Leaders Need to be Followers First

leadfollowFinding Scripture passages that focus primarily on leadership is difficult. In his celebrated book, A Church for the Twenty-First Century, Leith Anderson observes:

It should surprise us that so much is said (today) about leaders and so little about followers, especially among Christians committed to the Bible. The Bible says comparatively little about leadership and a great deal about followership. Jesus did not invite Peter, Andrew, James, and John to become leaders immediately. He said, “Follow Me.”

From a biblical perspective, spiritual leadership is solely dependent upon faithful discipleship. As with his first century disciples, Jesus wants his twenty-first century servant leaders to be followers first. Douglas K. Smith clearly states the biblical axiom:

In the twenty-first-century organization, all leaders must learn to follow if they are to successfully lead. . . . Leaders at all levels and in all situations must pay close attention to situations in which their most effective option is to follow – not because the hierarchy demands they “obey,” but because performance requires them to rely on the capacities and insights of other people.

Following is at the heart of being a spiritual leader. Jesus’ disciples learned to lead by literally following him. They were unacquainted with classrooms, text books, overhead projectors or PowerPoint presentations. As with most first century Rabbis, Jesus was a peripatetic teacher─He taught as he walked. The disciples were his literal followers.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12)

The picture of disciples learning from Jesus “on the move” has had a profound affect on my personal study habits. I often picture myself walking and talking with the Master as I study, and now and then I hear him say, “ . . . follow me.”

Jesus─the Light of the World─promised, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As human beings, we are bound to stumble in the darkness when we walk alone. However, when we walk in the Light, we will never falter.

The Greek word for “follow,” ’ ακoλoυθέω (pronounced, a-ko-lu-the_-o), is used seventy-seven times in the New Testament. With but one exception, this word is exclusively used to describe following Christ. The one exception is found in Mark 14:13 where Jesus instructs his disciples to “go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him.” Even this exception is a command from Jesus.

’Ακoλoυθέω has five meanings─all of which describe crucial aspects of the spiritual leader’s relationship to the Master. The servant leader must follow the Master:

• as a soldier following his captain
• as a slave accompanying his master
• as a patient accepting a counselor’s opinion
• as a citizen giving obedience to the laws of the land
• as a student following a teacher’s line of argument

Where will this journey end? At the Cross! J. Oswald Sanders reminds leaders that “a cross stands in the way of spiritual leadership, a cross upon which the leader must be impaled. Heaven’s demands are absolute. ‘He laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3:16).”

Jesus’ call to follow him─and to shepherd his followers─is a call to die with him. Christ’s call to his disciples─to his spiritual leaders─reverberates over two millennia. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

C. Gene Wilkes captures the essence of this spiritual reality:

Jesus was more interested in his disciples’ willingness to follow him to the cross than in their ambition to hold places of power in his kingdom. Ambition is not the same thing as willingness to follow Jesus to the cross. Jesus cared that his followers were willing to obey him.”

As with Peter, Jesus first and last words of instruction remain the same for his spiritual leaders today: “Follow me!” (Matthew 4:19 and John 21:19).

5 thoughts on “Leaders Need to be Followers First

  1. Mitch

    If the Commissioner of The Salvation Army believes that people are to be followers before leaders why is it that many new-commissioned Officers are immediately senior pastors of churches? If one has to be a follower would it not be correct to put new Officers as assistants, etc?

    Love to hear comments on this!

  2. David Stam


    You make a good point, but don’t get caught up in the title……. Newly commissioned officers are just that…..not “senior pastors” but generally corps officers ( notice my use of the word “corps”……I will never refer to our corps as anything but…..as far as I am concerned the rebranding a few years ago of “corps” into “community churches” is and was misguided……) of usually small corps. To be a “senior pastor” at a small corps is simply the title…….it really implies a great deal more than the general reality.

    Unfortunately as I understand things there are really not enough officers to give some of the larger corps “assistants”. It would be a dream come true, I am certain, for new officers to be stationed as assistants in larger corps, where they could watch experienced corps officers deal with the myriad of issues that confront them as shepherds on a day to day basis. Doctors have internship programmes, graduate lawyers serve articles of clerkship before their calls to the Bar. Unfortunately a similar type of internship programme appears to be a luxury that the Army cannot realistically contemplate at this time…..

  3. Mitch

    David, it sounds like you are caught in some Salvationist tradition that most people my age (around 30 and under) would have no clue what a “corps” is. I have not attended a Salvation Army “church” for awhile, however from my experience most officers are the only pastors making them the senior pastors of the church. You brought up some interesting points that we do not have enough officers going to training college. If churches were concerned about having more followers and having asst pastors, could they not hire people who are not ordained officers? I really believe the SA puts to much of a workload on the officers and does not realize how it is effecting the church.

  4. Johnny

    Hi, Mitch. As you mentioned, you haven’t attended an Army church in awhile. You may be interested to know that at a number of large corps (or churches), there are lay associate pastors and/or ministry directors working alongside officers. And in a few examples, these ministry directors are working as the leaders of the church without an officer being appointed.

    In some cases, new officers have been been appointed to corps as assistants, although this is happening less frequently due to the demand for officers in corps. However, in social service settings, such as shelters, addiction centres, hospital chaplaincy, etc., officers are usually first appointed with a training plan so that they work under established officers/lay directors for a year or more in addition to academic studies to receive the necessary training and experience to carry out future leadership responsibilities.

    For our corps officers, they now have access to leader coaches to support them in their development. They are also encouraged have mentors to help guide them. As well, they now have access to area commanders in addition to their divisional commanders and secretaries for program to support them in their ministry.

    The Army is changing. So let’s give the movement and its officers some slack.

    If you don’t mind me asking, why haven’t you visited the Army lately?

  5. Mitch


    I work for The Salvation Army and I see where the training is happening in the homeless shelters, etc. however I would have to disagree with the assts in churches. This is more of a luxary for churches than a given. We left the Army church because we were tired of the politics, the style of music, the poor preaching, the lack of programs for children, sacraments, uniforms, etc. I enjoy working for them but not attending the church.

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