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Churches need ‘Jesus’ leadership



Seek to transform, not get one’s way

By Chip Hardwick | Presbyterians Today

Luke 23:32–43 is a lectionary text for Nov. 24, Christ the King Sunday.

Jehyun Sung/Unsplash

Yesterday, a wise worshiper at the church I serve requested prayers “for all leaders as they work through difficult times ahead.” That request rings in my head as I think about “empowering servant leadership,” which is one of the seven marks of congregational vitality identified in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Vital Congregations program.

As we move toward the 21st century’s third decade, challenges abound for all leaders — especially church leaders — given the monumental cultural changes that demand fresh approaches to leadership. Author and executive coach Alistair Mant offers an idea for how we might proceed faithfully. He suggests “ternary” leadership, which seeks to transform an organization, rather than focusing on wins. Ternary is an improvement on the more popular “binary” model of leadership, which is characterized by “a fight/flight, win/lose and power/survival way of operating,” says Bernice Ledbetter, chair of the Master of Science in Leadership and Management degree program at the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine University.

When we turn to Luke 23:32–43, we see Jesus’ ministry is much more committed to transformation than to wins. We find Jesus mocked as “the King of the Jews” on the cross between two criminals. After one of the criminals derides him, the second criminal supports Jesus and then hears words he likely never expected: Today you will be with me in Paradise.

Now before we think about Jesus’ leadership style in this passage, a couple of caveats. First, Jesus is not particularly preoccupied with what style of leadership he is offering. Second, when we approach this passage it is often on Good Friday, though the lectionary serves it up for us on the Sunday we celebrate the Reign of Christ, traditionally called Christ the King Sunday. On this day it makes sense to think about how Christ reigns, and how we might copy his approach in our lifelong quest to become more like him.

Jesus’ leadership moves away from the binary approach. If Jesus were interested in winning, he could have saved himself as the crowds dared him to do. Unlike binary leadership, which forces a fight-or-flight response, Jesus does neither. He has set his face toward the cross, and now that the day has arrived, he neither fights the powers that be, nor does he flee the horrors of the cross. In contrast to the binary approach’s emphasis on power and survival, Jesus does not use his power to survive.

Instead, Jesus’ work on the cross is much better understood through a ternary lens — one that seeks transformation. Jesus’ words — “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” — do not give him victory. Rather, his words transform his followers — and will do so for centuries to come — as they wrestle with a king who forgives rather than destroys. And, “truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” does not simply convert the penitent thief. With these words that Jesus speaks, despair metamorphoses into hope for anyone who fears they are coming to faith too late.

The lesson we learn from Jesus is that leadership does not center on getting its own way at meetings, especially when debating the time of this year’s Christmas Eve services. Leadership focuses on developing a service where worshipers encounter the transforming love of Christ. Leadership doesn’t concentrate on winning arguments. It seeks reconciling conversations that transform the polarized world. Jesus’ style of leadership works, step by step, to transform the world into the realm of God — and as we follow him, we reflect that transformation, too.

Chip Hardwick is interim associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois.

Bible Explorations ends its year exploring the marks of congregational vitality. Continue to learn more at

Discussion questions

  • Why does someone’s style of leadership matter?
  • How can you faithfully use the leadership gifts the Spirit has given you?
  • Can you think of a good example in your congregation of how transforming leadership has helped you look more like Jesus or your congregation look more like the kingdom of God?

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