In 2011, comedian and current host of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert, delivered a memorable commencement address to his alma mater, Northwestern University. In it, he described the rules of improvisation: “After I graduated, I moved to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules about improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading; you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is improvisation.”
The rules of improvisation reflect the preferred priorities of leadership in the kingdom of God. No one wins in Christian leadership because Christian leadership is not a competition. Our servant leadership is a privilege awarded to us by the grace of God. Such grace renders all prospects of human boasting—and, subsequently, competitions—futile. Our only boast is in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14). Therefore, we do not compete against each other for anything—not influence, church size, baptisms, number of churches planted, book or album sales, twitter followers, conference invitations, etc. Instead, we celebrate one another’s faithfulness to the gospel and credit all forms of fruitfulness to God.
We do not take our cues on leadership from the American, capitalistic economy of competition but from the Trinitarian economy of holy deference. As Christians, we worship one God who exists eternally in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each divine person joyfully defers glory to the other. Deferring influence, then, should be a hallmark of Christian leadership. We should desire more influence for others than we do for ourselves. Only then will our theology be framing and informing our leadership philosophy and practices.
As the gospel informs our self-awareness, we recognize that we are not the most important people in any local, national, or global scene. Consequently, we are more apt to assume an other-oriented posture, seeing everyone else as the most important people in any moment. We pay attention to them. We serve them. Such improvisational leadership prioritizes empowering others to serve the Savior and defers influence for the sake of the gospel.
Although a Christian leader may be gifted in many ways, only Jesus is the Messiah. No leader can do everything—nor should he do everything, even if he could. Our role is to lead others into the soul-transforming, life-invigorating joy of serving the Savior. A willingness to defer influence enables us to do so.
When Christian leaders find their identity in what they do for Christ rather than who they are in Christ, they will hesitate to defer influence. In the case of pastors, they will not share their pulpits, proactively plant churches, or filter transfer growth in ways that honor the ministry efforts of other honorable pastors and churches. Deference seems too risky. What if the other preacher is more eloquent, engaging, and effective? What if the church plant makes a larger gospel imprint on the world? What if transfer growth is the only way to ensure rapid church growth and open the door to other ministry opportunities and avenues of recognition for the pastor?
Such insecurities and fears of ministerial obscurity stem from a leader’s inadequate apprehension of the gospel, disclosing a heart that has lost perspective on all that ultimately matters. Meditating on Philippians 2:3-11 serves the leader’s soul well: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In the kingdom of God, none of us are leading. Ultimately, we are all following the Follower, serving the Servant.