Gospel Centered Leadership by Steve Timmis was a hard book to find – simply because I couldn’t spell centered! Now that’s sorted, and I’ve worked through the book, I’d like to recommend it. If you’ve never read a book on Christian leadership, this is a great place to begin. It’s thoroughly biblical and engages the reader with the arguments and implications of the Bible for leadership. It’s Christ-centred (!) as it describes the principles and distinctives and practicalities of leadership. It’s easy to read, focused and brief, with each chapter raising substantial issues to get your teeth into. It’s a practical workbook offering biblical content, discussion of principles, questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and ideas for action.
Each chapter of this book hooked me in with a brief scenario about leadership issues in church. I could identify with each of them and wanted Timmis to continue the story and reveal what happened! This is an excellent way to start each chapter as it helps us to see its relevance before we read it. We quickly move from these cameo intros to looking at the Scriptures, and then the Scriptures are applied to the relevant leadership matters. The use of the Bible throughout is very good. I’ve grown accustomed to leadership literature using the Bible as a springboard for ideas or a proof text for principles. This book does neither. Instead it grounds our understanding of Christian leadership in a biblical theological framework that centres on Christ. I’ve not read much by Steve Timmis, but as I worked through this book I grew to trust his handling of the Scriptures more and more.
Jesus Christ is demonstrated to be the leader of the church and therefore human leaders are to conform to his servant-hearted, cross-shaped leadership and they’re called to expound God’s word so that people respond to Jesus’ leadership. In the chapter focused upon various leaders from the Old Testament, Timmis challenges the simple ‘copy this leader’ approach of so many Christian leadership books, and instead explores how they point us to Jesus. I found this very refreshing. All human leaders will have their failures. Take these, for example: Noah – drunkard; Abraham – coward; Moses – murderer; David – adulterer; Nehemiah – failure. The Old Testament looks forward to a spectacular fulfilment in Jesus. It is Jesus who shows us what true leadership is to be like. He is the true shepherd of his sheep.
Gospel Centered Leadership explores a number of leadership distinctives. These include character, aptitude, wisdom, service, authority, style and leadership. A godly character is the chief qualification for Christian leadership. Timmis draws especially on the letters to Timothy and Titus to reveal that how we live is absolutely critical to leadership. There is to be no disjunction between life and teaching.
The bottom line is this: as leaders we are called to be examples. Being an example is the primary way we lead. We are called to be intentional in how we live so that we can commend our attitude and lifestyle to others. (p37)
These verses from the New Testament back this up:
7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8 and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:7-8 emphasis added)
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
(1 Peter 5:1-3 emphasis added)
The explanation of a leader’s aptitude to teach is most helpful. It cannot simply be an ability to craft or deliver words. Rather it’s more the fundamental ability to bring the truths of God’s word to bear with relevance into people’s lives. (p43) This can happen in a sermon, a Bible study, a seminar, a personal conversation. The medium is not the most important thing. It’s how the content of God’s word is handled that counts most.
Other aptitudes mentioned in the book are: taking responsibility, influencing others, working hard, making a priority of people, and self-awareness. Each of these areas contain the potential for building and for breaking great leadership. They can become virtues or vices. For example, hard work for the gospel can demonstrate credibility, integrity and commitment. But it can also be mere activism, or an excuse for neglecting family and other priorities. Laziness, on the other hand, in not fitting for the Christian leader and it can sometimes be well hidden behind a facade of ineffective busyness.
Wisdom is essential to good leadership and gospel centered leadership will embrace wisdom by keeping God at the centre of all things. The Scriptures teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This means much more than trembling in the presence of God. It’s the intention to honour God in all that we do. The alternatives can quickly damage good leadership. The fear of men and women, worrying about what people will think of us, peer pressures, seeking to make a name for ourselves, will all compete with God’s agenda for leadership.
Jesus demonstrates ever so clearly that leaders are to be servants. This isn’t a leadership strategy or an aspect of leadership. Rather it’s the very essence of leadership. It’s what the Christian leader is called to do. Forget self-promotion, parading of titles or degrees, the wearing of special clothing that separates us from the people. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, in the light of his impending death upon the cross, he demonstrated the cost of sacrificial servant leadership. But the willingness of the leader to do anything for his people doesn’t mean that he should do everything. God doesn’t expect us to be omnicompetent. Rather, as we teach the word of God so we are called to equip and empower others to lead by serving also.
Servant leadership is not an oxymoron. Leaders are to lead, but they lead in serving the needs of others. The leader sets the direction for people to follow and they do this by teaching the Scriptures with an awareness of the cultural context of the people. The leader sets a direction to develop a new culture in the Christian community, differentiated from the culture at large. This will affect relationships, priorities and expectations. It will be created through prayer, Bible teaching, example and influence. (p88) Leaders will take initiative to lead, and failure to take initiative may be an important indicator of one’s unsuitability for leadership.
The final section of the book deals with putting leadership into practice. Timmis admits that his chapter on decision making might be controversial. He calls for a consensus approach to decision making, claiming that this is the best way to care for all people and their issues. He encourages us to take the time to hear people’s concerns and to take on board their ideas. A consensus approach still requires the leaders to lead. They need to convey their vision and seek to persuade people of where the church should be headed and why. Leadership is about guiding people in God’s way, not getting our own way, and this takes time, patience, and good two-way communication. The principles in this chapter are excellent and I can see them working in in obvious ways in a small church. However, they raise many complicated issues for a large church with multiple staff, congregations, ministry departments and so on. More thought is needed here and such issues are teased out in other places (including some helpful work by Tim Keller on changes to decision making with the growth of a church).
Very helpfully, there is a chapter on what to do when leaders fail. And they will! In a fallen world, many Christian leaders will fall into temptation. We only need to read our New Testaments to see how quickly this can happen. Timmis gives good guidance in such situations encouraging other leaders in the church to not despair, nor simply to echo the woes of others, nor to assassinate the leader. No leader can or should ever replace Jesus. At such times we need to be reminded explicitly that Jesus is our only Saviour and he cares for his flock. Being reminded that this is God’s church frees us from many burdens.
Gospel Centered Leadership is a brief but important book. I’d recommend it to church leaders to read through and discuss together. Do the homework, read the Scriptures, answer the questions, raise your own issues, and work on building a common understanding of Christian leadership in your context and culture. I’ll be recommending this book to our Growth Group leaders, youth leaders, children’s leaders and others. You can, of course, read this on your own to great profit, but I’d recommend grabbing a few others and getting them to read it with you. If you’re a leader this will help you to develop other leaders. And if you’re not it will help you evaluate whether you could or should be seeking to serve others in this way.