The Maxwellian Leadership Model Origins

Oftentimes in the church, I hear the phrase, “Leadership is Influence.” “Leadership is Influence” is a distinctive of the “Maxwellian Leadership” model that has been so pervasive in the church, especially the Wesleyan Church, by our own John Maxwell. Both Kevin Myers and Dan Reiland, extraordinary leaders and thinkers in their own right, are strong supporters and communicators of the Maxwellian model, as are many of our current district and denominational leaders. It is a good model, but I don’t believe it to be a Biblical model, despite being supported by Biblical leaders.

Based on my research and best educated guesses, here’s how the Maxwellian model came to be and how that phrase came to hold such significance. We know that in 1968, the merger between the Pilgrim Holiness and the Wesleyan Methodist church occurred forming what we know as The Wesleyan Church and Fishers, Indiana became the headquarters.

The Greatest generation, the generation that had fought in WWII, was now firmly entrenched in the leadership. There was still some of the Silent Generation, but the Greatest’s were seen as the future and the ones who would hold the standard until the Boomers were mature enough to take over.

Since the end of the Great Depression and WW1, the Silent’s had revolutionized the business world. They brought the structure and discipline they had learned in the war, into the boardroom. It was brutal, ruthless and took no prisoners when it came to creating and establishing market control and dominance. By the time the Greatest came into power,

But that didn’t sit well with everyone. In particular, there was a Silent named Robert K. Greenleaf who worked for AT&T who started teaching an unpopular ideology that “the organization existed for the person as much as the person existed for the organization.” This positional statement lead to the formation of the “Servant Leadership” organizational model.

The Servant Leadership model was then co-opted into the Church world and began to gain traction. Silent’s began actively recruiting Greatest’s who had business backgrounds to lead church and eventually placed them in positions of denominational leadership. Still, talking while leadership traits were encouraged, talking about leadership in the church was not.

Maxwell changed all of that. Maxwell, one of the first Baby Boomers to really have substantial influence in the Church, recognized early on in his ministry that in order for him to connect better with the business leaders and people in his congregation, he needed to discover ways to develop his own leadership abilities.

Now, this part I have no actual evidence of, but based on what I’ve read in Maxwell and in Greenleaf, there’s a high probability that Maxwell, in seeking to develop himself, was exposed to Greenleaf’s servant leadership model early on. Greenleaf was from Indiana and visited and spoke there regularly, Wesleyan Headquarters was in Indiana, and we know Maxwell served as a pastor in Indiana. It’s not much of a stretch to see the probability of Maxwell being influenced by Greenleaf. And to take it one step further, If you read Greenleaf’s book, “Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness”, it’s relatively easy to see Greenleaf’s fingerprints in the various teachings and writings of Maxwell. Simply put, there are far too many similar concepts, theories, and practices for it to be a coincidence.

Regardless, Maxwell’s now intentionally developing his personal leadership skills, which was a new idea to pastors who were only focused on developing their Bible skills. When Orval Butcher retired from Skyline, Maxwell brought those leadership skills with him and began teaching what he had been learning in staff meetings. Those staff meetings were recorded on cassette tape and somehow got leaked to pastors outside the church. Once pastors heard about this, they began calling and asking for these tapes and Maxwell, recognizing an opportunity to share his knowledge for a fee, began selling subscriptions to what became Injoy, which is now known as Equip. (Fun fact, when I was just starting out in ministry, I was told that I needed to listen to these Injoy tapes so that I could learn how to be a “real” pastor) :).

From here, most of us know Maxwell’s trajectory. He left Skyline with the sincere belief that his ministry was teaching leadership to pastors and Christian Business people. He’s gone on to become the foremost Christian leadership expert in the world.

Everyone in ministry today has, in some part, been influenced by Maxwell’s commitment and dedication to teaching leadership principles. We should all be aware and extraordinarily grateful for Maxwell’s willingness to be used by God to forever change the landscape and expectations of what it means to be a pastor and to pastor a church.

But your original question is, “Is there a better way to think of leadership?” And the answer is absolutely yes. The Maxwellian model opened the eyes of many to the need for Christian Leadership, however, few have actually explored a Biblical understanding of leadership. That’s not a criticism of pastors, but rather the reality that we are influenced by our personal experiences and the experiences of those around us. And if those around us have experiences based in the Maxwellian model of leadership, well then it’s highly likely that’s where our experiences will be based out of as well.

And that, in my opinion, is the problem that the Church and pastors are running into. Far too many of us have embraced a Maxwellian model of Leadership or a co-opted Servant Leadership model designed for business and incorrectly, and perhaps inappropriately, applied it to the systems and processes of the church.

The unintended result being that the church now looks and operates more like an Organization where success is defined by numbers and growth rather than the Organism that God created it to be where success is defined by the transformational power of Jesus and the life-giving attributes of those who follow Jesus to the communities and individuals around them.

What do you think?

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