Philosophy of Leadership for Church Ministry


Maxwell (1999) has written that, “Everything rises or falls on leadership.” This principle has become axiomatic. Without good leadership the things people desire to accomplish do not get done. Thus, Northouse (2019) has written that, “leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (p. 5). However, there are many ways to influence a person or a group of people. As a result, “there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it” (Northouse, 2019, p. 2). For leadership to be effective then, leaders must understand how they propose to lead. As a result, each leader should take an inventory of their values and goals and seek to define how they will approach the challenges of leadership.

An individual approach to leadership can be encapsulated in what has been called one’s Leadership Philosophy. Leadership philosophy has been defined as “the beliefs, values, and principles that are the foundation of what you believe and how you will lead” (DeMarco, 2020). Such a definition is subjective, personal, and subject to personal context. Thus, factors such as personality, experience, job goals, convictions, amongst other thigs, will determine how one defines their philosophy of leadership. Since there is no one right way to lead, thinking about how one approaches leadership is necessary. In this regard, one’s philosophy of leadership is less a science and more of an art. Indeed, a military definition of leadership includes this concept when it says that leadership is, “the art and science of motivating, influencing and directing” others to accomplish their mission (US Air Force Doctrine, p26).

This paper will present a philosophy of leadership for a church ministry context, consistent with the mission Christ have the church, grounded on a biblical theology of leadership, and supported by transformational leadership theory, authentic leadership theory, and servant leadership theory. The goal of this leadership philosophy is to develop believers in Christ to become capable and effective disciples who can, in turn, lead others to become disciples of Christ.

Biblical Foundations of Leadership

For the biblical leader, the art of leadership must be defined by a commitment to biblical fidelity. Jesus is the ultimate model for what a biblical leader should strive for. This section will consider four aspects of leadership modeled by Christ.

Commitment to People

The most basic component necessary for effective leadership to take place is making a commitment to people. While biblical leaders are called to first serve Christ, the effect of that service is seen in the impact on those whom they lead. Christ came to do the will of the Father. (John 5:19); and it was the Father’s will for Jesus to serve people. He said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). While he accomplished the Father’s will, the full impact of his ministry was seen in the lives of his followers. No one who responded to Christ walked away the same person (cf. John 9-29, 39). Pastors are called to disciple people with the goal of leading them to become effective followers of Christ themselves (Matt. 29:18-20, Eph. 4:11-16). Their influence in this task is directly related to their ability to create healthy relationships in the discipleship process. However, this can only happen when a commitment to helping people to become faithful disciples is first made.

Committing to people has two effects. First, it ensures the leader stays focused on the mission (which is to raise up disciples). In ministry it is easy to become distracted by religious routines and the various ministries being performed. Over time a leader can forget that people are the mission. Second, it ensures that any programs or ministries developed are there to serve the people. When those things are no longer effective in serving the people, they are either changed or discarded.

Become a Servant

While making a commitment to people is the first step, further influence is made when that commitment is coupled with a willingness to become a servant to others. Jesus said he came to serve. Writing to the Philippian church Paul wrote, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). To be effective, biblical leaders must embrace this call. This is no small task. Jesus served his church through suffering and sacrifice.

The profundity of this call can easily be lost on leaders. Jesus did not simply serve others, but he emptied himself of his rights as God to accomplish this task. Theologians refer to this as his kenosis. This comes from the Greek word kenóō and is found in Philippians 2:7, where Paul wrote, that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (κένωσεν αυτν), by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (vs. 6-7). Commenting on this, Kent (1981) writes,

The word ‘taking’ does not imply an exchange, but rather an addition. The ‘form of God’ could not be relinquished, for God cannot cease to be God; but our Lord could and did take on the very form of a lowly servant when he entered human life by the incarnation … [Hence] Christ did not empty himself of the form of God (i.e. his deity), but of the manner of existence as equal to God (p. 123-124).

Thus, Jesus became a servant by relinquishing his rights as God. While still in possession of all that his deity entailed, he set aside his rights for the purpose of giving his life away to others. This is the mind biblical leaders are called to have.

Seek to Develop Others

As Jesus served others, his goal was to transform them from citizens of the world into citizens of the Kingdom of God. Jesus did this by bringing his followers into his circle and empowering them to be a part of his mission. He said to them, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). This empowerment came through teaching them and modeling for them what kingdom living looked like. Thus, he trained them in the doctrine and methods the kingdom. He taught them, demonstrated to them how to reach others, and then sent them out to do what he showed them (cf. Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-12). When they returned, he provided feedback on their accomplishments (cf. Luke 10:17-20). As a result, the disciples were in a constant state of growth and development. Finally, he gave them authority to go in his name. He said, “as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). This ensured they took possession of the mission Jesus was seeking to accomplish. As such, it was no longer his mission, but their mission. They were now partners with Jesus in building the Kingdom of God.

Lead as a Shepherd

The most significant theme of Jesus’ leadership revolved around his self-understanding as a shepherd. He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Shepherds were more than employees. They did not punch a clock. They were fully invested in the lives of their sheep. It was a 24/7 lifestyle that defined everything they did. Laniak (2006) writes, “that shepherd leadership is comprehensive in scoped” (p. 247). It was a constant changing role that included such things as “protector, provider, and guide” (p. 247). Further, Lanaik writes that “good shepherding is expressed by decisions and behaviors that benefit the ‘flock’, often at great personal cost. It calls for the benevolent use of authority and care. Some situations require militant protection and discipline, others beckon for gentle nurture” (p. 247). To be effective as a shepherd, the leader must be fully committed to those they serve. Jesus demonstrates his commitment through his death on the cross for sinners. Biblical leaders lead best when they learn to shepherd their people as demonstrated by Jesus.

Theoretical Foundations of Leadership that Support a Biblical model

The ministry of Jesus demonstrated that while he had profound influence, his leadership happened in the context of relationships. Thus, the most basic component necessary to effective leadership is making a commitment build those relationships. In this regard, Kouzes & Posner (2017) define leadership as a relationship. Some authors, like Maxwell (1998) define leadership as influence. He writes, “leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less” (p. 17). While it is true that leadership in its many forms seeks to influence others by various means, Kouzes & Posner provide an important principle: influence happens in the contexts of relationships. How those relationships are managed will determine the level of influence one has. Further, this is in keeping with Northouse’s definition of leadership as seen above. As such, leaders move people, who in-tern accomplish things.

While there are many effective leadership theories, three theories that are consistent with this approach will be considered. They are transformational leadership theory, authentic leadership theory, and servant leadership.

Transformational Leadership

Of this theory, Northouse (2019) writes, “transformational leadership is a process that changes and transforms people” (p. 163). In addition, he writes that, “In fact, transformational leadership focuses so heavily on the relationship between leader and follower that some (Andersen, 2015) have suggested that this bias may limit explanations for transformational leadership on organizational effectiveness.” While this may be a weakness for corporations, it is the heartbeat of how discipleship takes place. While Christ is the central focus of the Christian faith, that focus is seen in the personal relationships of those who are being transformed by the discipleship process.

Another important component of transactional leadership as it relates to the discipleship process is its focus on how one’s development will benefit an organization. Northouse writes that “People who exhibit transformational leadership often have a strong set of internal values and ideals, and they are effective at motivating followers to act in ways that support the greater good rather than their own self-interests (Kuhnert, 1994).” A good example of this is seen in McGregor’s Theory Y. McGregor (1957) proposed that leaders who seek to develop their followers will create an atmosphere where workers will want to grow and contribute to the organization in positive ways. As leaders help believers mature in Christ, the believer’s focus should shift from self-interest to seeking the will of God expressed through the church.

A potential drawback to this theory as it relates to discipleship is that the relationship can create a sense of dependency. The goal of the discipleship process is to develop a believer to become a mature follower of Christ that can perform ministry without being dependent upon another person. For example, one behavioral factor of this theory called idealized influence, describes leaders who become such a strong role models that followers want to be like them. In contrast, biblical leaders have as their goal to lead followers to become like Christ (1 John 3:2). To achieve this, leaders must be careful to remove themselves as the ideal of what a disciple looks like. While they may have qualities worth emulating, Christ must always remain the focus (John 3:30).

Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership is another theory consistent with a biblical model of leadership. Northouse writes that, “authentic leadership is about the authenticity of leaders and their leadership” (p. 197). While transformational leadership focuses on the development of people, authentic leadership focuses on leaders themselves. Specifically, it seeks to encourage a type of leadership that followers can trust. There are two approaches to this leadership theory, a practical approach and a theoretical approach. While theoretical approach has value, the practical approach most closely resembles a biblical model.

 The practical approach “focuses on the characteristics of authentic leaders” (Northouse, 2019, p. 199), and was developed by Bill George.

Specifically, authentic leaders demonstrate five basic characteristics: (1) They have a strong sense of purpose, (2) they have strong values about the right thing to do, (3) they establish trusting relationships with others, (4) they demonstrate self-discipline and act on their values, and (5) they are sensitive and empathetic to the plight of others (Northouse, p 199).

All five characteristics lead a biblical leader to lead with passion while also encouraging a certain amount of vulnerability (Warren, 2019). When followers can see the leader as a whole person, sin struggles included, they are more apt to be open about their own vulnerabilities. This has the effect of helping followers understand that kingdom work is an ongoing process. One does not have to reach a level of perfection before they can contribute. Indeed, the Bible says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). The emphasis is on future completion. Until then, all believers are a work in progress. Leaders who emphasize this create a climate of humility where grace, acceptance, and continued growth can occur.

A potential drawback to authentic leadership is that leaders can be too transparent. A balance is needed. Whiting (n.d.) makes a distinction between Emotional Authenticity and Strategic Authenticity. Emotional authenticity referrers to “the value of ‘letting your feelings be known (Whiting, n.d.). Strategic authenticity refers to being true to one’s goals for an organization. She writes,

I know I feel that when I am in a relationship with someone, I have an obligation to be as genuine and transparent with them as possible. I expect the same in return. But there are times when strategic authenticity must take center stage. Sharing confidential information can be detrimental to the community. Talking too soon about a new church initiative can lessen the impact of the grand announcement. Voicing all my insecurities to those I minister to, for instance, can affect how they trust me as their leader, thus contradicting my long-term strategy of leading them well (Whiting, n.d.).

Thus, for authentic ministry to be effective, leaders must exercise discernment on what will benefit followers versus what can hurt both followers and the church.

Servant Leadership

A final theory of leadership consistent with a biblical model of leadership is Servant leadership. This theory posits that leaders put followers first. Northouse writes, “Servant leadership emphasizes that leaders be attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them … and help them develop their full personal capacities” (p. 227). However, this approach differs from transformational leadership in that the “transformational leader’s focus is directed toward the organization, and his or her behavior builds follower commitment toward organizational objectives, while the servant leader’s focus is on the followers, and the achievement of organizational objectives is a subordinate outcome” (Stone, et al, 2004). Thus, the mission of the servant leader is developing people as people. In doing so, “they place the good of followers over their own self-interests” as they seek the full development of their followers (Northouse, p. 228).

The strength of this theory is that it encourages leaders to step outside of themselves and focus only on the other person. Northouse (2019) recognizes this as a unique characteristic as it “makes altruism the central component of the leadership process” (p. 241). In this regard Hans Finzel said that “servant leadership is not carrying people on your back, but carrying them on your heart” (Finzel, 2015).

To accomplish this, ten characteristics are central to the development of servant leadership. They are, listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Northouse, p. 229). When taken in aggregate, these characteristics help leaders to be genuine servants as they seek to develop others, in opposed to other leadership approaches where the leader may control or dominate the follower as they seek follower development (Northouse, 2019).

This approach is perhaps the closest a model gets to the leadership practices of Jesus. Finzel (2015) said his greatest hero when it comes to servant leadership is Jesus Christ. While Jesus was a strong leader, he was first a servant leader (Finzel, 2015). He demonstrated this reality when he first took the place of a slave to wash the feet of the disciples (John 13:3-5). However, his ultimate expression of being a servant came when he willingly went to the cross to die for the sins of the world. Further, Finzel argues that this approach to leadership not only seeks to serve others but encourages the leader to takes the initiative in that service. After washing their feet, Jesus told his disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

A potential weakness of this theory is its emphasis on the follower. While serving the follower for the purpose of their development is a biblical mandate, so is accomplishing the Great Commission. As such, a leader needs to balance the mission of the church with the mission to develop the follower to accomplish the Great Commission. Northouse observes that servant leadership “conflicts with individual autonomy and other principles of leadership such as directing, concern for production, goal setting, and creating a vision” (Northouse, p. 242). Hence, to be effective, biblical leaders will need to balance the overall vision of the Great Commission with individual discipleship.

Personal Theology and Philosophy Description

When considering both a biblical theology of leadership and a theoretical approach to leadership as presented above, the following leadership philosophy emerges:

Biblical leadership is the process of developing followers to become capable, effective, and devoted disciples of Christ who enthusiastically build the Kingdom of God through relationships, discipleship, and service.

This approach to leadership recognizes that leadership is an ongoing event. For the process to be effective, leaders must commit to serve the people they are developing. This will require time and energy, and further require the leader invest themselves into the follower. As such, this approach recognizes that as the follower grows and develops into a mature disciple, the leader must demonstrate as well as teach what it looks like to be a capable, effective, and devoted disciple. They must show and tell. Teaching and modeling will be a necessary part of the process. This process can only be achieved in a close relationship where both leader and follower are transparent with one another. Further, this approach recognizes that there is a specific goal that both the leader and follower are seeking to achieve. That goal is achieved when the follower can develop a close relationship with others, serving them as they are now the teacher discipling someone else, leading them to be a servant to others. Hence, this approach seeks to develop kingdom citizens who can, in turn, participate in the process of building the Kingdom of God with Christ.

A note on the last three words is needed. “Relationships, discipleship, and service” describe not only the goal, but also describes the process. The process is meant to be ongoing from teacher to follower, to new follower who continues the pattern. The relationship is the foundational structure upon which everything else takes place. Discipleship is the process of learning and developing those skills and characteristics that lead one to be an effective servant. And serving is the ultimate goal of the newly minted disciple who can now recreate that process in the life of someone else.

Implications for Ministry Leadership

McKnight (2011) has observed that many church ministries have what he calls a “salvation culture.” This is, “a culture that focuses on and measures people on the basis of whether they can witness to an experience of personal salvation” (p. 30). Instead, he advocates for what he calls a Gospel culture. The essential ingredient missing in the salvation culture is discipleship. In other words, while churches and other ministries do a good job leading people to make a profession of faith, they sometimes fail to lead those same people to become committed disciples of Christ. The result of failing to have a gospel culture is that believers think discipleship is an optional component of the Christian life.

However, speaking to this failure, Hull, (2016) argues that one cannot have salvation without becoming a disciple. The two cannot be separated, hence the title of his book: Conversion and Discipleship – with the emphasis on “and.” This failure has two negative effects. First, those who make professions of faith never truly learn to follow Jesus. This is significant as Hall argues that the Great commission is about making disciples, not just professions of faith. He writes, “Jesus is counting disciples, not decisions” (p. 32). Second, “because Western churches tend to have great influence over global Christianity, our lack of a call to discipleship directly threatens the growth of Christianity in the rest of the world” (p. 177).

After pastoring churches for almost 20 years this author can attest to both McKnight and Hall’s concerns. Because many churches have a salvation culture, believers are not developing those skills and spiritual gifts that lead them to become a part of kingdom work. While having genuine faith in Jesus for salvation, their spiritual development has remained stagnant. Instead of participating in building the kingdom, many sit idly in churches each Sunday, not growing in those vital relationships that lead to true spiritual growth and maturity.

The above leadership philosophy has merit to address this problem for three reasons. First, it is biblical. It seeks to develop kingdom citizens the way Jesus did. Second, it is effective. Through the relational approach to discipleship, believers are not only encouraged to grow, but the relational process creates an environment of accountability ensuring this growth actually takes place. Jesus led his disciples in this way and the early church led their disciples in the same process (cf. Acts 2:42). The result was effective kingdom growth (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 8:4). Third, it restores the church to its essential mission of making disciples for Christ. As such, it helps create a genuine gospel culture that successfully obeys the Great Commission.


If it is true that without good leadership the things the church seeks to accomplish cannot get done, then it necessary to have a leadership philosophy consistent with the goals Christ has given the church and consistent with the context in which it works. This paper has looked at a biblical model of leadership based on the example and ministry of Christ. It has also explored how transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and servant leadership theories can contribute to an effective philosophy of leadership for ministry. It has also presented a philosophy of leadership that supports the goal of developing believers to become capable and effective disciples of Christ. It lays the groundwork of interpersonal relationships where the process of discipleship can take place. And finally, it seeks the result of presenting a mature disciple of Christ who can participate with Christ in Kingdom building. This is accomplished when a believer in Christ becomes a disciple who intentionally serves others by leading them to become an effective and devoted disciple themselves.


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