What We Mean When We Say “Missional Leadership”

What is a missional leader, anyway? Do they grow large churches? Are they really good at organizing mission projects? In the second post in our “Defining the Terms” blog series, The Rev. Ben Sternke of Gravity Leadership unpacks what we mean when we say “missional leadership” in the Telos Collective. We recently partnered with Ben and his team at Gravity Leadership to offer coaching for Anglican leaders who want to implement the practices in this post and develop true missional leadership. 

by the Rev. Ben Sternke

I think it was almost 18 years ago when I heard the word “missional” while reading Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, edited by Darrell Guder. It was a compelling modifier with a specific theological meaning.

But since then, “missional” has become a word that can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean. After all, who wouldn’t want to be missional? Who would say their church is proudly “unmissional”?

This diluting of the definition of “missional” is unfortunate, because the word really does mean something that is vitally important for the church to grasp and practice in the 21st century. And it starts with leadership.

So when we talk about missional leadership, we aren’t just talking about generically “good” leadership, or your church having a mission statement. We’re saying something quite specific. I want to try and spell that out, first by outlining 3 things that missional leadership is NOT.

1. Missional leadership is not about church growth.

The first thing to say is that missional leadership is not simply leadership that leads a church to grow in numbers. It’s not just generically “good” leadership that brings about institutional growth.

I’ve got nothing against church growth, by the way. I’m a church planter, after all, praying for God to bring people! But leadership that brings about church growth isn’t necessarily missional leadership.

2. Missional leadership is not just telling people to live on mission.

When I first got turned on to the missional church, I figured all I needed to do was to preach about the mission of the church and it would happen!

Spoiler alert: this didn’t work. Telling people to live on mission didn’t result in people living on mission. Missional leadership is not just changing the content of your sermons. (However, don’t get the wrong idea: I do think preaching is absolutely crucial in a missional church.)

3. Missional leadership is not recruiting people to service projects.

After I realized that preaching missional sermons didn’t bring about a missional church, we started something that seemed pretty missional… we organized service projects.

We raked leaves. We cleaned up parks. We volunteered at the local women’s and children’s homeless shelter. Once a month, we were out in the community serving.

The problem, though, was the now that we had a scheduled event on the calendar every month, “life on mission” had become at item we checked off the to-do list, and “missional leadership” consisted of recruiting people to volunteer for service projects.

(Service projects aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they can easily become a way for us to relieve our “missional anxiety,” rather than a doorway into a holistic life on mission.)

Missional leadership is paying attention and participating.

So what is missional leadership all about, then? Here’s a brief definition: Missional leadership is all about paying attention to and participating in what God is doing in and around you, and opening space for others to do so well.

“Missional” refers first of all to God. The church’s mission flows from her union with the God who is on mission. God is present and always at work, as Jesus affirmed (John 5:19), so the first move of a missional leader is to simply pay attention to what God is already doing.

The first move of a missional leader is to simply pay attention to what God is already doing.
After we notice what God is doing  to be doing (which is one way to define what his “kingdom” is), the second part of missional leadership is that we participate in the work we perceive God doing.

But it’s important that our participation be coherent with the way in which God does his work. We don’t “take over” and do whatever comes into our minds to do. Rather, we learn to participate in God’s work in God’s way (which we ultimately understand by looking at the way Christ went about his work).

This means that missional leadership is kenotic and cruciform.

Cruciform means “formed by the cross.” Leadership according to the pattern of Jesus is a death: to ourselves for the sake of others (which is not the same thing as “letting people walk all over you”). Our participation in God’s kingdom as leaders will take on the character of Christ’s participation, which was ultimately defined by the cross.

Kenotic means “self-emptying” (from Philippians 2:1-11). Our cruciform participation in the work of God is not self-condemnation, or an abdication of authority. Rather it is self-emptying in order that we can be filled with God and the Holy Spirit for the sake of others. The only way to be filled with God is to be emptied of Self (i.e. reliance upon flesh). As long as our flesh is trying to get its needs met apart from God, we cannot lead people in the way of Christ (love), because we will ultimately be using people to feed the desires of our flesh.

You are not to be like that.

The way Jesus practiced leadership was extremely challenging and prophetic to almost everyone he met. It stunned his followers and frustrated his enemies.

The prevailing paradigm of leadership in Jesus’ day was embodied by King Herod and Pontius Pilate. They were movers and shakers. Impressive, powerful, charismatic. Large and in charge. Commanding, controlling, dominating. They used pressure, intimidation, flattery, and bribes to influence others and get their way.

But as Jesus told his disciples when they were arguing over who was the best, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves… I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27).

It’s the same today. Jesus’  way of leadership continues to cut against the grain of our popular leadership models. His paradigm of God’s present kingdom and his posture of self-giving love carved out a way of carrying authority unlike anything else the world has ever seen.

Jesus’ way of leadership continues to cut against the grain of our popular leadership models.
So that’s what we mean when we say “missional leadership.” It’s leadership that first pays attention to what God is doing, rather than “jumping into action” with best practices. Then, when we perceive what God is doing, we participate in the work, but we do so in a cruciform and kenotic way: we lay down our lives for those we lead, and we empty ourselves to receive what only God can give.

Missional leadership, then, is participating WITH God in his work, rather than performing FOR God my work. It’s more about consenting to what God is already doing than controlling outcomes that I want to produce. It’s more about surrender than striving.

  • What does “missional leadership” look like in your life? 
  • What is your gut reaction to cruciform participation?
  • Where do you need help to become the kind of leader the world needs?

Read Part 1: Losing the Baggage: What We Mean When We Say “Missional”

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, a church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.