The heart of team-based leadership

By Ted Johnston, CAD Publications Editor

Ted Johnston

Given this month’s theme of leadership, I thought it might be helpful to share what my experience tells me is a vital aspect of developing leaders—both new ones and veterans. Rather than “flying solo,” effective leaders practice team-based leadership. They know how to either lead a team of leaders, or function otherwise as part of a leadership team.

An expectation and mandate

Team-based leadership has become the expected norm in our modern, post-modern world, which is increasingly collaborative, interactive and flexible. Team-based leadership is also a biblical mandate. As noted by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 12:1-30, God has designed the church to operate at all levels as what it truly is: the body of Christ, with interconnected, cooperating parts.

The heart of it all

The heart that undergirds team-based leadership in the church is helpfully addressed by Bryan Taylor in the Winter 2015 issue of Outcomes magazine. His article looks at what Henri Nouwen says about leadership in the book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a Story of Homecoming. Nouwen gleans insights from Rembrandt’s painting, “Return of the Prodigal Son.”

“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some key statements from Taylor’s article:

In human terms, the concept of management implies power, control, achievement and competition, yet spiritually we realize that we are called to something much greater. Ultimately, we are called to a spiritual paternity—a divinely inspired fathership of those we are called to lead, guide and encourage. (p. 33)

Taylor then addresses Nouwen’s and Rembrandt’s insights derived from the example of the father of the Prodigal Son:

Do Nouwen and Rembrandt have anything to teach us? I believe that for today’s Christian leader, the answer is a resounding yes! The father in Rembrandt’s picture has much to teach us about leadership, engagement and teamwork. (p. 33)

The fire of love

In studying Rembrandt’s painting, Nouwen observed that the light highlighting the painting emanates from the father. For Nouwen, this “fire of love” is the father’s compassion. Acting out of his loving concern for his son, the father’s motive is not “to grasp, conquer, and regulate the visible, but to transform the visible in the fire of love.” An effective team leader does likewise, knowing how to “give up” any “demand for control, pride, self-gratification and strength” in favor of deeply loving the other team members. According to Nouwen, this love, which was so lavishly expressed by the father to his wayward son…

…cannot force, constrain, push, or pull.  It offers freedom to reject the love or to love in return… That freedom includes the possibility of leaving home and going to a distant country and losing everything. (p. 33)

Effective leadership teams necessarily have a primary leader—a leader of leaders. However, in accord with the example of the Prodigal Son’s father, that leadership is grounded in love, not a need to be in charge, to exert control, and certainly not to satisfy one’s ego. Like the father in the picture, effective leaders relate to their teams with joy, forgiveness and generosity.

A test of love

Because effective leaders possess these qualities, it is not difficult for them when another team member rises to the top and even replaces them. Moving from primary to “second chair” leadership is not easy, but it’s key to a leadership team developing in a way that one generation seamlessly replaces another. It has brought me great joy to participate in several such transitions within GCI, including the one currently underway as GCI President Joseph Tkach prepares GCI Vice President Greg Williams to take his place. I see the Triune God at work in this, and that gives me great hope concerning GCI’s future.

Several years ago, I led GCI’s GenMin leadership team and Greg was a key leader on the team. After a few years, I handed primary leadership of the team over to Greg and was part of his team. Eventually, Greg handed leadership of the GenMin team to Anthony Mullins, and Greg replaced Dan Rogers as primary leader of the GCI Church Administration and Development (CAD) team. Once again (and continuing to this day), I found myself on a team led by Greg. There was a time when I was his “boss,” and now he is mine. That makes me smile with great joy!

My point here is that effective leadership teams have flexible, even interchangeable parts. But such flexibility works only when team members love each other and have high regard for one another above themselves. In short, leadership teams work well when they operate in accordance with the ethos of love exhibited by the father of the Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting (which had a profound impact on how Henri Nouwen thought about Christian leadership).


My prayer is that leaders reading this will experience the joy of being part of a ministry team, and that their joy will increase as their team develops to the point where they are able to pass leadership on to others.

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