Have you ever read the beatitudes, found in Matthew 5, and wondered if we’re missing something? Once in a Bible study we were discussing the beatitudes at great length. The question arose over whether the spirituality that Jesus commanded could be the opposite of the spiritual leadership today.
Are biblical leadership qualities common in what we see of ministry leaders today?
I know, yikes! Too quick a reading of the beatitudes and they may seem like a cryptic list of characteristics that Jesus alone could emulate. But they served as the introduction to everything else He taught about that day in the Sermon on the Mount. We need to look around and ask ourselves if these characteristics are normal for most Christian leaders. If not, is it because they are attained only by the most spiritually mature? Why not all of us?
Once this came up I asked the group how well the leaders of America’s fifteen-hundred largest Protestant churches would match up to the beatitudes. I got smiles. I’ve asked this question to others since then and saw broad smiles even before finishing the question. Am I trying to paint them as charlatans? I hope not. At the very least, I’m struggling to explain leaders who have qualities that differ from the beatitudes. Are their qualities actually biblical leadership qualities that make them successful ministry leaders?
A friend wondered if narcissism is at work here. He mentioned a mega church pastor diagnosed as a narcissist. When I asked another friend, a terrific people person, what he missed about being a large church pastor, he said he missed the preaching and the prep. I asked him about people, and he said that he loved people but did not feed on people. That was insightful.
Pastors who feed on people or draw their energy from their people may tend to pastor large churches because of the people who are drawn to them. It may be that it is the people and not the pastors who ultimately create the largest crowds. Eric Erickson’s daughter wrote an interesting article in the Atlantic on how fame changed her father-of-child-psychiatry father. She commented that fame is separate from accomplishment. Fame is not primarily what a famous person has but what people give to such an accomplished person. Her accomplished father was harmed by fame.
When the crowd bestows fame as a gift, it exacts a price. The honored person enjoys the fame; all famous people are affected by it, but the narcissist especially feeds on it. The adoring crowd demands that their hero live up to their ideals; something that a narcissistic person is willing to do. Even a mild narcissist will imagine that his gifts and abilities make him truly wonderful. Is that me?
This helps explain the blind loyalty to all the ministry leaders named Jimmy who were disgraced in the 1990s or why, in another field, Judy Garland’s fans denied her drug problem and were incensed by anyone who even mentioned it. They needed the ideal little girl, and they awarded Judy Garland the fame of being that person. But she paid a terrible price as her fans would not allow her to grow up.
How can the Church follow strong spiritual leaders while ensuring they do not become narcissistic? Or, to ask it another way, why are the beatitudes important? Do these biblical leadership qualities make a difference at all?
American Christians certainly need their pastor to live the Christian life, to boldly lead, and to stand up to the culture. They award certain pastors the fame of being that person in their city. All good. But when the image that brings in the large numbers of people becomes more important than the beatitudes of Jesus, a spiritually healthy situation begins to fade away.
The authentic practice of spiritual leadership is found in the living out of the beatitudes. These blessings are discovered as they are practiced in community. Narcissism stems from isolation, where community and accountability are absent.
Leaders who lead in isolation tend to cause more harm than good. This is one reason why Grace Theological Seminary established the Deploy program with several mentors for every student. These mentors focus on specific areas of spiritual leadership as well as the formation of the leader themselves.
Equipping the leaders of the Church in a model of biblical community is one big step towards ensuring that church growth happens with a focus on God rather than attractive qualities born out of a narcissistic spirit. We pray that God will help us all to embrace true biblical leadership qualities, the ideas and ideals of the beatitudes in our ministry and leadership.
John Teevan is the Adjunct Professor in the Seminary and SOMS. He has taught a variety of courses since 2000. He comes from two long pastorates and twelve years working for Grace College in the Indiana State Prison system as an educator/director. He also served in the four cities where Grace worked to open commuter sites. These diverse experiences along with community involvement have sensitized him to social side of ministering to people in a variety of situations. A five-year engagement with the Acton Institute led to the publication of his book on Social Justice.