Welcome to 2022. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and the new year is off to a wonderful start for you. Even with all the challenges that many people faced in 2021, it still seems like the year went by rather fast.
While traveling, I was able to finish the Christianity Today podcast series called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The series explores how this once multi-campus megachurch, led by Pastor Mark Driscoll, came to its demise in 2014 when by 2013 the church was averaging roughly 12,000 people attending one of the weekly worship gatherings.
Of course, the short answer to explain the implosion of Mars Hill Church is toxic leadership. Through sound clips, interviews, and other reporting, the podcast cites numerous examples of abusive and authoritarian leadership on the part of Mark Driscoll that stemmed from a demeanor of arrogance and egotism that resisted any accountability. The story of Mars Hill Church gives an entirely new meaning to that time when Driscoll said, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” I don’t take any delight in the Mars Hill Church story but it’s a story that’s played out in different ways among many other churches and that’s why we must talk about what happened.
Sadly, Driscoll’s words came true. It’s a consequence of toxic leadership. There are many factors that contribute to a toxic leadership culture but one problem that I see time and time again is the elevation of charisma without character. In general, this is a problem throughout Christianity in America. If a person has a lot of charisma and seems to exemplify the ideals, they are elevated in status. What is needed is an elevation of character.
By character, I have in mind a Christ-formed character, since Christ is our Lord and the one we are to follow. Such a Christ-formed character is absolutely necessary for cultivating healthy Christian leadership. For me, the point of trajectory in cultivating a Christ-formed leadership comes from a story involving Jesus and his disciples.
In Luke 22 Jesus hears his disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. When Jesus hears their discussion, he sort of hints how the disciples sound like the Gentile rulers who like to be the large-and-in-charge rulers over others. In response to such a demeanor, Jesus says in v. 26-27, “…the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
This response gets to the very character of leadership. For Jesus, leading is serving rather than ruling, requiring a demeanor of humility rather than authority. The greatest is not the one with the most authority or charisma but the one who becomes like the youngest and becomes a servant. The contrast is one of stature, ignoring whatever authority and charisma his disciples might have and assigning value to their character by saying that the best leader is the one who is humble enough to serve others. This is important because such character is too easily downplayed or even made expendable in proportion to charisma and the status that churches assign to leaders.
When it comes to Christian leadership, a person’s character is always greater than charisma. There’s nothing wrong with charisma and leaders are always going to exercise some authority in their roles but what counts and defines healthy Christian leadership is a Christ-formed character.
So here’s an idea. Let’s normalize character. Let’s make having a Christ-formed character the norm for those who lead and who we regard as leaders. That means taking seriously that Christian leaders are to serve as Jesus served, being willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Jesus exercised his authority not by asserting his power over others but by giving away his power for the sake of others. That ultimately meant being crucified, suffering the humiliating death of a criminal condemned by the state.
Laying down one’s life for the sake of others rather than dominating others, as Jesus did, is not weakness but is an embodiment of the gospel that Christian leaders are to proclaim. The notion of coalescing and consolidating power within a church in order to lead in a top-down manner is the opposite of the way in which Jesus led. Furthermore, leading from a Christ-formed character does not have any need for non-disclosure agreements because such leadership is humble enough to admit when in the wrong, practicing repentance.
So let’s normalize character, a Christ-formed character as the norm for Christian leadership.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.