The Colonization of Christian Leadership

In the seventeenth century, the uncertainty and violence of the sixteenth century sparked a search for certainty and rational absolutes. Philosophers such as René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Immanuel Kant, having lived through the chaos of the religious wars, sought to control the anxiety of the unknown with systems of “scientific” management.

How did that impact our modern understanding of leadership? Let’s look at two movements:

1. From the Heart to the Head

For Descartes, the search for truth began with the separation of the rational and the experiential––mind and heart. “Experiential” relates to the forces of life we encounter, such as tradition, culture, and emotions, whereas “rational” is that which is “deduced.” Think Sherlock versus Watson. According to Descartes, the heart was responsible for the uncertainty of subjective religious wars, and so we needed to replace the role of the heart with the mind. In a similar fashion Francis Bacon, the “father” of the scientific method, believed the experiential, natural, and bodily features of reality needed to be dominated and controlled by the application of cold, calculated reason.

There are so many issues with this demarcation, but the most insidious problem is the way in which the “objective” or “rational” was understood to be a reflection of masculinity. That isn’t a liberal re-reading of history; masculinity and femininity were the categories Descartes, Bacon, and others used. And de-centering the feminine was literally a stated goal of the enlightenment project. In the seventeenth century, reason, objectivity, control, and certainty were defined as “masculine,” whereas emotion, love, beauty, and sexuality were considered “feminine.” And because, as Descartes argued, the experiential was untrustworthy, the feminine was suppressed and relegated.

Why was the feminine untrustworthy? In part, because it was thought to merge the object and the subject, the knower and the known, which Descartes and Bacon (among others) considered essential for discovering certainty. The masculine was considered objective and removed; like a distant father, offering judgment without the distortion of emotional connection. The feminine was considered to be like a mother, deeply sympathetic and emotional, thus unable to see the world through cold reason.

2. From Heredity to Hustlers

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Europe was repeatedly buffeted by plagues. And just as in our world today, plagues/pandemics create anxiety. How do you manage in the face of such deadly and fateful unknowns? Apply the tools of the enlightenment; build rational systems to efficiently and succinctly control the movement and spread of peoples. It took the kind of exactitude the scientific method provides to stamp out plague, but doing so imbued governments with a new all-seeing authority.

Sound familiar? As governments restructured to efficiently contain the plague, a wild force began redefining European marketplaces. Enter mercantile capitalism and the introduction of constant anxiety, one that is best “managed” by increasing the means of production.

With the needs of capitalistic economies, Michel Foucault writes that our systems of control evolved “to increase the possible utility of individuals… treat actions in terms of their results, introduce bodies into a machinery, forces into an economy.” Corporate structures became about productivity management; producing the most for the least the fastest. And thus, a new kind of efficient hierarchy emerged. One that “reduces the number of those who exercise [power], while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised.”

We believed capitalism would be the great democratizer, but that’s a lie. Underneath the pretensions of freedom was an insidious inequality, a new hierarchy, replacing heredity with hustlers and lineage with org charts.

The Paradigm of Technocratic Patriarchy

These moves combined to form a paradigm of leadership centered on Euro-American male identity, what we could call technocratic patriarchy. It shaped and currently shapes how we see, evaluate, and structure leadership, informing the metaphors we use, the values we hold, and the goals we set. The enlightenment didn’t just offer a “model” of leadership to be tested among others; it colonized and conquered our imaginations, convincing us there was only one way to lead, one way to build. The enlightenment didn’t just offer a “model” of leadership to be tested among others; it colonized and conquered our imaginations, convincing us there was only one way to lead, one way to build. Click To Tweet

I’ll illustrate this in two ways:

  • “O Captain! My Captain!”

Our modern paradigm shapes the kinds of metaphors we use to describe leadership. Due to the fact that the goals of certainty and efficiency underwrite our structure, we need CEOs, captains of industry, managers, ENTJs to take decisive control and lead; experts and technocrats who can “fix” the problems of our systems, organizations, and even governments through the application of technology, rational systems, and efficient re-organization.

At first glance, that might sound like meritocracy, but since the “virtues” of control, management, and objectivity have been thoroughly masculinized, what we often mean is, we need men to lead. Or at the very least, we need leaders schooled in technique.

  • A Table for One

Patriarchal paradigms have no category for “mutuality.” The smaller the table the better; otherwise, too many cooks in the kitchen. We see this in local churches all the time. Pastors, as experts, should be the ones to make decisions on behalf of the community. I know this pressure intimately, the feeling that I am the one who should take control and enact my vision. When I don’t, even when I am choosing not to, I feel like I’ve failed.

When the anxiety of the world hits us, we double down on technocratic solutions to “fix” the problem. We look for new programs to add to our churches, new degrees to make us even more expert, new models of ministry to showcase. Though often helpful, these are all different means of controlling the unknown which continue to center the “expert” in the life of the community.

Practices such as sharing power, attuning, or creating space are relegated to secondary status. They might be considered appropriate practices for leading kids or practicing counseling (a profession using the so-called “soft skills”) but for not leading the community.

An Alternative Paradigm

In Philippians 2, the apostle Paul says that Jesus though he is God gave up traditional notions of power in order to take on the form of a servant. In Jesus, we find a different paradigm of leadership, and not one of control, management, decisiveness, or efficiency. But instead, it’s a paradigm that might be considered stereotypically “feminine,” centering connection, empathy, and mutuality practiced at a Table.

Additionally, the biblical notion of power decenters the role of one expert leader. We believe God is “with” the people and has called and empowered all of them as “priests” to join the work (1 Pet 2:9). Naming us all as “priests” radically decenters the role of a single individual. We together are called to discern what God is up to. We together are interpreters of God’s will. I may be an “expert” in a certain area, but that doesn’t mean I’m expertly connected to God. In Jesus, we find a different paradigm of leadership, and not one of control, management, decisiveness, or efficiency...The biblical notion of power decenters the role of one expert leader. Click To Tweet

Leadership in the Jesus paradigm isn’t about control or expertise; it’s about participation in the unfolding movement of God in and around the community. There are NO fixes, models, or technocratic solutions to the uncertainties of everyday life. Instead, leadership is about trusting the Spirit of God enough to listen, attune, connect, and join the community, not from above or without, but from within.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Here are several practical suggestions to help you embrace the Jesus paradigm of leadership.

  1. De-colonize your metaphors. Language shapes reality (at least that’s what Wittgenstein said). The metaphors of leadership we use shape the structures we build. If pastors are described as being CEOs, they’ll be CEOs. Try these alternatives:
    • Midwife: Leaders must become like midwives who encourage, challenge, and support a birthing process that is at work in the community. During the enlightenment, midwifery, a feminine practice, was marginalized and often demonized. It was too subjective, too merged with the “other.” But in a community, that role is sorely needed. Midwives recognize that they are not in control of the process unfolding; instead, their job is to “cultivate and nurture these centers of energy.” To participate, not control.
    • Table: The ultimate metaphor of life in the church is the Table, a place where all peoples are welcomed to gather as equals. It’s where the way of the community is collectively discerned, not dictated from on high. What if Table became our primary metaphor for leadership structures? That metaphor doesn’t diminish certain roles or even the place of expertise but instead re-embeds those roles in the life of the community.
  2. De-colonize your bookshelf. If the only leadership books you’re reading are from white CEOs (or executive pastors), you have a colonized bookshelf. Our churches need a symphony of voices shaping our structures and helping us reimagine leadership from outside the Western paradigm.
  3. Dislodge your need for control. Our modern leadership projects celebrate control. When anxiety hits, we want a strongman (note the gender) to take the reins. But we cannot manage anxiety with control. And as Christians, we are explicitly called to trust instead of seizing power. Fear engenders scared visions of reality out of which we grasp and claw for more. But the Jesus story teaches us a different way. In Jesus, we see that generosity creates more, not less. What if that kind of imagination shaped our leadership structures?

The church I serve has by no means mastered mutuality. Our instinct is still the habit of our culture; but, slowly we are learning to embody a different kind of power. This is challenging to our structures and assumptions, including my own centrality and authority, and it has been awkward and hard. But as hard as it has been, we see it as a risk in trust: a way to trust Jesus in real life with our systems, structure, and power; a way to open up our hands and let loose our need for control in faith. It’s not easy, it’s not clean, but it’s worth it because we are learning in real time that generosity and mutuality really do create more, not less.