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3. Church Leadership: Christian Leaders And Leadership-- Their Definition And Characteristics

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Whether you serve a Christian ministry (a church, a para-church ministry, a mission agency) or whether you’re a leader in a secular organization, you probably have a leadership role, at some level, in that organization. Indeed, I would argue that everyone to some degree is a leader in that we all influence others in some way. For just under 20 years, I served in ministry as a bi-vocational pastor while at the same time working in a business management capacity. And I can tell you from personal, firsthand experience that the biblical principles we are going to learn in this article will stand you in very good stead no matter where you have leadership responsibility.

During my years in business management, I found that the biblical models of servanthood and shepherding (see my article at together with all the New Testament instructions on the moral and spiritual dimensions of a godly leader were the very same principles that were the most effective and the most beneficial in leading the business organization I served. I found that the more time I spent developing my own biblically-based and God-honoring practice of leadership, the more effective I became as a leader. I noticed that others (whether Christians or not) responded well to a leader who cared about them and who had their best interests and the best interests of the organization at heart. In fact, I found that the more time I spent teaching our employees Christian ethics and relationships as well as our corporate values and goals, the more they acted in an honorable way (toward each other and towards our customers and suppliers) and the more our customers and suppliers liked doing business with us.

You see there is something thoroughly compelling (both to the Christian and the non-Christian) about the leadership style of Jesus and the apostles. Obviously, non-Christians may not be aware that a biblical leadership style is what they like and, if they were aware, they may not admit it. But who would not like being served by someone who genuinely cares about them? Who would not like doing business with an organization whose employees practice honesty and respect and servanthood? Who would not like working for an organization whose leaders serve their employees by acting in their best interest?

So, no matter who you are or what your particular vocation is at the moment, this article will be beneficial for you in developing a philosophy of leadership that is distinctly Christian. I am challenging you today to relate the principles we talk about to your leadership situation, whether it is leadership in the church or a secular vocation.

What, then, do we mean by a biblical philosophy of leadership? Kenneth Gangel describes it this way: “The term ‘philosophy of ministry’ describes our understanding of how to serve effectively within the context of whatever ministry God has given us” (Kenneth O. Gangel, “Feeding & Leading,” 53). By the term “philosophy,” we simply mean a system of principles and concepts that guides us in our understanding and practice, in this case in our understanding and practice of leadership. By the term “leadership,” we simply mean those people who take the initiative and responsibility to ensure that the philosophy of the organization is put into practice.

An organization’s effectiveness usually depends on its leaders and leadership. You can have the best philosophy, the best vision, the best plans, the best intentions etc., but without good leaders and leadership principles they are not going to become reality.

God has always had his leaders. He has always instituted structure and organization among his people. God, of course, is the ultimate leader, but he has always used people to mediate his leadership, people like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, the judges, the kings, the prophets, the apostles, and ultimately church elders and deacons (see Alex D. Montoya, “Leading” in “Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry,” 284).

In the church, then, we find that the apostles were the first leaders, assisted by seven men “of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Then, as the church expanded from Jerusalem through Asia Minor and Europe, and as the apostles began to make preparations for the transfer of the church leadership to others after their deaths, they established elders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2), assisted by deacons (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13), to lead the church.

I. Definition Of Leadership

What is leadership? Gangel defines leadership as “the exercise of one’s spiritual gifts under the call of God to serve a certain group of people in achieving the goals God has given them toward the end of glorifying Christ” (Kenneth O. Gangel, “Feeding and Leading,” 31).

My definition of leadership: Leadership is the ability, responsibility, and authority exercised by one or more persons for the benefit of a group, with a view to ...

1. ... generating unity (= common relationships).

2. ... establishing direction (= common plans, vision).

3. ... defining values (= common standards, beliefs, ethics).

4. ... stimulating momentum (= common motivation).

5. ... achieving results (= common goals, purpose).

This definition is applicable to any organization whether secular or religious. Of course, in church ministry, while the definition of leadership would remain the same, the objectives would be different than in a secular organization. While we could cite many definitions of leadership, what they usually have in common is that “the leader is one who leads others to the accomplishment of a common goal” (Montoya, 283). In other words, a leader and his followers work together with a common purpose. If you do not have followers, you can hardly be said to be leading. If you don’t have a common purpose, you really don’t have a viable organization.

Without leadership an organization won’t know who it is (its identity), why it is here (its mission and existence), what it does (its function), what it stands for (its beliefs and values), or where it is going (its future, plans, and vision). The reality is that many churches do not know the answers to these issues.

What are leaders? Leaders are those who possess and put into practice the skills and aptitude for the discipline of leadership. Leaders are people who...

1. …inspire others (generate and attract followers).

2. …act decisively (don’t procrastinate; don't shrink from decision-making).

3. …see the big picture (don’t get side-tracked with details).

4. …have a sense of direction (know where they are going).

5. …have a strong desire to achieve results (people who get things done).

Put together, these characteristics mean that leaders are people who make things happen (cf. Ted Engstrom, “The Making of a Christian Leader,” 20; Aubrey Malphurs, “The Dynamics of Church Leadership,” 47ff.). Our North American image of someone who makes things happens is, perhaps, the loud-talking, desk thumping, charismatic autocrat who leads by a dominating personality and power. But such is not the image of biblical leadership.

II. Leadership Styles

The term “leadership style” refers to the way a leader carries out his leadership responsibilities, his leadership methodology.

Leadership style varies depending on...

1. The personality of the leader.

2. The environment that has influenced his style – e.g. home, training, mentors etc.

3. The type of organization in which he is carrying out his leadership - e.g. church, parachurch ministry, corporation, academia etc. Obviously, a military or paramilitary organization (like police services) cannot run properly with the same leadership style as, for example, a community service group. So the style of leadership has to fit the organization and its life situation.

4. The economic conditions. The leadership style required for an organization in crisis mode (e.g. facing bankruptcy or emerging from bankruptcy) will be very different from one that is enjoying times of prosperity (i.e. survival vs. success).

Ted Engstrom cites an American Management Association report that correctly concludes that “the most important single skill of an executive is his ability to get along with people” (Engstrom, 67). Therefore, I suppose it would be true to say that the best style of leadership is one that...

1. ... creates harmony among the people (relationships)

2. ... produces efficiency in the organization (productivity)

3. ... achieves the desired goals (progress, forward movement). Sadly, many churches don't have much, if any, forward movement. They just exist, going nowhere and achieving nothing.

Leadership style also reflects the leaders personality…

1. Positive vs. negative.

2. Optimistic vs. pessimistic.

3. Confident vs. timid.

4. Innovative vs. unimaginative.

5. Forward-looking vs. status quo.

6. Charismatic vs. bland, boring.

Not surprisingly, according to a study conducted by the Northwest Friends churches, “the leaders of dynamic situations were characterized as positive, confident, cheerful, and goal-oriented” (Engstrom, 70). Quite the opposite was true for churches that were stunted or declining.

Leadership styles generally range between a high degree of control to minimal control, as follows…

1. Authoritative leadership style: Large degree of control (micro-management) and centralized decision-making. Little or no input from or autonomy given to followers. Followers are pressured into agreeing with the leader and obeying orders.

2. Collaborative leadership style: Followers are given a great deal of input to decisions and the freedom to set goals and standards within prescribed limits. The leader inspires, motivates, and unites his followers with a view to their self-improvement.

3. Passive leadership style: Emphasis is on delegation. Allows people to set their own goals and standards with little or no input from the leader.

None of these styles accurately reflects the biblical pattern for leadership style and practice. I would argue that the ideal and primary leadership style in Scripture could be described as “shepherding” or “serving” with the goal of producing life transformation in the followers.

III. The Profile Of A Christian Leader

What does a Christian leader look like? Who is he in his person, character, abilities, attitudes, lifestyle etc.? Clearly, the starting point is the spiritual qualifications for a church leader which the apostle Paul outlines in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. But this is only the starting point, it seems to me. This is by no means an exhaustive list, which, if a man meets, he is necessarily qualified to be a church leader. I don't think Paul intended this to be some sort of check list that we use without any other standards or requirements. This list says nothing about character traits like humility, courage, wisdom etc. which, surely, are important aspects of a church leader’s profile. Nor does it say anything about the gift of leadership (cf. Rom. 12:8), but surely an elder must be gifted as a leader - that’s a given.

So, what other aspects of character, personality, and ability do you think a church leader must have? I think, apart from the apostle Paul’s criteria, that there are embedded in Scripture certain inalienable character and personality traits that are necessary for church leaders. I think these are best understood by dividing them into three categories:

A. Those intangible “character” traits that enable them to consistently make good decisions.

B. Those “personality” traits that impact those they lead and inspire others to follow and obey.

C. Those “performance” traits that drive a leader to achieve results (e.g. self-discipline, perseverance).

A. Character Traits.

Here we are speaking of those inner virtues that enable leaders to consistently make good decisions. The top five on my list are wisdom, integrity, humility, courage, and vision.

1. Wisdom. Wisdom stands at the top of my list. This is the umbrella trait under which all the others are subsumed. Sadly, wisdom is the one trait that seems to be so lacking in church leaders today. There are not many wise men. Richard Davis, an HR consultant in Toronto, studied 10 years of performance reviews and the management histories of 200 senior executives with major Canadian and U.S. companies. He came up with 10 traits that were common to all of them that he describes in his book, “The Intangibles of Leadership, The Ten Qualities of Superior Executive Performance.” The number one most important trait, in his view, is wisdom. I agree. I think that’s biblical, for example…

a) Solomon did not ask God for riches but for wisdom (1 Kings 3:9)

b) Jesus “grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom” (Lk. 2:40) and “he increased in wisdom and stature” (Lk. 2:52)

c) The leaders of Acts 6 were characterized by wisdom: “Seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Paul affirms this: “… that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. 1:9). Speaking of Christ, Paul says, In whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). We are to “walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time” (Col. 4:5).

Wisdom is one of those character traits that you know when you see it but which is hard to define. We know many of the habits of wise people. For example, wise people usually consult others, evaluate self-performance, engage in reflection, welcome challenging dialogue that stimulates their thinking and opinions. Wise leaders don't want “yes-men” around them but people who have initiative and independent thinking.

But how do you define wisdom? My best attempt to define wisdom is this: Wisdom is good judgement based on knowledge, experience, and maturity. Let me take these traits one at a time…

“Knowledge.” Knowledge is our understanding of and familiarity with facts, truths, principles etc. Knowledge is connected with learning. Special knowledge comes from our specific areas of expertise and learning, whether academic or on-the-job.

“Experience.” You cannot be wise without experience. There is no substitute for experience. After all, wisdom is earned and learned through life experience. So, make sure that you get experience on the job. Life’s school of experiential adversity knocks wisdom into you. While experience connotes age, some people gain experience faster than others by virtue of the variety of life situations to which they are exposed (be it at home, school, work, or society) and their aptitude for philosophical reflection which they synthesize into life principles. You could probably say that experience is where we put knowledge to work like an apprenticeship. After all, isn't the entirety of life, to some degree, an apprenticeship?

“Maturity.” Maturity is the ability to apply your experience and knowledge with wisdom to decisions, attitudes, circumstances, and relationships. Paul says: “We speak wisdom among those who are mature” (1 Cor. 2:6). Maturity has to do with self-responsibility, empathy, consideration of other’s views, reliability, emotional stability.

Maturity, like beauty, is hard to define but you know it when you see it: you certainly know its opposite, immaturity, when you see it. Maturity has to do with self-control, wise choices, and how we express ourselves. Maturity is an awareness of who we are and how we relate to others. Maturity has to do with considering short-term pain worthwhile to achieve long-term gain. Immature people don’t see things that way – they want immediate self-satisfaction. Maturity is making your word your bond, consistency, dependability.

There are three types of maturity, it seems to me: emotional, psychological, and physical maturity. Emotional maturity is acting like an adult not a child; not exhibiting temper tantrums when you don’t get your own way or when things go wrong; controlling your emotions. Psychological maturity is closely related to emotional maturity. It is the ability to think and act the way we expect responsible and sensible adults to think and act, drawing on our life experience and self-reflection. Physical maturity is the age when we stop growing, cutting teeth etc. and we look like an adult, so it’s much easier to recognize. It occurs without us doing anything and it develops over a fairly well-defined period of life. Whereas emotional and psychological maturity occur at different times of life for different people. Some older people never reach maturity - at 60 or 70 years old, they are still immature in their behavior, reactions, attitudes, speech, and decisions - while some younger people are quite mature for their age.

2. Integrity. Integrity is …

Impartiality: This means never making decisions to please people but to please God (Eph. 6:6-7; Col. 3:22-23), doing what is right regardless of the cost, never being caught in a conflict of interest, never favoring one person over another regardless of who is involved. This may mean turning down someone’s kind intent (e.g. to give or lend you money) so that you are not beholden to that person.

Transparency: This involves openness, no hidden agenda regardless of the consequences. This doesn’t mean that you tell everything you know necessarily (wisdom may dictate otherwise), but it does mean not hiding behind a veneer, being who you truly are - what you see is what you get.

Righteousness: Refers to uprightness in one’s dealings, moral rectitude, decency, fairness.

Sincerity: This goes hand-in-hand with integrity. Don’t be phony but be transparent, open, without guile.

Honesty: This is closely related to impartiality, transparency, righteousness, and sincerity. It involves showing respect to others, keeping your word, always telling the truth.

Credibility: Reliability, authenticity, trustworthiness, believability.

Moral purity: This is part of personal integrity. Integrity requires that you “Pay close attention to yourself” (1 Tim. 4:16). Why? Because you cannot lead others to faith, or lead the people of God in worship, or intercede on behalf of others unless your own life is morally upright and clean. A Christian leader must have moral integrity. Your whole life must hold together - no gaps, no inconsistencies but a unified whole.

3. Humility. Humility is …

Meekness: Meekness is not “power under control” as some like to define it. It is clearly defined in Scripture: “Not thinking more highly of yourself than you ought to think” (Rom. 12:3) – i.e. not arrogant. “Esteeming others better than yourself” (Phil. 2:3) – i.e. humility. It is the attitude of John the Baptist toward Jesus: “He must increase but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). It is the attitude of the apostle Paul: “I am the least of the apostles and do not deserve to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9; cf. Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). Meekness, therefore, is an attitude that embraces lowliness, gentleness, servanthood.

Fallibility: A truly humble person does not think they know everything. Everyone can and does make mistakes. You don’t have all the answers. Fallibility means that you are willing to acknowledge your weaknesses as well as your strengths. There is only one who is infallible, that is God himself.

Gentleness: Gentleness is not bullying others to get your own way. It is mildness of attitude, kindness in relationships and actions. It is tenderness towards others, showing compassion and mercy to others, regardless of their social or economic status.

Humility, then, is the opposite of pride. It’s easy to become proud in leadership, particularly if there are outward signs of success in worldly terms, such as increase in numbers or new buildings. Preaching, in particular, can be an exhilarating experience especially when people affirm your preaching – it can go to your head. The minute we begin to think it has anything to do with us (our credit, our merit, our ability) we are in trouble. Note these principles: “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble” (Ja. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). “Humble yourself therefore under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6). When it’s time, he will exalt you, not yourself.

Robert Murray McCheyne (1813–1843) is an example of humility. McCheyne was the pastor of a church in Scotland from 1835 to 1843. He died in the prime of his ministry at the age of only 29. He was gifted as a preacher and a musician. He was a scholar (educated in Latin, Greek, Hebrew), an artist, poet, and a gifted singer. While he was away from his church on sabbatical due to ill health, a young preacher called W. C. Burns came to fill the pulpit. During that time a revival broke out at the church and spread to other parts of Scotland. McCheyne couldn’t wait to get home to see and participate in what God was doing in the church. He was 26 at the time. He saw the great working of the Spirit of God as crowds now gathered to hear him speak. But three years later, he died. He had done the preparatory work for the revival but didn’t live to enjoy it.

Two particular aspects of his life brought the church to this point: His devout prayer life and his humility. McCheyne was content for the revival to break out under the preaching of another man. He had prayed for revival and God had answered his prayers. He was glad that revival broke out even though another man was used to initiate it. He wasn’t focused on numbers but on serving God, no matter who had the spotlight.

4. Courage. Courage is not in-your-face boldness, rudeness, or outspokenness. Courage is doing what’s right regardless of others’ opinions, opposition, criticism, failure, or discouragement. Courage is having a conviction as to a right course of action and carrying it out. Courage is standing for truth. Courage is confidence that with God’s help we can do it.

Remember, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgement” (2 Tim. 1:7). Oswald Sanders wrote: “Courage is that quality of mind that enables people to encounter danger or difficulty firmly, without fear or discouragement” (J. Oswald Sanders, “Spiritual Leadership,” 59). Courage is that character trait exhibited by Martin Luther when, on his journey to Worms to face questions about his teaching, he is reported to have said: “You can expect from me everything save fear or recantation. I shall not flee, much less recant.” That takes courage. Christian leadership isn’t easy - it takes courage.

It takes courage to make tough decisions, to do what is right regardless of the consequences, like Eric Liddell (“Chariots of Fire”), who wouldn’t compete in a race on Sundays. Courage is making clear, good decisions in dependence on God. This is the hallmark of a good spiritual leader, like Abraham during the crisis of Sodom and the rescue of Lot (Gen. 14:14f.); like Moses when he decided to give up Egypt’s pleasures and power; and like Paul when he spoke and acted confidently in the storm (Acts 27).

Every time you face a crossroads in decision-making, you will be an example of either courage or cowardice. Let me cite three examples (adapted from Bob Reccord and Randy Singer, “Made To Count,” 170-172) …

(1) When David was still quite young, tending his father’s sheep, he encountered wild animals coming to attack his father’s sheep and he decided to defend the sheep at the risk of his own life. Later, he encountered the giant Goliath, challenging the Israelite army to a dual to determine the victor of the battle. While all the other Israelite soldiers cowered in fear, David volunteered to take on the challenge and he slew the giant with one sling shot. David is a wonderful example of courage.

(2) Jonah refused to obey God and, instead of going to Nineveh to tell them of coming judgement, he caught a boat going to Tarshish instead. But God stopped Jonah’s attempt to escape by causing a violent storm that forced Jonah to confess his sin to the sailors who then threw him overboard, upon which he was swallowed by a great fish and vomited out on dry land. Then Jonah arose and went to Nineveh. By God’s grace, Jonah’s fear of delivering bad news was displaced by courage, which God rewarded with a great response of repentance from the Ninevites. Jonah is an example of cowardice that God transformed into courage.

(3) Daniel and his three friends were fearless in their stand for God. First, they refused the king’s food and insisted on conforming to God’s dietary laws. Second, the three friends bravely faced the fiery furnace rather than bow down to worship the king’s golden image. Third, despite an irrefutable law of the Medes and Persians, Daniel publicly and unashamedly continued to pray to God rather than submit his petitions to King Darius, for which he was cast into the lions’ den. In each case, God vindicated these men of extraordinary courage. They would not compromise or submit to any authority that put their testimony for God in jeopardy, despite the threat of death.

It takes courage to make tough decisions, and ...

It takes courage to deal with difficult situations, to face obstacles and attacks from people and from Satan. It takes courage to handle personal criticism and opposition. It takes courage to preach when you’ve been soundly criticized during the week. God said to Jeremiah: “Therefore, prepare yourself and arise, and speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them. For behold, I have made you this day a fortified city and an iron pillar and bronze walls against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, against its princes, against its priests, and against the people of the land. They will fight against you but they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you,” says the Lord, “to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:17-19). That’s where our courage comes from to handle criticism and opposition.

Criticism is a formidable tool designed to wear you down. It amplifies your insecurities, takes your eyes off the task at hand and onto yourself, depletes your energy and enthusiasm, makes you defensive, and isolates you. That’s why negative, destructive criticism (judgementalism), I believe, is a tool of Satan. I believe in the biblical concepts of rebuke, exhortation, confrontation etc. (2 Tim. 4:2), but destructive criticism isn’t in there. Criticism is usually negative and destructive. It’s about what people don’t want and don’t like, not about what is honoring to God or beneficial to his people. Criticism can distort your view of ministry and of the people you minister to.

It takes courage to persevere in times of spiritual discouragement, to stay the course when discouragement sets in, when you think you’re a failure, when you work hard but it seems no one is listening or responding. Remember, three times God told Joshua to be strong and of good courage (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9). Why? Because he knew the temptations and tests Joshua would face might discourage him or induce him to take the easy way out.

5. Vision. Vision is not head-in-the-clouds dream world. It’s not your own aspirations or imaginations of greatness. No, vision is seeing what’s possible, “seeing the invisible” as Moses did (Heb. 11:27) and like the patriarchs who saw the promises afar off, even though they themselves did not receive them (Heb. 11:13). Vision is setting realistic and achievable goals and direction with a sense of optimism: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13) – i.e. I can do the things that God calls me to do through the strength that Christ supplies.

These five character traits determine whether you, as a leader, will consistently make good decisions, impact those you lead in a powerful way, and drive you to accomplish goals for the glory of God and the blessing of his people.

These are not traits of arrogance or self-promotion. No, these are traits that God gives certain people which make them strong, upright, influential leaders. These are traits that enable certain people to overcome obstacles and keep pressing on when everything around them seems to be against them.

B. Personality Traits.

This is the ability to influence and inspire those you lead to follow and obey you. This is sometimes referred to as the “power of personhood.” You can’t learn this. You either have it or you don’t. It is charisma, not superficial but internal and genuine.

C. Performance Traits.

Performance traits are those that drive a leader to achieve results. These include traits like self-discipline, perseverance, endurance, and initiative. It’s the motivation to press on despite discouragement because you can see the goal, to encourage those on your team to go on. This comes from the internal drive to make a difference in your life and the lives of others.

Such drive to perform to the best of your ability does not spring from self-promotion or the desire for the adulation of others. No, this is the innate motivation to be the best you can be and achieve the most you can for the glory of God and the blessing of his people. This takes self-motivation to get up each day to move the organization forward in the accomplishment of its philosophy of ministry.

Final Remarks

Undoubtedly, much more could be written about leadership, its definition and characteristics. Leadership, as you can tell from this article, is difficult to define and leaders are often difficult to identify, particularly leadership in church ministry. When I was teaching at seminary, I often wondered how certain students would perform in church leadership. Strangely, some who showed very little leadership skills in the classroom ended up being quite successful in their own way in church ministry. I have often noticed that God takes people who superficially don’t seem suited to leadership and yet he uses them in great ways to achieve his purposes.

Nonetheless, I think that a person’s character, personality, and performance traits, along with their biblical qualifications, indicate whether they are suited to and have the gift for church leadership.

I remember one time travelling to Memphis to teach at the Stephen Olford Centre for Biblical Preaching. My flight took me from Ontario to Detroit and from Detroit to Memphis. In the Detroit airport I faced two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. First, my flight from Ontario was late arriving in Detroit. Second, the line up to get through immigration in the Detroit airport was extremely long. In front of me in the lineup was a group of high school students who had been to Europe on a school trip and were returning home. I got chatting with some of them and they asked me where I was going. In my response I told them that I was concerned that I would miss my connection because of being late and the long lineup. One of the students, a young girl of about 15 years old, immediately replied, “Come with me.” I followed her as she took me to the front of the line up where more of their fellow students and some teachers were waiting in line. She asked them if they would mind if I butted into the line as I might otherwise miss my connecting flight. They readily agreed and I made my flight. That was leadership – she had integrity, initiative, courage, and influence far beyond her years. That wasn’t something she learned at school. She may have learned it at home, but, essentially, it was part of her character, personality, and initiative.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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