How should we think about leadership in a Christian context? Given the popularity of leadership as a topic in print and online media, it is something work thinking about. Is Christian leadership any different than leadership in general? For those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, is there a particularly Wesleyan form of leadership?

Here are four approaches to leadership that are common in our culture:

1. Natural genius — the “born leader”
2. Bureaucratic manager — the “cog in the wheel”
3. Master of effective techniques — the “guru”
4. Leader of noble character — the “master craftsman”

No approach to leadership is perfect, but some can be viewed as better than others in a given context. The first approach — which is a charismatic leadership model — is great if you were born with natural charisma. The problem is that such a thing can really be taught. The second model worked well in the mid-twentieth century (the heyday of big institutions) but is seen as distasteful by most people today.

Probably the most common leadership approach is the third one — which we might call the entrepreneurial model. You see this a lot in the realm of business and finance. It is concerned with a leader having the right kind of skill set to apply to a given task (and by extension to the persons the leader is leading).

The only problem with the third model is that a leader can be talented without being good. You could be the CEO of a multinational corporation, the head coach of an NFL football team, or the mayor of a large city and have a fantastic skill set for the job in each instance. Yet you could also be positively wicked, carrying out your job in Machiavellian and fashion. It might work in business or politics (although even there people can get fed up with it) but it isn’t going to work in a Christian setting where the heart of a person is seen as truly important (and often a marker of the authenticity of that person’s faith).

I think the best conception of pastoral leadership in a Wesleyan framework is the fourth model: the approach to leadership that is grounded in the right kind of character. This is a virtue-based approach to leadership, where the leader is seen as needing to have the right sort of formation in order to lead well. In fact, I think this kind of approach fits best with any conception of Christian leadership — in the church, business, education, politics, or non-profit work.

If you read the New Testament epistles that are focused on pastoral leadership — e.g., 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Peter — you find that they are very concerned with qualities of character in church leaders such as faith, humility, and gentleness. John Wesley embraced this biblical concept of good leadership, both in his own person and in every level of Methodist leadership under him. He believed that the fruits of the Spirit would be borne out in persons whose lives were being transformed by grace and that these were the same persons who could be entrusted to guide others.

In the sermon, “The Circumcision of the Heart” (1733), Wesley focuses on the formation of the virtues of humility, faith, hope, and love as markers of a Christian’s growth in grace. He sees these virtues in progressive fashion, as building upon one another as the believer is transformed by grace. It is a wonderful example of a particularly Wesleyan appropriation of the virtue tradition. And while that particular sermon is a meditation on sanctification in general, I think it can be read with profit for those who want to think about the intersection of faith and leadership.

The cultivation of the virtues is never easy, but neither is leadership itself. For those who want to respond to the call to serve as Christian leaders, dedicating themselves to formation in virtue is an absolute necessity. There are no shortcuts to mature, authentic discipleship.

Part of this post is drawn from a presentation I did at a Residency-in-Ministry retreat in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church earlier this week. My thanks to the Board of Ordained Ministry in that annual conference for the invitation and the opportunity to work with the conference’s provisional elders & deacons. We had a great day together at Camp Sumatanga near Gallant, AL.