The challenge of change for African leaders

Renewed leadership according to Jesus’ example

Translated from the French by Ruth Morton 

This summer, I was told two almost unbelievable stories:  

First story: The main leader of a Christian congregation refused to leave his post after the AGM at the end of his term on the basis that the previous leader had held the position for over 15 years. 

Second story: The pastor of a local church, appointed by the National Council, categorically refused to leave. 

Given our Black African context, were these Christian leaders right to refuse to leave? This was the question I asked brothers and sisters in Christ during a series of very enriching debates. The salient points of the discussions are summarised below. 

1. We should follow procedure -even in Africa

For those who answered in the negative, these “stubborn” African pastors were wrong to refuse to leave because they had been elected or appointed to their posts. So why would they display such behaviour when it was time to change? Participants believed that the honour and the financial and material benefits linked to the post explained the rebellion. As evidence, they argued that if these pastors were offered another good position – an honorific title, a good salary – the ex-leader and appointed pastor in question would leave immediately. For them, this was why self-centred African leaders like these ones, who put their own interests first, often cause and fuel deep conflict and crises in their churches. The Bible may well advise, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18) or to keep to our word (Matthew 5.37). But to no avail! These preachers of the word don’t keep their own word. They accept an arrangement that suits them one day and reject it the next when it gets in their way. They are wolves in shepherd’s clothing. 

2. But democracy is neither African nor biblical

According to their supporters, these African pastors are right to refuse to leave if their work and the result of their ministry are positive. And if the congregation likes them as well, why replace them? Under what authority? Democracy? The church constitution? 

Democracy is neither an African nor a biblical concept, they argued. Democracy is only one method of governance and it has many advantages and drawbacks, but it is not the best form of governance by any means. In ancient Africa, just like in the Bible, a leader would stay in place until the end of their life. For example, Joshua only succeeded Moses after Moses died (Joshua 1:1-2). Were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem – Peter, James and John – replaced after a few years of apostleship?

If we consider the criteria for choosing elders and deacons (1 Corinthians 3 and Titus 1), we see that Paul never said a word about a limited term of ministry. This side of the debate concluded that, just like monarchs who rule by divine right, Black spiritual leaders should stay in place until they die, provided they are doing a good job. This should therefore be reflected in the constitution of African churches.

3. Yet, Jesus represents ultimate leadership

“My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). In my closing remarks, I contended that if Jesus speaks of a “kingdom,” there must therefore be a model of “kingdom leadership” as defined by the Lord himself:  

[…] You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44) 

But, I went to say, let’s be honest: Both “the rulers of the Gentiles” and “whoever wants to become great” require respect (1 Peter 2:17), bread and clothing (Matt. 6:25). 

But is that a good reason to offer an honorific post or a good salary to encourage African leaders to give up their position? Is that a good reason to add into the constitutions of African churches that church pastors and leaders are appointed and elected for life, provided they have good results? Is that really a good solution to the problem?

My answer was both yes and no. Yes, although this would only address the material, worldly aspects of the issue. To do so would be a solution, but it would only have the effect of a placebo: it would provisionally relieve worries about “What will we eat?” or “What will we wear?” (Matt. 6:23). But let’s not fool ourselves: the principle of leadership for life comes with its own risks attached: a personality cult, murmuring, a risk of division.

No, such a decision would not seek the “kingdom [of God] and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), nor would it seek what Martha’s sister Mary chose, “what is better, … [which] will not be taken away” (Luke 10:42). No, this African trinity – a good position to move on to, a good salary, and leadership for life – is not the “kingdom” solution.

The time has come for a new leadership, as modelled by Jesus in the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13.1-17), his intentional refusal of celebrity status (Luke 4:40-44), and his self-sacrifice for his friends (John 19). This new leadership doesn’t seek to be the first but rather to be the slave of all in love and holiness.

Christian African leaders, “let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16). For the servant leader is the new leader, the slave of all, who does not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4), who does not seek their own interests (1 Cor. 13:5), but who lives from the principle of dependence upon the love and faithfulness of the Lord alone.   

Discussion questions

  1. How might churches and student movements take responsibility for teaching leaders to know God’s love and faithfulness? 
  2. What place might church members have in the fight against leaders who only look out for their own interests?  
  3. What place might church members have in defining and describing servant leadership in your context? 

Further reading

Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

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