by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches
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The Relational Church Leader
The three NT imageries for church leaders present a common factor that is critical to the meaning of leadership: the relationship between leaders and followers; like parents with their children, shepherds with their flock, and servants with those whom they serve.
“Relational church leaders” may be a suitable term to describe this leadership type. They place a high value on developing healthy, helpful, and encouraging relationships with those whom they mentor, care for, and serve. Their effectiveness to lead the church is directly dependent on the relational health they have with the people in the church.
Chin’s explanation of his Father Leadership model is illuminative of relational church leaders. He writes,
“Father Leadership is a style of leadership based on relationships. The primary focus is not on a task, but on the person, i.e. the follower. It is about love and not about doing a job. Most styles of leadership focus on skills and performance. Father Leadership flows from the heart. It is a very powerful and influential form of leadership.”1
Harris W. Lee opines that leadership is a call to three things, one of which is to relationship—with other leaders as well as the people to be led.2 One of John Maxwell’s laws of leadership is the “The Law of Connection: leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand.”3
Thom S. Rainer submits eight keys of “Acts 6/7 Leadership”; one of which is their “unconditional love of the people.”4 His research led him to conclude that breakout church leaders “communicate(d) clearly their love for the members of the congregation.”5
In a proposal of a composite framework for Christian leader development outcomes Keith R. Krispin’s third category, out of five, is “Relational Skills”.6 He writes,
“At the heart of the leadership process are the relationships between and among leaders and followers. Thus, relational skills feature prominently in most approaches to leader development. Relational maturity is also evident in a biblical understanding of leader and the nature of the church, as evidenced in the numerous “one another” passages where believers are commanded to love one another (Jn 13:34-35), care for each other (1 Cor 12:24-25), and forgive one another (Eph 4:2)…. The social skills category includes general communication skills… emotional intelligence…teamwork…conflict management…, and orientation to the broader community and world….”7
In sum, the relationship between leaders and followers is at the heart of church leadership, and the import of this factor calls for relational maturity, especially on the part of the leaders.
The five church health models in the study may appear to present different descriptions for their type of church leader. However, upon closer scrutiny, an important underlying factor is observed: a healthy relationship between leaders and followers. Macchia’s, and Koster’s and Wagenveld’s servant-leader is predicated on such a relationship.
Callahan’s four steps of leadership learning and Dever’s four aspects of Christlike leadership (BOSS) are meaningless without such a relationship between leader and follower. Schwarz’s description is clear that leaders must not only be goal oriented but also relationship oriented. It is evident that the underlying type of church leader for the above-mentioned church health models is the relational church leader.
Views on Leadership Types from Pastors and Church Leaders
A survey among some pastors and church leaders appear to bear out the above conclusion about the type of leadership that is called for in the church. A limited random survey was conducted by the researcher for the paper among 13 pastors and church leaders of English-speaking Malaysian churches.
They were asked to choose one from out of seven leadership types that best reflected their personal type of leadership. The seven leadership types were: (1) coach, (2) visionary, (3) servant, (4) transactional, (5) transformational, (6) relational, and (7) administration.8 An “others” category was included for the respondents to write their own, should none of the above suitably reflected their leadership type. The results were: coach (2 respondents), visionary (2), servant (3), transactional (0), transformational (1), relational (4), administration (0), and Others – Team (1).
Secondly, the respondents were asked to rank the leadership types in order of importance that church leaders should exemplify (1 being the most important, and 7 being the least important). From the average ranking collated for each leadership type, visionary leadership came out as the most important (average rank of 2.69), followed very closely by servant (2.84) and relational (2.85) leadership. Further down the order of importance were coach (3.69) and transformational (4.08) leadership. The least important types were administration (5) and transactional (6.9) leadership9
The critical importance of visionary leadership in the assessment of the respondents is supported by the views of Christian-based leadership experts.10 However, the respondents also viewed relational leadership as among the most important leadership types that church leaders should embody. This view is in line with and supported by our study of the NT and the literature review about the church and church health.
It may be surmised that the critical place of relational leadership is likened to the shoulder on which the other leadership types stand on—including visionary leadership. For example, after a vision has been cast, it is the relationship between the leader(s) and the followers that determines whether the latter will want to join and pursue the vision articulated by the former.