What should submission to leadership look like?

Had Paul and Jas over at Bec’s house last night and got involved into a really interesting chat (as tends to happen when little Paulie is around), surrounding the practicalities of what it means to submit to leadership. Now as it turned out we eventually reached a point of working out that the specific situation Paul was describing might not have been about submission, but nevertheless it’s an interesting area to be exploring.

Basically Paul presented a fairly straight down the line, authoritarian perspective on what it means to submit to leadership: Leader states the decision/direction/whatever that the ministry is heading in and submitee goes along with that direction. Which at a very basic level has to be an accurate description of submission. Under an especially strict interpretation though: you don’t ask questions, you don’t offer suggestion. And the places that model takes you to seem to me to be deeply frightening: you end up “venting” about leaders because feelings of discontent need to get out somewhere. You end up putting on the “sure, no worries” face while you stew inside. And we create a self-perpetuating cycle of dishonesty and inauthenticity. And we end up leaving leaders feeling like they need to be making all the decisions, regardless of whether or not they are the people best equipped to make the call.

So here’s the model we/I proposed. Submission doesn’t mean pretending that you always agree, nor does it mean storming off because you disagree with decisions. I think that submission needs to be about communicating the areas you disagree with: both in terms of ideology and theology as well as in purely emotional and personal matters. Then trusting your leader with how you really feel: not dressing it up with grand reasons why you’re right when the real issue is just that you’ve been hurt. Having done this, you trust your leader with everything you’ve communicated: letting them hear and consider your beliefs and emotional attachment and believing that they will balance that against everything else in the situation and pushing forward with the direction the leader opts for: regardless of whether or not that’s the choice you’d have made.

I realise this is an exercise in idealism, and there are big costs: time spent communicating being a really big one. And some issues or problems with decision making are going to be so small that just a shrug and a chuckle are the best response, but it helps to remove the insidious pattern of whispering and undermining that seems to happen around any leaders. And it does require that you have leadership who are willing to listen, hear what your saying and make genuine evaluations taking into consideration your point of view without being a doormat. But I really feel that the centrality of honesty in this model gives it a really good shot of making the deliberate decision to submit to authority a helpful and productive part of life in the church rather than a burden that needs to be worn.

So – rather than this be an exercise in me making myself feel holy and theological, interact. What’s wrong with this model? Does this pay enough respect to the position of leaders? I’d love to hear what strikes you about this thinking because I know that it’s in no way complete.

15 Replies to “What should submission to leadership look like?”

  1. It’s similar to the idea of submitting in marriage.
    I think submission is a choice that people make. It’s not a blind obedience, but a decision to give up your rights in order to let someone else lead.
    I think good leaders create an atmosphere where everyone submits to others. I don’t like the style of leadership where the head makes the decisions and expects everyone to jump into line. A great leader listens, responds and leads out of that.

  2. Matt, that’s a tough call. For the sake of answering: we’ll assume that you can only take responsibility for your own responses. So I guess the first place to start is to examine what you’re “discussing” with people. To what extent has your response been about the actual issue your communicating, and how much has to do with just being hurt on a personal level? I think that it’s vitally important that we don’t wrap up our own hurts and unhappinesses with criticism of what’s going on. Not to say that you’re doing that – it’s just one to look out for. No easy answers there though Matt. I’ll have to keep thinking about it

    Interesting that you come at it from the place of marriage Gaz – that’s what I started with to get to this point. Love what you’re saying there.

  3. So when is it okay to get divorced? Or are we called to a certain place for life?

    Some leaders are sycophantic narcissistic self absorbed…etc Do we quietly divorce ourselves from them….leave the church…or do we warn others, and if so, how?
    Then this verse which is helpful to me…
    “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit”
    Heb 13.17

  4. It’s a hard one – nobody likes to think of themselves as submissive.

    In my experience, submitting has never meant silent, unquestioning agreement. It has always meant robust discussion, sometimes a good old fashioned argument, and lots of debate about the way forward.

    At the end of the day, when the leader makes the final call, regardless of whether I agree with it or not, I get behind the decision 100% and do my best to make it work. If the decision fails, it does so because of some inherent problem, not because I sabotaged it.

    The only time I wouldn’t submit was if I thought the decision was immoral, unethical or illegal.

    This helps build unity of the team, it helps make the leader a better leader (which we have responsibility for, by the way) and gives the best possible chance for a good outcome.

    It does, however, mean egos must be left at the door. That’s the hard bit…;)

  5. I’ve been pondering this one a bit more. Your question Geoff, about paying respect to the position of a leader may have stumbled upon one of the areas of difficulty for me. I’m not entirely convinced that an effective leader needs people to just shut up and do what they’re told.

    I think leaders have some responsibility for making sure that their plans are scoped out effectively and well communicated. In most cases though, I think people endorse a leader first and buy in to their plans second. If I trust the individual with the power and authority that their position gives them, then chances are I’m going to be a whole lot more willing to chill out when I have my own reservations.

    From the leader’s perspective, I think that means there’s a public relations side to leadership. Being capable is one thing. Being perceived as capable is another. The point I’m trying to make: if you need to tell someone to shut up and do what you tell them, chances are that it’s not the task you need to be selling them on, it’s the leadership.

    In the scenario that Geoff and I were talking about, a large part of the problem was that the channels of communication barely existed… so the discussion itself became a mammoth effort to initiate. When leaders (or at least those in authority) are being prescriptive in their instructions from a distance, it’s not surprising that their ‘subordinates’ might be hearing demands without feeling the freedom to reply.

    If leaders have been quite strong in giving instructions, it wouldn’t be difficult to assume that they aren’t interested in discussion or debate. Furthermore, rather than go to the leader and say “Hey I feel like you might have got that one wrong”, sometimes it’s easier to get together with a bunch of mates and have a bit of a whinge instead. It’s even more destructive when you get to play the victim, moaning about how unfair it all is but asking for brownie points from your mates for doing the right thing and “submitting”.

    I don’t think I’d be the first person to have made that mistake at one time or another.

    Does submission, in actual fact, look more like approaching the person who has asked you to lay down your life and saying something that resembles this?:

    “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

    *clicks the ‘Submit Comment’ button, enjoying the pun*

  6. A couple of thoughts:

    It would be good to distinguish between one submitting to a leader’s decision about a corporate issue verses one submitting to their decision regarding the way you as an individual are to think/act/talk/dress whatever.

    In regards to the later, there are times when I have heard a leader say things along the lines of “well, you need to submit and I/they will take responsibility for it” – that to me does not cut it: I am the one who is to stand before God and explain my actions, thoughts, speech etc and I can’t say “well you know I thought this, but my leader said that and so I submitted”

    Third in regard to the position thing – I think it is over-played. Authority, ‘power’, honour are relational terms and function really well in good, communicative relationships, as was indicated by the honesty, pr comments above. You don’t submit because of their position, you submit based on the relationship where you know that they do love you and are serving your best

  7. Well said Ro, and then worth exploring the tipping point for corporate decisions: when do you love the body, or respect the role/authority enough to submit?

    There’s been a couple of times where I’ve absolutely hated the idea of a particular activity, but out of respect/honour/duty have submitted to my leader, and found myself in a better place (with both the leader AND God) as a result:

    What happens when, despite your misgivings, it turns out the leader actually DOES know better than you? How do you determine when that is? Are there times when it’s OK to give it a go and see?

  8. Matt – are there times where it’s OK to give it a go? Absolutely.

    If I was the leader and everyone was giving things a go, I’d want to hear from the outset about any reservations that they’ve got. Reluctance, even if most of it is coming from where a particular person is at in their life, is something that’s worth talking about and worth managing. It safeguards against the obvious potential for disappointment on both sides if things don’t work out. It also gives the leader a chance to manage the feedback and to avoid “I told you so”, whether spoken or unspoken, down the track (which makes the ‘follower’ response closer to one of silence than one of submission in my view).

    In some cases, laying down your desire to resist might be a healthy thing to do. I’ve been in a situation not all that long ago where I needed to do that for the emotional well-being of the person in the leadership position above me. That person simply wouldn’t have been able to handle it if I’d taken them to task over things that I, quite frankly, was better equipped to accomplish and could have done better. If you’re anything like me and you like to make sure that you get your point across loud and clear, I think it’s healthy to have a relational respect and care for the leader in that process. For me, that sometimes means keeping my mouth shut until I have something to say that’s going to be edifying as well as correct.

    The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that submission doesn’t just mean “ignore what you genuinely think and do what you are told”. I don’t think you can truly submit unless you can surrender your whole self, your opinions, your will and whatever else is it that you come to the table with. If you have something to say that’s preventing that from happening, then I’d say that it’s probably a priority to do so. The complexity there, is making sure you do it in a way that will be received well (otherwise you’re quite likely to feel like you’ve been told to shut up a second time). I think there are three different communicative responses you can have to leadership direction.

    1) stay quiet and just do it because it’s your duty
    (whinging in the process becomes #2)
    2) rant, rave and carry on about how wrong everything is in an unconstructive way which is evidenced by a lacking in the fruits of the Spirit in your conduct
    3) peacefully, gently and lovingly, showing self-control, bring your whole self into the discussion with your leader and work through any issues so that you can truly serve, with all of your cards on the table.

    At the end of the day, if someone in a leadership position lacks insight and doesn’t get something perfect, that just makes them human. It might also speak to their effectiveness in their leadership role but those discussions are always highly subjective. There are always lessons to be learned for next time in anything a group of people undertakes. So, if avoiding mistakes is preferrable but not essential, maybe we should put most of the emphasis upon ensuring that we behave honourably along the way?

  9. Hmmm this topic intrigues me Geoff!

    I think its a very very significantly misunderstood, and abused concept.

    I’d like to hear someone analyse the historical and social construct that surrounds these two bible verses!

    How do we explain this in relation to Jesus saying “I have come to turn the sons against the fathers” etc. (anyone pedantic enough to tell me i’ve misquoted is welcome to post the correct quote)?

    What do we make of Bonhoffer? Evil criminal, or insightful servant of God?

    Where does submission end? What sorts of things are we free not to submit to? What sort of things do we have a moral imperritive not to submit to?

    So many more Q’s but I have to go down to SES.

    All I can say in closing, is that I’m a Hawthorn supporter πŸ˜› HAR HAR HAR HAR

    well anyway I’m paying attention to my team for the first time in 10 years, but right now you’re pobably trying to forget yours exists πŸ˜‰

  10. Hmm so yeah…

    Another bible verse to think about “He that would be greatest amongst you, let him be the servant of all.

    How many religious leaders do you know? How many of them come to you and ask how they can better serve you?

    Is the church member the servant of the pastor, or the pastor the servant of the churches members?


  11. But Tim, your own response should not be dictated by the actions of others. Surely we can explore the principle of submitting to leadership without requiring first that we have a model of leadership that achieves perfection. I think that few leaders I know would want to act in any way other than to be the servant of the church, but it’s no secret that we stuff this up. I just believe that Gandhi(I’m pretty sure this was his quote) was onto something when he said that we should be the change we want to see in the world.

  12. Hey, great article: The amount of comments you received tell me that this topic is, if not contentious, then not understood.

    It’s easy to submit to a Godly leader. When they have a servant heart, are humble and walk like Jesus did: laying his life down for those under his care. I think the problems arise when you serve a leader who loves God, but maybe doesn’t lead in the Biblical model – even if it’s in part.

    Here a thought I’d like to add from my own painful experience!

    Love believes the best.
    I know when a decision is made, we can “assume” to know the motivation of those who lead us. The famous love passage says that “Love believes all things”. Do we love our leaders who aren’t always acting in a Godly way? If so – we will believe that their decision is one based on prayer, and a heart for God and us, and submit. (unless, of course, it requires us to break God’s Word) It’s easy to jump to conclusions – but I always try to put myself in their shoes before jumping to conclusions. It is not them vs us – we’re all on the same side.

    There’s a great book which deals with my attitude towards submission: “A tale of Three Kings” by Gene Edwards – It’s an easy-read and I thoroughly recommend it.

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