The Chief Follower

From the current issue of Homiletics, my Senior Writer’s Block column on being a follower before being a leader:

When I came to my current church in 2010, I remember that we had a long discussion about what my official title should be. Since “your eminence” was clearly a bit pretentious and requires a large hat, we looked at some of the other options. I have a marvelous staff and a really fantastic associate pastor, but not the minions of staff that seem to warrant the title “senior pastor.” Indeed, I remember being an associate myself and having people say, only half jokingly, “Well, if he’s the senior pastor, you must be the junior pastor!”

I know, hilarious, right?

I heard the term “lead pastor” thrown around in some contemporary church circles. Seniority, after all, is a pretty lousy way to determine who’s the leader, as if longevity trumps competence. A “lead pastor,” by contrast, is simply playing a role on the team as the one for whom the buck stops. Every team needs a leader, we’ve been taught, and the church is no exception. Just check out the libraries of books published every year on church leadership, and it’s pretty clear that we believe that being a leader is a very good and necessary thing. Indeed, if you’re not a leader, then there’s probably something wrong with you. My pre-ministry life was spent as an Army infantry officer, where your title is worn on your collar and everyone knows his place in the chain of command. I’m down with the whole leadership thing. “Lead pastor” sounded about right.

But two years into it, I’m questioning that choice of title. As I was digging into the Scriptures in preparation for a new process for making disciples that we instituted this fall, I began to realize that for all the energy we put into being “lead” pastors, shepherds, seniors, associates, bishops and whatever else we can be called, for all the reams of paper and megabytes of cyberspace devoted to developing leaders, the truth is that there’s actually very little ink spilled in Scripture about leadership. Maybe that’s because, as Len Sweet puts it in his marvelous book, I Am a Follower, “Jesus wasn’t looking for leaders at all. Jesus was looking for followers.” Sweet, in fact, goes on to say that the greatest tragedy in the church in the last 50 years is that we’ve changed Paul’s words, “Follow me as I follow Christ” to “Follow me as I lead for Christ” (paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 11:1). Biblically speaking, leadership is really overrated.

Jesus wasn’t running a leadership academy, despite a plethora of books that claim so. Everything Jesus did was really all about developing followers who would create more followers — not followers of us, but followers of Jesus. In this particular organization called the church, the Scriptures tell us, Jesus is the sole and undisputed leader, shepherd and Lord. Those who would be leaders in his church are first and foremost called to be his followers.

So I wonder: What would happen if all us lead/senior/potentate pastors decided to change our titles to “chief follower” (oxymoron intended) and spent the bulk of our time not trying to lead others, but really trying to follow Jesus ourselves? What if we chose not to read another book on leadership this year and instead focused our whole attention on diving deep into the Scriptures to see what it looks like to be a devoted follower of Jesus who makes other devoted followers, not because we have a title or a job description, but because that’s what committed and convinced followers of Jesus do naturally? What if you stopped trying to develop a leadership culture in your church and, instead, put all your emphasis on a followership culture, with everyone devoting themselves full time to following Jesus?

My guess is that it would be a radical shift. Followers tend to make different decisions than leaders do, and they tend to listen a lot more than speak. Leadership hasn’t led us out of decline in the North American churches. Only a return to following Jesus has a chance to do so.

Chief follower. What would that look like on your business card?


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