One of the most interesting discoveries in my dissertation work is the emergence of obstacles that inhibit youth and young adults from being given leadership in a local church or ministry setting. By far, the most prominent obstacle has to do with possessive leadership. In other words, there are circumstances where people who currently hold positions of influence struggle to relinquish their control to others.
For my study, I interviewed 25 leaders from 15 different congregations throughout North America that have been successful in raising up next generation leaders. When asked to identify what obstacles hinder the development of younger leaders, 13 of the 15 churches suggested that people in power who seize possession of leadership created the greatest obstacle. Of the 583 transcribed lines from the interviews which focused on “Generational Transference Obstacles” 278 of those lines specified “possessive leadership.” In other words, 48% of the discussions about obstacles to raising up younger leaders was spent on this particular issue. Some of the interview participants highlighted issues of distrust and control and fear in a top-down hierarchy while others highlighted the lack of opportunity for advancement of personal goals within an organization.
One older leader expressed in his interview, “I think we do need to do that; raise up a whole new generation of leaders. But it’s not going to happen if we’re holding on to the reigns.” Another older leader reflected on the experience of his own church, saying that “for a period of time there was that ceiling, there was such a strong group of leaders in place that to actually break into leadership was hard… And we lost a generation that couldn’t break through at the time and now it’s hard.”
Each of these thirteen churches suggested that there exists a temptation for current leaders to seize control of a sense of entitlement rather than help foster an environment that releases younger people to take ownership of leading. Another older leader identified possessive leadership as the key issue that could derail the forward movement of their church in the years ahead. He said, “That’s a big challenge isn’t it? Not just to have an older generation relinquish ownership of ministry but to give it over and allow a younger generation to do it a little differently.” That same leader suggested that “there is a sense that when someone has been in a particular ministry for a long time, there is a real sense of ownership that can come there. So it is difficult for them to accept help or to see the value in them passing that along.”
One leader suggested that the only true foundation for dealing with the struggle of possessive leadership is to remember who is actually the head of the Church. “Our Western default in the church is to build fences,” this leader stated, “and we build them generationally. We want control.” Ultimately, however, leaders of churches are to remember that God is control of his church. So, this leader continued, “we’re going to trust that the Spirit is the one who leads,” this leader stated. “[We’re going to trust] that Jesus builds His church and we don’t have to control all of it, and there’s a great freedom that comes from that.”
How does changing our mindset concerning “who is in control” change how we lead and raise up others to lead?
Thanks for the note Dave. Glad to connect with you! I like the approach your church is using. We have this as an undercurrent in our hub ministry at our church. Just finished a book yesterday (by Nelson Searcy) in fact that spends a few pages talking about finding your sweet spot in growing a church from the ground up.
One of the mantras that we are using in our church plant (where “leadership” is not yet firmly established) is that “Everyone leads in their area of giftedness.” If you are a helper, lead in helping; if you are hospitable, lead in hospitality; if you are a teacher, lead in teaching, etc. We encourage our people to demonstrate their gifts for those who are not gifted in those areas, and in so doing, they lead us in that area of giftedness. This liberates people almost from the start to operate in their “sweet spot”. Obviously, there are some checks and balances for ministry (especially new people working with children, etc), but for the most part it has served us well. Just some thoughts from the turf.
Yeah I had Rosie in mind a bit, Lois. Glad someone picked up on that. No, the “issue” of women in leadership didn’t come up in my interviews except for a couple random occurrences. Some of the churches I interviewed would be favorable about the idea… others were clearly more masculine leadership centered. Some of this involved the context and history of the churches and some of this involved the preferences of the leaders. I agree though that the influence of “possessive leadership” on the hindrance of women leading in churches would be a really interesting study!
I’ll check out that article when I get a bit more freed up with time, James. Thanks for the link.
Certainly there are cultural aspects to possessive leadership. Many emerging leadership theories are suggesting that a multiplicity or plurality or even a void of leadership structure is a better scenario than a possessive one. It could be argued that this is really the story of history in many ways. People are dysfunctional on their own, so they choose an autocratic leader. Then people get frustrated with an autocratic leader so they choose social democracy. The pendulum swings!
In all of it, we must remember that center stage is not an evil place to be… and neither is behind the scenes or even the bathroom. What is wrong is oppression of others. The Bible seems to promote the blessing and releasing of others who are filled with character and are instilled with gifts to play a particular role in the realm of community. (That was a loaded comment!) So I don’t think that a particular leadership structure is divine… except for one that is akin to the pattern of John 13.
Great comments and observations. interesting that you chose the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter – the opportunity for WOMEN to serve only came in the absence of MEN who had held those postions in the past. the return of men from the war meant a return to exclusion from employment for many women. Did you hear any observations on the role of Women in leadership?
Here is a perspective on leadership from an episopalian bishop in Seattle. (starting in the 4th paragraph)
Is possesive leadership a cultural trap that church leadership has fallen into?
Can we expect the current generation of upcoming leaders to be any different, if the leadership skills they are learning are at the feet of a generation of possessive leaders?
Is there a ‘celebrated’ leadership role model that a generation of upcoming leaders can look up to in the church today who gives their ministry away, who builds it up in others, and get themselves off center stage?