R. Scott Rodin, PhD, Managing Principal of OneAccord NFP

Colbert, Washington

Summary: We are called to be the people of God before and as we do the work of God. And we are called to pray and look for the miracle of leadership that God may work in our midst.

At any moment in my trajectory as a leader, if you had asked me for a Scripture that epitomized the leadership ideal, I likely would have pointed you to Nathan's directive to King David, "Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you" (2 Samuel 7:3). I could identify with David as "God's man at God's time," and I believed that God would pour out his wisdom and favor if I could be such a man. After all, there were kingdoms to conquer and people to be led. There were great things to be done for the Lord, and no vision was too limited, no goal too small.

Reflecting back on my leadership experiences and the leadership I have witnessed in my years of consulting, I would now point to a different verse. In speaking of Jesus' incarnation, Paul tells us that Jesus "made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:7 KJV). It does not say that Jesus became a man of bad reputation or of questionable reputation, but simply of no reputation. That is, reputation, image, prestige, prominence, power and other trappings of leadership were not only devalued, they were purposefully dismissed. Jesus became such a man, not by default or accident, but by intention and design. It was only in this form that he could serve, love, give, teach and, yes, lead.

In reflecting on my years in the seminary president's office, the church and the living room, I have come to the conviction that true Christian leadership is an ongoing, disciplined practice of becoming a person of no reputation and, thus, becoming more like Christ.

My journey from the one verse to the other marks a significant progression for me. The former verse was a direct word spoken from God to a specific person, and I extrapolated it to apply to me and to Christian leadership in general. The latter verse was a description of the nature of Jesus, whom I am called to follow-simply and humbly. The former focused on God's blessing on my work, the latter on my response of obedience and submission to his nature.

This study of the steward leader has grown out of a combination of my work in holistic stewardship, my study of leadership and these honest reflections on my journey. Taken together, I am learning that everything flows from the transformed heart of a godly steward. As godly stewards we do indeed offer only our vulnerable self, but we can do so with confidence and great joy. That is a very different journey from the one I began two decades ago.

In the following five areas, I've begun to learn what it is to be this sort of steward leader. In each area I have had to confess my misunderstanding of Christian leadership. I've also had to embark on a new journey of transformation that leads to freedom and the joyous obedience of a steward leader.

Anointed Versus Appointed

I know of few Christian leaders today who were anointed before they were appointed. We have mostly employed the business model of doing careful searches, looking for Christian leaders whom we can appoint to office. We check their credentials, put them through rigorous interviews and give them psychological tests before we make the critical appointment. Once they are in place, we then anoint them and ask God to bless their work.

The biblical evidence seems to indicate that God selects leaders in the opposite order. Samuel anointed David before appointing him king. The selection criterion for leadership was not based on who seemed most fit for the appointment, but on whom God had anointed for the task. And appointment without anointment always led to disaster.

I have never been asked in a job interview if I sensed God's anointing for a position. If I had, I don't know how I would have answered; the question never entered my mind.

Anointing is critical to the task of Christian leadership because of its nature as a unique form of leadership. Christian leadership, which I define as the work of the steward leader, requires nothing less than a complete, wholesale submission of your life in service to God and God only. It is the "losing of your life" to the work that God wills to work in you to benefit your institution, school, church or organization.

And the stakes are high. Nowhere else in the Christian life is the price of divided loyalties so costly for so many for so long. Ineffective and fallen leaders compromise kingdom work, and the effects are both temporal and eternal. Therefore, leadership must be entered with the utmost seriousness and only when you have clearly been anointed for the task. I have no criterion to offer or search process to recommend in determining anointing, but I am convinced that this biblical model needs to be taken more seriously during the selection of leaders.

Fighting the Need to Increase

When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking in his presence, he made the declaration, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Most Christian leaders would say they wish that Jesus would increase and they would decrease. But it is hard to decrease in a leadership position. Natural trappings distinguish those in leadership, such as salary, title, prestige, priority, power, influence, honor and advancement. And in each area lie tempting opportunities for increase. There are also motivations to build a kingdom in which we house our growing collection of leadership trappings. Not only must we meet this desire for the fame and fortune of leadership with resistance, but, according to U.S. President John Adams, we must also have "a habitual contempt of them."1

Perhaps the hardest place to decrease is in the influence and the power we hold over people and decisions. For this reason we find Christian leaders who are overly directive at best and autocratic at worst. As a result we produce churches and ministries that are rife with learned helplessness. By overestimating our worth we help our people depend on us for everything. And that dependence feeds into our need to be needed, to be the visionary, to be in control. We tell ourselves that the more we lead in this way, the more our leadership is valued and our presence desired.

Of course, this is not real leadership but a counterfeit that contributes to our increase and expands our kingdom. This type of leader is an owner-leader. This leadership does a terrible disservice to people, leaving them uninvolved and underdeveloped. It wastes resources and limits ministry, all under the guise of strong leadership and the use of God-given talents for "getting things done." Leadership pioneer Robert Greenleaf reminds us that the difference between a true servant-leader who is servant first and a leader-servant who seeks leadership first lies in the growth of the people who serve under him or her. The test question is, "Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"2

Steward leaders are stewards over the people they serve. They cultivate people. Leadership bent on self-centered increase lacks integrity and is usually dishonest. Integrity bears witness externally to all that we are internally. It does not derive from or depend on what is external, on an external increase. For that reason, godly integrity begins with our God.

I have come to understand that the call of the steward leader is a call to a lifestyle of an ever-decreasing thirst for authority, power and influence, where our quest for reputation is replaced by confidence in the power of God's anointing.

Being and Doing

A proper understanding of our creation in the imago Dei also teaches us that what is most important to God is not what we do but who we are. Secular leadership experts are waking to the fact that the key to leadership effectiveness is self-awareness.3 In Christian terms this means that the leader, through self-awareness and self-criticism, is the one who is transformed first.

For this reason the greatest tool for effective steward leaders is a mirror and a group of friends to be sure they are looking into it with clarity and focus.

Becoming a leader of no reputation means not being afraid to stare down your weaknesses and uncover the messy stuff in your private world. It means letting God transform you. And more importantly, it means knowing how much you need that transformation, far more than anyone else in your organization. When this ongoing transformation is added to the desire to decrease while Christ increases, all under the anointing power of the Spirit, the steward leader begins to emerge.

Leadership Is a Miracle

We must approach leadership in the same dependent humility. The sole responsibility of the steward leader is joyous, responsive obedience. Throughout history God looked to the least, the weakest, the outcast, the untalented, the sinful and the rejected to give great leadership at historic times. I don't think he has changed that approach today. If we are honest as leaders, we know that our capacity to lead is easily exceeded by the size and complexity of our call. We know that there are others more talented, more prepared, more spiritual and more courageous than are we. But great, godly leaders have always worked at that miraculous intersection where humility and faith meet the awesome presence and power of God's Spirit?and the miracle of leadership happens.

It doesn't mean we don't prepare ourselves, hone our skills and seek to be the best we can be for the kingdom. What it does mean is that, in the end, all that we bring will fall woefully short of what is required, and we will be ever thrown again into the grace and faithfulness of God to work the miracle of leadership in and through?and even in spite of?our small pile of skills and talents.

When God uses us to lead effectively, we should fall on our knees in wonder and thanksgiving that we have seen again this miracle worked in our midst. However, it is far too easy for us to take ownership of the miracle and to believe that the results are due to our own wonderful abilities and innate leadership qualities. If and when we make this subtle yet devastating shift, we become owner-leaders, and the efficacy of our leadership for the kingdom is over. We are on our own, cut off from the power and preservation of the Spirit. Most every leader will find him- or herself at that place at some point in his or her work, and it is a terrifying place to be.

Godly leadership is the miracle of God's use of our earthen vessels for the glorious work of his kingdom. To miss this miraculous aspect of leadership threatens everything we do as leaders, and our office or study will become the loneliest place on earth. I have come to better appreciate the miracle of godly leadership and its connection with selfness, the need to decrease and the power of God's anointing as a defining characteristic of the steward leader.

Seeking the Right Applause

As public figures we receive both undue criticism for the failures of our institutions and unmerited praise for their successes. The true calling of leadership requires us to accept the former and deflect the latter. That is, our job is to take the blame for mistakes made by those under our leadership and to deflect the praise by redirecting it to those most responsible for our success. In this way we keep ourselves in balance, never taking the criticism too personally and not accepting the praise too easily. But this balance is very difficult to maintain.

Yet keeping this balance leads to the relatively unusual experience of finding freedom in leadership?a central concern of this book. Steward leaders are free! We can know freedom from the tyranny of self-preservation and advancement only as we accept criticism and deflect praise. The success of the steward leader lies significantly in his or her ability to keep this twofold movement of leadership in balance. Leaders who inflict pain lose trust and dishearten their people. Leaders who absorb praise produce resentment and sacrifice motivation.

Two significant temptations come into play here. The first is the fear of rejection that causes us to run from confrontation. It comes when we desire to make everyone happy and to measure our performance, our effectiveness and our "leadership" by others' approval. We are motivated by the idea that good leaders will not generate conflict and that rejection of our performance as leaders is a rejection of our personhood and character.

The second temptation is to lead by reacting. We see which way the wind is blowing and steer that direction, regardless of the situation. We do not want our people to be anxious, to question our decisions or to disagree with our reasoning. We want harmony and unity, which is commendable. But left unchecked, this desire causes us to sacrifice courage, vision and risk taking. It brings us momentary applause, but ruins us in the end. To paraphrase a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Some leaders worry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there some forget themselves into immortality."

The goal of the steward leader must be to go to bed every night with a clear conscience and a right heart before God. God asks only one thing of steward leaders: that we seek with all our hearts to know his will and respond obediently and joyfully.

Before taking on one of my leadership positions, I spent a couple of hours with a man whom I respect for his wisdom and leadership abilities. He gave me encouragement and good advice, and before I left, he told me something that both inspires and haunts me to this day: "Scott, in whatever you do, always strive to be a man that God can trust." I now believe that the man or woman God can trust is the one who seeks only the applause of nail-scarred hands. For that person, the cultivation of reputation carries no value.

Leadership is Transformation

My years in various leadership positions are a study in transformation. I came into so many of them with a wrong set of expectations, values and ideas about Christian leadership. I was not thirsty for power or obsessed with the trappings of leadership, but I also was not seeking to be a leader of no reputation, nor was I responding to the call to be a servant first.

And it was here that I was wrong.

I used to reject the notion that good Christian leaders were only those who were brought kicking and screaming into the position, and that anyone who wanted to be a president or CEO or superintendent or executive director should be automatically disqualified. I still reject some aspects of this as not entirely in keeping with our giftedness and our desires. However, the truth in this view is that steward leaders are godly stewards first, and it is as godly stewards that they are called to lead.

When Jesus is singularly and absolutely Lord of our life, we seek to be like him and him only. That is our sole calling. We are called to our work, and that work carries God's anointing. We are called to decrease that Christ may increase. We are called to be the people of God before and as we do the work of God. And we are called to pray and look for the miracle of leadership that God may work in our midst.

In these ways, in responding faithfully to this calling and striving after these ideals at the cost of everything else that may tempt us, we become steward leaders. And as we do, we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, becoming leaders of no reputation.

Taken from The Steward Leader: Transforming People, Organizations and Communities by R. Scott Rodin. Copyright © 2010 by R. Scott Rodin. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515; www.ivpress.com.

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IDavid McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 19.

2Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Westfield, Ind.: Greenleaf Center, 1970), p. 7.

3Among the many authors who are championing the cause of careful self-awareness are James O'Toole, Stephen Covey, Noel Tichy, John Kotter, Peter Block, Warren Bennis, Max De Pree and Peter Drucker.

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January–March, 2011

Steward Leader