"Leaderism" (a sermon)

Preached at Trinity Reformed Church, Rochester, New York, on January 27, 2008.


(Matthew 4:12-23; I Corinthians 1:10-18)

You see the funniest things while driving.

Sure, there are the bumper stickers, and the billboards. But there are
other things that you come across that, well, they just make you
smile.

One day, when my family and I were traveling some place, we came upon
one of those large motor homes. It was not the largest I’ve seen, but
it was big enough. And as is often the case with these vehicles, the
owners were using it to tow along a small car. Which makes a lot of
sense, because, after all, once you’ve parked one of those monsters at
a KOA Kampground, you’re really not going to want to use it to make a
run to the 7-Eleven.

So we approach the motor home with its the towed car, and I see a sign
in the rear window of the car, obviously placed there to bring a smile
to drivers who had to deal with this slower moving contraption on the
highway. This is what it said:

“Be patient with me. I’m trying to push this big motor home!”

There’s another sign I see on the road quite often now. I first
started seeing it only a few years ago. And every time I see it, it
makes me wonder. It’s what you see on large construction vehicles:
dump trucks, gravel trucks and the like. And what many of these have
on the back now is a large orange sign with big, black letters:
“Construction Vehicle. Do not Follow.”

You know where my imagination goes, don’t you? I think of some
confused soul in a Buick, going off-roading through a construction
site, workers shouting and trying to flag him down, all because he was
following a dump truck. And then, I picture him later standing next to
his dust-covered car, and he says to the police officer, “Well, I
figured the trucker knew where he was going, so I just followed him.”

Such can be the dangers of expecting too much from leaders.

We live in a country that dwells on leaders. It’s a great irony, of
course, for we like to think of ourselves as independent types,
proudly self-sufficient in how we approach the world. I think the
reality, however, is quite different. We are obsessed with leaders. We
place on them so much expectation. We project upon them so many
hopes. Whether they be politicians or chief executive officers or
school district superintendents, we look to such people for the
solutions to our problems and the articulation of a clear purpose.

Sometimes our expectations are satisfied. Sometimes, the leader we
choose to follow in fact follows through and leads well. Often,
however, perhaps most often, we are disappointed. We find that, on Day
One, nothing changes. We find that the leader whom we followed led us
off the road, and now we must turn back.

What usually happens is that the search then begins for a new leader:
“better, stronger, faster….” We look again for — well, maybe
not the six million dollar man, but for someone else to follow,
someone with the right technique, with the compelling vision (or at
least with words that convince us that from this person a vision will
arise).

Never do we ask ourselves if the problem is not with the leaders whom
we choose and then follow, but rather with our expectation that the
solution to our problems is in that one person we hope will, by
strength and vision and skill, lead us to the promised land.

Many years ago, the Christians in Corinth had a leadership
problem. That’s right: a leadership problem. But this was not the kind
of leadership problem for which you call in the personnel committee,
or convene a meeting of the board of directors. No, this leadership
problem was evidence that something much deeper was going wrong.

You see, there was great conflict about leaders, those to whom these
Christians looked. It led to bickering and sniping between
factions. Some were partisans of Paul. Some claimed Apollos as their
leader. Still others looked to Peter. And some (it’s probably good
there were some) said they belonged to Christ, although I doubt Christ
was honored at being made into a champion in some partisan squabble.

It was a mess, this arguing. But Paul saw a bigger, deeper problem
than just the arguing. What bothered him was this obsession with
leaders. You see, when it came to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul saw
himself not as a leader, but as a servant.

This focus on Paul or Peter or Apollos — it was all wrong, so
misplaced, so tragically misplaced. Paul knew that the focus didn’t
belong on human leaders. The emphasis was not to be placed on the
gifts of a few: those who preached, or taught, or baptized, or planted
churches. The emphasis was to be placed on, the focus was to be
directed toward, no one but Jesus Christ, and his gospel.

For it was the gospel, the “good news,” that itself showed how wrong
this obsession with human leaders truly was. Because the gospel is
about the cross: and Christ died there. In the cross, in the death of
Jesus, God shows us that our salvation does not rest in human
strength, or eloquence, or logical consistency, or creativity. Our
salvation lies in the cross. And Christ died there.

Paul knew this, just as he knew that Jesus had risen from death. And
because of this, he knew that the church, the community that believed
in this one who had died ingloriously on a cross before he rose,
should never see its strength or purpose or direction as arising from
the talents of human leaders. The church of Jesus Christ may be
blessed with talented people. But its salvation does not lie in those
people nor in their talents. Its salvation lies in the cross of
Christ. And Christ died there.

Some years before Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Jesus walked along a
lakeshore. He was looking. And then he saw them: two men in a boat,
casting their nets for fish. He called out to them, “come with me,
and I’ll have you fishing for people.” And right away, without
hesitation, they dropped their nets, leaped out of the boat, and
followed Jesus.

It happened again. Further up the shore, Jesus and his two new
followers came upon another boat. The call goes out, “follow me,”
and the group of followers grows.

Now if Jesus had been looking for people who could fill out a really
gifted board of directors for his new organization, you wouldn’t think
he’d be down by the lakeshore chatting it up with fishermen. No, you’d
think he’d been in the city, in the centers of power. He’d be where
the talent is. He’d be where the leaders are.

But Jesus wasn’t looking for leaders. He was looking for disciples.

From there, Jesus goes out into the towns and villages. And what he
does sets the pattern for what the followers, the disciples of this
Jesus, will have to do if they are to be true to him. He does three
things: He teaches. He proclaims the good news. He heals the sick.

Those three things are the core of the disciples’ calling. By their
Lord’s simple yet profound example, they are shown what is required of
them: To teach. To proclaim the good news. To show care and mercy to
those who are suffering.

They followed Jesus from the lakeshore. And where he led them was not
to a leadership seminar. He led them on the road of discipleship. It
was a path of instruction. It was a path of witness. It was a path of
merciful healing.

Most of all, it was not their path, a path blazed by any one of
them. No, it was Jesus’ path. He’s the trailblazer. He’s the
leader. By his powerful self-giving, by his strength made known in
weakness, he has shown the way; he is the way.

Let me be very honest and frank about what concerns me this morning. I
believe that there is an illness in the body of Christ, a sickness
that afflicts many churches. Borrowing a word from a friend of mine, I
call it “leaderism.” This leaderism is a destructive force in our
congregations, an illness that in some places is out of control.

What do I mean by “leaderism”? Perhaps it would be better for me to
tell you what I see. In too many congregations, I see the panicked and
obsessive search for just the right leader with just the right
combination of gifts who will come along and give to that congregation
just the right vision for the future. And in too many other
congregations, I see disappointment, anger, and even rage that the
pastor has not lived up to the impossibly high expectations for
leadership placed upon that person, that all too human person.

Now let me hasten to say that this is surely not my experience here,
in this congregation. I do not sense here the illness I have just
described. I do not feel unfairly burdened with the expectation that I
be the solution to all your problems.

But what I say is important for me to say to you, by way of warning,
by way of “inoculation.” For in too many churches, in churches where
I have friends, in churches where you have friends, there
are those expectations, there is that illness. In too many
churches, the members operate with a leaderism that has them believing
that salvation is found in human talent and the competence of flesh
and blood. “If only we had the right pastor, the right organist, the
right youth director, then all our difficulties would be swept away!”
And when these leaders fail to meet expectations, then the
congregation turns on them, pushing them out and casting them aside.

I wonder: do these critical Christians look into their own hearts? Do
they look at their own lives? What evidence of discipleship of
their own do their critical eyes find? What signs of incompetence do
they find in themselves?

I suspect that the disease, no, the sin of leaderism blinds
them to these sights. It turns them aside from considering their own
culpability in the problems they encounter.

You see, Jesus called those men, those simple fishermen, to follow
him. He had them drop their nets, the symbols of their craft and
competence, to drop these and let them go. For in them, they would not
find salvation. Salvation, Jesus showed them, could never be found in
their doing, but only in their following.

My friends, I urge you to look to Jesus for salvation. Look to Jesus for
meaning and purpose. In the company of fellow disciples, look to Jesus
for direction.

I urge you to drop your own nets, your own trust in human competence
and skill, and follow him.

For he is our leader. And he seeks not other leaders, but disciples.

Dan Griswold

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