Center-Out Leadership: A New Framework For the Church

In a previous post, we talked about two pitfalls of leadership: Top-down, hierarchical leadership and Bottom-up, flat leadership. Each exists in an imaginative construct on opposite ends of a binary. Each sees power as a zero-sum game, a scarce resource either to hoard or disown.

In this unhelpful paradigm, power is abusive. We must limit it (checks and balances in top-down leadership) or actively work to mitigate against it (no one is in charge in bottom-up leadership).

To break out of this imaginative gridlock we need to think outside the binary. In other words, we aren’t attempting to balance top-down leadership and bottom-up leadership.

Rather, we are suggesting a “third way,” a new framework (actually, an old framework from Jesus) that helps us re-imagine how to lead in our world today. Rather than Top-down or Bottom-up, we’re proposing what we might call Center-out leadership.

Neither top-down nor bottom-up

Jesus’ call to his disciples is instructive for learning how Center-out leadership contrasts with both Top-Down and Bottom-Up models. In Matthew 4:18-22, we read:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Top-down leadership would have said, “Come follow me and you can help me build my commercial fishing empire.” or “Come follow me and I promise you’ll benefit from my success.”

Bottom-up leadership would have said, “Come follow me and we can do whatever you want. Or I can follow you? Or we can just hang out (or not).” or “Following or not following isn’t really important. What’s important is that no one has more authority than anyone else.”

Jesus models a different leadership. He calls people to follow him with a promise to invest and empower them: “Come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of people.”

Let’s explore how Jesus illuminates Center-out leadership for us in this simple invitation.

Come, follow me…

Jesus owns his leadership. He doesn’t apologize for it. He sees his authority as a great privilege and responsibility and part of what amazed other people is how he ministered and taught in that authority (Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32; Matt 7:29).

Jesus was not sheepish about his authority, but notice also that he never attempts to defend, consolidate, or insist on his authority. He never seeks to hype up his authority with bluster and bravado. He was supremely non-anxious about whether others believed in him (John 2:23-25) and he embodied his leadership free from the demands of competition, scarcity, or insecurity.

  • Top-down leaders look to consolidate their authority.
  • Bottom-up leaders look to abdicate their authority.
  • But Center-out leaders (like Jesus) look to invest their authority.

Jesus called people to be with him (“Come, follow me.”) so that he could give away his authority to as many people who could bear it (Luke 9, 10; Matthew 28:18ff; John 15:15ff).

In a consumer culture, it’s hard to move into investing authority, because church leaders are expected to provide for the people they lead. These provisions are usually commodified: religious goods and services for the people to consume.

To get these religious goods and services to the “customers” in an efficient way, leaders must consolidate authority. And since authority is a limited resource, consolidating it increases the leader’s value and ensures the leader’s security.

But that’s how the kings of the Gentiles do things… and Jesus said, “You are not to be like that.”

So we learn Center-out leadership from Jesus: investing power instead of consolidating or abdicating.

Center-out leadership isn’t giving hungry people fish… nor is it teaching hungry people to fish. It’s training hungry people to train other hungry people to fish!

We invest our authority in a way that multiplies leaders and people who can bear Christ’s authority (Matt 25:14-30). Center-out leadership means we stand in the center, inviting others to be with us so we can invest in them so that they can invite others into the center for investment.

It’s focused on a plurality of leaders (not just one) who are going out to bring in more leaders. It’s a subversion of our consumer culture: spirituality isn’t goods to consume, it’s a life to participate in and pass on.

And I will make you fishers of people…

Center-out leadership is not about managing outcomes, but making people. It’s development of people, not just delivery on agendas.

Jesus seemed particularly unconcerned with the agendas and outcomes that others thought should be important to him (John 6:14-15; 7:1-10). He doesn’t go after the best and the brightest, and he will often make his group smaller when he discerns that there are competing agendas happening close to him (John 6:60-66; Luke 9:57-62) or when he knows people won’t understand what he’s doing and he doesn’t need unhelpful attention (Mark 5:37-43).

Jesus wants to lead others, not impress them. He’s concerned with empowering people, not controlling them.

Top-down leadership is often reduced to “influence,” a soft way of getting people to do what the leader wants. This is the temptation of leading in a celebrity culture. Many people want us to be the star, the answer man/woman, the name and face of an organization.

Many people want us to tell them what to do, give them advice and answers, fix and solve their problems for them. And as a leader, our ego likes this. In fact, many people crave leadership for just this reason.

Celebrity leaders create a bottleneck in an organization. All ideas, creativity, leadership get funneled through one person. Because they’ve never been invested in and empowered, many people are all too willing to give a person their loyalty and adherence. And it creates dependents and groupies, not disciples and leaders.

If you have to be a leader for your sense of value and worth, you probably aren’t someone God can trust (see Acts 8:9-24) to lead.

Center-out leadership leads not by controlling or bottlenecking, but by empowering and seeing what bubbles up.

Jesus makes people. He invests his authority to empower people. His authority comes under them and stands with them in order that they might some day do even greater things than he did (John 14:12-14).

Center-Out leadership seeks to expand the “circle” as far as possible. It’s a subversion of our celebrity leadership culture that puts personalities on pedestals. We seek to empower people to have real freedom and authority in the kingdom, not control them.

Why don’t we see more Center-out leadership?

Center-out leadership is mainly about relationships. It’s concerned with the development and training of people who can develop and train others.

It’s what Jesus modeled and taught, and how the early church continued on in when Jesus sent his Spirit. This is the “not so among you” leadership that Jesus exhorts his disciples to pursue (Luke 22:24-30).

So why don’t we see more of it? I can think of two reasons:

1. Center-out leadership is slow

It took Jesus three years to make twelve people into “fishers of people.” And even then, they were still pretty raw. Some blow it big time (Judas), some seem to go off the rails only to get their act together at the last moment (Peter), and some go on to do important, but obscure, work (Bartholomew, Matthias, Simon the Zealot: whatever happened to those guys, eh?)

We are impatient with failure and setbacks. Center-Out leadership is not efficient or fast. There is a patient ferment necessary for this kind of work.

2. Center-out leadership is hard

Most people don’t really want authority, they want comfort. Or certainty. Or any number of things that cost them less than taking up their cross and following Jesus. We’d much rather be consumers – or be fans of a celebrity – than move to the center and own our authority.

It’s hard for existing leaders as well. Leading like Gentiles feeds the ego (Top-down) or allows us to avoid responsibility (Bottom-up). Center-out leadership is how we let our ego die and take up appropriate responsibility.

Center-out leadership is the slow, difficult path of leading in the way of Jesus.

Questions for reflection

  • Where is God bringing clarity of how you are to lead as you read this?
  • What situation or relationship in your life currently can you practice Center-out leadership? What would that look like?
  • Name the biggest obstacle you have in your life to leading like Jesus. Maybe it’s vision (what does it look like?) or courage (I’m not sure I have what it takes) or opportunity (I don’t have anyone I’m leading!) Or perhaps something else. Spend some time holding that obstacle before Christ in prayer, asking him what it is he wants you to know about it.

Leave a comment below to start a conversation.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Dave on October 1, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you for these two posts and your reflections on Center-out leadership. I’m learning to invest the authority entrusted to me without abdicating it out of fear or avoiding responsibility. Keep up the great work!

  2. Kirk on October 7, 2019 at 8:40 am

    Great post it’s going to take a great move of God to direct to center out leadership from top down leadership.Top down leadership exists in all facets of life and that change would be amazing hope to see it in my lifetime

  3. Cody on October 15, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    I’m pretty new here, but I’m confused. I guess the start of the confusion is the question: Is there anywhere on the site that explicitly defines “leadership”?

    The previous post was talking about top-down and bottom-up “leadership,” but it seems to me that both of those things are actually authority structures that define where authority lies, and that leadership and authority structure are two different, unrelated things. It’s nice if a pastor (at the top of the authority structure) is also a leader, but a leader can be anyone–a board member, an elder, a deacon, an organist, or someone sitting at the foot of the table in a Small Group. I’m sure we’ve all heard war stories about a lowly corporal (at the bottom of the authority structure) who sees a dire situation, charges the enemy–followed by platoons of soldiers–and winds up a (probably dead) hero. The corporal is a leader, even without any authority.

    And while I won’t question the leadership abilities of Jesus, he definitely ran a top-down authority structure. Imagine Jesus and the Twelve are approaching Jerusalem at Passover, and the Twelve come to him and say, “Hey, J–Judas here was talking to some of his buds and they say if we go into Jerusalem that the Sanhedrin is going to turn you over to the Romans on trumped-up sedition charges. We’ve all voted, and the vote is twelve to zip that we go back to Galilee.” Would Jesus say, “Twelve to zip? OK. Back to Galilee it is.”? Or would he say, “I don’t care what you voted. We’re going to J-Ville!”?

    Anyway, maybe I’m the only one who is confused. But my question is: what, exactly, do you mean by “leadership”?

  4. Ben Sternke on October 15, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    I struggle to know how to answer the question except to say, “Keep listening, keep reading, and I think you’ll see what we mean by leadership.” The picture emerges the more concrete examples you see of it, I think. Our dominant imagination for how authority works is either top-down or “democratic” but we see Jesus operating differently. So while he never would have gone with the 12-0 voting system, neither did he coerce his discipleship to follow him. He didn’t “force” anyone to do anything… this is how his leadership is different from the dominant models we see in the world, and what we’re trying to practice and get our hands around so we can train in it! Hopefully that’s not too much of a “non-answer” answer for you – but for me it’s a tangibly different way of leading, a massive contrast from how I used to try and lead (either with structural authority or without).

  5. Catherine Savard on November 1, 2019 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for these insightful posts on leadership in the world and in the Church. They really do give a lot to think about. In fact, I have so much to process from the reading of the articles that I dare not start to write out my thought processes. (I will be here all day and I don’t have all day.)

    I will just state what I particularly appreciated about the posts. I appreciate the reflection questions that really cause me as a reader to engage with the content of the post. I learn so much more because I am prompted to engage through these questions.

    I am impressed by the quality of the comments from readers who are honestly seeking to engage with the thoughts and the teachings.

    I appreciate the fact that you follow up and respond systematically to the comments. You actually take the time to listen to what commenters say and give a thoughtful response.

    I am thankful for the fact that the topics you choose to treat are important and timely and well worked out. I find what you are saying to be relevant to so many aspects of my ministry.

    You’ve buttressed this particular post with lots of Bible verses, which is not what you do commonly, but it has a place when I am trying to think things through. I want to sit with my Bible and see from multiple passages that what is being said really is anchored in what the Bible teaches. The references could be a distraction from the flow of things, but, when I need to really think it through, I appreciate having the references there in front of me.

    You are using lots of images, graphics, headlines, quotes, and pithy summary statements to communicate more clearly and make the content more memorable.

    All of this goes together to make for a really good learning environment. I don’t have the luxury of time or attention space to engage with the privilege of “ongoing dialogue” with a cohort form of education. By the time I finish with a job, family, and ministry obligations I can only drop in once in a while. I appreciate having quality online articles that I can engage with.

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