Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then he poured water into a basin and 

began to wash the disciples’ feet and 

to wipe them with the towel 

that was wrapped around him.” 

(John 13:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Leadership creates what previously did not exist and in leading we most nearly reflect the image of a sovereign God in which we were created. In its purest form, Christian leadership displays the kingly, priestly, and prophetic characteristics of the Messiah, revealing its its origin in the godhead and formation in the community of faith. It is sovereign in the sense of being free to create; spiritual in the sense of embodying unseen power; and Christlike in living into a sacrificial character.  As such, Christian leadership never strays far from the cross; even demonic leadership never strays far from advancing the will of God.

What is Leadership?

In scripture, we see many images of leadership, but no clear definition. One definition of Christian leadership is:

“Good leaders are fervent disciples of Jesus Christ, gifted by the Holy Spirit, with a passion to bring glory to God. They use their gifts of leadership by taking initiative to focus, harmonize, and enhance the gifts of others for the sake of developing people and cultivating the kingdom of God.” (Plueddemann 2009, 15) 

Stepping back from the tendency to spiritualize leadership or to use the word, leader, as synonym for pastor, it is helpful to identify the unique role of leaders in decisions. 

Role of Leaders

The scientific method is a familiar decision tool often employed in science and management. The method consists of these steps:

1.Felt need

2.Problem definition





7.Responsibility learning.⁠1

In the problem definition step, an hypothesis is formed out of a felt need. Observations about this hypothesis are collected in the second step. In the third step, these observations are analyzed in view of other discoveries. In the final steps, a decides is made whether to accept or reject the hypothesis, take action, and bear responsibility for that action. Here the inactive voice is used intensionally in this description to avoid presuming who undertakes each step.

Three points in the scientific method require executive action: defining the problem, making a decision, and bearing responsibility for the decision. If the problem being addressed is inconsequential, then these three steps and all the others can be delegated to professional managers. But, if the problem being addressed threatens the existence of the organization or requires the firm to re-imagine itself,⁠2 then only executive leadership can undertake these three steps because big risks and substantial resources are required for implementation. 

Spiritual Leadership

Spiritual leadership is particularly important in taking felt needs and turning them into problem definitions because this is where organizational cultures are defined and defended. Even in the daily tasks of individual staff members, this need for spiritual leadership is a key to organizational success because organizations that promote active learning at all levels of the organization adapt more rapidly to a changing environment. 

Beyond the usual role of leaders in organizations, the spiritual component of leadership arises because leadership embodies the multiplicative effect of joint action. An organization is more than the sum of its parts. When leaders humble themselves before the Triune God, even just privately, a tone of humility is set for the entire organization and they make room for God’s sovereign will to act within the organization.

Timing is Crucial

A popular business communication book recently broke conversation about a problem into four stages: presenting facts, telling a story, feeling, and acting.  These authors observe that once emotions take over a discussion, actions get locked in. The key point in influencing an organizational decision process therefore arise as people begin to tell stories about presumed facts.

The authors describe these discussion as “crucial conversations” because stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.  Responses to these white-knock conversations include: avoidance, handled badly, and handled well.  High-performance professionals earn their pay by telling supervisors discretely what they do not care to hear when silence is the more typical response. Organizations where employees are able and willing to engage in constructive conversations about sensitive matters respond quicker to crises, have fewer on-the-job injuries, save money, and reduce workplace bullying (Patterson and others 2012, 3-13).  

Leadership Challenges

In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes laconically about Christian leadership focusing on the three temptations of Christ in the desert before he starts his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) . These temptations were: be relevant (turn stones into bread), be popular (throw yourself off the temple), and be powerful (lead rather than to be led). 

Be Relevant

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant—turn stones into bread (Nouwen 2002, 30). Writing about his experience at L’Arche—a live-in community for special needs patients, Nouwen notes his new friends had no interest in his accomplishments or his network of distinguished colleagues. He writes:

“This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (Nouwen 2002, 28)

If you strip away the degrees, titles, and robes, who are you really? 

Be Popular

Jesus’ second temptation was to do something spectacular to draw attention to himself (Nouwen 2002, 53). The Gospel of Matthew records it this way:

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Matt 4:6)

Jesus responds, saying: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt 4:7). For Nouwen, the temptation to engage in heroic leadership is blunted by ministering in teams and, as a member of the L’Arche community, the need to bring along a companion from the community when he was asked to speak (Nouwen 2002, 58-59). 

Be Powerful

The third temptation of Jesus was to be powerful (Nouwen 2002, 75). He observes: “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” (Nouwen 2002, 78) After re-commissioning Peter, Jesus prophesies his death: 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

Whether we like it or not as Christian leaders, we frequently find ourselves led. Nouwen (2002, 88) sees theological reflection as the primary antidote to the temptation to be powerful.


1 In class, unlike his book,  Johnson (1986, 15) add a felt need as the first step following Dewey (1997).

2 A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002, 14 and 18) work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem. A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach.


Dewey, John. 1997. How We Think (Orig Pub 1910). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Heifetz, Ronald A. and Marty Linsky. 2002. Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.  2012.  Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Plueddemann, James E. 2009. Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

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