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'Sideways' Leadership?

  • Kent Clayton YouthWorker Journal
  • 2006 2 Feb
  • COMMENTS
'Sideways' Leadership?

It was the end of the big mission trip. The newly-hired youth director—business cards in his wallet and freshly trained with an official youth ministry degree—told the leadership team (consisting of parents, adult volunteers, and older student-leaders) that he was going to change the program for the final night of the mission trip. The tradition for the last evening involved youth-led worship, public affirmations, and an opportunity for each participant to share why the trip had been meaningful. Unilaterally, he axed what had been planned weeks earlier. When some parents and students took him aside and explained that they really believed it was important to finish out what had been scheduled, this wisdom-lacking novice dug the first shovel-full of his own grave when he barked, “This is not a democracy!”

Why is it that some people can get things done—find people who'll follow them and take organizations to new levels—even though they don't have the customary title, license, or credentials, while others can dive through every hoop put before them yet remain ineffective as leaders? It's because some people enter the leadership arena though the side door. If you think you can lead just because you're the boss, you have no clue what leadership really means.

Side-door leaders are people who have influence in ministry settings without (necessarily) having an official role as leader; real leaders are those who wield power, regardless of position. Leadership is changing—in the postmodern milieu, people value following those worth being followed over pursuing those with the right titles. Structures and systems no longer hold the validity they once did. Sometimes, the real authority lies with the parents, the long-term youth volunteers, and even the students who shape the culture of a ministry's leadership. Paid staff and youth coordinators aren't necessarily part of that mix. In the real world, leaders are recognized, not appointed. Side-door leaders know how to weave influence without storming the main gates of a board, committee, session, or staff hierarchy.

The Bible is full of side-door leaders: those who had influence and authority even though much about their nature might have suggested otherwise. Esther, the young female outsider, led her people with courage and ingenuity. The arrogant, overlooked, younger-brother Joseph led a nation though his visionary leadership. At the church in Corinth, Priscilla broke cultural barriers showing how a woman could shape the power structure of a church. Barnabus redefined leadership by showing what it means to lead through encouragement and humility. Over and over in Scripture, we see examples of God choosing unlikely candidates to be divine instruments of the kingdom. Our Lord is an expert at letting leaders in through the side door.

What will this principle mean for the rest of the 21st century? I'm not quite sure. We have so many options (so many models) of how to operate our ministries. One thing seems likely: the traditional models are holding less and less water. I have to wonder out loud how well today's popular purpose-driven and leadership-training standards acknowledge and implement side-door leadership. The leader of the future will be skilled at observing and utilizing gifted leaders all around her, not only that society identifies as the best and the brightest. The leader of the future will be an expert at massaging a system so that full potential can be brought out in all people. The leader of the future will recognize how to find the most unlikely candidate to take a leadership culture to a new level. Most of all, the new breed of leader will listen with a caring heart and respond in humility to all those in the community of faith.

I'm reminded of the life and call of one of my ministry heroes. The late Michael Yaconelli was one who knew how to lead through the side door. Anyone who ever saw Mike speak heard him talk about not being a “real” pastor. Over and over he told us how he'd been kicked out of two Bible colleges and wasn't accredited through any denomination. Mike called himself a “K-Mart Pastor;” yet for many who knew him, his influence went well beyond that of any “real” pastor. May God's grace go before us as we recognize the amazing new ways Jesus equips his followers to lead in fresh, creative…and unlikely ways.


Kent Clayton is the associate pastor at Monument Community Presbyterian Church in Monument, Colorado and has been working with youth for 15 years.