Book Review: Lead like Jesus, not a corporate CEO, says author

UnLeader: Reimagining Leadership . . . and Why We Must
Lance Ford
Paperback, 192 pages
Beacon Hill Press, 2012

Our church leadership culture has failed. It is past time that we set aside the idolatry of corporate leadership structures and rediscover the vastly different way of leading modeled by Jesus.

If such language sounds harsh, that is because author and pastor Lance Ford intends for it to be. In UnLeader, Mr. Ford challenges virtually every assumption of contemporary church leadership, then builds a new vision for leading based on the patterns set forth in the New Testament.

Mr. Ford draws his key ideas from Matthew 20:25-28, in which Jesus contrasts the hierarchy of Gentile power structures with the servant leadership that is to mark his disciples. In the first half of the book, he particularly emphasizes verse 26: “It shall not be so among you.”

Even though most church staffs are structured with a single leader (usually the senior pastor) at the top, Mr. Ford argues for a flattened way of relating in which all paid and volunteer staff treat one another with love and respect. Any practice of leadership that emphasizes power, rank and chain of command belongs, in Mr. Ford’s mind, to the military or corporate world, and has no place among disciples of Jesus.

So how did American church culture become so unquestioningly hierarchical? Perhaps, Mr. Ford posits, because of a natural human tendency to crave the clarity that comes with following a single leader. Just as Israel cried for Samuel to appoint a king over them, so do modern churches hand power over to individuals for the sake of certainty.

What we fail to fully embrace, however, is Jesus’ insistence that his heavenly Father is already our king and leader. Jesus lives in submission to the will of the Father, and releases his rightful authority as the Son in order to live among his disciples as brothers and sisters. If Jesus himself eschewed the authority of his position, then his disciples must resist the temptation to wield power over others, no matter how benign that hierarchy may seem or what circumstances bring it into being.

In the second half of the book, Mr. Ford makes a case for replacing modern concepts of leadership with what he calls “servantship.” The New Testament ideal is one of diffused power held in common among those who recognize Jesus as the only chief shepherd. Humility among co-laborers brings about a way of living in which every member of the community is not just allowed to participate with his or her gifts, but expected to do so.

Is a shift to Jesus’ call to servantship possible for the American church? Yes, Mr. Ford writes, but not without significant changes and potential costs. We will have to forego the superstar culture that surrounds our most visible pastors. We will have to recognize the limitations of preaching or programming in really making disciples. We will have to learn to share life together in humility—and probably in smaller groups—if the disciple apprenticeships that Mr. Ford suggests are to become a focus for us.

Mr. Ford comes across as a gentle radical, a passionate advocate for servantship who expresses his arguments in a clear way. Although UnLeader is at times repetitive and includes many examples from the author’s own experience that don’t correlate directly with United Methodist polity, it challenges our leadership addiction in refreshing and insightful ways. It is a worthwhile read for thoughtful Christians ready to question how we conceive of power and whom we entrust with it.

The Rev. Van Meter serves as director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at Arkansas State University. Reprinted by permission from the Arkansas United Methodist.


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