It is difficult to talk about leadership in the context of “church.”

Most of us recognize the Scriptural basis for leadership, the importance of leadership to church functioning, and the dangers posed by incompetent or thoughtless leadership. And, yet, the whole subject of “spiritual leadership” is riddled with paradoxes, tensions, and contradictions.

In part, our difficulty derives from notions of “leadership” drawn from the world around us. Leaders are “on top.” They get their way. They bend others to their will. They make decisions. They accomplish results. They are efficient and effective. They drive and push and drag. They reap rewards. The qualities that make someone a good leader in the secular world have little to do with the qualities that make someone a good or nice person. Most of us can point to people who led well and lived poorly. When all these notions get poured into “spiritual leadership,” we quickly recognize they just don’t fit.

In part, the difficulty of defining “spiritual leadership” is a paradox built into the idea itself. What does leadership mean—what could it possibly look like—if the only legitimate spiritual leadership is based on humility, deference, and submission? What kind of leader can be “the servant of all” and the “least among you”? How can a leader set any agenda, move forward towards any goal, when compassion, gentleness, and forbearance are essential characteristics of the spiritual walk?

Christians (rightly) reject notions of leadership built solely around secular models. Secular and spiritual leadership are two different animals, right? Different goals. Different rules. Different skills.

True enough. Yet there is also common ground between the secular and the sacred. “Leadership”—after all—must involve certain commonalities in each realm if the word is to have any meaning.

All leadership, worldly or heavenly, has a certain shape. It involves casting a vision of what could be, developing strategies to acheive the vision, planning specific steps to be taken, communicating with various parties, recruiting the right people, empowering them for the task ahead, implementing the plan, monitoring its progress, evaluating results, and holding people accountable. This is the classic “leadership cycle” and it defines leadership of all shapes and sizes—whether in business, politics, or (yes) church. This reality of leadership is not a function of the goals towards which leaders strive but, rather, the simple truth that leaders work through people to reach their goals. Exciting people, motivating them, directing them, and coordinating their efforts is the essence of leadership—whatever its aim.

Jesus demonstrates this “leadership cycle” well. He had a strong sense of mission and vision—what he was about and what he was going to do (“I have come to seek the lost”). He developed a strategy to serve his vision (involving the cross, making disciples, testifying). He made plans (when his ministry would start, where he would travel). He communicated all this to his disciples and the crowds. He recruited the right people (Peter, James, John). He empowered them to do the work he called them to do (the Holy Spirit). He sent them off to implement the plans that would accomplish his mission (“Go into all the world …”). He monitored their progress and evaluated their work (“You must bear much fruit.”) And he held them accountable for their ministries (“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit”).

Just because Jesus had a spiritual mission doesn’t mean he could ignore leadership fundamentals. His leadership might have served different ends, used different means, than the leadership of Lincoln or Vanderbilt. But it was still leadership and had much in common with leadership exercised in other domains. Think of the “leadership cycle” as the container that holds and gives a common shape to leadership. The content may differ—motives, goals, methods, relationships, attitude, etc.—but the container remains a constant. For leadership to be leadership, it will involve something closely akin to the leadership cycle.

Which brings us to the question of spiritual leadership today. As we think about how churches are led, who leads them, what that leadership looks like, it will be helpful to keep the leadership cycle in mind. There are those (I know) who think spiritual leadership is principally a matter of prayer and personal disciplines, cleansing one’s self of all ambition and opinion, or “waiting” on God and thinking pure thoughts. Such an understanding involves an essential confusion between what it means to be spiritual and what it means to lead. Spirituality and leadership are not synonymous terms! One can pursue a spiritual life and, yet, be utterly lacking in the qualities and skills that mark a leader. (To believe that being “good” is the sole requirement of effective spiritual leadership is naïve.) One can also exercise leadership qualities and skills without exhibiting the fruit of basic spirituality. (To believe that spiritual leadership can be effective without the “spiritual” part is dangerous.)

While pursuing a deep and authentic spirituality is necessary to spiritual leadership, it is not sufficient. There is a “leadership layer” that must be added to the core of decency and spiritual sensitivity if effective spiritual leadership is to emerge. Jesus demonstrated this reality in his own leadership. So did Paul and Moses and David and Nehemiah and Peter. And so must we in our attempt to lead churches today in vigorous ways towards authentic Kingdom goals.