By Trevin Wax
In the New Testament, the people of God are described as a flock, and pastors are in the role of shepherds. We’re called to “be on guard” for ourselves and for “all the flock the Holy Spirit has appointed” us as overseers, ready to fend off “savage wolves” (Acts 20:28–29). Faithful shepherds remain alert, ready for battle when wolves invade the field.
But alertness requires the shepherd to remember that dangers creep up on the sheep from multiple directions. For this reason, I encourage pastors and church leaders to develop a sensibility in leadership that I call “multi-directional,” which I contrast with the more common (and less effective) “one-directional” leadership.
- One-directional leaders are skillful in spotting and thwarting threats to the sheep that come from a single direction of the field. But because they focus on fighting battles on one front, they leave the flock vulnerable to problems from other sides.
- Multi-directional leaders, on the other hand, fend off threats from more than one direction. To be multi-directional is to lead with dexterity and discipline—a faithful versatility that challenges erroneous positions no matter where they come from, and promotes a full-orbed vision of ministry that defends the truth and protects the flock.
Barriers to Multi-Directional Leadership
Many factors today conspire against the formation of multi-directional leaders: tribalism, institutional loyalties, online habits, and the desire to stay safely ensconced in a community that only guards against dangers we already foresee. These forces are at work in evangelical circles, where we often reward voices that cater to our already defined sensibilities and then lift up as prophets anyone who can score points for our side.
What are the barriers to multi-directional leadership? Here are a few.
1. We fear the bad trajectory.
Perhaps the pastor wants to avoid the fate of other leaders who, once they started down a road, eventually adopted positions no longer in line with biblical teaching. Made aware of the path leading to dangers on one side of the field, the leader stakes out positions and builds fences in order to protect the flock from any movement in that direction. One-directional leaders fear the bad trajectory—the slippery slope to theological or moral disaster.
We shouldn’t dismiss this impulse. Noticing a trajectory is an aspect of growing in wisdom. Some slopes really are slippery. Ideas have consequences. It can be appropriate to warn others about a trajectory of thought or action that might lead away from the truth.The problem with one-directional leaders isn’t their concern regarding the slippery slope or the bad trajectory; it’s that they forget how trajectories can go in more than one direction. — @trevinwax Click To Tweet
The problem with one-directional leaders isn’t their concern regarding the slippery slope or the bad trajectory; it’s that they forget how trajectories can go in more than one direction. Worried about the slippery slope on one side, they miss the slope on the other. We should be alert not just to a bad trajectory from one side, but to troubling trajectories (plural) that can lead us astray in a number of ways.
2. We risk losing status.
One-directional leaders worry that if they point out a troubling trajectory in the opposite direction, they may open themselves to the charge they’re no longer sound or solid regarding the dangers they usually point out. In order to maintain their reputation, then, they let dangers they can see out of the corner of the eye encroach upon the flock because they don’t want to lose face. We’re quicker to protect our reputation than our flocks.
This is a constant temptation for church leaders. It would be easy, for example, for a pastor or church leader with experience in a more traditional church to do away with certain cultural trappings that feel old school, in order to create the vibe of “We’re not your grandmother’s church.”We must pursue faithful versatility no matter the risks, and never sacrifice our convictions in order to satisfy followers or peers. — @trevinwax Click To Tweet
The type of people attracted to that church may, however, also assume that the church has done away with traditional Christian doctrines and practices, and church leaders may go quiet on contested matters of doctrine in order to not lose status or the support of those they’ve reached with the new church model. Once again, the temptation is to do whatever it takes to hold onto others’ approval.
Multi-directional leadership requires us to reject the fear of losing status. We must pursue faithful versatility no matter the risks, and never sacrifice our convictions in order to satisfy followers or peers.
3. Our warnings may be used to discredit us.
As soon as a leader demonstrates the ability and desire to fight off threats from multiple directions, some of the people who were once sympathetic to the leader’s perspective may feel betrayed, and so they seize statements and marshal evidence to show that the leader must’ve moved to the opposing side. The one who warns about a threat to the right must be a closet liberal. Or the one who warns about a threat to the left must be a fundamentalist.
Preferring to follow leaders who only oppose threats coming from one direction, some Christians see multi-directional warnings as evidence of doctrinal drift and then begin to discredit whatever the leader says. The moment a leader’s words challenge them, they quickly write off the leader, even if they’ve benefited from that ministry in the past. They’d rather destroy the leader’s credibility than receive further counsel.We must be courageous in alerting people to multiple dangers, even if we know our warnings could be misused to discredit us. — @trevinwax Click To Tweet
Multi-directional leaders must recognize the risks in issuing warnings that may upset their followers. We should do whatever we can to avoid unnecessary obstacles or easy misunderstandings in our communication. Still, we can’t allow our warnings to be worded so vaguely or generally as to lose their potency. We must be courageous in alerting people to multiple dangers, even if we know our warnings could be misused to discredit us.
4. Our wounds tempt us to switch sides.
When you take arrows from those once friendly toward you, you feel the wounds deeply. In response to the pain you’ve felt for stepping out of line, you gravitate toward other pastors and leaders who’ve been in similar circumstances and experienced similar hurts.
But instead of receiving counsel from those who’ve faced the sting of rejection and betrayal and yet share your convictions, you commiserate with people who belong to other theological or political tribes. When this happens, wounded shepherds often encourage the worst impulses in each other. Self-pity, a subtle form of pride, takes root. Your wounds get nursed, not healed, in a context of friendship built on commiseration instead of commitment to the truth.Our convictions are formed not just cerebrally but communally. — @trevinwax Click To Tweet
Here’s the great peril for multi-directional leaders: Commiseration overcomes conviction. The people with whom you feel a sense of camaraderie in your hurt and pain may be the ones to lead you, ironically, back to one-directional leadership. Except this time, the direction of your warnings is the opposite from your warnings before. Your old theological opponents become your new emotional allies.
Now, for example, the stalwart conservative who once issued warnings about theological drift to the left only sounds the alarm about problems to the right. Alert to threats you used to ignore, you issue warnings in a new direction but stop addressing the dangers you used to rightly warn about.
Over time, you develop a new set of followers animated by your new brand of one-directional leadership. And eventually, the fears that drive one-directional leadership now work in the opposite way, leading you to abandon previous convictions. What’s more, you become a mascot for the other side because you switched teams.The danger for multi-directional leaders is that when our spirits are wounded, we’re tempted to abandon the community that would hold us accountable and join a new crowd who would cheer us into compromise. — @trevinwax Click To Tweet
Multi-directional leaders must be on guard against this path to returning to one-directional leadership and falling for errors they used to warn about. Remember: Theological compromise usually doesn’t start with a change of conviction. It often starts with a feeling of solidarity with a new group. Our convictions, in other words, are formed not just cerebrally but communally.
The danger for multi-directional leaders is that when our spirits are wounded, we’re tempted to abandon the community that would hold us accountable and join a new crowd who would cheer us into compromise.
When you’re multi-directional, you’ll face criticism for failing to toe the party line, for appearing inconsistent, for being too radical in one direction for some and too passive in another direction for others.What greater honor do we have than to apply God’s Word in our times for the good of God’s people? — @trevinwax Click To Tweet
But what greater honor do we have than to apply God’s Word in our times for the good of God’s people? What an adventure to remain alert to multifaceted dangers, to reject the middle way that slides into mushy moderation, to delight in truth’s marvelous paradoxes, and to take on the prophetic mantle of speaking the right word in the right moment to the right people!
And through it all, aware of our lingering sins and struggles, resting in Christ’s mercy and relying on the Spirit’s power, we lead with increasing anticipation of the day when we will hear from our Good Shepherd, “Well done.”
This article was adapted from an excerpt of The Multi-Directional Leader: Responding Wisely to Challenges from Every Side.
Trevin is the general editor of The Gospel Project, a theology advisor at Lifeway, and a visiting professor at Wheaton College.