Our American society defines a successful leader a certain way. He is charismatic and charming. She is an engaging speaker. He has a strong backbone and can’t be railroaded by the people he leads. She has a visionary spirit. He projects genuineness and is authentically caring towards his people. She empowers her reports and does not micro-manage. In a post-Enron world, he must be virtuous and free from scandal. She is available and open to input so as to elicit loyalty, but at the same time she is confident enough to make hard decisions. He is a self-made man. More often than not, successful leaders in our culture also have an attractive physical presence and have a lifestyle of affluence. Bottom-line, a successful leader has power as our society defines power — the power of personality, persuasion, money, intellect, and respect or even fear if necessary. (When you look at the complete list one almost has to be superhuman to be that leader.)
The problem comes when we take this same paradigm and bring it into the church. In this model, our preachers, pastors, elders, and teachers would be expected to be like the description above. Consciously or not, we would then judge our leaders by this standard. We should complain that this preacher is not dynamic or funny or a good enough storyteller. That elder has not excelled in his own business career so surely he can’t help shepherd a church. We certainly cannot abide a weak leader. Nobody walks on a true leader and they have plenty of people to do the grunt work so they don’t need to get down in the trenches. Successful church leaders get things done and win people over to their way of thinking and make it obvious that their ministry is achieving. Church leaders need to make it known what they have done for the kingdom, so people will be impressed with them and slap their backs in approval and congratulations. Successful leaders make sure churches have all they need, and their churches are not in want. Ask yourself if any of this resonates with churches you know. Do members you know have these expectations?
This seems to be something like the problem Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians. It seems the Greek culture of Corinth had similar views. Power is good, and weakness is bad. Strong leaders are articulate and persuasive. They get things done. They evoke esteem and admiration. They achieve and do not want. They are celebrated and served by others. We can tell from today’s chapter that this thinning was also in the Corinthian church:
Some people are getting puffed up. (4:18a; c.f., 4:7-8)
Paul makes it clear that this is not the right way to define success. Churches need to guard against exporting this sort of thinking into their community. It is counterproductive to judge leaders by this definition of success. Actually, a church should be concerned if its leaders have this sort of thinking, as a new group of self-imposed leaders in the Corinthian church seem to have (we will hear more about this group later).
This is how we [apostles] should be thought of: as servants of the Messiah, and household managers for God’s mysteries. And this is what follows: the main requirement for a manager is to be trustworthy. . . . This is how I look at it, you see: God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession [a parade of prisoners of war, likely destined to fight to the death in the Colosseum], like people sentenced to death. We have become a public show for the world. . . . We are fools because of the Messiah. . . . We are weak. . . . You are celebrated; we are nobodies! Yes, right up to the present moment we go hungry and thirsty; we are badly clothed, roughly treated, with no home to call our own. What’s more, we work hard, doing manual labor. When we are insulted . . . persecuted . . . slandered. . . . To this day we have become like the rubbish of the world, fit only to be scraped off the plate and thrown away with everything else. (4:1-2, 9-13)
According to Paul, a successful, godly leader is first and foremost a servant and manager of God’s church, not their own. They know there is no self-made minister and certainly no self-made church. They may be very capable because of the gifting given them by God, but their greatest trait is that they are trustworthy of the great privilege they have been given to lead God’s people. Their life is anything but comfortable, glamorous and affluent. They roll up their sleeves and they do whatever it takes — nothing is below them — to advance the kingdom. Their life is marked by sacrifice and they empty themselves of self, even to the point of putting to death their egos. However, they are powerful, but in a whole new way. It is the power of love, sacrifice, and the Spirit.
Now, that is a different way of view success.