Captain America and the Gospel of Leadership

kinnon —  June 13, 2012 — 20 Comments

I’m thinking of asking my Missional ’Gator friends (they know who they are) to join me in a Missional Avengers team. Our mission will be to seek out and destroy the Loci of church leadership ideas like this one from that great church ecclesiologist, Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’ve seen this pointed to by a number of people as relevant to church leadership. The last straw was when a good friend — a person I love dearly — who is planting a church in Toronto, ReTweeted a link to it.

Marlboro man as Pastor 2

I deal with this ridiculous and, in fact, dangerous belief in the mythic super hero as church leader/planter at length in my post, Jesus and the Marlboro Man.

This is the myth of the rugged individual and it is one, I’d suggest, that has done more damage to the church in the west than we care to realize.

And that damage includes both those who have attempted to “build” a church this way, as well as those who have attempted to work with said solo builder.

In light of my response here, please read this post from Lance Ford, based on his upcoming book, UnLeader: Rethinking Leadership… and Why We Must —  a book you just might want to pre-order. (Part One of his “Refutable Laws” posts is here.)

And if or as you disagree with me, help me understand how Teddy’s thoughts line up with Luke 10 or Matthew 20:25. I’m just saying.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

20 responses to Captain America and the Gospel of Leadership

  1. Thanks for the mention. 🙂

    I don’t know why it wouldn’t apply to a planter – or any other disciple of Jesus for that matter.

    • Triple D,
      I think Brad’s Thoughtlette #2 and #3 below is probably the best response.

  2. I think that the Teddy quote ‘could’ apply to every one of those seventy-two. I’m not certain that the quote necessarily means “one man doing everything all by himself,” or negates team leadership/planting.

    • Teddy, in context, is definitely suggesting the myth of the rugged, individual leader – it was how he lived his life. Thus the danger of quoting Roosevelt approvingly for Church leadership.

  3. There is a crappy tendency for people to appeal to the fact that someone is *doing* something, and therefore we shouldn’t talk ill of their efforts. It’s like saying “Mark is attempting to fly off that building. I admire his efforts. You shouldn’t say he is crazy, or doing something stupid or not good for his health. He is a great model of faithfulness to a belief for us all.”

    Treating leadership specifically like this is a recipe for cult leaders at worst and ego centric prosperity gospels at best.

  4. Thoughtlette #1. Whyever would anyone *need* to claim credit? Especially if they’re actually serving in an arena appropriate to their spiritual gifting, skill development, and maturity level?

  5. Thoughtlette #2. Teddy. Teddy, teddy, teddy. Yes, you were a “Rough Rider” who earned a rep as a rugged individualist doing the cowboy thing in the Western frontier, as I learned from the *National Geographic* special on *The Lord of the Rings* and their conception of the development of “mythic heroes.”

    I, however, as the third generation of pioneer families on both sides in one of those Western frontier states, have realized that it may have taken rugged individualism for people to get there in the first place by horse, by wagon train, by boat, and by foot. However, risk-taking only got you so far; you only survived in community.

    You, sir, were no Aragorn …

    And maybe you

  6. Thoughtlette #3. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

    For those of us whose *ministry calling* is teaching, research and development, strategy analyst, and SuperHero Sidekick, could I suggest that if the Head of the Body did not intend us to be a functioning part, He would have excised us like a mole?

    And yet, He has not. As one has who has helped in a dozen church plant teams and pioneering ministries and non-profit start-ups, plus endured a series of malignant ministers in said enterprises, I see my writing about what I have learned as absolutely essential for our communities to learn to do things in a more balanced manner. I have done this resource writing and organizational critiquing for over 20 years right alongside my direct involvement.

    The more I work on editing this material about both toxic ministries AND those that are healthy, safe, and sustainable – the more it makes sense to me that to develop the ideal, constructive organizations we have to be very aware of what can go wrong to make it a dystopia. If we only try to emphasize the “positive” without counteracting the “negative,” we end up running experiments on the lives of real people and we are responsible for the damage that occurs because of our lack of holistic balance. And even if a particular culture or situation legitimately brings out a specific emphasis, that doesn’t give permission to negate the rest of the Body’s functions. Every part of the Body that functions as God designed it and as the Spirit empowers it, is a leader … not just the presumed heads of local churches and church plants …

    Teddy: So sorry, but your quote and those who seem to shape their lives thereby are soooo very last century, soooo very modernist and programmist. Get your head out of the sand and into the world as it really is (and always was). The mythic, heroic singular leader is exactly the kind of person who thinks he (and rarely she) is doing the creditable thing, when in fact is experimenting with the lives of the rest of us. Be a risk-taker with your own life if you will; but let us be shepherded by someone on our level, okay?

    • “The mythic, heroic singular leader is exactly the kind of person who thinks he (and rarely she) is doing the creditable thing, when in fact is experimenting with the lives of the rest of us. Be a risk-taker with your own life if you will; but let us be shepherded by someone on our level, okay?”

      This is exactly it. And it is experimenting with other’s lives IN what is to be the Body of Christ!. In some cases actually replacing the work of the Holy Spirit. It can be spiritually stifling.

      But let us never forget there are no leaders without followers. As someone whose background was in corporate training which included a ton of leadership guru stuff and sadly did it in some mega’s I came to the conclusion that the world’s leadership principles do not map to the Body of Christ. Try telling that to Ken Blanchard! In fact, I saw the damage of that mapping up close and personal many times. It is actually the “Gentile” systemJesus mentions. (As in the Greek chain of being)

      Here was my question. Why does someone have to be in “charge” of the adults in the Body. People cannot conceive a group that does not have a human in charge of it or in authority over said group of people. I am not speaking of guiding someone. I am speaking of the concept of authority. People want to be led by a human indefinitely.Personally, I think this shows a lack of understanding spiritual maturity.

      I go back to Israel begging for a king which made God angry because HE was their King. We are doing the same thing now in churches all over.

      • The question you ask, Lin, is central to culture and context. A facilitator of adults in ministry, yes, I can definitely see that, but a CEO who is expected to (or claims to) have the gifts and calling to create the vision for the adults, well, that’s a big “if,” eh?

        Actually, I posted something relevant earlier today in a series on social control through compliance or chaos.

        [CLIP] There are three core theological problems that continually emerge in malignant ministries of the Church in the West. Two are based in legalism, one in license.

        The first two theological problems deal with ecclesiology – our beliefs and practices about being/doing church. These problems are especially noticeable in church and ministry movement variations tainted by the extreme legalism of the Shepherding Movement: (1) a hierarchical leadership pyramid that perpetually treats disciples as children and keeps them in immaturity, and (2) degrading the formation of the local church from a human organism that functions on grace to church as a legal organization that requires covenants and contracts.

        In both cases, authoritarian ministry structures keep people in submission to error and immaturity. They treat disciples as children who must have older-wiser-smarter-anointed father-figure leaders decide everything for them … just as the pedagogues of old. In ancient Roman culture, a household’s pedagogue was responsible for overseeing the pre-adult sons under his charge. To children, the pedagogue’s word was law until they were old enough to be considered adults – responsible for their own decision-making and the consequences thereof.

        The effect of Law (or any extra-biblical set of rules and regulations) in the Church is like a Pharisaical pedagogue who keeps people in a permanent state of childhood – always being told what to do, when to do it, and not always why. But the New Testament epistles are clear that Christ fulfilled the Law and removes it; He designed for us to become mature – to act like adults. So, any system with an intermediary figure that keeps disciples from developing into adults has something deeply wrong with it – if it is not actually outright heretical. [CLIP]

        One alternative that readers here may not know about is “andragogy” – the model used in adult education and in community advocacy work. You survey the adults to see what it is that they want to learn and/or do, you find out what assets they have to work with already, and you facilitate them reaching their goals with their assets … and/or help them find additional resources. This approach is not so much based in conventional “differential diagnosis” (like what House M.D. does) and problem-solving, but “appreciative inquiry” and asset-development.

        In my view, we need both processes, otherwise we only look at the negatives with diagnosis, and we only look at the “positives” with appreciative inquiry. If we don’t do both, and one process is taken to an extreme, then we’re back to the same old problem of running experiments on people’s lives …

  7. That’s a truly inspiring quote! Amen and amen!

    But then again, I don’t extrapolate the quote to mean “and other people should bestow fawning accolades on me and follow me blindly and unquestioningly in my holy cause — lo, I am the Lemming King!”

    That’s how I can agree with Bill’s point, and still be inspired by the quote.

  8. I had this ringing in the ears come back to me… of the day my former pastor blew a gasket in my driveway and spluttered (among many other things), “How dare you criticize us when we’re serving?”

    Yup, those who see themselves as “do-ers” are beyond criticism, and that’s why their model of leadership is as doomed as the goats and the spewed-from-the-mouth. That was the final straw that told me not only had I failed to change the leadership I had been working with for 16 years, but also that there was no hope of ever doing so. Not with those leaders, not in that structure, not with their power-tripping. They turned biblical leadership on its head.

    These so-called do-ers like to say that they have “battle-scars” from all their doing. I can show them my own battle-scars… somehow they were incurred in my back as I was advancing into this “battle”, and then further when I was trampled underfoot by some very familiar-looking faces.

    You know, in the book of Acts, there’s this pattern of opposition to the gospel from outside, and then from within, and then outside, and then within… and the more I look around, the more I think that there’s not so much external opposition to the gospel in this current era. It seems there just doesn’t need to be.

    Just sayin’.

  9. Oh yeah… and here’s another quote for ya:

    The Thinker… disturbs the complacent. He obstructs the busy pragmatists. He questions the very foundations of all around him, and in so doing throws doubts upon aims, motives, and purposes which those running affairs have neither time nor patience to investigate. The thinker is a nuisance.

    — Dave Tomlinson in The Post Evangelical, 1995.
    or how about:

    How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.

    — Adolf Hitler

  10. Yeah … it’s kinda convenient to hold up the shield of “Doing.” However, that just plays into the myth that we have been put on this earth in order to produce … either economically or in ministry … it’s all about the numbers. I wonder what would happen if we all laid down our counting sticks?

  11. The thought that came to mind is Elijah, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty…I am the only one left.” The danger in the quote would be if it reinforces an assumption of self-importance. Also, we should be aware that cultural metrics of victory and defeat may be completely inapplicable to the work and economy of the kingdom where the first are last and the greatest are least.

    The other concern would be comparing oneself to the critics and to those cold and timid souls. It is good to admonish one another to be courageous. Let us remember however, that others are striving valiantly in their own heroic battles, whether or not those battles are considered worthy by others. “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Philo)

  12. I once had what I thought was a strong relationship with a pastor. I went through a crisis and he was supportive and helpful. When he went through a crisis all I heard was static. I realized we didn’t have a real relationship.

    I’ve been friends with a lots of pastors. For many their career and their ministry aspirations skew their relationships with others. It generally makes them quite lonely. They feel like they have sacrificed more than others so they find criticism really irritating. Thus the affinity for the Teddy quote.

    On the other side I’ve had people criticize the church I’m a part of. Someone left claiming no one was willing to be the true church with him. It is really annoying and lots of critics really have no idea what they are talking about because they’ve never committed to anything beyond bantering about theory.

    The truth is not all pastors are lone/lonely rangers and not all critics are hypocritical know nothings.

    I get what you’re saying Bill. Unfortunately the conditioning of the current church systems makes it hard for even the most pure hearted pastor to avoid these sorts of ego traps.

  13. The funny thing, Bill, is that I read the quote in the context of someone who told me I’m not a Captain America, and therefore I shouldn’t be church planting. I found the quote a good reminder to stop paying attention to all the naysayers and to be willing to fail if that’s what it took. On most of my sane days I don’t see myself as a triumphant conquering hero, and the other days Charlene and others help me come to my senses.

    We’re all susceptible to getting sucked into modern paradigms of church and ministry – but I’d also suggest that we’re all susceptible to reading into what others are thinking sometimes and getting it wrong as well.

    • Darryl: I suspect that in The Grand Scheme of Things, better to be General Obedience than Captain America. Every time.

      Sincerely yours, Mr Average aka SuperHero Sidekick aka futuristguy

  14. To speak of manliness, to espouse it, regardless of your take on what, in fact, it means to be manly is unpopular. Our cultural cues call for eviscerated, emasculated, unemployed men. We are to play down our differences from women, empower their liberation from the home and their success in the workplace. Accordingly, Harvard professor of Political Science, Harvey Mansfield writes: “The true, the effectual, meaning of women’s equality is women’s independence…independence from men and children…in maximum feasible independence.”

    Maybe encourage the M-man not to smoke so much, but don’t kill him for riding the range.

    It is God’s Word that called David’s men mighty.

    It is God’s Word that reduced the number of Gideon’s army that His strength might be evident.

    It is God’s Word that selected one man from among his brothers: David.

    It is God’s Word in which we find the four exhortations “only to be strong and courageous” in Joshua. A bold message to one man.

    It is God’s Word in which four young men would rather burn that bow.

    Don’t tear down the very thing God is after…strong male leadership. Paul said we are to box, to contend, to finish…to fight.

    Strong male leadership is God’s pattern, not man’s hi-jacking ploy. This doesn’t imply arrogance or some rogue ego-maniac must necessarily result. Yes it is often abused, but don’t remove the inherent nature of God’s finger-print on the male of mankind.

    Satan is attacking the role of men—the institution of marriage—the sufficiency of God’s Word. Pray that there will be men who don’t just blog about it, but do something about it…that’s my high-ground on the quote. It’s not the sum total of what wisdom would say…but as Edmund Burke famously stated: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

    Yes, hold leadership is check, but don’t emasculate the biblical reality that God uses men, even in mighty ways, to serve as his vessels. Get off the bench, get in the game…that’s the heart of the quote you’ve run through the dirt.

    Lead, fight…be the man God called us to be. The full counsel keeps us in check through Philippians 2 and Ephesians 5 etc. Only be strong and courageous. “Act like men.” (1 Cor. 16:13)

    Grunt and sigh.


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