Healthy and Unhealthy Leadership

Unhealthy leadership is coercive. Leadership was addressed in my very first blog: Why Do We Have Divisions. Leadership is always important. The future of any church or organization is dependent on the type of leadership displayed. My favorite definition of a leader is this: “Just look behind you. If someone is following you, you’re a leader.” This surely exemplifies Jesus’ leadership, which is real leadership. When a Christian beholds the Cross, his heart is transformed to catch a glimpse of glory (2 Cor 3:18). He wants to follow Jesus all the days of his life, no matter what the cost or loss or sacrifice (Lk 14:26,33). Jesus’ leadership is never coercive, manipulative, controlling, or ego-driven. Jesus’ leadership is definitely NOT Top-Down, which has repeatedly been identified as the most common, least effective and most unhealthy form of leadership, both Christian and non-Christian. Unhealthy leadership is primarily coercive in order to enforce compliance. But it does not necessarily win one’s heart and consent. It is not based on appeal, winsomeness and influence, but on human positional authority or rank. Basically, unhealthy leadership says (either explicitly or implicitly), “You have to obey me, because I am your leader.” Although there is an element of truth to this (Heb 13:17), Jesus does not lead like this (Mk 10:42-45).

Jesus did not treat Judas like a Judasunlike bad leaders. A few days ago, I heard about a chapter leader who implied in his sermon that a particular member of his church is a Judas, and that he will be like Jesus toward that Judas. I felt greatly saddened and angry that he said and did this on the pulpit, no less. I was upset because I know the person he was referring to, and that person is NOT a Judas. This was nothing but his manipulative controlling form of leadership. Even if a particular person is a Judas, should any Christian leader treat them as such? When I thought about this further, I realized that even Jesus did not treat Judas like a Judas! Jesus loved Judas. Jesus did not guilt-trip him. Jesus did not freeze him with his authority, which he could have very easily done. Jesus did not in any way try to manipulate Judas or control him in order to make him act or behave in a certain way. Surely, true love should never be manipulative or controlling.

Bad leaders caricature others. In my experience, among the worst things that I have heard repeatedly is when an older leader labels someone else in the church whom he thinks is out of line. Maybe you have heard this too. The leader says about someone else: “He’s proud.” “He’s immature.” “He’s childish.” “He’s selfish.” “He’s untrained.” “He’s lazy.” “He’s worldly.” Now you can add “He’s a Judas.” Whenever I hear these statements, my thought is, “Do you look at the mirror and ever wonder if any of this applies to you as well?” I would call out anyone who calls himself a Christian leader and who dares to say this about someone else. I am pro-church discipline. But this categorization and caricature of others is without question an unhealthy, un-Christian form of leadership. It reeks of a lack of all the major Christian attributes of love, mercy, grace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, self-control (1 Cor 13:4-7; Gal 5:22-23).

No one is a leader simply because they are better than others. As long as we are in the church, we will experience good and bad forms of leadership practiced by our leaders or by ourselves. See my articles on Spiritual Abuse and Spiritual Bullying. When I started writing those 2 blogs, I wanted to address spiritual abuse in UBF, but instead found myself under my own indictment! Dave Kraft, in his book, Leaders Who Last, wrote, “As a (Christian) leader, everything I am and everything I do needs to be anchored in my identity with Christ. Leadership begins and ends with a clear understanding of the gospel and being rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ as a free gift.”

All things to a Christian, is a free gift of grace, including leadership. Christian leadership never gives the leader any advantage or superiority over his members. Christian leadership must communicate Jesus, who is full of grace and truth. Jesus did not use his leadership for political maneuvering, controlling his disciples, coercing them, or forcing them to do what they should (Mk 10:42-44). Jesus loved them and died for them. Jesus was full of grace toward them, never treating them (and us!) as their (our) sins deserve (Ps 103:10). The disciples did not understand Jesus when he was alive. But when he died, they would follow him unto death, even though no one told them to.

What is your experience of Christian leadership?


  1. Below is a comment from a friend who emailed me privately and I received permission from him to post it:
    Referencing your comment, “A few days ago, I heard about a chapter leader who implied in his sermon that a particular member of his church is a Judas…” I’d like to hear sometime more about the tool of “implied application” or “indirect allusion” toward particular congregants in the context of a sermon.

    This discourse strategy seems to protect the speaker from accusation–because the words/phrases/clauses are equivocal, vague, implied–and the strategy passive-aggressively hammers a particular congregant for his/her (real or perceived) offense toward the speaker.
    From a sociolinguistic perspective, this strategy could be said to be functioning as a preserver/ re-assertion of the speaker’s status. According to Jesus in Matthew 18:15, however, there is a different way of handling the perceived/real offenses of congregants. I would love to do a paper on this!

  2. From the very time I became a sheep in UBF I asked my “leader”: “Why do you command me to write and to publicly read sogams every week and you yourself never write nor read any sogams?”. The answer was: “Why do you depend on me? You must write and read sogams without dependence on whether I do it or not. Just do it”. I have never had an shepherd example to follow in anything in my christian life. I was told to share sogams, to go fishing, to write a message for 4-5 times, to receive this and that kind of training, and I was very often rebuked for not being successful enough. At the same time I have never seen the director’s self-training, self-discipline and at least some success (in fishing). He had a position but he wasn’t a leader and he isn’t a leader for anybody in the chapter. While I was in UBF I kept silent obeying Jesus’ words “So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23:3). One day I left UBF (after 16 years) for I became even phisically sick because of shouts and every day rebukes. After I left I could see Jesus’ leadership in the Bible. I already wrote about Jesus relationship with Judas that touched me: Judas could freely kiss Jesus, and Jesus called him “friend”. Oh, Jesus’ love is so sincere and touching to the heart and amazing! I also wanted to mention about my new discovery in the Bible. I was often told about Paul’s words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1Tim 1:15). I was told, “You see – Paul wrote sogams and testified in detail that he was the worst of sinners. So you also write about your sins in detail and testify”. But what I discovered is that Paul wrote about himself as the worst of sinners to no one else but to Timothy! Oh, what an example for leaders! What a challenge for UBF leaders who say that they learn from Paul as their shepherd!

    • Vitaly, you experience is common. I am encouraged by your reflection on Scripture, and glad that you’ve come to understand the gospel correctly. Jesus was a liberator primarily. What a challenge and example Jesus gave in the Jewish center when he declared his mission statement!

      To “obey Jesus’ world mission command” or to be a “good leader/shepherd”, we ought to understand Jesus’ mission statement, which is perhaps the most clear explanation of the gospel of Jesus:

      “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-21)

  3. “Responsibility is the first step in responsibility.”
    -W.E.B. Du Bois (civil rights leader)

    The interesting thing about the “Top-down” leadership is how ultimately ineffective it is. This type of leadership paralyzes a ministry. It results in a congregation where none of the individual members can make their own decisions and lack innovation/initiative. It is a stagnant ministry. Jesus was never a “one-man show.”

    I like this quote from Du Bois because of how true it is. No one will learn responsibility until they are given the chance to have responsibility. If someone is waiting for his Bible Teacher to tell him what to do (who to marry, what message to give, where to serve, how to serve, etc.), he is going to have to wait his whole life.

    There is a difference between addition and multiplication. It is the difference between a good leader and a midiocre leader. A midiocre leader can attract a certain number of followers but they (the followers) only follow him (addition). A good leader, however,  can attract followers who are able to raise followers who are able to attract followers and raise them, etc. (multiplication). Basically, Jesus is the ultimate leader. 

    The test of a good C.E.O is if, after he leaves, the company continues to work just as it had before. If the company blossoms after the C.E.O. is gone it means he was an obstacle to growth in the company. If the company deteriorates after he is gone it means that he was doing everything himself. Thankfully, Jesus, our true C.E.O. has never left us and never will.

  4. Thanks, MJ, Vitaly, for sharing. For sure, we need to re-think leadership based on Jesus, which is always easy to say, but requires dying to put into practice! Here’s a quote from Neil Cole about leadership:

    “Leadership is not about a position, an office, or a title, it is influence. Leadership is not functioning as a delegated decision-maker for an absentee King. We are servants that distribute empowerment rather than delegate it. Leadership is all about connecting people to the King and allowing them to listen and follow His word. We do not need more servant leaders; we need more servants…period. Many leaders don’t mind being called a servant; they just don’t like being treated like one.”

  5. Just tagging this excellent article by Ben that didn’t get much discussion. I hope the idea of leadership will be brought out into the open much more in the future.

    I cam across a related article. Are we raising Stalin-like leaders at ubf?

    Becoming Stalin

    • Joe Schafer

      Brian, I read that article and was surprised at how accurately described the leadership style of Samuel Lee. I can give specific examples of how he did all six of those things.

  6. This is sad and painful to read. But from the Stalin link, here are the six (the number of evil!) principles to avoid:

    1) Be afraid, be very afraid that everyone is betraying you.

    2) Manage by fear. Make people afraid of you, so they won’t rebel.

    3) Kill the talent. Don’t allow subordinates to realize and use their talents and gifts. They might overshadow the leader!

    4) Rotate your favorites quickly. I had a teacher who would favor a student and then after the student began to flourish, she would tear that student down. By making what it takes to stay on her good side hard to discern, she kept students thinking about ways to curry her favor. Stalin made sure that everyone near him knew that they could be gone tomorrow or more powerful than they dared dream. It all depended on his will.

    5) Create a cult of personality. Stalin turned Russia into Stalin’s Russia.

    6) Rewrite the history of your project constantly to maximize your role. Everything revolved around the leader’s whims and directives.

  7. The snare is also – as in UBF case – to appoint as many as possible to be future bible teachers. But the bible says not many of us should be teachers … in the letter to Timothy? i guess Paul wrote it

    • forestsfailyou

      When I bring this point up I am told that some are “gifted” but all have the “calling”. It a similar thing when talking about celibacy. Some have the gift, but all have the calling to be married by faith- by virtue of being in UBF.

  8. Yeah and that made it so difficult to find your own way of life, as God gifted you, as long as in UBF, and it was like a bird cage. I mean, if God calls a believer campus Student to reach out abroad in a rural area where you find no University, would UBF accept that? :(