by Dr. James Furr
We are besieged these days by efforts to define and re-define the true marks of leadership and to decide who among us best fits the bill. After years of consideration, I find myself most often relying on the ancient biblical stations described by countless thoughtful sages. These time-honored roles influence others through prophetic, priestly, and kingly leadership.
Prophetic leadership reminds us what should be. Christian leaders are called to proclaim God’s broad intention for all creation. Whether this is expressed as shalom or the Kingdom of God, we all need an ultimate sense of purpose and direction. In Western culture, at least, cynicism seems more in vogue at this time but the prophet pursues God’s vision and takes the risk of hope. In specific cases of injustice, prophetic leaders courageously identify where change is needed. Jesus routinely contrasted distorted perspectives with God’s desires when he declared “you have heard it said…but I say to you….”
Priestly leadership cultivates spiritual formation in every arena of life. Because we tend to stay on the same trajectory over time, priestly leadership addresses where we have been. Consequently, priestly guidance embraces our spiritual maturation, as well as our personal and collective journeys of pain and joy, confusion and clarity, loss and gain. Such leadership helps us tell our stories and listen to others as we learn to relate to one another and discern how those narratives fit into the grand story of the gospel.
Kingly leadership acknowledges our past and helps determine what could be if we move toward God’s intent. Kingly leadership mobilizes the resources, processes, and structures to take steps in the right direction. Without such wisdom, we often remain stuck in destructive patterns or wander aimlessly.
The interdependence of these leadership dimensions means it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish neatly the expressions of each one. What is especially striking, are the consequences of pursuing one dimension of leadership at the expense of the others. For example, kingly influence alone can become a manipulative and insensitive strategy for self-serving ends. By itself, priestly leadership can become a self-absorbed and hopeless lament. Prophetic influence, in isolation, can espouse a lifeless ideology of vague principles or legalistic rule-keeping.
With this holistic framework, we are able to ask would-be leaders some vital questions. Where do they want us to go? What does their ideal world look like? How much do they seem to care about the unique burdens and gifts we bring to the journey? Is there a place for everyone in their understanding of the gospel story? Do the steps they advocate acknowledge the consequences of both human sinfulness and reconciliation? Perhaps even more importantly, how do we answer these questions for ourselves?
May God bless our faithful pursuit of Christian leadership!
Dr. James Furr is President of Houston Graduate School of Theology and Professor of Church and Culture. Beyond those roles, he is most honored to be husband, dad, and grandpa.