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Gentleness in Leadership: A Non-Negotiable

Christian leadership scandals are now the norm. Recent years have seen numerous churches and parachurch ministries in the UK and US exposed as places where abusive leaders have found comfortable habitats, to the tragic detriment of those in their employ or pastoral care. In this article, we explore the difference between a the false and the good shepherd, and provide practical advice to those charged with recruiting Christian leaders.

Gentleness in Leadership: A Non-Negotiable

Christian leadership scandals are now the norm. Recent years have seen numerous churches and parachurch ministries in the UK and US exposed as places where abusive leaders have found comfortable habitats, to the tragic detriment of those in their employ or pastoral care. As each scandal unfolds I’m always shocked, but sadly each time a little less surprised.

There are many lessons for Christian ministries to learn from these, not least in the areas of governance and safeguarding. But in addition, boards charged with the appointment of new executives should reflect on the characteristics of those who abuse their office and apply that wisdom to the search process – in particular when it comes to candidate assessment. While those found guilty of recognized categories of abuse are obviously the most damaging, there remain myriad ways in which leaders can avoid serious misconduct while nonetheless managing badly, bruising and neglecting those in their charge. We should all be on the watch for such behaviours in both current and potential leaders.

But how to spot these patterns of behaviour? And conversely, what are the traits of leaders whose particular strength is caring for their staff? Here are two examples, a far greater model to look to, and some suggestions for those choosing leaders.

False shepherds

I’ve recently been listening to a sobering podcast produced by Mike Cosper at Christianity Today – “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”.(1) It’s a detailed and nuanced investigation into the story of Mark Driscoll, whose dramatic fall from grace as the Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle was a big story in 2014, as were his various abuses of power which in the years since have come to light. Here’s a quote the podcast returns to, which Driscoll made in 2012 when discussing the growth of the church, in the presence of his congregation:

“There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.”

The audacity of that statement is stunning, particularly when you consider that Driscoll positioned himself as a Pastor on a crusade against abusive men within the church. (2) But what’s scarier is how the congregation laugh at and applaud Driscoll as he delivers it. He is describing various groups of people who provide challenge to his decision making (which he conflates with the mission of the church) and the metaphorical death they’ve endured in that community.

Another example comes in a report into abuse in the UK by thirtyone:eight. The independent review body summarised an article covering an earlier investigation into the person who had been accused of abusive behaviour as follows:

‘Fifteen people who served under [them] described to Christianity Today a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty.’ (Page1/7). Other words and phrases used in the article were ‘gospel gaslighting’, ‘heavy shepherding by design’, ‘overly controlling’, and ‘creating a culture of fear’(3).

What do these two examples have in common? Each is ultimately about how a leader deals with criticism, disagreement and challenge. Domineering leadership which employs violent metaphors to warn against dissent is an obvious warning sign, but so is a more subtle culture of coercion and control.  As the thirtyone:eight report notes, this can manifest itself in a prioritisation of missional success and growth at the expense of care and concern for a staff team and/or congregation.

But what exactly does good leadership in this area look like?

The Good Shepherd

He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.(4)

Here is a verse to which I find myself returning again and again. The author of the letter to the Hebrews is exhorting his readers and hearers to “draw near to the throne of grace with confidence” for this reason: Jesus Christ, their saviour and king, isn’t harsh, domineering, scornful of sinners and weaklings. Rather he is gentle – compassionate and patient; qualities we’ve been remarkably deprived of in Christian leaders! Is it any wonder that one of the best-selling Christian books of 2020 was an extended meditation on this aspect of God’s character?(5) In the first chapter of that book, Dane Ortlund points out that the only place Jesus describes his own heart in the gospels, the clearest verbal insight he gives us into the depths of his character, is with these words:

“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(6)

The heart of Jesus is gentleness, and he is like that with his followers who have done nothing to deserve his kindness, and can only be made right with God through repentance. None of this compromises his strength, or his integrity – after all, he came from the Father, “full of grace and truth”.(7) And we’re deeply confused if we think a leader can’t at once be gentle AND strong. It’s a sad indictment of how we’ve developed a skewed vision of leadership that we can’t see these qualities as ideal Christlike companions in a leader, rather than mutually exclusive.

Gentle at heart?

Selection panels are often keen to see candidates evidence strategic thinking, the ability to deliver, ambassadorial prowess and other run-of-the-mill leadership capabilities. But far less often do they ask probing questions in light of the heart of Christ. His heart is the reason that Paul exhorts the Philippians to “let your gentleness be evident to all.”(8) And that is a theme we’ve failed to explore with our leaders in recent years: is their gentleness evident?

If we want godly, Christ-like leaders who have a genuine concern for the vulnerable within their ministries, then this ought to be our focus. A gentle and lowly heart won’t elevate itself above others but will be quick to serve the staff or congregation it is responsible for – and will take safeguarding and staff wellbeing seriously as a consequence. Here are some questions on this theme to consider when reviewing candidates for leadership:

Informal referencing is often particularly revealing in this area. If you can pick up the phone to recent former colleagues and ask a few well-placed questions, you can quickly verify the truth of a candidate’s answers when probing this area.

One final word

I recently interviewed a candidate who had enjoyed significant success as a leader in both large and small organisations. One highlight of his career was successfully leading an organisational restructure in which he had to make two thirds of a large workforce redundant. A rather odd example to point to – or so I thought until learning that he didn’t receive a single complaint from any one of the 60 staff whom he had to let go, as each felt cared for and was treated with dignity and integrity throughout the process.

That is a remarkable achievement. And you won’t be surprised to learn that he got the job in question – as much for his compassionate and gentle heart as his ability to drive growth and change across all levels of an organisation.

Let’s choose leaders who, like Christ, are gentle and humble in heart. Who are full of grace, and truth – who care for those in their charge. The stakes are far too high to get this wrong.


Who do you think you are by Mark Driscoll - YouTube

Final+Report+-+The+Crowded+House+Learning+Review+-+October+2020.pdf ( quoting Acts 29 CEO Removed Amid ‘Accusations of Abusive Leadersh...... | News & Reporting | Christianity Today

4 Hebrews 5:2, ESV translation

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers: Dane C. Ortlund

6 Matthew 11:28-30, ESV translation. My emphasis

7 John 1:14, NIV translation

8 Philippians 4:5, NIV translation


This piece was written by Jonathan, one of the consultants on our team at Carnelian.

Other posts by Jonathan include:

Interviews: Getting Them Right (Part 1)

Interviews: Getting Them Right (Part2)

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