Lance Ford
Unleader: Reimagining Leadership … and Why We Must
Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2012.
ISBN 978-0834128859 (paperback)

"Ford urges refocusing our efforts on discipleship and inviting people 'to be with me', rather than falsely thinking the primary source of renewal is from better leadership, preaching, study groups (or, we may add, advanced level theological education)."

There are a multitude of voices (and thousands of books) urging particular approaches to leadership. The most important voice for Christian leaders that we need to listen to in theological education is Scripture and especially what Jesus has to say. Another important voice to pay attention to is the changing cultural expectations on leaders and especially the trend towards more egalitarian and collaborative styles. But to what extent are our models for leadership in our churches and training systems synchronous with Jesus’ words, and to what extent are they following cultural expectations to be more collaborative, or should they? These are key questions of mine, and key issues Lance Ford addresses head on in Unleader.  

Lance Ford has two decades of leadership experience as a pastor, church planter, consultant, and cofounder of Sentralized Conference. He co-wrote Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People with Alan Hirsch, and The Missional Quest: Becoming a Church of the Long Run with Brad Brisco. He serves on the USA national leadership team of Forge Mission Training Network, and is committed to coaching and resourcing a new generation of healthy missional leaders.  

The essence of Unleader revolves around a fresh reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew 20:25b-26a and its appeal for servantship over leadership: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Ford points to a new paradigm, which is really rediscovering an ancient paradigm of these “Jesusian” coordinates to replace the old and tired modern paradigms of command and control. He critiques obsession with leadership practices drawn from business and politics, and the preponderance of leadership books compared to discipleship and “followership”. He queries the hierarchy of megachurch staffs and executive pastors. He warns against the toxic leadership culture and obsession with celebrities that is breading in too many churches and organisations. He labels the inappropriate behavior of leaderholic “Jesus jerks” who abuse those who work “for” them. And he urges that leadership is about function not position, and so questions titles for their own sake: One of the biggest problems of church hierarchy is that it separates leaders from normal saints and creates a co-dependent system where the leaders do the important stuff and the people are there to sit, listen and obey: “It is as if we have built restaurants when we should have built culinary schools. We have spent most of our resources and time on feeding people rather than training them to feed themselves and others.” (p.38)

Ford urges refocusing our efforts on discipleship and inviting people “to be with me”, rather than falsely thinking the primary source of renewal is from better leadership, preaching, study groups (or, we may add, advanced level theological education).

Unleader is best read not merely as a finger-pointing prophetic challenge to the church out there but as a probing discernment of our own motivation. It led me to ask, am I, like James and John who Jesus was correcting, preoccupied with attention and who is listening to or reading me? Am I distracted by an all too-often Facebook driven sense of self-promotion? Do I like my titles – and sense of entitlement – too much? Am I more into building church than the people who make up the church? What insecurities drive me in “non-Jesusian” behaviours? Do I need to detox from leadership and freshly aspire to servantship? To what extent do I need to avoid thinking “I am the most valuable one here” and learn to say “we are strongest together”. Would I be willing to give up a seemingly ideal vocational role like Henri Nouwen had teaching at Harvard, and serve in a hidden “unimportant” corner of the world. To what extent has Jesus’ foot-washing and cross-carrying approach to power transformed me? 

Ford models the way for his readers – he honestly confesses to his leadership trumping Jesus’ lordship, takes the medicine, and begins to explain how he has been recalibrating. 

There are two areas that I felt were missing, or that I would like to see Ford or others address in future writing. 

Firstly, I would like to know Ford’s criteria and principles for assessing business leadership literature. He critiques the obsession of pastors with it on the one hand, but then draws generously on its wisdom. Obviously he is not against learning from the leadership literature. He cites postmodern leadership gurus Dee Hock, Margaret Wheatley and Peter Senge, and their advocacy for non-hierarchies. He discusses Manfred F R Kets de Vries insightful critique of neurotic leadership and points people to Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. If pastors are obsessed with the business leadership literature, and yet if it is okay to use and learn from it (as Ford himself does), what evaluative grid and criteria should we use? Furthermore, in theological education, how can we train emerging leaders to draw their main inspiration from Scripture and openness to the voice of God, and yet discerningly use other sources?

Secondly, I am convinced by Ford’s central argument reflected in his subtitle about “reimaging leadership...and why we must”. But I have less need of being convinced  “why” we must change our paradigm from a leadership obsession to a servantship culture, and more for being shown “how”. Instead of examples of what happens when leadership is dysfunctional and leaderholics take control, I am fascinated by examples of alternative approaches.  No writer can say everything in one book, and Ford begins to point in fresh directions. But churches and aspiring unleaders need more practical guidance. 

How can we foster collaborative culture in our leadership teams? Ford affirms the example of Jean Vanier’s work with the intellectually disabled. How can we be inspired and learn not just from Vanier, but from those with disabilities? In what ways can we learn from women and children and their different approaches to influence? Ford affirms an Hispanic pastor who calls himself the associate pastor, recognising Jesus is the only Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4). But apart from rebadging our business cards, what wisdom can we learn from people of other cultures about different approaches to leadership? And how can we be less ethnocentric and adopt more humble practices so that we are able to listen and learn from people who are different from us? The book focuses on “why” we need to reimagine leadership, but prompted me also to think about “how”. 

Lance Ford offers the church a timely gift of a tonic to detox off leadership obsessions and foster a thirst for discipleship and servantship. Unleader is highly recommended reading for all followers of Jesus, whatever position they hold, and would make a valuable addition to the reading lists of leadership faculty and students. 

This review was originally published in Journal of Adult Theological Education 11:1 (2014). 

To buy this book head to UnLeader: Reimagining Leadership...and Why We Must.