4 Leadership Counterfeits

I grew up in the church. Not only that, I grew up as a pastor’s kid and a pastor’s grandchild. Now, I am also serving as a pastor. I have, quite literally, been surrounded by church leadership issues my entire life! I realized a while back that there are four particular categories of counterfeit leaders that will rise up in churches. If not recognized early on, these kinds of people will eventually work themselves into leadership positions based on their commitment, personality, natural gifting, or needs. Yet, they do not have the spiritual gifting or character to sustain healthy leadership.

When I say these types of people are counterfeit leaders, it does not mean they are counterfeit Christians. It just means they are not qualified or gifted by the Spirit for leadership. Also, these are attributes that most people will mistake for leadership in another person. In other words, these traits will give the appearance of the real thing.

Be careful not to overlook the real leaders! If you are taken in by the counterfeits, there will be a price to pay down the road. True leadership takes time to reveal itself, but your church will benefit if you take the time to make a careful assessment.

So, here are the four leadership counterfeits.

1. The Servant

This one might surprise you at first! Having a heart to serve is a crucial component of leading Christ’s church. Jesus made this clear by washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:-17). Paul also called himself a servant (Romans 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus taught that true greatness was in being the least of all and the servant of all (Mark 9:33-37). These are guiding principles of the attitude a leader should have.

Yet, merely being faithful and merely being a servant are not the same as being a servant leader. In Romans 12, Paul teaches the church that each person is a part of the body of Christ and is gifted by Christ to perform different functions. He specifically divides the gifts of leadership and service. He writes, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…if service, in our serving…the one who leads, with zeal” (Romans 12:6-8).

Someone gifted to serve will be such a blessing to your church that you will begin to think you should give them leadership. However, if they do not also possess the gift of leadership, then you will hurt this person and the church by promoting them and giving them authority. This person will sink under the weight of leadership because they will be unable to develop other people, to delegate responsibility, or to build a team around them. They will try to do all the work themselves. You run the risk of this person becoming resentful.

Do not mistake a gift of service for a gift of leadership.

2. The Dominator

A dominant personality can be an asset in leadership, but it’s not the sign of a leader, especially a leader in the church. These types of people will appear to be leaders to most everyone around them. They are often loud, forceful, eloquent, extroverted, and naturally demand respect. They have no problem taking command.

There are many people born with this type of personality, and it has nothing to do with their spiritual capacity for leadership. If you survey the New Testament on what makes a person qualified to lead, you will not find this trait anywhere. Paul doesn’t say, “find men who have no problem bossing other people around and appoint them as elders.” This is where you must adjust your natural thinking to align with God’s values. God cares about the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7), and so should we. A commanding presence does not make someone a leader in God’s church.

If you allow someone with a dominating personality into leadership who does not also have character and spiritual gifting, it can cause huge problems for your church. This kind of person will easily draw people to themselves, they will likely be very vocal in their criticisms of ordained leaders, and they can fracture the unity of the church. Unlike the servant, their resentment will not just be inward, but it will shoot outward.

Do not mistake a dominant personality for a qualified leader.

3. The Virtuoso

A virtuoso is “a person who has exceptional skill, expertise, or talent at some endeavor” (Merriam-Webster). This is the person who oozes with natural gifting. When they take the stage, they mesmerize the crowd. When they play music, everyone is listening. When they plan an event, it’s a smashing success.

These people have so much charisma and ability to impact others they naturally get pushed into leadership. They can quickly rise through the ranks and establish a public persona and following. As Proverbs says, “A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great” (Proverbs 18:16). There’s always a place for someone who skillfully excels at what he does (Proverbs 22:29).

It is a grave mistake to promote someone to leadership based solely on his or her gifting. If this person is not theologically grounded (1 Timothy 6:3-5), has not been tested (Romans 5:3-5; Proverbs 27:21; Proverbs 17:3) or has not given enough evidence of character (1 Timothy 3:1-13), his public ministry will eventually crush his gift. This is like throwing up a skyscraper without a sufficient foundation: the structure will sink under its own weight.

Do not mistake the skill of a virtuoso for the substance of a leader.

4. The Savior

The savior is a person who needs to be needed by others. They will go out of their way, they will sacrifice time and money, and they will give inordinate amounts of attention to fixing the problems of other people. As with serving, there is an element of this that resonates with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus did say that to be his disciple you have to take up your cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24-25). This is fundamentally how a Christian approaches leadership.

However, the core issue with the savior mentality is that it’s rooted in the wrong identity. These people have a deficient sense of their worth as a son or daughter of God, and so they try to fill that void by finding their identity in rescuing other people. They derive a sense of fulfillment from being viewed by someone else as their savior. It should be clear here what the problem is: there is only one savior, Jesus Christ! Rather than taking up their cross and denying themselves to follow Jesus, they are selfishly meeting their own need to be needed.

If this kind of person makes his way into leadership, he will at first seem like everyone’s best friend, like he has unlimited resources for people, and like he is a “real pastor.” The faulty motivation that underlies his activity, however, will eventually reveal itself when he faces the rejection of others, when he can no longer keep up with the demands on his time, and when he realizes he can’t change anyone. What he thought would bring fulfillment would break him, hurt his family, and confuse the church.

Do not mistake the needy savior for the selfless leader.

The Marks of a Genuine Leader

If you want to find genuine leaders for your church, simply follow the Biblical plan. Look for men and women who love Jesus and the church, who love the word of God, who love spending time in his presence, and who love to worship. Look for faithfulness and commitment. Then watch for the main marks of a leader of the family of God. Here are some questions you should ask:

  • Is this person humble and teachable?
  • Is this person’s life in good order?
  • Does this person demonstrate good character in all areas of life?
  • Does this person possess self-control in how they speak and act?
  • Does this person’s family show the marks of genuine discipleship?
  • Has this person been tested?
  • Does this person live with a clear conscience?
  • Is this person an example others can follow?
  • Does this person have a spiritual gift of leadership?

These kinds of questions will push you in the right direction when evaluating potential leaders. Be careful not to be fooled by gifts of service, by strong personalities, by unusual talents, or by false saviors. Real leaders in God’s church are defined by the word, confirmed by the Spirit, and proven by their lives. Don’t hurt your church with counterfeits but bless them with the gift of godly leadership.

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