Dictators Masquerading as Christian Leaders

A 9 to 5 Editorial 

He manages by fear and intimidation. He doesn’t raise his voice much, but he doesn’t have to. People know the consequences of crossing him. Or of questioning him, for that matter. Or of offering any suggestion that implies that he’s not doing exactly the right thing.

People don’t identify problems because they’ll risk his ire. Either that or they’ll own the problem and then have too little time, too few resources, and no authority to really solve it. So instead, they say nothing. Silence is now killing the organization, but it’s just safer not to share that fact. No one’s listening anyway.

It’s an exhausting environment, too. The “stretch” goals, which never seem to abate, are stretching employees to the breaking point. They’re affecting people’s physical health, their mental health, even their spiritual health. Who has time for God when you work in a burnout factory?

The organization’s doing great, though. Double digit increases in the bottom line five years in a row. The boss calls this “good stewardship,” a one-dimensional theology of leadership he learned in church somewhere along the way. He was even asked to speak about it at a recent prayer breakfast in the city. Admired by leaders outside the organization for how he’s moved things forward, this boss is a role model for many other Christians wrestling to understand the keys succeeding “God’s way.” If they looked at his employee turnover or got real candor from those building his pyramids (or, to be honest, from his wife and kids), they’d learn the shameful truth: few people near this professing Christian see God in him.

This “good steward” is in reality just a dictator””a dictator masquerading as a Christian leader. But no one tells him that anymore. Those who did are long gone. From this guy’s perspective, he’s shrewd, pragmatic and generous. The organization’s growing despite the competitive environment, people have decent jobs, they’re being paid what they’re worth, and they even get better health benefits than some others in the city! What more could they possibly want?

Welcome to the dark side of Christian management. Population: too many. It’s a gang of Bible-believing leaders who adopt the same assumptions, the same attitudes, and the same management style as their secular peers. I’ve interviewed many in the gang. I’ve worked alongside of some of them. And I’ve interviewed some of their employees as well. These leaders’ soft-spoken and gregarious exterior belies the Pharisee inside. They’re a proverbial fist-inside-a-velvet-glove, and everyone who works in their oppressive environment knows it.

They’re business owners, school leaders, best-selling authors, radio talk show hosts, entrepreneurs, middle managers, even pastors. One of them brazenly asserted to me that since “the only leadership style sanctioned by the New Testament is the benevolent dictator,” he’s confident that this is what God wants him to be. Another deferentially quoted Machiavelli when discussing with me how to transform the organization. And a pastor friend of mine recently refused to permit any kids in his congregation to attend Christian schools outside the denomination. He’s now coming down hard on those who have the audacity to dissent. “Pastor Caiaphas” is the new term of endearment from some in his beleaguered flock.

It’s a dirty little secret in Christendom, but it’s becoming more and more public. There are some Christian leaders who are veritable ogres. It’s nothing short of scandalous.

Now take just a second and juxtapose that with how Jesus led his organization of twelve. He didn’t create an environment of fear. He didn’t push for rapid growth. He didn’t fire or threaten anyone on his team, despite their bad judgment, their questioning of his methods, their failure to perform, or even their deserting him when he needed them most. And he certainly didn’t burn them out in the name of stewardship. Instead, he simply loved them, he taught them patiently and gently, and he modeled the way of servant leadership. In return, they saw God in him.

I have three words for the fist-inside-the-velvet-glove guy: You’re a dictator. And two more for good measure: Jesus wasn’t. Draw your own conclusions. You’re good at that.