Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership

Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership

by Arthur P Boers


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, August 26


Leadership is a much-discussed topic. What does it actually mean for us as Christians? Does Christian leadership have its own distinctive shape and character? In Servants and Fools, A Biblical Theology of Leadership, Arthur Boers examines Jesus’s pattern of leadership. Boers shows how this pattern is rooted in service and sacrifice, is cautious about power and hierarchies, and prioritizes the vulnerable. In other words, it often reverses what we expect of leadership, and is different from what we read in most leadership literature. Servants and Fools is a unique resource for students and practitioners across denominations. It offers a foundational perspective on leadership and guidance for practical application in the reader’s daily life and ministry.

Arthur Boers has at last written the book we have sorely needed, a book that is destined to become the main text in my seminary courses in church leadership, a book that is sure to be enthusiastically received by thousands of contemporary Christian leaders. Boers energetically underscores the joyful peculiarity of specifically Christian leadership. His book is unique: a biblically based, Christologically grounded defense of leadership in the name of Christ.

—Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School, United Methodist Bishop, retired, and author of Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Leadership

Servants and Fools is a brilliant and essential contribution to any serious study of leadership: Robust, faithful, insightful biblical teaching. A judicious, knowledgeable harvest of the best contributions from leadership theorists and practitioners. Plus humor, in-the-trenches experiences, and practical applications. I cannot imagine ever teaching another class on leadership without assigning and discussing Arthur Boers’s book!

—David W. Gill, Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology & Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

In Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership, Arthur Boers deconstructs the contemporary cult of “leadership” and serves up a refreshingly Biblical alternative. It is a great cautionary tale for today’s churches, seminaries, and Christian non-profits. At the same time, it offers great insight for secular organizations and leaders as well.

—John Suk, author, former editor of The Banner, and pastor of Lawrence Park Community Church, Toronto, Canada.

One of Hearts & Minds Bookstore's BEST BOOKS OF 2015!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426799785
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 10/20/2015
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Arthur Boers has written on the subject of the intersection of Christian faith and daily life for the past 30 years. His current interests include how faithful living impacts leadership and how technology is affecting the daily life. He holds the R. J. Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary. An ordained minister and
Benedictine oblate, he served for over 16 years as a pastor in rural, urban and church-planting settings in the USA
and Canada. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

Read an Excerpt

Servants and Fools

A Biblical Theology of Leadership

By Arthur Boers

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2015 Arthur Boers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-9979-2


Dispelling Leadership Delusions

From Faddish Fascination to Critical Appreciation and Redemption

But What about Me?

I seldom speak about this, one of my greatest moments of pastoral failure. I am still haunted by the memory of how many mistakes I made in this one incident.

Our congregation was embroiled in conflict. Much of the turmoil circled around a congregational leader who was frustrated with me. I grew worn down by his behavior (which I preferred to label "antics"). I was not alone; congregants frequently complained about him. Yet I should have been cautious about "victims" triangling me. More significantly, I had not yet learned enough about self-examination and self-awareness.

One day, I was complaining bitterly about this antagonist to a senior stalwart in the church. A gentle, dedicated soul, he had quietly served our congregation over the years and was a model of Christian patience and faithfulness. I did not always agree with him, but I knew him to be wise. Rather than learn from him this time, however, I tried to recruit him to be on "my side" in the disputes.

I speculated about how to rein in the troublesome congregant, and the wise member said: "Arthur, we have to be gentle with our brother." I exploded, raising my voice: "But what about me?" Feeling sorry for myself, I wanted someone to look after me. My angry outburst stunned the elder into silence. Our conversation ended. I apologized later but our relationship was never quite the same again.

That unfortunate moment marked a turning point. I realized that I had become too bound up in the conflict. I began recognizing that while it is important to pay attention to — and take care of — your own needs, the organization you serve will not necessarily do this for you.

I have been ambivalent about leadership. I did not want to be "lonely at the top"; I longed to be "just one of the gang," as casual in clothing and commitments as everyone else. I wanted the right to sound off without representing a group or institution. In Mudwoman, a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the main character goes from an impoverished childhood to being an Ivy League school president, discovering that she is not free to say all she believes. A "public position" means that "the first freedom you surrender is the freedom to speak impulsively, from the heart." Like that frustrated president, I did not appreciate needing to act mature and calm even when I did not feel it. I identified with Bruce Cockburn, who "cried out glad and cried out sad / With every voice but mine."

I tired of being the one responsible to suggest ideas, launch initiatives, keep things moving, challenge "we've-always-done-it-this-way" inertia. I wearied of being carefully alert to relational issues and wondering and worrying about whom I could befriend and who merited cautious distance. I wanted to "take on" those who disagreed with me and found it difficult to acknowledge the sincerity and even wisdom in opposing viewpoints. I did not enjoy facing up to how my own wounded neediness sometimes drove my exercise of leadership. I got fed up with the fact that being a leader means that I will be challenged to change and grow and stretch.

Christian Leadership Fascinations

Leadership is a primary quality people expect of pastors, even if no one is precisely sure what leadership actually is.

On the first day at an excellent weeklong leadership workshop, the teacher asked whether any of us — mostly Anglican clergy — admired George Herbert. (Herbert was a prayerful Anglican priest in the seventeenth century; he cared for a small congregation and wrote poetry. Centuries later Simone Weil was converted by reading one of his poems; if his work accomplished nothing else, surely that alone is more than enough.) In response to the question, a few of us raised hands. The teacher quickly responded: "Herbert is not what the church needs today. We need change agents, leaders." I stayed for the week but still admire George Herbert. And still question what people mean by "leadership."

Harvard theologian and Anglican priest Sarah Coakley is concerned:

Sometimes I fear that English Anglicanism has given up on holiness.... I note now that many, even most, advertisements for new Anglican incumbents seek a minister who is gifted in 'leadership,' or one who is 'energetic' and 'efficient'. Rarely do they ask for one who is 'prayerful' ... But this ecclesiastical trend towards secular models of personal efficacy is odd; for if ever an age yearned for authentic sanctity, it is surely ours. Think of the magnetism of John Paul II, of Mother Teresa, of 'Father Joe'.

Surely this is not a problem for Anglicans alone. Seminary faculty colleagues commonly lament how our understanding of pastoring and church life is malformed by expectations inappropriately derived from business models.

It is important to get clarity about all of this.

Sometimes "leadership" is its own justification, used by rogues and scoundrels to excuse questionable behavior. A major "Christian" institution where a friend worked got caught in a public relations nightmare. Ill-advised and questionable decisions received national publicity. A key administrator thanked employees who supportively understood "the challenges of leadership," as if leadership equals standing firm behind poor choices. That message certainly came out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; "leadership" was shown by "deciders" who moved resolutely, never mind whether or not their actions were ethically justifiable.

Too many times we have only the leader's perspective on what is accomplished, not hearing the actual costs and consequences of choices and policies. In a powerful scene in the film Lines of Wellington (2013), the Duke of Wellington commissions a painting of one of his victorious, but bloody, battles. Disturbed by an artist's graphically honest portrayal, Wellington disdainfully tosses the painting aside, saying: "We need more heroes. Fewer corpses. Less dead." Having heroes can come at the expense of the truth.

Some "leaders" are enveloped in hagiographical mystique: their laudably commendable achievements are the only lens through which we view them, while we disregard other facts about them. A friend worked for years with a famous pastor. My friend was thrilled — at first — as that pastor was a pioneering soul, one of the first women ordained in her denomination. But my friend gradually came to see that, locally, the denominationally trailblazing lead pastor was authoritarian and controlling. When the groundbreaking minister retired, the wounded church took years, more than one pastor, and pricey consultants before it was stable. This is not to downplay the pioneering pastor's impressive accomplishments, but it does remind us that "leaders" are human and their records often deeply mixed.

North American evangelicals are preoccupied with leadership. Evangelicals describe the process of winning conversions as "leading someone to Christ." Numerous parachurch ministries are named after founders, sometimes fostering personality cults. Evangelicalism frequently "focuses on individual personalities and rallies around charismatic leaders, who often need and seek out acclamation."

Evangelical publishers offer numerous leadership books, frequently boasting specific surefire steps to success: 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Love and Life; The Shaping of an Effective Leader: Eight Formative Principles of Leadership; or Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders. The most famous is The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership(subtitled Follow Them and People Will Follow You). One friend likes to joke that he can refute each of those laws. Even more unsettling is the extraordinary quantity of books that purport to offer "secrets" to success or effectiveness. ("Leadership secrets" generated 144,000 Google hits.)

A seminary I know well hosts visiting speakers, celebrated graduates, and distinguished guests who may even receive honorary doctorates. Almost invariably, these folks are lauded as "leaders," apparently the highest praise. I do not recall anyone commended for being a "disciple" or "faithful follower of Jesus." It happens, I am sure. Just not nearly as much as I hear the more cherished "leader" accolade.

It is probably human nature to admire the famous and the powerful, to look for heroes who perform deeds of might, and to adulate "stars," those up front, in the know, and holding the reins. Yet there are problems when Christians unduly emphasize leadership. As Luke recounts events leading up to Jesus's birth, he deliberately names luminaries of his day — Emperor Augustus, King Herod, Governor Quirinius. Yet he startlingly shifts focus to unimportant, unlikely folks — Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph — who are in fact the unexpected channels of God's work, the real sphere of God's transforming activity. Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius made the news. But good news is consistently discerned and found elsewhere. As Albert Schweit-zer observed, public noteworthies are not where the greatest changes and most important events happen; acknowledged public leaders, people at the front of organizations or on top of pyramids, are merely "like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean."

Lew Parks argues that how the church appropriates leadership ideas leaves much to be desired: "We need ... church leadership that risks a robust correlation of its scripture and theology with the very best that secular leadership studies can offer. What we get is church leadership that congratulates itself for dabbling in secular leadership studies twice borrowed, church leadership with a preference for simplistic formulas, catchy buzz words, and inane parables." Such "Church Leadership Lite" is both "short on biblical and theological integrity and oblivious to serious leadership study."

Much leadership literature — even from "Christian" publishers — dwells on executives or "stars" in big businesses, professional sports, and the military. Frequent are the celebrations of leadership in Disney, Apple, Southwest Airlines, or Shell. While there are things to be learned, caution is also appropriate. These kinds of books reinforce the interests and perspectives of the status quo. Many corporations earn success by questionable ethical practices, too frequently externalizing real costs, polluting the environment, or oppressing overseas labor. Staggering profits may come from exploitation, therefore we need to be cautious about turning business leaders into heroes. A Presbyterian pastor cites a prominent example:

About a year before I'm writing this, the entrepreneurial co-founder of Apple computers died. As a businessman, Steve Jobs did a great deal to change the way we communicate with one another and helped Apple amass an incredible fortune, but Jobs had many personal failings and used immoral employment practices in China. In spite of all that, in the last months, instead of ministers decrying the abuses in the workplace, I have read articles, posts, and sermons imploring pastors to be like Steve Jobs and the church like Apple computers.

Others notice that "romanticizing" leadership can lead to CEO cults of celebrity; North Americans especially are fascinated with heroes and exceptional leaders.

Leadership literature promotes envy with false promises. Casinos and lotteries encourage gambling with two messages: first, you, too, can win buckets of money, and, second, this is only possible if you gamble. Most gamblers and lottery ticket consumers do not win but lose. The truth is: "You can be a loser too." When leadership books dwell on five-star generals, corporation executives, metropolis mayors, and megachurch CEOs, the implicit promise is like gambling: you can only win if you enter the game, and you, too, might hit the big time. But the majority of people, no matter how talented, motivated, and connected, will never be generals, executives, mayors, or megachurch pastors.

Exceptional, extraordinary people may fascinate us, but there is no need to aspire to lofty heights. Eugene Peterson and Wendell Berry have reminded us for a long time of the blessing of serving patiently and humbly on behalf of God's reign in human-sized localities. Most North American churches are small, and I am not convinced that that is bad. Taking celebrity leadership too seriously risks downplaying the actual challenges that God puts before us.

Redeeming Leadership Emphases

I am not claiming that nothing can be learned from leadership literature, emphases, and studies or from spheres and disciplines that rely heavily on those kinds of perspectives, for example, the occasionally maligned "business world."

William Stringfellow was once invited to lecture in two locations near to each other, Harvard Business School and Harvard Divinity School. He presented essentially the same content in both places, biblical and theological reflections on the powers and principalities (e.g., Eph 6:12; Col 1:16). He was unsure about how he would be received at the business school. A Stringfellow aficionado reports: "The business school students ... engaged him thoroughly, bending his ear long past the hour appointed, with numerous examples from their own experience of corporate dominance and possession by the commercial powers." But the theological students made a marked contrast; they reacted with disbelief, rejection, and mockery. Put simply, business students comprehended and were able to apply and integrate Stringfellow's theological reflections; theology students could not.

Yes, there is much to learn from the business world, even matters we had better learn. Brian McClaren makes a good point: "'The church doesn't need to be run like a business,' a mentor once told me, 'but it surely shouldn't be run like a bad business.'" Nevertheless, caution is in order. Bottom line concerns about profits, shareholder interests, and value-added priorities do not necessarily add up in God's economy.

Reviewing Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Betty Smartt Carter raises critical issues. Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote about how women can shatter corporate glass ceilings and the implications of those choices on family life and priorities. Carter acknowledges attractiveness in Sandberg's ideas, but asks:

What ends justify such sacrifices of ordinary family life ...? If the pay-offs were a cure for cancer and a solution to global warming, that would be one thing; but the benefits of so much corporate busy-ness usually don't amount to much ... Phones get smarter, packaged food travels farther, and more people in India can like each other's statuses.

These critiques are not just ethical.

L. Roger Owens argues that much leadership literature promotes "functional atheism": working from "the unconscious assumption that if I don't make something good happen here it never will." Relying on techniques and best practices, we may forego reliance on God; we act like atheists. We effectively deny God's existence or efficacy. Walter Brueggemann portrays three faithful priorities that differ from common values encountered today: "YHWH is not a workaholic," "YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation," and "the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work."

How do conscientious believers faithfully challenge where worldly emphases — including faddish leadership preoccupations — take us off course? Scriptures warn against getting caught up in the wrong values:

The Lord proclaims:
the learned should not boast of their knowledge,
nor warriors boast of their might,
nor the rich boast of their wealth.

No, those who boast should boast in this:
that they understand and know me.
I am the Lord who acts with kindness,
justice, and righteousness in the world,
and I delight in these things,
declares the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24 CEB; emphasis added)

Jeremiah's attention here to wisdom and knowledge, power and might, wealth and affluence specifically responds to the reign of Solomon, the greatest Jewish king, one of Israel's most famous leaders. Rather than honoring worldly priorities, we are to imitate God, who puts "kindness, justice, and righteousness" at the top of the agenda.

Pondering how the church engages the newly emerging discipline of leadership, I see a parallel challenge from not so long ago. Since the late nineteenth century, Christians have struggled with the emergence of another relatively new discipline, psychology (Freud, Jung, James, and so on). At first, several broad trends were evident. Some Christians rejected psychology, insisting that faithfulness was enough; serious problems were to be met with prayer and would be conquered with sufficient faith. Others, advocating "biblical counseling," insisted that the Bible itself offered alternative psychological agenda. Still others embraced the "triumph of the therapeutic," displacing classic soul care. (Therapeutic emphases hijacked understandings of worship, spiritual direction, church discipline, pastoral identity, and so on.)


Excerpted from Servants and Fools by Arthur Boers. Copyright © 2015 Arthur Boers. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


"Part One": Christians and Contemporary Leadership Fascinations,
"Chapter One" Dispelling Leadership Delusions: From Faddish Fascination to Critical Appreciation and Redemption,
"Chapter Two" Navigating the Ambiguity: Christian Challenges of Teaching Leadership,
"Part Two": Reflecting Biblically on Leadership,
"Chapter Three" Not Quite Biblical: Inadequate Christian Approaches to the "Gift of Leadership",
"Chapter Four" What's the Bible Got to Do with It? Challenges of Discovering Christian Perspectives on Leadership,
"Chapter Five" The Plattered Head and Five Smooth Loaves: Competing Kingdoms,
"Chapter Six" Competing Visions: The Ongoing Contest between Leadership of This World and God's Leadership,
"Chapter Seven" The Usual Suspects: Biblical Misgivings about Leadership,
"Chapter Eight" Counterbalancing Kings: Prophets as Leaders,
"Chapter Nine" All Fall Short: Priests and Sages,
"Chapter Ten" Upside-Down Priorities: Scripture's Unexpected Takes on Leadership,
"Chapter Eleven" A Long Rebuke in the Same Direction: Jesus Christ and the Powers-That-Be,
"Chapter Twelve" Look Before You Lead: Counterintuitive Implications of the Leadership Teaching of Lord Jesus Christ,
"Chapter Thirteen" They Laid Hands on Them: Early Emergence of Christian Leadership,
"Part Three": Constructive Suggestions toward a Contemporary Theology of Leadership,
"Chapter Fourteen" Orienting and Turning toward God and God's Reign: Defining Christian Leadership and Ministry,
"Chapter Fifteen" Spheres of Salt and Light: Leadership Happens Everywhere,
"Chapter Sixteen" Elusive Measures: What Do Christians Mean When They Call a Leader "Good"?,
"Chapter Seventeen" We Want to Be in That Number: Heroes or Saints?,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews