How a Leadership Crisis Is Killing Discipleship in the Church

There’s a South Indian proverb that says, “Nothing grows under a banyan tree.”

And it’s a proverb about leadership, actually. Here’s what I mean. 

Banyan leadership or banana leadership?

The banyan is a great tree. It spreads its branches, drops air-roots, develops secondary trunks and covers the land. A full grown banyan may cover more than an acre of land!

A banyan tree in Bangladesh

A banyan tree in Bangladesh (yes that’s ONE tree!)

Birds, animals and humans find shelter under its shade. But nothing grows under its dense foliage. When it dies, the ground beneath lies barren and scorched.

The banana tree is the opposite. Six months after it sprouts, small shoots appear around it. The beginnings of new banana trees, a second generation.

Banana tree from Kerala

Banana tree from Kerala

At twelve months another circle of shoots appear beside the first ones, which are now six months old. Third generation banana trees are sprouting!

At eighteen months the main trunk bears fruit: Bananas that nourish birds, animals and humans. And then… it dies.

But the second generation banana trees are now fully grown, and in another six months they too bear fruit and die, and six months after that the third generation does the same.

The cycles continue unbroken as new sprouts emerge every six months, grow, give birth to more sprouts, bear fruit and die.

These two trees represent two very different ways of leadership. And we see both ways in the church. Both ways of leadership trying to do the same things, like “make disciples.”

And it might seem obvious, but here’s my premise:

If we want to make disciples in the way of Jesus, we will need to lead in the way of Jesus.

To put it another way, we simply CAN’T make disciples in the way of Jesus unless we learn to practice leadership in the way of Jesus.

“Banyan leadership” is sabotaging discipleship in the church, but we can learn from Jesus how to practice “banana leadership” that creates a reproducing movement of fruitfulness and flourishing.

Lording it over them

This problem is not new. It’s the same problem Jesus’ disciples had: they assumed they knew what it meant to be a leader. They assumed “banyan leadership.”

After all, there were models of leadership all around them: chief priests, elders, caesars, kings, patriarchs. It was natural and normal for them to look to these paragons of leadership for their cues on how to carry and express the authority of Christ.

The only problem is that Jesus specifically challenged “normal” leadership, both in the way he led and explicitly in his training of the disciples.

In fact, the way Jesus practiced leadership was extremely challenging and prophetic to almost everyone he met. It stunned his followers and frustrated his enemies.

It’s the same today. Jesus’ leadership continues to cut against the grain of our current leadership models. His paradigm of God’s present kingdom and his posture of self-giving love carved out a way of carrying authority unlike anything else the world has ever seen.

Jesus talks about this explicitly with his disciples in Luke 22:24-27:

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

The prevailing paradigm of leadership in Jesus’ day was embodied by King Herod and Pontius Pilate. They were movers and shakers. Impressive, powerful, charismatic. Large and in charge.

They “lorded it over them,” which means they had a leadership posture of command, control, and domination. They used pressure, intimidation, flattery and bribes to influence others and get their way. Competitive, ambitious, assertive, decisive. Concerned with their renown and reputation.

It’s interesting that in the American church, these kinds of people are most often seen as having “leadership gifts.” These are the people that are identified for investment and “grooming” for leadership positions.

Challenging banyan leadership

We face a leadership crisis today in American Christianity. Banyan leadership is the norm: we celebrate and train leaders to be experts who can command large organization and engineer ministry outcomes. We love banyan leaders.

We celebrate “greatness.” The primary way we train leaders for pastoral ministry is through a program by which we confer on people the title “Master of Divinity.”

We can be leaders now because we have mastered divinity. We figured God out and now we can use this information to manage churches to produce outcomes.

You are not to be like that

We are enamored with banyan leaders, but Jesus calls us to be banana leaders. We are enamored with masters, but Jesus calls us to be servants. We dream of being in charge, but Jesus invites us submit.

“The greatest among you must become like the youngest.”

The youngest in Jesus’ day had no power. No rights, no privileges, no way to “pursue happiness.” And they were uneducated. The greatest were the powerful, the bosses, the kings, the experts.

This statement would have seemed like nonsense to the disciples. How can the greatest become like the youngest?

Practicing banana leadership

In much the same way the banana tree grows. It begins reproducing itself long before any fruit is visible. It doesn’t grow large and swallow up all the life beneath it, like banyan tree.

Instead, it is actively reproducing itself, giving up its life for the sake of future generations. Like a seed that goes into the ground and dies in order to produce many seeds (John 12:24).

In this passage, Jesus is essentially saying to his disciples (and us),

The world is in love with banyan trees because they are impressive, but I call you to be banana trees because they reproduce and multiply by giving up their life for the sake of another tree.

Everything depends on us adopting this posture as leaders. We can’t make disciples in the way of Jesus unless we lead in the way of Jesus.

(Oh, and if you’re interested in the practicalities of becoming a “banana leader,” check out our Gravity Leadership Academy coaching cohorts.)

Questions for reflection:

  • Banyan leaders are impressive, but do not reproduce or cause others to grow. Have you known banyan leaders? What impact have they had on your life?
  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how easy is it for you to be a banyan leader? What is attractive to you about that? What is distasteful for you about that?

Leave a comment below to participate in the discussion!

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

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  1. Al Giles on October 3, 2016 at 9:51 am

    So good, Matt!! I’d tweak the line about “nothing” growing under banyan leadership to stilted, or controlled/managed growth, but the point is still strong! I’m sharing this everywhere. Great insights!

  2. Ryan Tate on October 3, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Thank you for this, and the crucial, convicting reminder within. I’m sure there are several pastors/leaders who have the heart and desire to be “banana leaders” but find themselves in “banyan tree” environments/cultures unsure of how to uproot and replant. It’s partly because of the, “but we’ve always done it this way” syndrome (which might be the 7 most deadly words for leaders to utter). So, I believe it’s very easy to be the “banyan tree” leader, because the current ministry landscape is set up for us to behave that way, and be celebrated for it. And for that very reason, along with your words above, are exactly what should give us pause as leaders and examine what we’re creating, building, and planting.

  3. Joseph B Franklin on October 3, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    I remember the story of a man who was reputated one of the most successful investigator in detecting false money. His secret , when intervewed by a smart reporter? He dedicated most of his time,intelligence and financial ressources, in knowing the true money. As per the multiple contradictory details that false money normally hides underneath,he didn’t care much about.
    My point is this: Jesus calls us on mission with Him, not on mission for Him. Our minister is not our own but His. He is the One leading,and we are his followers.His ministry is one of Presence not one of mere influence.”Lo,I AM with youHe says”(Mat.28:20).We are not independant from Him.(John 15:5).Our succes in mission is not directly ours but His. So ours are fixed on HIM.
    Abundant blessings upon you

  4. Dianna Roy on May 9, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    We are a very selfish people. That is the huge tree. We do things and put our children in things all in the name of Jesus and it seems to be taking us away from Jesus and it is a show. The enemy whispers our name and we agree instead of rebuking it and whispering the name of Jesus. Die so others can live? Whew! I am so thankful for His grace. I need Him every hour….I have a long way to go.

  5. Jim Amy on April 23, 2021 at 10:02 am

    We cannot remake or reshape the banyan tree leaders amongst us, only the Spirit of Jesus can do that. The only thing we can do is model as faithfully as possible, the banana tree leadership of servanthood and love. ‘Trying’ to make change in others is precisely the banyan tree (worldly) way of force, coercion, and wilfulness that does not speak of servanthood or long-suffering patience that is the way of Jesus; a way of death that leaves life and resurrection in God’s hands entirely. Only God makes Banana tree leaders!!

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