Veronica Zundel asserts that the majority who hanker after the position of leadership may well have misunderstood what it actually is


There’s a poem by Roger McGough, 60s Liverpool poet and one-time member of the pop group Scaffold, called ‘The Leader’. It begins with the line: “I wanna be the leader”, goes on to increasing desperate pleas to be the leader, and then ends with: “OK what shall we do?”.

This poem comes to mind when I think of how the last 40 years or so of Christian discourse have been dominated by the topic of leadership. There is even a magazine called Leadership, presumably to be read only by those who are leaders or who think they are.

Why are we so obsessed with the subject? Why is even the ‘gender roles’ debate skewed towards debating who can be a leader and who can’t? I really have no idea. Yes of course the Church, just like the world, needs leadership to give it unity and direction. But the way some talk and write, you would think that the only way to be a ‘real Christian’ is to be a leader. If everyone aspires to be a leader, who will follow?

What is leadership anyway? 

Jesus made it pretty clear to his core group of followers that ‘lording it over’ people is the way of the Gentiles, the faithless, and is not to be the way of the Church (Matthew 20:25). Whatever leadership is, then, it is not telling everyone else what to do.

Many an initially vibrant Christian community has foundered on the rock of a single leader, who was trying to run every detail of everyone’s life, but often as not got seduced by the heady aroma of power and ended up going seriously astray. I’m sure you can think of examples.

I knew an Anglican vicar who used to say that he considered his job to work himself out of a job. In other words, he saw it as his task to delegate as much as he could to his congregation, so that they could discover and develop their gifts, and become a self-regulating community.

I also knew a Mennonite teacher and writer who cut through the whole tired (and tiring) ‘leadership is male’ argument by the simple statement: ‘Leadership is plural.’ Even Moses’ pagan father-in-law Jethro saw this when he advised Moses to appoint a team to share his task of judging amongst the wayward children of Israel (Exodus 18). 

Serving the vulnerable

“But”, I hear you say, “surely one person needs to be in charge? Don’t we have, for instance, a Prime Minister, first among equals?”. Well with respect, I would say it depends what you mean by ‘in charge’. When I was at school, we had a school council which was supposed to be ‘democratically elected’. What happened in practice, however, was that each class would elect its representative and then the headmistress chose the ones she liked.

It was hardly democracy. If that’s the kind of ‘in charge’ you mean, I have to say it is not the way of Jesus. He taught clearly that those who wanted to be leaders must be the servant of all, and that the ‘first’ should put themselves last (Matthew 20:20-28).

Another example. Where there is a Christian conference, retreat or church weekend away, it follows as night follows day that there will be an afternoon walk (for those who are strong-minded enough not to need an afternoon nap). Now the best walk leaders I have encountered over decades of such gatherings are those who start by appointing a ‘back marker’ to stay at the back of the group to watch over those who might struggle with the pace.

I would contend that this person is perhaps the most important on the walk, certainly as important as the leader who shows the way; because this is the person who cares for the weakest and most vulnerable, who are, in God’s reckoning, the most important people in the group. Yet they rarely get recognition or thanks for their role.

I’d venture to suggest that perhaps it is the same in the Church in general. After all, in Jesus’ day, children had the lowest status in society; and yet Isaiah tells us: “a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). Is it too fanciful to think that the wolf and the lamb, the calf and lion who will live in harmony, led by that child, can stand for the warring factions of the Church and society who will one day find the way to peace? And part of that path to peace is surely that we should listen to the overlooked, the marginalised and the excluded, who may turn out to be greater prophets than the official ‘leaders’?