You are your leader?

“You are your leader” is definitely an overstatement in defining Christian identity and community. But this week’s news about the Pope’s resignation (first time in 600 years!) has me thinking about church leadership, community and Christian identity. A few thoughts:

Foundational to any definition of leadership in the church is the belief that all people’s identity is found solely in Jesus. All authority rests in God, revealed in the person of Jesus and endowed on humans through the presence of the Holy Spirit. People don’t possess church leadership; church leadership is a gift. Even the Pope receives his authority from God, empowered by the community of Cardinals. In theory, such broad definition of religious authority derived from God alone is universally shared by Christians.

Yet one glimpse at church history and doctrine reveals great (!!!) diversity in how such leadership authority is expressed in the life of the church: from Catholicism with the Pope at the top; to Orthodoxy with a slightly different take on a similar hierarchy; to Protestants and their less-centralized, yet complex network of bishops; to Evangelicals and their myriad of leadership philosophies from celebrity-pastor to lay-pastor; to my own tradition, Anabaptism, in which there is an emphasis on theology and organization around the priesthood of all believers. All this to say, leadership diversity abounds!

I know I’m making broad generalizations, but it’s interesting how for each of these traditions, faith and practice reflect their leadership model. Leadership identity shapes corporate identity. This is true of denominations. This is true of local churches. Speaking from my experience as a pastor, one can’t avoid the unique connection between congregational and leadership identity. Oftentimes individuals and congregations want their church to reflect the identity of their pastor. And in many ways, this is a normal and expected result of social life and leadership.

But here’s my problem: leadership approach and corporate identity is rarely identified and rarely understood. Rather, leadership influence on corporate identity just happens. Sadly, this lack of self-awareness tends to breed complacency, or frustration, or oftentimes conflict among God's people - such problems we all have no trouble identifying.
To denominations wrestling with how to remain a faithful body of churches across regions and cultures, have they identified how leadership influence and identity relates to the specific challenges they face?

To local churches discerning meaningful connection together and in their community, have they outlined the specific needs of their congregation and community in seeking healthy pastoral leadership for their given situation? Do congregations notice how the identity of the pastor will determine their answers to this type of questioning?

No doubt the Catholic Cardinals will be asking such questions in their pontific deliberations in March. No doubt the next Pope will leave his mark on what remains the world’s largest united group of Christians. No doubt as my own church currently asks these types of questions, we'll begin to develop a level of self-awareness that has already brought great encouragement to me as I consider the health and well-being of my own community of faith. No doubt the synergy between leadership and community influences your own life and faith whether you’re aware of it or not.

No, you aren’t your leader. But recognizing their influence can help us both personally and corporately develop a stronger identity in the foundations of our faith (Jesus!), not just leadership and institutional expressions of it. My suggestion is this: Know your leader. Know your church. For better - and sadly, sometimes worse - they can’t be separated. And in the process, cliché as it sounds, don't forget to know Jesus.


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