I’m sure you have seen hierarchical leadership displayed on an organisational chart. Typically one person is at the top, with a few subordinates at the next level and so on until you get to the bottom.

It is often represented as a triangle as well. 

Similar idea. Small at the top. Large at the bottom.

Quick question. Where does the power reside in these images? The bottom? The middle? Of course not. Power resides at the top of the triangle and flows out to the rest of the organisation. 

The individual at the top says something needs to happen; it generally happens. But, should someone in the bottom left-hand corner have an incredible idea, that idea will need to work its way up the chain of command. And most likely, nothing will ever come of it. 

This is how most businesses and secular organisations function. But that isn’t my concern here. My concern is that this is also how the church has tended to operate. The church has been a thoroughly hierarchical organisation since Christendom. So when the church looks to business leaders, books and models, it sees a way of doing things that aligns closely with how it is already functioning.

Now, in no way am I saying that there is not a great deal we can learn from business leaders and business leadership books. I have read many of them over the years and learned so much.

But, there is a crucial point to keep in mind. 

In Luke 22, at the last supper, Jesus instructed his followers that when they led, they were not to lord it over those they led like the kings of Gentiles did. I believe if he were speaking in our day, Jesus would tell us that when we lead, don’t lord it over those we lead like secular business or political leaders do. (He would probably have something to say about CEO salaries relative to their workers as well). 

And just as he instructed his followers to listen to what the Pharisees say but don’t do what they do, I believe Jesus would acknowledge a good deal of wisdom in much of how business leaders lead.

But in the Kingdom of God, in the church, don’t lord it over those you lead. 

Flipping the Triangle

It was around 25 years ago when I began hearing church leaders start talking about how church leadership should not be top-down leadership. And their solution was to turn the triangle on its side.

“See, we are no longer at the top! We aren’t over others. We are along side.”

The problem was, of course, that nothing changed. Power and authority remained concentrated at the point of the triangle. It may have had a friendlier, more accessible face, but it still had an agenda for the church and those who were part of it and the authority to implement that vision.

And, of course, this diagram isn’t reality. It is the leader telling those they are over that it’s reality. 

I spoke with someone this past year about my desire for non-hierarchical leadership within the church. They drew the sideways triangle for me and explained it like I was seeing it for the first time. And while telling me how this was not hierarchical, he explained how, from his place on the side of the triangle, he could direct people and help them see where they needed to go.

Exactly. That’s my point.

The orientation of the triangle is not the issue. The issue is power and authority being consolidated in one place and exerted upon everyone else.

Earlier this year, for the first time, I heard the phrase “Power Under.” I was in a webinar, and the facilitator kept using the words and stated that it was the model of power Jesus used. 

I think they were trying to communicate the servant nature of Jesus, which is great. But all they have done is merely rotate the triangle another 90 degrees. 

The power is now at the bottom—whatever that means. However, it continues to be concentrated at the tip of the triangle. 

Where is Jesus?

Whether over, under, or alongside, if power is being exerted upon others in the church, it is contrary to what Jesus taught.

Below is that passage in Luke 22:24-27. As you read it, picture a triangle. Where does Jesus place himself on it? 

24 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Luke 22:24-27 (NIV)

So, where is Jesus?

The king of the gentiles and those who exercise authority…they are over. They are at the tip of the triangle.

Jesus, he is among. He is with. He is at the table with everyone else. He is not at a distance. He is not ruling over but serving and living among. And he is serving amongst a community of servants.

Is leadership that isn’t top-down, or from a few towards the many possible? I think Jesus clearly states that it is what he calls us to. What would it look like in our churches if those of us who led, led from among?