Leadership Next – What has to Change in Ministry Leadership?

Eddie Gibbs writes with passion and insight as he seeks to answer the question: what kind of leaders does the church in the 21st century require in order to carry forward the mission Jesus gave it? LeadershipNext. Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture assumes that the missional church perspective represents the direction that the Western Church needs to take if it desires to recover and truly incarnate Christ’s kingdom mission today. However, for the church to implement this missional theology requires a new kind of ministry leader. Gibbs presents his ideas with clarity, using numerous illustrations and wit.

The recovery of a missional theology coincides with the cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism. Church leadership as practiced within a modernist culture tends in Gibbs’ view to be controlling, practiced solo, and essentially transactional, bent on keeping the corporate church operating. Individuals under thirty-five and whose values are shaped by postmodernism aspire to serve with leaders who consider team to be the essential leadership mode, with emphasis on relationship, connecting, and empowering. This new, postmodern generation will not work with the prevailing style of leadership shaped by modernism. This is as true in the corporate world as it is in the church. As the subtitle to his book indicates, Gibbs believes that the church must develop new leaders who embrace new ways of exercising influence for Christ in a changing culture. Repeatedly he argues that “yesterday’s styles of leadership will not be adequate for the opening decades of the twenty-first century” (34).

Although his first chapter is entitled “Redefining Leadership”, Gibbs never offers his own definition of leadership. Rather, he works his way selectively through the definitions offered by others (i.e. Robert Clinton, Walter Wright, Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, and James Kouzes and Barry Posner), embracing a common thread that sees leadership as the exercise of influence within a relational matrix. The ideas of Roger Greenleaf regarding servant leadership are particularly considered. This discussion occurs against the background of change that postmodernism is generating within Western culture. And this leads Gibbs to reject models of leadership that are dominating and hierarchical, based upon status and the exercise of power. Such a mode of leadership conflicts both with the scriptural warrant, in his view, as well as with the emerging postmodern culture. He considers character, charisma and competence important, but character must take first place.

The first chapter ends with a list of seven “leadership challenges” (38-45) that the church must face.

  1. Beyond preserving the inherited institutions: leading a mission-focused community of disciples;
  2. Beyond ideology-driven evangelism: leading a values-based community of disciples;
  3. Beyond dispensing information: seeking spiritual formation rooted in Scripture;
  4. Beyond the controlling hierarchy: leading empowered networks of Christ followers;
  5. Beyond the weekly gathering: building teams engaged in ongoing mission;
  6. Beyond a gospel of personal self-realization: a service-oriented faith community;
  7. Beyond the inwardly focused church: leading a society-transforming community of disciples.

Who can argue with these ideals? Undoubtedly we can find examples of faith communities that exhibit these limiting, negative behaviours. However, it is also the case that many church communities in the era of modernism were mission-focused, embraced a relational method of evangelism, pursued spiritual formation that was rooted in Scripture, etc. I wonder whether we can draw the lines as clearly as Gibbs would suggest. The way in which church leaders in the modern era responded within that cultural setting may have been exactly appropriate. After all such leaders were seeking to express the Gospel and lead the church in ways that were culturally relevant to the prevailing modernist philosophy. Gibbs is right to emphasize that the cultural shift to postmodernism means that the leadership styles and approaches that were suited to life within modernism will not be suitable for life in postmodernism. Whether he has identified correctly what needs to change is another question.

We need “different kinds of leaders” according to Gibbs (47). The transformations globally we currently experience require this. Gibbs emphasizes the chaotic conditions and suggests that they provide opportunity as well as require us to risk new ways of leading. Religious pluralism, increased complexity, information explosion, new means of communication – they all generate the need for a different kind of leadership. I wonder whether church leaders felt similar angst in the early twentieth century, with the explosion in technological development, the havoc caused by the First World War, and the economic complexities generated by The Great Depression. In the midst of these significant changes Church leaders had to learn afresh the best ways to live out the Great Commission, to make disciples, and to make decisions under pressure. In these circumstances ministry leaders had to communicate, debate and negotiate (96). People then as now wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. Relationships and trust were as integral to organizational life and nurture then, as they are now. People desired authentic community then, but perhaps defined and expressed it differently. Yes, change happens and continues to happen. This requires modes of leadership to adjust as well. However, I suspect that many of the fundamental issues remain the same; however changing cultural values create expectations for different modes and manners of response. I think Gibbs inherently knows this because he keeps using examples of leadership in Scripture to ground many of his key arguments. However, I do not think he would argue that the cultural contexts in which these leaders functioned were similar to the current postmodern situation.

I think one of Gibbs’ best chapters is devoted to the concept of team-building leadership. New emerging leaders seem to gravitate towards and work well within a team-building style of leadership. In Gibbs view this is more compatible with the postmodern cultural context. However, leading effectively through a team context requires considerable skill, particularly the ability to serve as leader and follower concurrently, as well as dealing with diversity. Gibbs suggests that the primary leader in a team context operates like a coach, nurturing the team so that it accomplishes much more together than it could as separate individuals. The impact of the sum will be much greater than that of the individual parts. Gibbs draws on the analogy of the Trinity to suggest how such a team functions harmoniously to provide ‘leadership’. He builds on Cladis’ reference to the perichoresis, the constant and lively interaction and involvement of the persons of the Trinity within their singular relationship. He mistakenly follows Cladis in thinking that perichoresis signifies dance, a sense the word does not convey. Gibbs identifies some competencies and attitudes that team leaders must possess: lead with questions, not answers; engage in dialogue, not coercion; conduct autopsies without blame; build red-flag mechanisms that turn information into information that cannot be ignored. In this he builds on the work of Jim Collins. He also refers to the concept of ‘connective leaders’ proposed by Jean Lipman-Blumen. Gibbs seeks to build a vision of “leadership next” based on these ideas. “By giving priority to team building the church can move beyond the prevailing culture of hierarchy and control to that of networking and empowerment” (120). I agree that we need to do a better job in the church to help people discern and live out their calling, that ministry teams probably create a better context in which to promote this, and that networking and empowerment are critical elements that enable this kind of community to flourish. Yet, having said this, what at the end of the day is the role of “the ministry leader” in a local church which is designed to operate under this new kind of leader? There must be some framework that empowers the leader, defines responsibility and requires accountability. We may shy away from naming this command and control, but if that ministry leader is being held accountable by a group of elders, then that ministry leader needs to exercise appropriate authority to accomplish the tasks necessary to achieve the church’s vision. In the last chapters of his book Gibbs considers leadership traits, activities, attitudes and costs. He offers good advice for any Christian leader. However, again I question to what degree any of this is new? For example, when you consider the list of leadership traits (character shaped by God, called by God, ability to contextualize, courage forged by faith, competence linked with gifting and experience, creativity, compassion, confidence (128ff)), how does this list differ from the traits a “modern” ministry leader must emulate? In terms of leadership activities is it only the young “genial mavericks” that have creative new ideas? What happens when a leader hits fifty – does all of hope of any new creative idea suddenly vanish? Acts 2 does promise through the Spirit that “your old men will dream dreams.”

Gibbs says that “clergy means ‘called’ (kleros), with the unspoken implication that the laity is not chosen or called by the Lord” (132). I would suggest that he is somewhat misleading here. kleros signifies primarily an object used in casting lots for the purpose of decision-making, or a portion or share, something assigned as a person’s allotment.1 In the Gospels and Acts it describes the casting of lots to determine which soldier would get Jesus’ garment (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) and which follower of Jesus would replace Judas as apostle (Acts 1:17-26). Peter tells Simon Magus that he has “no part or share (kleros) in this ministry” (Acts 8:21). Paul confesses that during his Damascus road vision Jesus revealed to Paul that his apostleship would give to the Gentiles “a place (kleros) among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). The notion of ‘inheritance’ seems to be suggested by Paul’s use in Colossians 1:12. Peter used the word once in 1 Peter 5:3 to describe the “portion” of God’s people over which the elders were given spiritual direction. The cognate verb occurs once in Ephesians 1:11. In that context the concept of inheritance once again probably is most appropriate, with the sense of “obtaining or acquiring a portion or share”. It is rendered in the King James Version as “in whom we have obtained an inheritance”, but the New International Version rendered it as “in him we were also chosen,” a very different sense. It could also be rendered “in whom we have our destiny,” i.e. “in whom our lot is cast.” The English term ‘clergy’ reflects more the sense of a person who has been assigned responsibility over a kleros, a portion.2 While Gibbs general point is correct, his attempt to base his perspective on the New Testament term kleros unfortunately appears to be somewhat misguided.

His final chapter is entitled “Leadership Emergence and Development.” Here we hope to find Gibbs prescription for ministry leadership development. His key idea is that ministry leaders must be trained essentially as missionaries, people able to “operate in crosscultural settings, frequently on the margins of society” (197). He refers to a Church of England study entitled “Mission-shaped Church” which argues similarly. A strong lament about the high drop out rate from ministry of Bible College and Seminary graduates follows. However, he does not comment on the drop out rate from ministry of those trained in other methods. Perhaps it is higher. There is a hidden assumption here. Also, does crosscultural training guarantee ministry success? The return rate of missionaries would suggest not.

For all that, Gibbs’ suggestion deserves careful thought. What a missional focus as the framework for ministry leadership development should ensure is the acquisition of cognitive, spiritual-moral and practical obedience. Perhaps the use of more problem-solving learning processes, more intentional linkages with a specific ministry context, and carefully led, mentored reflection on these elements would provide more effective ministry leaders for the 21st century. One might further ask how Gibbs’ emphasis on team-based leadership would be advanced through missionary training? Is there anything inherent in missionary development that requires team-based leadership? Perhaps in the new, emerging models of crosscultural leadership development and practice that is the case, but historically it is not immediately evident.


  • 1F.W.Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature . Third Edition (BDAG) (Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press, 2000): 548.
  • 2See the entry under ‘cleric’ in the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press, 1971): 491-492.