Secular wisdom for church leaders – 7 top tips

Statue outside the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, J MARLOW

This week the General Synod of the Church of England are grappling with some of the details of the ‘Reform and Renewal’ programme. This programme isn’t without its detractors, in fact one prominent commentator this week described it as “mainly offering secular business-led, management-led and growth-led ideologies – but without adequate spiritual or theological depth.”

The criticism hay be valid. There are thousands of books on leadership in the secular world, and many of these have found their way onto the bookshelves of Christian leaders and onto the the reading lists of seminaries and theological colleges.

But how critical do we need to be when looking for inspiration from the secular world?

During my sabbatical last summer I read two books concerned with leadership. One was Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor, the other was an older book translated into English. The preface began by setting out the author’s noble reason for writing:

“I realized there was nothing more precious or important to me than my knowledge of great men and their doings, a knowledge gained through long experience of contemporary affairs and a constant study of ancient history.

“Having thought over all I’ve learned, and analysed it with the utmost care, I’ve written everything down in a short book that I am now sending to [you].”

So far so good!

And as I read through, I found some key principles for church leaders, which I thought would make a good blog post. So here are Seven principles for church planters, grafters and growers.

#1 Live among the people

How can you know what’s really going on in a community if you’re not part of it? Just as God became incarnate among his people, so our ministry is one of dwelling with those we lead.

#2 Support those who are weaker around you.

When a new church moves into an area, those who are nearby (and already there) inevitably feel threatened by your new thing. They don’t have to feel that way if you make it clear you’re in it together and you’re there to help them too.

#3 Work to gain the support of the people, not just a small leadership team

Leaders often fall into the trap of surrounding themselves with people who think the same way and affirm the same things as they do. While it’s important to keep your leadership team happy and motivated, you’ll have a smoother ride in the long term if you focus on representing a wider group.

#4 Don’t expect help from outside

It can be tempting to think that all we need is a small group from another church to come and swell our numbers for a while, but don’t wait for the cavalry, because it isn’t coming! In any new setting you’re going to need to rely on your own people, no-one else is going to be motivated to grow what you are doing.

#5 Keep the main thing, the main thing

This one should be self-explanatory. If everyone knows what the organisation is for, what their place is within it and what your role is as leader, then you won’t get distracted by frills and risk losing focus.

#6 Be careful what people think of you.

In this world of instant communication and live-broadcasts, be aware of what’s on your facebook profile, twitter timeline and instagram feed. People are acutely allergic to hypocrisy, so make sure they don’t find anything which indicates your lack of virtue when they Google you.

#7 Be generous with your time and resources from the outset, not just once you’re established.

As in #2 above, you are not there just to build up your own empire. We could all use up our resources many times over, so don’t wait until you’re established to start sharing the good will.

So where do you think these came from?

Would it make a difference if it wasn’t an author you would naturally associate with Christian leadership?

Can you guess which book I was reading?

The book these principles were drawn from was written in Italian in 1513 by Niccolo Machiavelli. This book, The Prince, was a theoretical book, drawing on examples from antiquity and contemporary history to explain how rulers needed to behave in order to hold onto power. The Prince was so controversial, even it its own time, that Machiavelli’s name has entered our vocabulary as a word to describe unprincipled or underhand manipulation of others to do our will. All the principles above follow the section entitled Different types of states and how to conquer them.


Still think this is an appropriate pattern for church leaders? Here’s what Machiavelli has to say about each of these points:

#1 Live among the people 

“When you’re actually there, you can see when things start going wrong and nip rebellion in the bud; when you’re far away you only find out about it when it’s too late. Another advantage is that the new territory won’t be plundered by your officials. Its subjects will be happy that they can appeal to a ruler who is living among them. So, if they’re intending to be obedient, they’ll have one more reason to love you, and if they’re not, all the more reason to fear you.”

The reason for ‘incarnational ministry’ is so that you are close to the source of any disagreement with your regime. You don’t believe the favourable reports of those on the ground, because you can see the reality for yourself and detractors can be dealt with, whether they are members or part of your leadership team.

#2 Support those who are weaker around you

“A ruler who has moved into a new region with a different language and customs must also make himself leader and protector of the weaker neighbouring powers, while doing what he can to undermine the stronger. In particular, he must take care that no foreign power strong enough to compete with his own gets a chance to penetrate the area. People who are discontented, whether out of fear or frustrated ambition, will always encourage a foreign power to intervene.”

This is about building a power base. By appearing to support those who are weak you can improve your our chances of holding off those who are strong, as those you protect and champion will stand up for you.

#3 Have the support of the people, not just a small leadership team

“A monarchy can be brought about either by the common people or the nobles, when one or the other party finds it convenient. Seeing that they can’t control the people, the wealthy families begin to concentrate prestige on one of their number and make him king so as to be able to get what they want in his shadow. Likewise, the people, seeing that they can’t resist the power of the nobles, concentrate prestige on one citizen and make him king so that his authority will protect them. A king who comes to power with the help of the rich nobles will have more trouble keeping it than the king who gets there with the support of the people, because he will be surrounded by men who consider themselves his equals, and that will make it hard for him to give them orders or to manage affairs as he wants.”

This recognises the fragility of leadership and the need to establish yourself as more than just ‘first among equals’ but the true leader. Machiavelli recognises that among those who lead with you, you are only one of many, but to the people you are their champion, so protect their interests and you will not be open to competition for the leadership.

#4 Don’t expect help from outside

“When David offered to go and fight the Philistine troublemaker, Goliath, on Saul’s behalf, Saul gave him his own weapons to bolster the boy’s courage. But no sooner had David put them on than he refused the gift, saying he wouldn’t feel confident with them, he would rather face the enemy with his own sling and knife. In the end, other people’s arms are either too loose, too heavy or too tight.”

“So, sensible rulers have always avoided using auxiliaries and mercenaries, relying instead on their own men and even preferring to lose with their own troops than to win with others, on the principle that a victory won with foreign forces is not a real victory at all. As always Cesare Borgia offers a good example … It’s easy to see the difference between these various kinds of armies if you look at the duke’s standing when he had just the French, when he had the Orsinis and the Vitellis, and when he had his own soldiers and relied on his own resources. With each change his prestige grew and he was only truly respected when everyone could see that his troops were entirely his own.”

In its Renaissance context, this advice is about who will fight for you and who will abandon you when the going gets tough. Those you borrow have other allegiances, those you pay can be bought off, but your own army fights for their own land, family and lives as well as yours.

#5  Keep the main thing, the main thing

“A ruler, then, must have no other aim or consideration, nor seek to develop any other vocation outside war, the organization of the army and military discipline. This is the only proper vocation of the man in command.”

For Machiavelli, the main this was warfare and the accumulation of a more absolute leadership. What looks like focus can all-too-often be just the lust for more power.

#6 Be careful what people think of you.

“A ruler must avoid any behaviour that will lead to his being hated or held in contempt; every time he manages this he’s done what a ruler should and can indulge other bad habits without worrying about the consequences. As I’ve already said, what most leads to a ruler being hated is seizing and stealing his subjects’ property and women; that he must not do.

“So a ruler must be extremely careful not to say anything that doesn’t appear to be inspired by the five virtues listed above; he must seem and sound wholly compassionate, wholly loyal, wholly humane, wholly honest and wholly religious. There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious. In general people judge more by appearances than first-hand experience, because everyone gets to see you but hardly anyone deals with you directly.”

Maybe we think the public and private are different spheres, even in the age of Facebook. Machiavelli certainly thinks that cultivating your pious public profile will distract people from your real concerns. Keeping real relationships at arms-length will also help guard against people seeing the real you.

#7 Be generous with your time and resources from the outset, not just once you’re established.

“A ruler in power and a man seeking power are two different things. For the ruler already in power generosity is dangerous; for the man seeking power it is essential.”

“A ruler leading his armies and living on plunder, pillage and extortion is using other people’s money and had better be generous with it, otherwise his soldiers won’t follow him. What’s not your own or your subjects’ can be given away freely: Cyrus did this; so did Caesar and Alexander. Spending other people’s money doesn’t lower your standing – it raises it. It’s only spending your own money that puts you at risk. Nothing consumes itself so much as generosity, because while you practise it you’re losing the wherewithal to go on practising it. Either you fall into poverty and are despised for it, or, to avoid poverty, you become grasping and hateful. Above all else a king must guard against being despised and hated. Generosity leads to both.”

When you’re on the way up (or the way into a new city, church or area) you need people to think you’re going to be fighting their battles for them and feathering their nest as well as yours. Once you’re established, you’ll need those resources yourself, so don’t give them away. Being a ‘Resource Church’ should initially look like you’re into distributing resources. By the time you are established, the resources should be flowing one-way – towards you. How else could you keep up what you’re doing so successfully?

So I guess we need to be careful where we draw our inspiration from and please do call me on it if you think I’m putting any of this into practice.

Here’s a final quote with a warning about misappropriating secular wisdom:

“When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus Christ, Matthew 20:24–28 (NIV11)

Photos are my own. Quotations from are from Tim Parks’ translation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (Penguin Classics). Available from Wordery.

You can also buy The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli from for £4.32 

You can also buy The Pastor by Eugene Peterson from for £8.93 

This post contains Wordery and Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click through to either site and buy anything at all, you help this site, at no extra cost to you.

The DNA of Discipleship?

I’m enjoying reading Marcus Honeysett’s 100 Leadership Lessons blog series (not least to see if we get all the way to 100), and its no surprise to see that discipleship features heavily in the leadership mix so far.

Now I’m glad we’ve got 87 more lessons to go, because the Bible has a lot to say about how we train younger christians. But if we had to define what we are trying to do when we enter into this sort of intentional relationship, what would we say is at the heart (or in the DNA) of discipleship?

This weekend I’m giving some training for young leaders in the church (teenagers leading younger children’s groups). I was going to focus on growing the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, but then I was reminded of this exhortation from Peter in 2 Peter 1:5-8.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;  and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now there isn’t anything wrong with seeing these things as ‘fruit’ but I guess that Paul’s analogy is less meaningful today than when he first used it. When we think of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ we are in danger of having the same attitude to this growing process as I have towards the apples in my back garden – i.e. I just expect to wake up one morning and their will be apples. And if I leave them long enough, eventually they will ripen and fall off the tree and I can collect them if I’m in the mood, or leave them for the wasps.

Friends at church run a small-holding and their attitude to fruit is very different. It takes time to plan, cultivate, prune, feed, protect and pick fruit, and the same is true for seeing transformation in our lives.

That’s why (on this occasion) I’m going to use Peter’s list of ‘fruit’ to explain what Christian leadership (discipleship) is all about. Faith is the starting point, but Peter is clear that unless we are actively seeking to grow in these areas (making every effort), we are in danger of being “ineffective and unproductive in [our] knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So how do we nurture the growth of these qualities in the lives of young believers, and how do we ‘seek to poses them in increasing measure’ in our own?


What’s the management structure of your heart?

It used to be simple when Jesus was the King, because we all knew what to expect.

Kings are in charge, they offer protection and security and expect unconditional allegiance in return. From a good king you could expect justice and parity, but treason was unacceptable and antisocial, and usually a capital offence.

But kings are a bit old fashioned as a model of leadership, aren’t they?

I guess I’m not the only one to have slipped into a more corporate management structure, where God takes the place of the Chairman of the Board. Now He’s still in charge. He still has the final say. But if we are honest, have we installed ourselves as Chief Executive Officer?

When I think about how I sometimes plan and lead, it does seem like I treat God as the Chairman and myself as the CEO. Yes, I still send in regular reports. Yes, I still recognise he is my boss. Yes, I know that my leadership is only a delegated function from Him. And yes, if he did ask me to hold back on something then I would obey. But functionally, like a real CEO, I’m leading how I want to lead and expecting His backing if things get rocky. It’s a far cry for Jesus being King in my life

So how about you?

  • In the way we make plans and lead, have we relegated Jesus to Chairman of the Board instead of King?
  • Are we more interested in developing the ‘brand’ or ‘returning shareholder value’ than being a subject of the true King?
  • How do we present our plans to God? As a fully costed proposal, or a brainstorm with Him in the room?
  • What do we need to start praying to show that Jesus is King, not just a functional part of the management structure?