When we discuss leadership, we most often think of individuals—the corporate CEO, the political president, or the university dean. This is also true in the church; most discussions about leadership in the church revolve around the role of pastor or priest or the offices of elders and deacons.
While these are not unimportant, limiting notions of leadership to individuals obscures the leadership role of the community. This is especially true of the church. Christian communities of faith are called to lead in several ways and for several reasons. First, it is part of their identity and vocation. Second, the Christian community is responsible to shape individuals within it. When the church embraces its leadership role, it becomes an evangelistic community of grace.
Vocation and Leadership
A defining characteristic of Christian leadership is vocation. In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner described God’s calling as “the kind of work (a) that you need most to do, and (b) that the world most needs to have done. ...The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
In Scripture, vocation most often refers to (1) a calling to faith in God—a calling we all share by our baptisms through the grace of the Triune God—and (2) a calling to a special task on behalf of God. According to Scripture, our vocation has layers—some shared, some individual, but always in the context of the body of Christ and always unfolding. Like individuals, Christian communities are called both to faith and for specific tasks on behalf of God, which certainly includes providing Christian leadership for the renewal of the church and the unfolding of God’s reign.
Christian leaders (like Christian disciples) are not formed or commissioned in isolation but in Christian communities. John Wesley, in his “Sermon on the Mount IV,” urged that authentic spiritual formation could not take place “without society, without living and conversing with [others].” Isolation and a lack of community are dangerous for Christian leaders. On the one hand, communities rely upon individual leaders to provide the vision and strategy for their flourishing. On the other hand, trust, accountability, and a shared vision within the community are required for leaders to be authentic and effective. Isolation of leaders often leads not only to loneliness but also to unrealistic expectations or worse—burnout or even misconduct. It is vitally important for Christian leaders to remain connected to their communities of faith for the mutual relationship of trust, shared vision, and accountability.
For Christian communities to provide this kind of leadership, they must follow God’s call, be grounded in Scripture, Christian tradition and doctrine, and have the reign of God as their shared purpose. To sustain this foundation, Christian communities engage in formation: practices of piety and mercy such as worship and care for neighbors. These Christian practices inform both their faith and the specific tasks to which they are called. They also provide motivation in and through which the church can lead.
Evangelistic Communities of Grace
The Gospel of Matthew, especially its Great Commission passage (Matthew 28:16-20), offers a scriptural rubric for cultivating faithful communities prepared and willing to follow God’s call. My colleague Bishop Kenneth Carder and I describe them in our book, Grace to Lead, as evangelistic communities of grace. They are evangelistic in their commitment to sharing God’s message of salvation in Jesus Christ through teaching “all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19) and baptizing (Matthew 28:20), thereby initiating others into God’s reign.
Jesus’ commandments, particularly in Matthew, are more than a ceremonial, moral adherence or an otherworldly rule of life—they are love of God and neighbor (Matthew 19). Jesus commanded love for one’s neighbor, a combination of compassion with justice in a life of righteousness. This went beyond the scope of the Torah to extend to all that Jesus commanded through his words and life. The command to love one’s neighbor challenged the Pharisees, who arguably lacked these dimensions of love.
An important aspect of Jesus’ appearance on the Galilean mountain is that “Jesus came to them” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus was among those on the mountain, and then he declared that he would be with them “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This echoes the description of Jesus in Matthew 1 as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus’ coming to those gathered implies divine initiative to re-establish the intimate relationship shared among them prior to the betrayals and persecution of Jesus that led to his crucifixion. It was a divine extension of grace to the community.
The body of Christ embodied in communities of faith demonstrates Jesus’ continuing presence on earth. Matthew is the only Gospel to describe the gathered community of faith, or church, as ekklesia (Matthew 16:17-18). More than merely an assembly, the church—the community of faith—is at its fullest a place of oneness with the risen Christ, in communion with the Triune God as well as all the saints. It is God’s grace made visible in the world.
Communities of grace are grounded in Christian doctrine—an understanding of God and God’s grace—in a way that is vital and not archaic. Such communities participate in God’s reign through receiving and sharing grace in relationship to the Triune God and one another. Baptism indicates acceptance of the forgiveness of sins, justification by grace, and initiation into the body of Christ.
When they are open to the Spirit’s presence and pursuing faithful practices, evangelistic communities of grace participate in God’s reign, share the gospel of Jesus Christ, and invite creation to receive God’s grace and redemption. This kind of leadership is needed for the renewal of the church. The leadership of the communities of grace will invite individuals to faith in the Triune God, form them in discipleship, and send them not only as individuals but also as communities with specific tasks of witnessing to and participating in God’s unfolding reign.