“We’re not comfortable with leadership language in the church. It’s a toxic phrase.”

This comment was made during a group discussion I was part of at a Council of Assembly Roadshow last November. I was the only minister in the group and the comment came from an elder who has many years of experience at all levels in the church. It was met both by murmurs of agreement and ripples of surprise, that seemed to translate into, ‘why are ministers so reluctant to lead?

Let me suggest a couple of answers.

Leadership is identified with command and control

Up until the early 1960’s, command and control was the dominant model of leadership in most parts of society.  Leaders decided what needed doing, issued instructions and everyone would simply obeyed.  I wasn’t around at the time, but I expect that this was essentially how Church of Scotland ministers were expected to operate.  In the 1960’s a cultural revolution began, which led to a questioning of authorities and a challenging of all command and control patterns. The 1989 Panel on Doctrine Report reflects this broader cultural mood when it says that ‘leadership within the Church will normally be corporate’ (192).

To be a Church of Scotland minister puts an individual in a position of authority (we moderate Kirk Sessions) and gives them significant power (we preach most weeks).  Aware of the way that authority can be misused and power has been abused many ministers are reluctant to lead.  Clearly if leadership is identified with command and control that hesitancy is entirely appropriate.

There is no reason why it should.  In The End of Leadership, Barbara Kellerman says, ‘By the end of the twentieth century, leading by commanding and controlling was dead and gone, and leading by cooperating and collaborating was famously in fashion’ (31). Most sectors of society have accepted that command and control is no longer appropriate. However, instead of abandoning leadership they have developed appropriate patterns.

If we are to fulfil our missionary calling (‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ John 20.21), the Church needs leadership. Given the pivotal position that Ministers have within Church of Scotland structures they are not only ideally placed to give leadership, it is actually difficult for others to lead if they will not. So the question is not, should ministers offer leadership? But what kind of leadership should ministers offer?

Leadership is incompatible with being a servant

A second reason why ministers hesitate to lead is the identifying of ministry and servanthood.  This identification is justified because diakonos, translates both as servant and minister.  The most vivid example of ministry as servanthood is Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

While I agree that this passage should play a crucial role in shaping our understanding of ministry, it is, I think, frequently misinterpreted. Far from demonstrating that leadership is incompatible with being a servant, it does the opposite.  While Jesus performs the most menial of tasks, he does so without abdicating his position.  He acts humbly and speaks authoritatively. He says, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done’ (v15). He doesn’t suggest his disciples reflect on his action, or invite them to discuss it; he instructs them to copy it.  Moreover, he behaves as a servant without surrendering his position. He says, ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am’ (v13).

Andrew Clarke uses the phrase ‘status inconsistency’ to describe what is happening here. Jesus is both servant and leader. ‘Service does not replace hierarchy, but qualifies the ways in which authority is exercised,’  (A Pauline Theology of Church Leadership, p 186). The term which captures this best is servant-leader, that is the person who gives leadership also serves those they lead. It is a term which contains an inherent tension. Servants are not usually leaders. Leaders are not usually servants. I believe that if we are to follow the example of Jesus, then ministers are to be servant-leaders.  In practice this always involves a tension. We refuse to slide off to either side, into the competing polarities of the leader and the servant. Instead we strive to live with the tension of being both a leader and a servant.


During the last two years I have been running some leadership workshops for ministers in my Presbytery. My working definition of what I mean by leadership is:

A leader enables the people they are leading to understand the situation they find themselves in, anticipate a different scenario and begin travelling towards it.

It seems to me, that at the point in history we find ourselves in, this is the kind of leadership which is first, appropriate theologically and culturally, second, what congregations need in order to respond creatively and imaginatively to their calling, and third, something that Church of Scotland ministers are ideally placed to provide.

Offering this kind of leadership both requires grace and is an expression of grace.  The ‘easy’ options are to offer directive leadership or to abdicate leadership.  Empowering and enabling people to discover what God is calling them to, serving them while also leading them, requires grace. In fact it is only through the grace of Jesus Christ that anyone can do this.  It is also an expression of grace. While there are rare occasions when command and control is required, (e.g. when the fire alarm goes off) usually it is the old way of the law. It is the path of regulation and requirement. The grace of God sets us free so that we choose to love and serve God.  Leadership that serves, empowers and enables people is a concrete outworking of God’s grace.

For further reading

Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, (New York, Basic Books, 2010): very readable textbook from by two academics. It offers a very practical way-in for anyone wanting to improve their leadership skills.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2015):  which suggests that in a post-Christian culture, ministers need to master adaptive leadership.

Rev Neil Dougall, Minister of St Andrew Blackadder Church, North Berwick