makes for a grizzly cocktail… And I articulate them not to point fingers or to name and shame – but to search hearts, especially my own. For none of us is immune…

Features of an autocrat’s pathology

  • Leaders don’t have to give (let alone even have) reasons for their decisions… they simply expect to be ‘trusted’. Of course, gut instinct has its part to play, especially for those who have long experience of leadership – but if this is the basis for a decision, then at least have the grace to acknowledge it.
  • Disagreement (whether on matters theological, pastoral or strategic etc) is regarded as personal betrayal. This a tricky one, I realise – because every conceivable grouping of human beings will contain its own awkward squad – and their motivations arenot always pure, to say the least. But betrayal necessarily…? That is an indication of steps too far.
  • Church members are merely pawns on the ministry masterplan chessboard. I saw this in Uganda on a number of occasions, where bishops would move their ministers around the diocese to neutralise rivals. But it happens in local churches too…
  • Numerical growth is presumed to imply personal endorsement: thus new converts or new members (esp if they are celebrated for some reason outside Christian circles) are seen as trophies of a leader’s ministry, not trophies of gospel grace. No wonder a celebrity culture of church leaders has emerged (which is the complete opposite of what Paul expects of his leaders in 1 Corinthians 1:12). But an autocrat will be grimly possessive about ‘his converts’.
  • Seeing the ‘ministry grow’ (whatever that means and entails) becomes the end that justifies every means: pragmatism rules and integrity withers. This is the logical outworking of shoot first, seek forgiveness later. After all, that’s what the gospel does, isn’t it?! But while I’m all for pragmatism as a servant, it is horrific as a master – as Machiavelli once proved…
  • Ministry teams are monochrome, or compliant, or both: diversity is a threat to an autocrat, because the leader has to be the best at everything that the team/church does (after all, that’s why he’s the leader, isn’t it?!)…

Each one of these features requires elaboration – each is probably worthy of a blog post of its own. But it’s a start.

We must turn our back on such things, as they characterise some of the shameful ways of ministry we are called to shun when we preach Christ not ourselves. It is not kingdom thinking.

O Lord, deliver us…

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This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Ian Paul

    This is an interesting pathology–or perhaps phenomenology–of autocratic leadership. What is uncomfortable is how much of it is evident within English evangelicalism…

    1. quaesitor

      true – but far from exclusive to evangelicalism…

  2. Antony Billington

    A very helpful set of reflections, Mark. I’m sure I’ll return to this. Thanks a lot.

  3. Ian Paul

    Yes, indeed, but others are not so inclined to claim divine, biblical authority for the way they act, so there is less at stake

  4. Nick

    Thanks Mark! It’s especially important to model servant-hearted leadership, and preach Christ & not ourselves, to international students, many of whom come from cultures which can be very authoritarian & where leaders are expected to behave autocratically. Thankfully my own church has had good examples of servant-hearted int’l student ministry leaders over the years.

    1. quaesitor

      Thanks for the links Simon – will check out the book…

  5. Christian

    Do you know “A Tale of Three Kings”? And what do you think of it – would you recommend to someone who is on the “receiving end” of what you described?

    1. quaesitor

      i’m afraid i don’t – tell me more…

      1. Christian

        It’s a little book by Gene Edwards on three kings: Saul, David, Absalom. Saul is God’s anointed. That’s why David won’t fight him. But what is he to do? This is exactly which shows David’s heart: He doesn’t know what to do. When Saul throws a spear, he doesn’t pick it up. This means he can get hurt. (“What do you do in the middle of a knife fight? Well, you die, of course.”) And at some point, he leaves. But not knowing what to do also means he won’t turn into a Saul himself – this is what happens to Absalom.

        Absalom knows what’s wrong with David’s leadership. He knows how to deal with those faults as well. In fact, actually he himself should be king. When he openly rebels, David leaves, thinking: Maybe God has taken away the kingdom from me?

        These are some of the things that have stuck to my mind. The sub-title of the book is “a study in brokenness” and it’s one of the ideas in that book that God can use bad leadership to work on the follower’s heart, to break it, to shape it. David’s heart was shaped in the present of a mad king.

        It’s not exactly a Bible-exposition. But it’s still good. I would really like to know if others think there is something in this kind of response to bad leadership.

  6. Phillip Smith

    This is hard stuff. The behaviours you list are all too common. In the corporate world there are processes in place to deal with bullying dressed up as leadership or management. In the church it’s never clear. Lay people hesitate to criticise ordained – for fear of questioning “God’s call” on them to lead the congregation. Those who do take a stand we face a hierarchy run by old classmates from theological hall… and so we slip away quietly and hope to find somewhere else to worship.

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