Fellow saint and sinner Lance Ford has set out to reform how we think about church leadership, with Jesus as his guide.
And now, finally, what a number of you have been waiting for…Today’s guest is missional church thinker and activist Lance Ford, who is organizing the upcoming Sentralized gathering in Kansas City, Missouri (September 27-29), in which I’ll be taking part. He is also the author of the newly released book, Unleader: Reimagining Leadership And Why We Must.
After having a chance to read through Lance’s book and mark it up with plenty of exclamation points and “Amens,” I was privileged to sit down with Lance virtually for the below interview about his book…
Kristina: Your book overturns Western models of church leadership that so many of us now jaded pastors and disillusioned lay people have been spoon fed until we’re tired of the same old hash- all in favor of an older, far more foreign and uncomfortable way, that of Jesus as the suffering servant. In this sense, your book is both radically revolutionary in our context and deeply faithful to the church’s primary source material (the biblical story of Jesus’ way of leading). What did you most want to achieve or convey to your readers in writing this book?
Lance: We’re now well into over 40 years of church growth thinking that has had a primary focus on leadership for about the last 20 years. Where has it gotten us? We are getting bigger churches (which I have no problem with at all) but we are not seeing more people in church. Everyone has heard all the statistics to back that up. And we are not transforming our cities and overall Western culture. As the missional movement has gained traction over the last decade I am convinced that it will never become a full blown reformation—which I believe it has the potential to do—if we don’t do as Jesus said he came to do, and go to serve. Churches are being led by people obsessed with leading and not those captivated with a vision of authentic servantship.
Kristina: I couldn’t help thinking as I read Unleader that it had to take a big dose of God-given courage to write it. I mean, there are a whole lot of church leaders out there wedded to five-point vision plans, strategic goals, and other business models of success who will summarily dismiss what you have to say or even mock it. Was this a hard book to write? What for you was most risky about writing this?
Lance: I can’t really say it was hard to write. It would have been much harder not to have written it. I am convinced that we are at a tipping point in the Western church and if we will get our leadership ethos right then the movement will take off like mad. Why? Because the people of God will truly be released to be a priesthood and the Jesus Jerks who have gained leadership immunity will either have to repent or get benched. Probably the thing that was most risky was that people would dismiss me as just a cranky prophet type that says there should be no leadership. I have no doubt that there will be those who will say as much, but only if they do not give the book a fair read. That is not the message of the book whatsoever. My push is that we are not to seek our identity in leadership. Leadership is a fruit, a product of following Jesus’ lead…which is servantship. And it is not a rant. I don’t offer critique void of answers and direction to head. As I said in the text, this book is confessional as well. I am a leaderoholic myself. It takes one to know one.
Kristina: I’m struck by the fact that the Jesus of Scripture exudes a hermeneutic of suspicion about religious power and those who wield it. I can’t think of anything good Jesus has to say about the religious leaders of his time (which always keeps me, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, trembling a bit). What are ways you would suggest we as ministers and lay people speak truth to power within our congregations?
Lance: What we witness (over and over) in the Gospels is Jesus subverting power at every front…especially the religious field. In Matthew 20 (v.25) He could not have been clearer when he calls the Twelve for a “talkin to.” He says, “The Gentiles exercise dominion over one another…but it will not be so among you.” It has become very much so among us. We have ignored Jesus on this. We’ve also ignored his clear cut commandments on the usage of titles. I would suggest to all Christians to look to Jesus, and the words in the epistles about how to treat one another. Jesus turns power structures upside down at every turn. Church leaders have built power structures. The bottom line to it all is an issue of trust. Do we trust Jesus to build his church his way, or not? I think we need to go back to the old hymn—“trust and obey.”
Kristina: Ah, now to one of my favorite chapters in your book for its brave insightfulness about the proverbial skeletons in so many church closets- namely, senior pastors and their executive pastor sidekicks. You have some very resonant things to say about senior pastors, and, intriguingly, the kinds of personalities senior pastorates often attract, namely those with some degree of “narcissistic personality disorder”. What do you suggest we do if we are in a congregation with a senior pastor like this? Shall we give them your book (wink)?
Lance: You might want to send the book anonymously (wink). We are going to have to treat this stuff just like we would treat any other sin. It needs to be named for what it is and people need to confront it. I am convinced that we just don’t take Jesus seriously, nor the epistles seriously when it comes to the way that top of the org chart leaders get free passes on the way they treat staff members. But we have set the table for this stuff in the first place in the way we have created hierarchical leadership systems that devalue servantship and reward and applaud results over character.
Kristina: You seem to be saying that following in general, as opposed to leading, is something that most of us in the West, maybe especially Americans, are not used to doing. I love this statement: “A true follower cannot be bound to follow.” Can you unpack a bit more this notion of following and why it is so central to your understanding of authentic leadership (i.e., servanthood)?
Lance: First of all, we are all to be co-followers of Jesus. We are not to make followers of ourselves, which is the very thing the leadership gurus have taught us to do, i.e., you’ve got to be a great leader so that people will follow you. John the Baptist had followers but as Jesus’ ministry surfaced he backed off and sent his disciples to follow Jesus (I must decrease, and He must increase). When we “lead” through command and control, threats, ultimatums, etc, people are not following us. They are only being led as an ox is by a leash. There is no following going on. My dog follows me everywhere I go, not because I drag her around…she wants to be with me…she loves to be with me. No leash is needed. That is true following.
Kristina: You don’t tackle this issue, since it’s not quite within the realm of your topic, but I wonder whether you would agree that one natural implication of the hierarchy-less nature of your unleader ethic is a freeing up of women to serve as spiritual leaders? I’m inclined to think from personal experience that women in leadership is an especially difficult pill to swallow for more evangelical churches, and I wonder whether this less relational, less egalitarian emphasis on corporate, business management models is, in part, related to an inherent, deep-seated conservatism (I would call it plainly “chauvinism”) about the equal calling of women to mission. What do you think?
Lance: Next question. Kidding. I would certainly hope that that would be the case. But in my research I found the dominant leadership ethos to be exercised by some female executive pastors as well. So my focus is on the leadership-centric focus itself, regardless of the gender issues. But again, I hope the book will help in regard to setting women free to serve in all capacities and roles.
Kristina: This preacher girl found herself agreeing with her bro in Christ throughout your book, all the way up to the part where you dropped the bomb that preaching “is not the answer.” Tell me more. (This, admittedly, is a self-interested question, since I’m considering a Ph.D. in homiletics.)
Lance: Disciple making requires inviting others into our lives. Jesus invited the Twelve to be with him…not just to hear his sermons. Any preacher can preach beyond his own character but none of us can mentor beyond our character. Many pastors (dare I say most?) have never been discipled by anyone, so they don’t know how to mentor, though they may be great at preaching. Preaching comes into play in discipling, but it is not the discipling answer…not by a long shot.
Kristina: What is your biggest source of hope that one day “Church, Incorporated” and her many affiliates really will wake up to see the error of their ways, and be, with God’s help, the people she was meant to be?
Lance: That Jesus declared that He would build his church and the gates of Hell would not succeed in stopping it. And I also believe that most men and women in the ministry sincerely want to serve and be real Jesus people. The missional movement we are seeing gain traction is a true people movement. And true revolutions are always people movements. We are seeing and hearing the best stories coming from soccer moms and diesel mechanics…everyday people on everyday mission. The hope I have is the Body of Christ getting out of the pews and out of the church building into the neighborhoods and marketplace with the love and justice of the kingdom of God.
Kristina: You’ve assured me that I don’t have to have a goatee to come to Sentralized in a couple of weeks, and that this won’t be just another conference. What are you hoping this conference will do to unleash the church in the direction of unleader servanthood?
Lance: I love the fact that every man and women we have speaking at the Sentralized Conference are UnLeaders. They are humble servants of Jesus and are focused on the Kingdom of God. I hope they sneeze the servanthood virus on everyone and an epidemic across the world will continue to spread.
Got a question of your own for Lance? Leave it here in the comments section, and I’ll make sure he gets it.