The following was adapted from "Notes from the Field: Becoming a Leader of No Reputation," which appeared in the Journal of Religious Leadership (Fall 2002).
I have been asked to reflect on my five years in the presidency at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I begin with a confession. I was wrong—wrong in my understanding and preconceived notions of leadership in Christian ministry, in my expectations of others and myself, and, hardest to admit, in my motivations.
Five years ago no vision was too limited and no goal too small. Now the scripture that epitomizes my leadership ideal is Paul’s description of Jesus’ incarnation: “He made himself a man of no reputation, taking on the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7), and I find myself on a journey of transformation, introducing me to a new way to serve as Christ taught us.
Losing Your Life
Christian leadership requires the “losing of your life” to the work God will do in you to benefit your organization. It must be entered with the utmost seriousness and only when one has clearly been anointed for the task.
With God’s anointing comes God’s power and presence. God’s anointed do the miraculous because they are his servants, and he is uniquely present in their lives. Without such anointing, we are thrown back upon ourselves. With it, we have the resources of heaven at our disposal. God’s anointed will do anything God asks and not be diverted from their course. They have only
one passion, to know and do God’s will that he might have the glory. In this way God’s anointed are people of no reputation.
The Need to Increase
When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” It is hard to decrease in a leadership position. There are natural trappings such as salary, title, power, influence, and tempting opportunities for increase in each.
Perhaps the hardest place to decrease is in the influence and power we hold over people and decisions. People depend on us for everything and we tell ourselves that the more we lead in this way, the more our leadership is valued. Of course, this is a counterfeit leadership that gives us our increase but leaves people uninvolved and underdeveloped. Robert Greenleaf reminds us that the sign of a true servant-leader is the growth of the people who serve under him.
Our self-confidence must be founded in our faith that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it” (Philippians 1:6). If Christ is truly living in us, then we in turn can live for others in our work.
Godly leadership is a call to an ever-decreasing thirst for authority, power, and influence, where the quest for reputation is replaced by the power of God’s anointing.
Being and Doing
I am a doer. I am committed to transformation as long as it can get done on schedule and show some real results. This style of leadership denies the truth of the gospel and our creation in the image of God. If we view God as a solitary being known for power and transcendence, we will focus on doing and value the product over the process. This productivity model of leadership results from a conception of God as the sovereign, detached monarch.
If, however, we are true to our Trinitarian historical commitments, we see a God who is defined by relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct yet interdependent. We learn that to be God’s people we must focus on who we are in relationship and that God’s intent is for us to do the work of the kingdom within and through the community of believers. This is what is most important to God: who we are. The key to leadership effectiveness, then, is self-awareness: The leader is transformed first.
As Christian leaders we must be engaged in a constant process of self-evaluation and repentance. The greatest tool for effective Christian leadership may be a mirror—and a group of friends to be sure you are looking into it.
Becoming a leader of no reputation means letting God transform you. When self-awareness and personal transformation are added to the desire to decrease while Christ increases—all under the anointing power of the Spirit—the Christian leader begins to emerge.
When God uses any of us to lead effectively, it is nothing short of a miracle. Throughout history God looked to the least, the weakest, and the rejected to give great leadership. God hasn’t changed that approach today. If we are honest, we know that we are not capable of leading as the size and complexity of our call demands. Great godly leaders have always worked at the intersection where humility and faith meet the awesome presence and power of God’s Spirit. And the miracle of leadership happens.
When God uses us to lead effectively, we should fall on our knees in wonder and thanksgiving. It is easy to take ownership of this miracle, but if we do, the efficacy of our leadership for the kingdom is over. We are on our own, cut off from the power and preservation of the Spirit. It is a terrifying place to be!
The Right Applause
“It doesn’t matter if the world knows or understands, the only applause we are meant to seek is that of nail-scarred hands.” This thought on a bookmark stayed with me throughout my term at Eastern Seminary. Leaders have many opportunities to generate applause. As public figures, we receive both undue criticism for the failures of our institutions and unmerited praise for their successes. The true calling of leadership requires us to accept the former and deflect the latter—never taking the criticism too personally and not accepting the praise too easily. This balance is often difficult to maintain.
Only with God’s anointing can the leader listen intently for the one source of applause that really matters.
Two significant temptations come to play here. The first is the fear of rejection that causes us to run from confrontation. The second is the desire to make everyone happy. The two are very closely related. The first is motivated by the idea that rejection of our performance as leader is a rejection of us. We have a deep-seated desire to hear the applause of all with whom we work.
The second temptation is to lead by reacting. We see which way the wind is blowing and steer in that direction. Unchecked, this will bring momentary applause, but ultimately that will box us in and strangle the life out of us. When our daily self-worth and the measure of our effectiveness come primarily from those with whom we work, we are finished as Christian leaders.
As president, I was always amazed at how many decisions I was called upon to make. Every day there were multiple opportunities to make applause-generating decisions. Sometimes the temptation to make them was enormous. I was equally amazed at how often God’s will and following God’s word took me down a different path. It is at the intersection of doing what God is telling us and doing the expedient that true leadership takes place. There we know to whom we are looking for our affirmation.
My five years in the presidency is a study in transformation. I was not thirsty for power or obsessed with the trappings of leadership, but neither was I seeking to be a leader of no reputation or a servant first. Here I was wrong.
Before our work as leaders is about vision-casting, risk-taking, building teams, strategic planning, or public speaking, it is about lordship. We become leaders in responding faithfully to this calling at the cost of everything that may tempt us. As we do so, we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, becoming leaders of no reputation.