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Where have all the leaders gone? The Fearful, The Flat-out and The Fabulous Few... (and the Faithful)

Monday, 6 June 2011  | Beth Barnett

We have a leadership dependent culture. In secular culture, and in the church. Perhaps this had its origins in feudal sovereignties and monarchies, and their parallels in the hierarchical and Episcopal churches. But despite the seemingly seismic societal restructures of the industrial revolution, and the political revolutions of Marxism, socialism and democratisation which we might have expected to ‘flatten out’ and redistribute the locus of leadership, we find ourselves now, full swing  into a new millennium with all manner of talk about equality and postmodernism, yet still desperate to nominate clear and distinct leader categories. And while we speak of “representation”, we have complex systems to sustain a culture of celebrification of leaders, brokering the terms of distance, voyeurism, inaccessibility and the upward devolution of responsibility from regular human beings.

The rhetoric of common human dignity and equality scurries around on the coat tails of a pervasive reiteration of the stories and images of the Special Ones, the ones who Really Make a Difference, the heroes, the messiahs, the capital ‘L’ leaders.

This is a crippling dependence.

In politics, economics, civics, education and so on, our expectations of our leaders incubates a passive dissatisfaction or an active re-inscription of the status quo. Either we are grumpily immobilised or happy protectors. Activism (the fact that I can suffix it with an -ism is a concern) has itself been turned into a marketable, celebrity activity. Protesting injustice used to be an anti-establishment act. Now it seems every organisation has a social justice cause profile, as an integral strategy, but we are well aware that this falls under the auspices of the marketing and promotions department. Somehow as consumers we have become complicit in turning thinking beyond ourselves into a benefit for ourselves. Social action is so ‘mainstream’ now that we are able to participate in any number of charitable causes without exercising much initiative at all. Our leaders, once again, are taking care of business for us. And while it looks like there is lots going on, we all have a sneaking suspicion that genuine initiative, creative intervention and has calcified into a job description for someone else. This is a widespread pattern across western, postmodern, capitalist democracies, but it has a particularly Australian twist, as our ‘Tall Poppies’ syndrome triggers a compulsive denigration of leadership. Even local grass roots legends and leaders toe a tricky tight rope, slung in tension between our cheers and derision, as Richard Wilken, flood protection mobiliser discovered. [i]

Outrageously, it is often the same within the church. Perhaps you feel a kindred mateship with Wilken, for time and energy spent slogging your guts out to get people on the ground moving, only to have some slicker who’s never lifted a sand bag tell you that you did it wrong. I regularly hear the burden of those who are in leadership. The crisis cry of ‘Where have all the leaders gone?’ is heard constantly. Ours is a difficult cultural relationship with leadership.

Whole ministries, in fact whole churches, grind to a halt, get stuck on the freeze-frame or hang the ‘out to lunch’ sign on the door while they wait for a leader to arrive – a new minister to be called, or a ‘co-ordinator’ to be found.

This debilitating practice demonstrates a bizarre willingness to hold the mission of God hostage with the high ransom price of finding a single willing person to pay the debt.

You can see how we may have become comfortable with this model, because it feels theologically familiar. One who stands in the place of many – the sacrificial ransom, the debt paid on the incompetents’ behalf. It sounds like Jesus doesn’t it? And as leaders we’re meant to be like Jesus – right? Maybe…

We have created a huge culture of leadership and developed an intricate theology to support this culture. In turn this (bogus) theology is in turn fuelled by a pervasive industry of training, resourcing and writing. The leadership literature on the Christian book store shelves reads like a celebration of celebrity and a consummation of consumerism.   

Where have all our leaders gone? Where are leaders for children’s ministry, youth ministry, for church planting, for starting a new missional small group, for teaching CRE in schools, for Kid’s Hope, for mission, for justice expressions we haven’t yet seen.

The good news is, I don’t think they are far away. I think they are just below the surface of our established culture, and with a bit of risk taking, re-faithing and reshaping of our concepts and expectations of leadership they will re-emerge.

There are 3 main reasons that people give me for resisting leadership, in particular, leadership in children and families ministries: they are Fearful, they are Flat out, or they think ministry is for the Fabulous Few.

They are Fearful ‘I could never do that!’ ‘But, if I led a group of kids, I wouldn’t get to hear a sermon and my faith might become weak’. ‘I’m worried that the kids/group won’t like me’ ‘I led a Sunday school class in the Seventies and it was chaos. I got out of it as quickly as I could and vowed never to do it again, I was so bad at it’.

All of these fears betray a common affliction: the obsession with self. These reasons for resisting leadership are self-protective, and rarely reflect an actual incompetence.  I have great empathy with this group of fearfuls, as I have used fear of failure as a weapon of self-sabotage too. Jesus is not so sympathetic, though I find. He seems to think that faith in God, though it be riddled with unfounded fear, trumps our self-orientation, and all its brittle protestations. We often speak phrases like ‘my identity is in Christ’ ‘His strength is perfected in my weakness’: What if it turns out Jesus might like to call us on whether we mean it in practice?

They are Flat out ‘I’m too busy’. This is in many cases true – the person is quite busy. In fact I barely know a person who is not busy. But I think there is a subtext to this reason. The unspoken thinking behind this answer goes something like this…

            “Leadership is a very special thing – and you can’t be just a bit of a leader, you have to be a complete leader – you have to have time to be a celebrity, to be distanced, to be othered. I have got some time, but it would be impossible for the leadership task to fit into that time. So by definition, I’m flat out.”

Again I speak here as one who has suffered the very afflictions I warn about. I am a pursuer of excellence, a perfectionist in recovery.  One of my Dad’s oft-repeated phrases was ‘I will not offer to the Lord that which costeth me nothing’. He taught me that there is merit in an ethic of working wonderfully. But in the lives of the Flat Out, we can find grace in preparing well enough, without  having to produce the most amazing multi-media  immersion experience for the children. Let’s be honest. Often those over the top efforts are more about us proving ourselves – sometimes with good reason because of the gallery of critics at the ready to point out our faults. Handling the busy-ness factor is often a matter of not over preparing (hand carving 20 miniature to scale chariots) so that we are exhausted before we even start, nor under-preparing, and leaving our interaction with the group vulnerable to too many unforseen challenges, which will leave us exhausted at the end.

 We dissipate our potential leadership cohort when we consider leadership the purview of the Fabulous Few. The celebrity reflex has affected the church in two directions in regards to this.

Leadership elitism: Culturally the idea of the elite (a special, qualified few) is surprisingly alive and well. There is still plenty of common garden variety folk-lore that positions a few in the spotlight, and the rest of us as observers or consumers. Churches are vulnerable to  this phenomenon as well, and congregations can buy in to the idea that they’ve employed the faboulous few in the pastoral team, and the rest of everybody should get out of the way (or surreptitiously micro-manage through backroom prayer meetings.) Leaving leadership in the hands of those whom we think are the obvious skill set both disempowers those with not so obvious gifts, and overburdens those in so-called leadership positions. This can at times, can create awkward monsters amongst us, as people are bent out of shape by expectations , exposure and expedience-based decision making.

Small vision of gifts: The past 20 years has seen a professionalisation of children and families ministry (as well as youth, women, seniors, evangelism, community care…). Our theology of the manifold and diverse gifting of the spirit to serve has been re-scripted into a catalogue of demographic departments. Last time I looked there was no gift of children’s ministry or gift of women’s ministry. These are the parameters for organisation, but the gifts for serving are robust, flexible, portable dimensions of being that model and mediate the character, presence and power of God in a multitude of situations. A gift of teaching or shepherding or serving or leading is a gift to build up the whole church, regardless of age. Effective communication transcends age and cultural markers; Good pastoral care regards the dignity and fragility of any human. There are not special skills or gifts for working with children. Good ministry is good ministry for everyone. Good theology must be good theology for everyone: no loopholes.

Where have all the leaders gone? In order to recover our supply of ‘leaders’ it may be that we need to reconsider how we describe the roles we are looking to fill. What tasks does God call us to? Does God look for so many leaders?

The framework of Faith claims that God equips and gifts the body of Christ for the Mission of God in the World. I wonder if we lack leaders, because we are not in need of leaders.  From a children and families ministry perspective, churches are at times attempting something akin to recruiting staff for a school, and finding a dearth of qualified applicants. Perhaps if we began to look for those who would be disciples together in community and make disciples together in community we might find many more possible candidates.

Let’s be careful that we don’t call people ‘leaders’ because we think that increases their esteem in anyone’s eyes – including their own.

Let’s be careful that we don’t create ‘leadership’ positions in spaces where a fellow traveller or a brother or sister is a more biblical model.

Let’s be careful that we don’t try to appoint ‘Leaders’ so that the rest of the community can disengage from nurturing and discipling one another.



“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”


CASE STUDY: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Bonhoeffer was theologically traumatised but in a strangely positive way, by the failure of the church to live out the prophetic call against exclusivist and abusive leadership. He witnessed an extreme example of devolution of power upwards, into a tight leadership node, concentrated around Hitler and the Nazi party. One might say that this era of German politics was characterised by the polemics of fear, frenzy and the fabulous few.  The result produced a tragic, complicit disempowerment of whole populations. Some in one way, some in another.  In the face of this, Bonhoeffer’s own determination to express leadership was galvanised, and reading his biographies and writings, we can verify the direction this leadership took, in terms of collaborative subversion, and developing   communal integrated discipleship (Finkenwalde), rather than any attempt to grasp or wield power himself.  Honoured now as luminary theologian, and a martyr, he is renowned for incisive moments of leaderly initiative and innovation, but we do well (and Bonhoeffer himself would be pleased for us) to ask whether such a leader was ever fearful or flat out or usurped by the fabulous few? In his own words, journalled from prison in his last days, we hear a familiar fragility:


Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.


Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?


Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!



Beth Barnett is the Baptist Union of Victoria Children and Families Facilitator.



Paul Tyson
June 7, 2011, 9:22AM
This is very pertinent Beth. When I think about the cult of leadership that has dominated the Australian political scene for some decades now, there does seem to be a large element of the triumph of image and activity over substance and direction. Our politics is in the grip of the frenetic pace of the 24 hour news cycle (and its remarkable superficiality and forgetfulness), the dominance of poles and short-term (electoral cycle) horizons, image concerned responsiveness to the immediate, the endless valuation of what is economically expedient (sold as ‘necessary’) over what is morally important and intellectually wise. As a polity the people are largely unengaged in the direction and values of the power games that are played on our behalf – we are the passive receivers of the political decisions made behind closed doors by governments and powerful financial players. Provided our own private comfort zones are left more or less intact, they can do as they will and we will simply deride them as never really acting in our interests. But our churches too, often reflect this broader culture of frenetic responsive activity, image concern, measurable success, celebrity front wo/men, and largely passive consumers of goods, services and entertainment in the polity. The whole model is a theological disaster of the first order. We have to recover the theology of the Body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, and a model of leadership more concerned with discernment and responsiveness to the Lord than with amazing skill sets and ‘gospel’ workaholism. Your article is very timely Beth.
Janice Newham
June 8, 2011, 8:36AM
Beth, this is so refreshing - and sets out the guts of the problem in defining some as 'leaders' in the Church. It's fascinating how we've allowed ourselves to accept the 'leader vs the rest' - or worse still, 'leader vs church' - demarcation, even as 'Baptists'! Now for some action...
June 13, 2011, 7:27PM
Beth, I was pointed at your article by a friend. I am very impressed by the way you've expressed the problem of "special" leaders. I sincerely hope that, rather than just those who are already designated as leaders reading the article and encouraging their "followers" to seek God (a good thing), I would hope and pray that the untitled members of the Body of Christ would be encouraged to believe they can and should discover their own walk with Jesus. Well done.
Just out of interest, you and others who visit your site may enjoy "Upside Down" by Stacey Rinehart, a Christian author who looks at the upside-down nature of much that purports to be leadership within Christendom.
angela mclean
October 10, 2011, 1:16AM
I love what you have written Beth.

But how does this happen? I think you've described the outcome but delved little into how this comes about.

We participate in the culure and support the culure of church as "institution" not community : most churches are big organisations with power and money and property and these i think destroy or dismantle on an ongoing basis any attempts to create true community. It flickers here and there but generally gets extinguished by denominational furthering, power structures...

Have you read or listened to any of the non theologian Noam Chompsky - particularily his writings "The Manufacturing of Consent"? Our culture, marketing, our institutions, the way we raise children and school them one could argue disempowers them from the get go - nobody knows what to think nor how to action as they are imobilised by the "professionals" into thinking they are passive and nothing they do matters. How we care for babies, how we parent, school children, how we 'do' church is very much based on - from what i see - conditioning humans into a learned helplessness way of being.

Love the Bonhoeffer writings.

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