Gene Wilkes Discusses Mission-Minded Leadership
- Friday, May 27, 2005
For the past 18 years, Gene Wilkes has been the pastor of Legacy Church in Plano, Texas. He is the author of many books on leadership including Jesus on Leadership (Tyndale Publishing, 1998) and Paul on Leadership (Lifeway, 2004). A gifted communicator, Wilkes is selected to speak on topics ranging from health and fitness to discipleship. Allen Duty, contributing writer, interviewed Wilkes.
How has your view of leadership changed during your time as a pastor?
When I first began, I thought “leadership” meant being like the pastor I had in high school. He was the focal point of the church’s decision-making process; he came up with and executed the ideas. Starting out in ministry, I had this same authoritarian style. I quickly came to the realization that because of my unique gifts and abilities, as well as what God has laid on my heart for leadership, that wasn’t possible for me.
What kind of leader was God calling you to be?
One who emulates Christ. Jesus was completely servant to the mission that His Father had given Him. That’s what servant leadership is all about, really. It’s not about me coming up with ideas, but articulating the mission that Christ has called us to and equipping others to carry out that mission.
There is a lot of debate about how we carry out that mission today. Does our mission change, or just our methods?
Certainly not our mission. That hasn’t changed at all. Our methods have to, though, and our mission to make disciples drives the change. Those people who are far from God that we are seeking cause us to re-evaluate which methods we use. The drive for us is, “What man-made or traditional barriers have we put between these people and the Gospel?” While some people today see that as accommodating to the culture, I see it as building bridges.
How has Legacy Church built bridges into the culture?
We have said that our primary method is relational. God has placed certain people in each of our lives that give us a unique connection to them. In other words, it’s no accident that you live where you do, that your cubicle is located where it is, that this or that employee happens to work at your local coffee shop, anything. Building bridges starts with each of us reaching out to those people, and from there we are able to build a safe environment for them to learn about God. Our English as a Second Language (ESL) program, for example, meets the real needs of real people. We are able to impact our community in a positive way, while at the same time building bridges to introduce them to Christ.
Every leader faces challenges. What do you struggle with most as a leader?
My biggest challenge is making the main thing the main thing for people. Church has become so, not marginalized, but in many cases, church is still a hobby for some people. I want to see men and women putting the Church ahead of all the other felt needs and wants that we deal with. We try to do this by continually focusing on our mission, which is making disciples. Of course, there are lots of distractions, the greatest of which may be simply moving to the path of least resistance. Humans, in general, want anything that brings comfort and convenience. Many times, church members expect the church to focus on meeting their needs rather than focusing on how they can meet the needs of the church. We live in a consumerized culture, and that brings a unique challenge.
How has this culture impacted the church’s view of leadership?
Almost every generation is tempted to adopt the form of leadership most respected by its culture. Right now, that form would be the entrepreneurial, CEO, management-oriented leader. Pastors today are expected to keep busy growing and managing the local congregation, much like a business. It’s the “bigger is better” mentality.
What’s the key for leaders to succeed in this culture, then?
As the church takes on the culture, the leadership must respond to them. If church is seen as an aggressive business plan, you’ve got to adapt to that if you’re going to please everyone who has been impacted by the culture. Jesus tends to mess all of that up! It’s about people, not institutions and organizations.
What’s the most positive trend you’ve noticed in leadership in the church?
The intention I see in many leaders today. As far as style is concerned, you have everything from authoritarian to passive. My biggest encouragement is seeing guys that really have the ear of the nation, like (Rick) Warren and (Bill) Hybels, they really are servant leaders. To them, it’s all about the mission. These are men who have said, “We’re here to carry out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment” It’s not about being the biggest and best denomination, but about having the type of influence that Jesus modeled – servant leadership.
Why does it seem that so many church leaders struggle with integrity? Is it really the epidemic that it seems to be, or is that a result of media emphasis?
I don’t think it’s any worse today than it’s ever been, as far as corruption is concerned. I think the problem in a lot of places is that church, because it uses cultural benchmarks for success, has become just as competitive as the world. Christian leaders, like all of us, are spiritual beings. If we don’t do the things we need to do to keep our lives in balance, like practicing the spiritual disciplines, this is the unfortunate result. Today, many people want you to act and look a certain way as a pastor – basically like a CEO. There are the expectations of congregants, the media, the world, and our colleagues. And in the end, that’s a lot of expectations!
What does the next generation of leaders look like? How can today’s leaders prepare them to carry the torch?
We’re in a hinge time in church leadership. Seminaries, on the whole, are not able to train the next generation of leaders to meet the needs of the church. There is no one model that you can point to and say, “You’re going to go lead one of these.” It’s a missionary mindset, where you need in-field experience and mentoring.
Now that I’ve said that, let me also say that I don’t think there’s a better time to “do church” than right now because the Gospel is so distinct, we really have something to offer. It really is another way of life. I am not discouraged at all, just blessed that I get to do what I do.
About the interviewer: Allen Duty, a 2004 graduate of Texas A&M University, lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Kendra. Currently a student in the Christian Writer’s Guild, Duty aspires to vocational ministry through speaking and writing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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