The big man syndrome


“In your movement, you like the big man.” This was another Christian leader’s comment regarding the movement I am part of. Though the comment was probably made in jest, it disturbed me.

The extent to which it is accurate is open to debate, but as they say, there is no smoke without fire. I don’t believe this guy had an axe to grind. He was merely describing what he saw.

So we have a issue. You could call it the “big man syndrome.”

Here’s what it is. Direction and decision-making are referred back to somebody who sits on top of the pile. Everyone defers to that person. The larger a church is, the more likely it is to fall into this situation, if only for the reason that megachurches are often built on the personal ministry of pastors who become so powerful they cannot be challenged. Until disaster intervenes, as it sadly too often does.

The same thing happens with movements, though the title of the one at the top may range from bishop to president to apostle, depending on your theology.

With a good leader, the damage, though real, may be limited. But when an insecure person reaches the top, the shrapnel from wrongful control due to self-protection and self-promotion cascades down the chain. People, churches and movements are hurt, sometimes critically.

This is a particular problem with newer movements and churches, which tend to be built on the foundation of relationship. Relationship is a good thing, but trust can be abused when there are no safeguards. Older movements may be encrusted with tradition and institutionalism. That often isn’t great, but it does provides protection from the big man syndrome because there are all sorts of counterbalances (synods, presbyteries and the like). Even the Pope, as I’ve been reading lately, has limited power to change the Catholic church.

What is wrong with the big man syndrome is the damage it does to the Biblical view of relationship, and in particular to the consistent teaching of Jesus and the apostles on servant leadership.

Jesus compared himself to a servant waiting at table, not the one being deferred to. Paul described a genuine apostle as one at the end of the parade, not the parade marshal. Peter told leaders to serve as humble examples, not to seek position or power.

When I look at the life of Paul, it strikes me that his ministry always involved extending the boundaries of the kingdom. He never sat at the top of a movement or ecclesiastical pile. He was too busy moving on to the next place to establish a hierarchy involving the previous places. He exercised authority out of his position in God, not out of his position in a church movement.

My friend Jason Reid spent many years in the Royal Navy specializing in submarines, attaining the same rank as James Bond (but without the extras). I asked him how leadership in that context works. Here are three things I learned from him. Submarine command in the Royal Navy “is predicated on an implicit trust between the Ship’s Company and their Commanding Officer.” He is a servant (despite some of the huge egos involved), not a tyrant. The job of the commanding officer is first to keep everyone safe, and in the process to get the team to its destination. He is not there to build an empire for himself, but to put the interests of the mission before his own (“mission command”). His ability to share leadership with the three department heads on the vessel is critical to this mission. He is a delegator, not a micro-manager.

A great leader is always in the business of empowering and enabling others, always in the process of raising up and giving away. Success is successors.

Authority is a good and necessary thing. The cure to its abuse is not anarchy, but correct use.

Perhaps we could learn something from the Royal Navy? We also want to keep people safe, and get them to their destination.

And remember this. There is only one big man in the church.

His name is Jesus.