Discipleship, First and Finally
Ministerial leadership is, first and finally, discipleship.
Returning to his native England after 50 years of missionary work in India, Lesslie Newbigin was stunned to see the decline of the church in the west. So instead of settling into retirement in 1974, he launched a second career as a missionary to the UK and to North America. Through a series of books and essays Newbigin called for the church take seriously the gospel as a word that actually makes a difference. This gospel—the present and coming reality of God’s presence in the world—matters. It leads the church (the body of Christ!) to embody the reality of God’s gracious, transformative work.
Now that heavy word about the church’s task shapes our understandings of leadership. Rather than thinking that leadership is rooted in human action, Newbigin offers another approach. Since the church’s task is to be the body of Christ, then discipleship—an attentive following of Jesus Christ—becomes the prime activity of church leaders.
Minister, pastor, shepherd, servant—whatever term identifies you—begins with disciple. For me, paying attention to the way and word of God is primal. And the way that leader groups practice leadership finds power and life to the degree that a leader group is obedient collectively to the whisper of God.
Here is Newbigin exploring discipleship and its relationship to leadership as he reflects on the story of Peter in the Gospel of John:
The minister’s leadership of the congregation in its mission to the world will be first and foremost in the area of his or her own discipleship, in that life of prayer and daily consecration which remains hidden from the world but which is the place where the essential battles are either won or lost. I find warrant for this way of seeing ministry in the final chapter of St. John’s Gospel, where—in the person of Peter—we have given to us a picture of apostolic leadership in the Church. Peter is first presented to us as an evangelist. He is a fisherman, who, however, catches nothing until he submits the Master’s instruction. When he does so, there is a mighty catch which he brings, with the net intact and as the fruit of his work, one undivided harvest, to the feet of Jesus. Then the image changes and Peter is a pastor to whom Jesus entrusts his flock. He can so entrust it because Peter loves him more than all. But then, finally, the image changes again. Peter is a disciple who must go the way the Master went, the way of the cross. He is not to look around to see who is following. He is to look one way only—to the Master who goes before him. Ministerial leadership is, first and finally, discipleship.
—Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (240-241).
May God bless you, first and finally as disciples of Jesus Christ!