Leading by Following

By Dyton L. Owen

Leadership is grounded in relationship between us and God, but a leader must first follow.

While in college, I received my first appointment to serve a church as pastor. My father, who had been a pastor for over thirty years by that time, gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me for the past 35 years of my ministry: “Relationship will always be the most important factor in your leadership as a pastor. Keep your relationship with God strong first, and your ministry will flourish.”

To be honest, I have sometimes failed to follow that advice, but the truth of it has never failed to make itself known. Leadership is grounded in relationship.

Over the past 40 years, the topic of leadership has mushroomed in the publishing industry. According to the Bowker Report, the number of self-published leadership books alone was 458,564 in 2013, an increase of 437 percent over 2008. And, according to Cairnway (ServeLeadNow.com), over 1240 books with the word “leadership” in the title were published just through the third quarter of 2015. Seminars and workshops on leadership are plentiful and growing. It seems that everyone has an idea on what leadership is all about, preaching and proffering all sorts of advice on the subject. Even in the life of the Church, leadership is most often portrayed as something a person does based on his or her personality, skills, or authority.

What is sorely lacking in leadership—even (or especially) leadership in the Church—is the idea that leadership is rooted in relationship, and that the primary relationship required is with God. It is from this relationship with God that leadership flows naturally, effectively, and sincerely.

Yet, how someone understands God will have an undeniable effect on his or her leadership. If God is understood as aloof and distant—as One who is not affected by human creatures—then leadership may be viewed as power over others, as authoritarian, or manipulative. On the other hand, if God is understood as open, relational, and loving, leadership is experienced as partnership with One who guides and influences the leader and his or her leadership.

The scriptures show us that God is a relational God who actively seeks a loving relationship with us. James Weldon Johnson speaks to this understanding of God in his poem “The Creation.” In the poem, after God had created everything except humanity, Weldon says God sat down, looked at all that had been created, and then said to himself, “I’m lonely still.” Then, writes Johnson, “God thought and thought, till he thought: I’ll make me a man!”

God desires and pursues a relationship with us. Leadership as relationship understands that this relationship between God and human creatures makes an essential difference in how our leadership is played out.

There are many examples of an open and relational God in scriptures. In the book of Genesis, for example, God’s desire to interact with Adam and Eve is evidence of God’s open, loving, and relational nature. God goes in search of Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, in spite of their disobedience, God desired to remain in relationship. Furthermore, Adam and Eve’s actions affected God, as seen in God’s act of seeking after them. While God was disappointed, God continued to remain in relationship with humanity in spite of their acts of disobedience and its consequences.

Another example of God’s open and relational essence can be seen in the story of Moses and the people of Israel. In the giving of the Ten Commandments, we clearly see God’s desire and intention to be in relationship with creation and creatures. The Commandments were given as a way to reestablish a relationship that had been severely broken—a relationship between God and humanity as well as between human beings themselves.

In fact, the entire Bible, from cover to cover, is one story of how God desires to be in relationship with God’s creation; indeed, God pursues such relationship. Beginning with Adam and Eve and moving through the Ten Commandments, the prophets, priests, and kings, we see God actively seeking a relationship with humanity. In the course of time, God chose to make God’s self known in the human being, Jesus.

Jesus is God’s ultimate act of relationship with humanity and all creation. In Jesus, God becomes that with which God desires relationship. In Jesus, God no longer relates to creation—to humanity—through laws, rules, regulations, or propositions; God relates to humanity through one of us, through a human being. It is through this self-revelation of Jesus that God relates to creation in a new way. Through Jesus, we undoubtedly see God relates to and is affected by humanity, because God became one of us. We also see that humanity relates to and is affected by God in how Jesus relates to others. The act of God becoming human is a reciprocating event that affects both the Creator and creation.

In God-in-Jesus, we realize that no further attempts by God to relate to creation are necessary: Jesus is the unsurpassable relationship between God and humanity. In Jesus, God responds to creation’s need for relationship. As French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man [sic] which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.”

Having said all this, it is important to understand that relationship in regard to leadership begins with being first a follower. That is to say, I am a leader only insofar as I am first a follower of Someone greater. That “someone” is God in the person of Jesus. We cannot be good leaders until we are first good followers. Being followers enables and empowers us to be leaders. Leonard Sweet reminds us that the Church is not led by leaders, but by Christ. Everyone else is a follower (I Am A Leader, p. 24). Our followership enables, empowers, and influences our leadership, not the other way around. We lead others only as we are first led ourselves. We cannot out-lead our Leader; we can only lead others as followers first.

This relationship deeply influences our leadership. An open and relational understanding of God helps us appreciate that human creatures have an influence on God, and that our relationship with God consequently influences how our leadership is carried out. This relationship-leadership interplay can be seen in Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gospel of John:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and becomemy disciples (15:5-8).

Here, we see how an open and relational understanding of God shapes us and our leadership, as well as how this understanding affects God. Jesus states that without an interdependent relationship with God, we can do nothing. But with such a relationship, we can “bear much fruit.” This implies that God relates to humanity and that relationship makes an essential difference in how we lead and “bear fruit.” It further implies that we affect God in the relationship: our “bearing fruit” glorifies God. However, despite the fact that human beings have an influence on God, God’s open and loving nature is unchanging. That is to say, regardless of how our leadership plays out—for good or for not so good—God always loves us. God’s essential nature is to love despite our own failures and broken nature.

As my father told me, leadership is first a relationship. That relationship is firmly grounded in the understanding that God is a living and loving Creator who desires and pursues a relationship with us. But a genuine leader must first be a follower: someone who follows Jesus first, and from that relationship leads others.

Dyton L. Owen is a United Methodist pastor serving in Kansas. He is the author of Jesus: God Revealed and Remembering Who We Are. Owen has also written several articles and essays for various publications on the topics of theology, worship, and church leadership.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

UL Leadership Cover