by W. Philip Thornton
“We desperately need leadership in our church.” How often have missionaries uttered this lament? It was certainly among my first during my first-term in Colombia.
"We desperately need leadership in our church." How often have missionaries uttered this lament? It was certainly among my first during my first-term in Colombia. It wasn’t limited to our mission, either. While some denominations were having more success than others in finding, developing, and keeping good leaders in their churches, most mission agencies seemed to be continuously in crisis at this point. Thus, when I set out to study religious change from Catholicism to Protestantism from an anthropological point of view, in the cities of Medellin and Bogota, the question of effective leaders became significant.
The following observations come from that research. Let me acknowledge that I do not intend to prescribe a formula for successful leadership in Latin America. Rather, these suggestions emerge from my study of (a) several strong local churches in Medellin and Bogota, and (b) several mission groups that were, according to their own testimonies, suffering from a lack of effective leaders in their churches.
The important role of leadership in the growth of religious movements around the world has been emphasized by missiologists such as Hesselgrave. He states, "From a scientific point of view one is tempted to say that if there is necessary or sufficient cause for the success of a movement apart from purely spiritual factors … it is that the movement has outstanding leadership." In discussing the type of leadership that has succeeded best in Protestantism in Colombia, sociologist Manuel Rojas commented, "By tradition we are used to having a strong leader. This is true in work, in politics, and in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, we look for the same in Protestantism"
Rojas’ statement agrees with my own observations concerning strong and growing churches in Medellin and Bogota, namely that they were being led by what I have come to call a "spiritual caudillo" (caudillo being the word used to describe a very strong leader). As I studied these men, who represented various theological persuasions ranging from Pentecostalism to Calvinism, I noted that all of them seemed particularly effective in their pulpit ministries.
Given the dependence of Protestantism on verbal communication-as opposed to Catholicism with its emphasis upon visual ritual and symbolism-it is not surprising that strong preaching and teaching from the pulpit surfaced as vital to effective, urban Protestant leadership. For the Roman Catholic priest, success hinges more on his correct performance of the ritual process than on any message he communicates through preaching or teaching. Likewise, the Roman Catholic parishioner depends more on his or her participation in the rightly performed ritual for religious gain than on verbal instruction. In Protestantism, however, the original motivation of a person to make a religious change to a Protestant church, as well as the spiritual well-being of those who have already made such a change, results largely from the leader’s persuasive and instructive abilities.
In the same vein, when questioned about what they considered to be the greatest enemies or problems facing the Protestant believer today, many Protestant laypersons spoke of false doctrines. They generally agreed that one of the primary jobs of a pastor was to protect their congregations against theological heresies, and that this job was best accomplished through clear, frequent, doctrinal teachings from the pulpit.
Where a local church appeared to be growing and strong, I noted that the pastor seemed to have that seemingly rare ability to motivate his congregation, especially a core of workers drawn from the larger congregation. While not neglecting the ministry to the larger group, the more successful pastors demanded, and indeed received, a great deal of loyalty from this select group.
For example, one pastor in Bogota met four to five hours each morning five days a week to train a group of young men from his church. These men then formed the backbone of several evangelistic teams that scattered throughout neighboring barrios, as well as other parts of the city, each afternoon for door-to-door visitation. For this work they received little or no financial compensation. One young man with a family was even using his savings just to have the opportunity to work with this well-known leader. In Medellin another group made a significant financial sacrifice (e.g., buying their own bus fares) to study with a successful pastor several nights a week-and all after a long day on the job or in school. Their reward: being able to serve in some capacity in the church or in an evangelistic outreach.
To the outsider some of these successful Protestant leaders might appear to be dictators. But the members of their congregations did not perceive them in this way. Rather, these spiritual caudillos were giving leadership to their urban congregations in a culturally appropriate manner. They were men of strong opinions, and they stated them positively and clearly. They were confident in their abilities, as well as their "call of God" to leadership. Thus, they projected an air of confidence that was contagious among their followers.
While I would not argue that every successful urban pastor in Medellin and Bogota is a great pulpiteer or an outstanding teacher, I would suggest that culture conditions a people regarding many of their expectations concerning leadership, the religious realm included. Successful religious leaders will most often fulfill these cultural expectations as well as any biblical qualifications (e.g., I Tim. 3 and Titus 1). As one who holds a high view of culture, even in a fallen world, I contend that God chooses to work through culture rather than against it, except where some cultural component goes directly against what we find in Scripture.
Every society seems to have within it what we might call natural leaders. While not negating the role of spiritual gifts as supernatural abilities bestowed as the Holy Spirit wills, I would suggest that these natural leaders with their culturally appropriate talents and abilities also make the best spiritual leaders.
In urban Colombia the spiritual caudillo (strong leader) appears to be a culturally appropriate pattern, at least at the upper-lower class level where most Protestant work in Colombia is found. It would behoove every mission agency seeking to establish a strong national church carefully to consider culturally appropriate patterns and characteristics in choosing and training leaders. In so doing, we might avoid many of our present obstacles.
It might be well to mention at this point a parallel problem regarding the potential relationship of missionaries to the type of leader mentioned above in urban Colombia. As I talked with these spiritual caudillos, I simply could not see any of them assuming some type of understudy role to a missionary over an extended period of time, a pattern that has frequently been followed in our missionary work. Rather, it would seem that strategy would demand at least a partnership relationship, one that allows the natural leader to assume a leadership role from the beginning.
Where the role of missionaries has been too domineering (Or should we say paternalistic?), natural leaders have sought out other options. As one successful Medellin pastor put it, when questioned about leaving a particular denomination, "The missionaries accused me of trying to set up my own kingdom." Without knowing all the details of this event, I believe that it would be safe to say that this natural leader presented a threat to some missionaries, at least in part because of his strong leadership abilities. Where missionaries have been fearful in turning to strong, natural leaders in their church planting, the result has often been that they have surrounded themselves with good followers and not good leaders. We must begin with culturally appropriate leadership.
Granting that the spiritual caudillo of which we speak seems to be scarce in the Protestant movement as a whole, it is clear that some Protestant denominations have either attracted or developed more of this type of leaders than others, or have done both. Part ot the answer to this observation lies in the ecclesiastical structures the various Protestant groups use.
From the standpoint of developing and maintaining effective leaders, two types of ecclesiastical structures emerge: the closed system and the open system. The closed system or structure locates most, if not all, the power and prestige at the top. In other words, it functions like a pyramid with the most important position(s) at the pinnacle.
These positions of power and influence are very few. They generally reside in some type of administrative committee headed up by a president. It sometimes happens that those who have reached these positions are not necessarily there because of their leadership qualities. In fact, their success may lie more in their ability as politicians (i.e., ability to manipulate the larger constituency) than in any ability to provide leadership.
Young people coming into the system from the outside find it virtually impossible to supplant the ones in power-at least not without significant battle, which generally ends up dividing the denomination. Any leaders with ability who come up through the ranks become a threat to those in hierarchical positions. Since the positions of importance, prestige, and power are very limited in the closed system, and since those who are in those positions tend to guard them carefully, natural leadership in the form of younger members or outsiders tends to move out of the system quickly and on to other organizations where opportunities for advancement and achievement are not so limited. (See Figure 1.)
While the open system structure is also hierarchical, this hierarchy offers considerable opportunity for the disciplined, gifted, and knowledgeable person coming up in, or coming into, the system to move up in status and authority. While there may be a great deal of power located in the hierarchy, power-and more importantly, prestige-exist at the ranks below that hierarchy.
This is best exemplified in the ecclesiastical structure that gives utmost importance (and therefore power and prestige) to the pastor of a large and growing church. In other words, being a successful pastor is equal to, if not more important than, being in an administrative position. In this type of system, there are no limited numbers of desired positions as in the closed, pyramidal system. Thus, the success of one individual does not imply the failure of others. (See Figure 2.)
In summary, the key to the differences between the closed and open system structures seems to lie at the point of emphasis. In the closed system, one who aspires to achieve the best the system has to offer faces a limited number of recognized, prestigious, administrative positions, generally highly protected by those who hold them. In the open system, however, prestige (and thus aspiration) exists at a lower level, namely the pastorate. This system makes room for all who have the ability to achieve. Mission agencies need to realize that it is possible to structure against church growth by structuring against the attraction of and multiplication of natural leaders in a particular culture or subculture. While not automatically setting aside doctrinal heritage with regard to church structure, missionaries need to be open to adaptation when it comes to structure, so that the church they plant is in harmony as much as possible with other cultural institutions. This is a must for obtaining and keeping good leaders.
The last observation that surfaced in my study of the Protestant church in urban Colombia concerns the leader and social stratification. Marguerite Kraft makes a similar observation in her work on communication of religious belief among Nigerians in Africa. In essence, mission agencies must be aware of the limitations social stratification places upon leadership.
Let me illustrate with an example from Medellin. One particular Protestant group had been working in a barrio (suburb) for over 10 years, but with very little results. In order to revive the situation and develop a congregation through winning people from that neighborhood, a veteran evangelist-pastor was brought in. However, it soon became evident that this new leader was spending most of his time in a neighboring barrio and not in the target barrio where the church was located. Why? According to the pastor, this second barrio was more open. However, what seems to have been more the case was that the social position and accompanying methodologies of this new pastor were more in line with the lower-class expectations of the second barrio than with the middle-class situation of the original target barrio.
Whereas the Catholic priest is not locked in or limited to a particular sector of the status ladder, such is not the case with the Protestant pastor. For the Protestant leader to be successful in communicating his message, he must be at a social level at least equal to or, better, slightly higher than, that of his audience.
This fact is attested to over and over again by recent developments in mission strategies among many mission agencies. Having begun as a rural ministry, much mission work of late has shifted to urban-oriented ministries. In the changeover process, rural or rural-trained pastors were brought to urban areas as leaders. In most cases, however, these men and their message have been rejected by the urbanite who considers himself above the campesino. In essence, the rural social standing of the would-be leaders followed them to the city and left them lacking the prestige necessary to communicate effectively with an urban audience.
In summary, I would suggest that some of our present problems in finding and keeping good leaders in our churches in urban Latin America might be lessened, if not eliminated, if we kept in mind the following:
1. Leadership, including church leadership, must be culturally appropriate in style and characteristics.
2. Any stategy that places missionaries in key positions of leadership and later seeks to transfer that leadership to national hands is not one that will attract strong, natural leaders-at least not in present-day, urban Latin America.
3. Leadership must be in line with the target audience at the point of social status.
4. It is possible to structure against church growth by structuring against the attraction of and multiplication of natural leaders. In other words, if the ecclesiastical structure in question does not offer a sufficient number of culturally appropriate leadership positions, those potential leaders in that structure will simply find another group that affords them greater freedom.
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