Monday, April 28, 2014

taglines. learn! lead! live! Why not learn! serve! live!?

A few weeks ago I presented a paper at the Beyond Education conference. The topic I was asked to address was theological education in leadership formation. I argued that the words leadership and theological education were not either/or alternatives. Instead, I used the work of Mieke Bal to argue for a hermeneutical approach to change, one that expected both theological education and leadership, one that made sense of our pluralistic and post-Christian context. I sought to relate all this to the Uniting College tagline – learn! lead! live!

I was pretty pleased with my paper and thought the use of hermeneutics and cultural theorist would be well received. Alas, my presentation attracted a fair bit of academic pushback. The main focus was a strong negative reaction to the L-word – leadership. One questioner put it well. What does Jesus offer the word “lead”? Surely the only Christian way to express your tagline is learn! serve! live!, not learn! lead! live!, for that is what Jesus came to do.

I’ve continued to ponder the question.

Surely there’s more to Jesus than service? Jesus announced a Kingdom, enacting in both word and deed a new set of values; Jesus gathered a community; Jesus challenged political powers; Jesus longed to gather the lost like a mother hen gathers chicks; Jesus held the cup of suffering .. the list goes on. Yes to service, but yes also to vision casting, to community building, to prophetic and pastoral skills.

And then there’s Christian history. Banks and Ledbetter, in their excellent book, Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches note how important the L-word in history has been. For the Apostle Paul, leadership resembles family life. In the Benedictine tradition, the leader is the abbot. In the Reformed tradition, the leader challenges static ways. In the Quaker tradition, the leader listens. In the Pentecostal tradition leadership is being empowered by the Spirit. Again, we see a much richer contribution from Christianity to leadership than simply serving.

Yes, Jesus did come to serve. But the fact remains that Jesus, and that Christianity, have a lot more to offer the word lead than a simple serve. And that’s one reason why we at Uniting College have learn! lead! live! as our tagline – because we want the fullness of Jesus ministry and the depth of the Christian tradition to inhabit, shape and form what we learn and live in response to the “lead” word.

Posted by steve at 11:34 PM


  1. I’d like to hear more about the paper and the reaction to the word “leadership”, which seems to me much more of a cultural than a theological response, however it is portrayed. And the reaction would also be par for the course.

    Comment by Craig Mitchell — April 28, 2014 @ 11:48 pm

  2. I think we need to be careful as to how narrow our definition of the word serve is. Does serving merely cover doing acts of lowly service or is it an attitude that prefers others in any task? While a Christian leader will always do physical acts of service, in the broader sense everything we do as leaders should be with the heart of a servant. Phil 2:1-11
    Thus the heart attitude and not the task define whether it is an act of service.
    So is the reformed leader not serving when the challenge static ways? similar for the Quaker and Pentecostal?

    In terms of the tag line I wonder if it is just different sides of the same coin?

    Comment by Aaron — April 29, 2014 @ 2:23 am

  3. Great reflection Aaron. I was actually preaching on phil 2:1-11 at Easter, trying to explain atonement to a group of teenagers. I talked about the downward “identify” and the upward “incorporate” to try and capture fully human, fully God implications.

    It is also a favourite text for Incarnational mission.

    So yes, I agree with you, the word service is to narrow to hold that text.


    Comment by steve — April 29, 2014 @ 9:12 am

  4. Of course Jesus was a leader. How often did he use the phrase: “Follow me”. Of course Jesus was also a servant. In Christ, they are definitely intertwined. Having said that, I have to admit I am always wary of that L word. For everyone, “leadership” comes with preconceived ideas about what leadership looks like, so as Craig says, there is a cultural aspect to the discussion, but then again, theology always has a cultural aspect to it. I have seen far too many Christians who impose their preconceived cultural understanding of leadership without fully exploring what Christ-like leadership looks like, so helping people understand Christ-like leadership better is excellent.

    However I would also argue that theological education and leadership formation are not always both/and. A great deal of what I do as a minister is theological education, but not all of it is leadership formation, nor should it be. Not every Christian is called to lead, but every Christian is called to learn. Or would you argue that “making disciples” is the same as “making leaders”?

    Comment by Ivan — April 29, 2014 @ 9:34 am

  5. We all lead Ivan.

    That’s fundamental to the tagline.

    Leading is a skill that can be learnt, in order that anyone can lead.

    Yes, there is positional titles, but people can have the title and not lead; and equally people can not have the title and lead.


    Comment by steve — April 29, 2014 @ 10:16 am

  6. Steve,

    I think the pushback is almost all semantics.

    But I’m intrigued by the argument which asks for chapter and verse on Jesus teaching on leadership. Perhaps another way to ponder this is to work our way around the trinity:

    What about a word study on ‘Spirit’ and ‘lead’, ‘led’ and ‘leading’, which we don’t often think of on this topic. But of course its as breathing to consider the Spirit ‘leading’ us. Indeed the Spirit ‘leads’ Jesus into the wilderness.

    The Spirit is a leader.

    Comment by Tim Hein — April 29, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

  7. Tim

    I think the Greek in Mark is ekballo to forcibly cast!


    Comment by Steve — April 29, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

  8. Tim

    I think it’s much more than semantics. I think it’s about preconceived notions of lead and about what a minister is and does and about how the church relates to society


    Comment by Steve — April 29, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

  9. in some ways it comes down to the central thrust of Jesus’ mission, ministry, life, being: he challenges, he turns upside down. the storytellers, Jesus himself is said to use, kingdom language, but not because God or Jesus are ‘king’ the way humans have usually experienced rulers, instead using this language precisely because Jesus presents an alternative way of being ‘king’.
    so, Jesus ‘leads’ in an alternative way, more like a ‘servant’ – as you can see in the story of Jesus washing feet, for example.
    so lead and serve are intertwined, as one of the comments says.
    and as in another comment, there are semantic acrobatics going on.

    steve, your description of why the word lead, how we lead, as followers of Jesus, helped redeemed for me a little a word that for its overuse and narrow use mostly causes me to cringe. thanks.

    Comment by sarah — April 30, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

  10. Upon reading your post again Steve I am interested on hearing how you distinguish what parts of Christian leadership are serving and what are leadership? If a leader is vision casting Godly vision to benefit those he or she s leading is this not using a leadership gift to serve people? Things like challenging political authorities and risking your own alienation for the sake of others seems like an incredible act of service.
    You say “yes to service, but yes also to vision casting, to community building, to prophetic and pastoral skills” I would think saying yes to service is what make us say yes to all these other areas. Is it possible that it is the servant attitude with which these tasks are performed that distinguishes Christian leadership.

    I am certainly not against the use of the word lead in a tag line, but think we need to be careful to make sure that we don’t create a false distinction between acts of service and acts of leadership,

    Comment by Aaron — April 30, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

  11. Aaron,

    I wonder if we’re not quite hearing each other right.

    Can I provide a bit more context. the tagline Learn! Lead! Live! came out of a challenge put to us by our strategic planning process. Could we express ourselves in 3 words. For academics it was agony!

    We settled on Learn! Lead! Live!

    The question raised by my presentation and which I was reflecting here in this post was why not Learn! serve! Live!

    Shat I’m trying to argue is that the more I thought about it, the more convinced I am that there’s a lot more to leadership and what Christianity offers leadership than “serve.” The book by Banks has 7 chapters on leadership and 1 part of one chapter is the work by Greenleaf on servant leader. There’s a lot more Christianity offers.

    But for the hope of increasing understanding in this conversation, can I play a bit more with your desire for “serve.”

    Why not Learn! Lead! serve!

    Or serve! lead! live!

    Again I’d want to say – all in the search for only 3 words – that there is more to learning than service and more to living than service.

    I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, because I’m not exactly sure I’m understanding you. Sorry


    Comment by steve — May 1, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  12. Sarah,

    There are so many words that make me cringe – church, Christian, disciple, mission, pioneer – polluted by history. Yet we either fill existing words with more Kingdom meaning or we try to find new words – which will themselves run the risk of pollution.

    I appreciate your use of words, as always, and your use of upside alternative stories even more 🙂


    Comment by steve — May 1, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

  13. I guess i was focusing less on the overall context of your post and more on how you are distingiushing certain acts of leadership which you don’t deem to be “serve”. When I read the part where you said “yes to serve but also yes to vision casting…..” it made it sound like you think that these other acts of leadership are not acts of “serve”
    What I was getting at is I see “serve” as an incredibly broad thing. I don’t think serve is only performing a lowly tasks for others ( as noble and as needed as that is ). But think that all the facets of leadership (ie vision casting) should fall under the “serve” category (if they are done with the right attitude.). The idea to present ourselvs as a living sacrifice in Romans 12:1 is the invitation to make any task or duty an act of service.

    It may well be that lead is a far better tag line within your context and more accurately discribes whar you are try to say. it just seemed you adopted a very narrow use of the word serve to make your point. Saying we have more to offer than a “simple serve” seems strange if everything we do is to be done as acts of serving,

    It may well be that I have missed the greater context of your post, in any case I am enjoying the discussion. I guess I am passionate to see acts of leadership always done as acts of service given some of the failings of my fellow Charismatics in this area.

    Comment by Aaron — May 1, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

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