Great Pastor Theory of Church Leadership

Prior to pursuing a degree in political science, I thought I would study history. I am not a great historian, in part because I am captured by different interests, however I did understand at least one thing about being a historian. Historians that I took classes from were trained to think about what are the wheels that turn history. For the vast majority of the classes I took, it was understood that history is moved and shaped by institutions. These institutions range in construction. They could be nations, states, governments, non-profits, businesses, philosophies, etc.

There was one professor who challenged the idea that institutions drive history. He thought that history is moved by "great men/women." The argument is that every nation has a founder, every war a general, every idea a thinker, every business a creator. Apple did not shape recent history, it was Steve Jobs, Rome was powerful but it was animated by the Caesars. It is Great Men, who move history - not institutions. 

Since the heyday of Great Man theory in the 19th century, it has been seen as "primitive, childish and unscientific." However, the "Great Man" theory still has a lot of life in the world of the Church. Specifically the pastor. 

We have all seen billboards advertising churches which have a picture of the pastor offset to the right of the billboard while the name of the church is offset to the left. Sometimes, in order to build some credibility, the pastor (usually a male) has his wife in the picture. Here are some of those examples:

For reasons I cannot place my finger on, the rest of the world sees the folly of the "Great Man" theory, but many church leaders have not. The UMC has an emphasis on leadership, and the way leadership is understood is by way of the "Great Man" leader. Some examples are: 


  • The pastor is the one who casts the vision
  • The pastor is the face of the church
  • The pastor is the "CEO"
  • Nothing happens unless the pastor signs off on it
  • If the church grows or dwindles in number, it is the result of the pastor
  • Pastors are on billboards

The "Great Pastor" theory of church leadership is misguided for so many reasons, but for first and foremost is that the leadership is defined by Jesus much differently than what we think about when we think "great". Greatness in the eyes of Jesus is the one who becomes like a child. Greatness according to Jesus is one who serves. Greatness is the one who follows - not leads. Greatness is the one who sits at the lowest seats. Greatness is the one who dies to self. 

Great Pastor theory works in some places for some period of time, however the Church is built on Christ. Christ is the leader. The pastor is a follower. The history of the church is not moved by pastors but moved by the body of Christ (i.e. the people).

No servant is greater than the master and, from what I know about Jesus, he was never on a billboard.