Submissional Leadership: Trade Dangerous Hierarchies for Discipling Teams

Before being part of a team that planted a church in the city, I served as a pastor for over a decade in fairly Hierarchical churches. In the last few years I’ve had to go through a serious overhaul in my understanding of ministry leadership. Today, instead of a place in a hierarchy, I participate in a “Leading Community” that is forging a network of missional-communities in a very Post-Christian city.

Re-imagining New Scaffolding

Since planting this fresh missional expression, I’ve had to re-imagine and reconstruct our leadership scaffolding. I had baptized my previous leadership commitments in isolated Bible verses and Christian lingo. In my evaluation, I began to see the overly-individualized and overly-professionalized nature of a large portion of leadership paradigms.
I began to ask the question, “How does leadership function in a land where old maps no longer work?” The challenge was to pare back my directive leadership zealousness in order to resurrect a Missional Leadership that is fluid, communal, sustainable, wisdom-seeking and equipped for the collapse of the Christian Empire.
Naturally, when I speak of a more participatory leadership, pragmatic types see chaos and anarchy. My experience has been the opposite.
We intentionally cultivate the following scaffolding, a Leading Community, that seeks to steer us away from becoming personality or power driven. I do believe in leadership, but I believe specifically shared-leadership within a relational framework. It is not romantic or without its struggles, but it is a framework that pushes to the surface mutuality rather than hierarchy.

1. Communal before Clergy

The Scriptures contain a diversity of gifts in leadership Apostles, Pastors, Evangelists, Prophets and Teachers. They contain a diversity of voices, Barnabas, Peter, James, Timothy, Junia, Phoebe, Eudia, Lydia, Priscilla and Aquila.
We do not believe the New Testament lays out a corporate form of church government, though we do see contextual organization. We are convinced that the early church was in process. It was attempting to figure things out (just like we are.) Most of the New Testament letters were troubleshooting problems. From the New Testament, we minimally observe mutuality, diversity, accountability, gifting and character.
That’s why we have established a “Leading Community” with a mosaic of voices even if it causes us to slow down our pace. The movement of the Kingdom was not intended to revolve around one gifted personality, propped up on a stage as a magnet communicator. We prefer the messy work of “influence by mutuality” than movement from “authority by hierarchy.”
Our pursuit of an emotionally healthy together-life is our greatest leadership. We must work towards a shared rhythm of life that models mutual love, a servant posture and deep forgiving friendship with each other. The Leading Community is a covenantal space that becomes a prototype spiritual family for the larger church body.

2. Submissional before Sergeants

Together we have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
There is no chain of command, no louder voice amongst our Leading Community. Sure, our personal passions and gifts lean towards emphasizing certain ideas. We practice equality and mutual submission in valuing each other’s opinions, experiences and perspectives.
We must be trained in active listening. Listening refashions our individual knee-jerk reactions towards seeking understanding rather than making our point. In being submissional, we embrace a renewing of our inner anxieties built upon our egos.
Are we prone to offense when someone shares an idea we do not like? Are we prone to grudge holding when someone unintentionally insults us? Are prone to judgment when someone operates differently that we do? Are we prone to anger, antagonisms and passive aggressive behavior when we are not getting our way? Are we prone to defensiveness when someone graciously points out an area of weakness in us?
Mutual submission invites us to grow up emotionally. Authentic consensus is more valued than mere compliance. The work of agreement is exhausting at times, but it cultivates shared responsibility. We champion each other to use our gifts to bless and nourish our larger community. Trust is imperative as we decentralize out in our leadership. When we hear curious information about someone on our Leading Community we defer to trust; choosing to treat their reputation with honor and respect as we seek out a direct conversation for understanding.

3. Disciplers before Deciders

Because we are all called to apprentice others as we apprentice under Jesus, the first role of our “Leading Community” is to be disciple makers. Our team cannot make good decisions unless we are in the sacred, complicated space of being entrenched relationally with others on the journey of discipleship. This means an active calendar of sitting still with people one-on-one to navigate inner-life, family, mission and community.
Leadership is not primarily about making decisions. Our first responsibility is developing people, awakening their inherent priesthood and inviting them to submit all of life to King Jesus as we seek to do the same ourselves. Our ability to influence is built on our continued, transparent, relational proximity instead of church structured programs with us at the helm.
Incarnational discipleship must soften the hard edges of our decision making.

4. Consultive before Concrete

Break bread with those in the larger community, dwell in unhurried conversation. Spend time meeting with people, discussing the movements of our church before forming a concrete position on an issue. Hold forums, dinners, coffee-talks to receive consultation from our larger communities.
This might feel threatening to receive ongoing honest feedback but we must press into these open conversations. Let feedback weigh heavily on the Leading Community. Learn to compromise based on good insight from the church body we love.
Believe that the Holy Spirit is in them just as much as it is in you.
Don’t treat this like a hoop to jump through. Embrace this for what it is; listening to the voice of the Spirit through others. Our visions for the future of the church must journey through the gauntlet of real people.
Leaders have the tendency to read a book or attend a conference and then extrapolate their learnings over the top of their church. A consultive posture must submerge us deep into contextualization helping to remove our ignorance detached from incarnational complexities.

5. Accountability before Autonomy

Our qualification for leadership comes not from our eloquence or skill set but lived sustainable practices.
If we are not following Jesus deeper into our neighborhoods, we cannot lead others into their neighborhoods. If we are not orienting our life around community by working towards vulnerability, truth-speak, pointed encouragement and regularly shared meals we are not qualified to lead others into the beloved community.
Skills are not the first thing that qualifies leaders in the missional church, character is. Leadership calls us collectively to model a place-based and practice-based life. This accountability to the “way we are human” requires the constant self-evaluation and confessional posture. Do we seek ways to confess our missteps and errors or do we seek to hide them for keeping a squeaky clean reputation. Status can become the source of the lie that says “I don’t need accountability because of the office I hold.”
How are you developing leadership that is particularly missional?
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About the Author

Dan White Jr.

Dan co-planted Axiom, a faith community in Syracuse, NY with the compelling commitments of tight-knit community, locally-rooted presence, and life-forming discipleship. He works as a consultant and missional coach with the V3 Movement. He also co-founded The Praxis Gathering. Dan is the author of Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, and Healing Our Polarized World ,Subterranean , and co-author of The Church as Movement winner of InterVarsity Press Book of the Year 2017. Dan is married to Tonya, dad to Daniel and Ari, and can be found enjoying conversations at Salt City Coffee.

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