Three Overlooked Leadership Roles

By Alan Hirsch
From Leadership Journal

It was while leading South Melbourne Restoration Community, an inner city church committed to reaching the marginalized people of our city, that I realized something was fundamentally wrong.

We were a ragtag band of ex-druggies with a church situated in a profoundly postmodern and tribalized part of the city. The model of church we had inherited was clearly not cutting it. Scarcely anything in my training for ministry had prepared me to for this.

In this post-Christian context, we needed to be more than ministers running a church. We needed a different type of leadership.

We morphed from an institutional church into a missional one. In the years that followed, we planted five more churches among the homosexuals, prostitutes, street kids, the rave scene, blue-collar workers, Jewish people, and Gen-Xers. It was exciting, but we felt totally inadequate to the task. It forced us to a broader understanding of the church’s mission, and a better grasp of what leadership involved.

While at South, I was invited to lead a revitalization movement within my denomination—the fourth largest Protestant denomination in Australia. Seeing things from this higher altitude, I recognized that South was not the only church facing a crisis. My entire denomination needed to shift toward a missional culture if it was to grow and survive. But how?

We needed a new type of leadership, one with the courage to question the status quo, to dream of new possibilities, and to innovate new ways of being the people of God in a post-Christian culture. We needed missionaries to the West, but our seminaries were not producing them. If we take the five categories of church leadership from Ephesians 4:11, they were training leaders to be teachers and pastors for established congregations, but where were the evangelists, the prophets, and the apostles to lead the mission of the gospel into the world?

Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, and Teachers—I refer to these together as APEST. But when I looked at my church and most others, I saw congregations dominated by leaders who were shepherds and teachers. What happened to the other leadership types?

Where have all the APEs gone?

During Christendom, the centuries when Christianity dominated the culture, the church acquired a fundamentally non-missional posture. Mission beyond the walls of the institution was downplayed because every citizen was deemed at least a nominal Christian already. What was needed were pastoral and teaching ministries to care for and instruct the congregation, and to draw underdeveloped Christians back into the church on Sunday.

So, these two functions were eventually instituted as the leadership offices in the church, and the other three roles listed in Ephesians 4 (apostles, prophets, and evangelists) faded away as largely unnecessary. The system of church leadership we inherited from Christendom heavily favors maintenance and pastoral care, thus neglecting the church’s larger mission and ministry.

Consequently the A, P, and E leadership functions were marginalized from the church’s leadership structure.

In my years of ministry, I’ve seen how many churches sideline people with more APE type gifts. Of course, this is not to say that apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic ministries have totally disappeared. Many within the church have managed to fill these roles without necessarily being tagged “apostles” or “prophets,” but, by and large, these lacked formal recognition, and they have tended to be exercised outside the context of the local church.

For example, the work of St. Patrick and the Celtic movement, that of John Wesley, William Booth, and many others is clearly of a different type than that of a shepherd-teacher. And it is not hard to see how the exiling of apostles, prophets, and evangelists gave rise to the development of parachurch agencies and missionary orders, each with a somewhat atomized ministry focus.

The Navigators, for instance, arose out of a need to evangelize and disciple people outside of the church structures because the church was neither effective nor interested. Sojourners emerged to represent the social justice concerns that the church was largely ignoring, as did World Vision, the aid and development agency.

This divorce of APE from ST has been disastrous for the local church and has damaged the cause of Christ and his mission. In my opinion, this contraction of fivefold to twofold ministry is one of the main factors in the decline of evangelical Christianity in the West. If we want a vibrant missional church, we simply have to have a missional leadership structure with all five functions engaged. It’s that simple!

We need more than a pastor and/or teacher leading a congregation. A missional church requires pioneering, innovative, organizationally adaptive, and externally focused leadership, and this means a five-fold understanding of ministry leadership. Let me describe each of the APEST roles, the core task of each, and the impact when one dominates or works in isolation from the others.

APOSTLES extend the gospel. As the “sent ones,” they ensure that the faith is transmitted from one context to another and from one generation to the next. They are always thinking about the future, bridging barriers, establishing the church in new contexts, developing leaders, networking trans-locally. Yes, if you focus solely on initiating new ideas and rapid expansion, you can leave people and organizations wounded. The shepherding and teaching functions are needed to ensure people are cared for rather than simply used.

PROPHETS know God’s will. They are particularly attuned to God and his truth for today. They bring correction and challenge the dominant assumptions we inherit from the culture. They insist that the community obey what God has commanded. They question the status quo. Without the other types of leaders in place, prophets can become belligerent activists or, paradoxically, disengage from the imperfection of reality and become other-worldly.

EVANGELISTS recruit. These infectious communicators of the gospel message recruit others to the cause. They call for a personal response to God’s redemption in Christ, and also draw believers to engage the wider mission, growing the church. Evangelists can be so focused on reaching those outside the church that maturing and strengthening those inside is neglected.

SHEPHERDS nurture and protect. Caregivers of the community, they focus on the protection and spiritual maturity of God’s flock, cultivating a loving and spiritually mature network of relationships, making and developing disciples. Shepherds can value stability to the detriment of the mission. They may also foster an unhealthy dependence between the church and themselves.

TEACHERS understand and explain. Communicators of God’s truth and wisdom, they help others remain biblically grounded to better discern God’s will, guiding others toward wisdom, helping the community remain faithful to Christ’s word, and constructing a transferable doctrine. Without the input of the other functions, teachers can fall into dogmatism or dry intellectualism. They may fail to see the personal or missional aspects of the church’s ministry.

When all five of these functions are present, the church operates at peak performance. To use Paul’s terms, it “grows,” “matures,” “builds itself up,” and “reaches unity in the faith.”

Sometimes it is easier for people to see the wisdom of this fivefold structure when it isn’t presented in biblical language. If we apply a sociological approach to the differing ministry styles, we discover that Paul’s missional ecclesiology is confirmed by the best current thinking in leadership theory and practice.

In most organizational systems, there is acknowledgement of the importance of these leadership functions:

  • The entrepreneur: Innovator and cultural architect who initiates a new product, or service, and develops the organization.
  • The questioner: Provocateur who probes awareness and fosters questioning of current programming leading to organizational learning.
  • The communicator: Recruiter to the organization who markets the idea or product and gains loyalty to a brand or cause.
  • The humanizer: People-oriented motivator who fosters a healthy relational environment through the management of meaning.
  • The philosopher: Systems-thinker who is able to clearly articulate the organizational ideology in a way as to advance corporate learning.

Various leadership experts use different terms for these categories, but they would all recognize the vital contributions these different types of leaders bring to an organization. Leadership theory says that the conflicting agendas and motivations of these five kinds of leaders will tend to pull them in different directions. But if these five could be properly developed, focused, and coordinated, together they would create a very potent leadership team.

Imagine a leadership system in any setting (corporate, governmental, non-profit, educational, etc.) where the entrepreneurial innovator interacts dynamically with the disturber of the status quo. Imagine that both are in active dialogue and relationship with the passionate communicator/recruiter, the infectious person who carries the message beyond organizational borders and sells the idea/s or product/s. And these in turn are in constant engagement with the emotionally intelligent humanizer (HR) and the philosopher-leader who is able to articulate core ideas and pass them on. Clearly the combination of these different leadership styles is greater than the sum of its parts.

Because of our search for a more distinctly missional leadership model at South Melbourne Restoration Community, we decided about eight years ago to implement the APEST model at our church.

The first step was restructuring the leadership so we could ensure that all five ministries were present on the team. Each member of the team would represent one aspect of the fivefold model and be responsible for heading up a team related to that area of ministry.

We appointed an apostolic leader to oversee the team focusing on the trans local, missional, strategic, and experimental issues facing the church.

The prophetic leader initiated a team focused on listening to God, discerning his will for us, being aware of social justice issues we could address, and questioning the status quo of an increasingly middle class church.

The evangelist among us developed a team to oversee and develop outreach.

The shepherd’s team strengthened community, cell-groups, worship, counseling, and generally enhanced the relational capacity of the church.

The teaching team’s task was to create contexts for learning and develop the love of wisdom and understanding through Bible studies and theological discussion groups.

Our structure went from a traditional Christendom hierarchy with a shepherd/teacher at the top, to a team structure with all five ministry functions playing a vital role.

Yes, we can all just get along!

Admittedly, our working within this APEST structure did create significant debate at times. This is what makes having a traditional hierarchy attractive—one person makes the final decisions. But even the debates on our leadership team were thoroughly invigorating and led directly to the church’s adopting a more aggressive missional posture.

The key was learning to manage the dynamic in order to draw upon the increased energy of the team and not be torn apart by opposing opinions. We adopted the approach advocated by Richard Pascale in his book, Managing from the Edge.

Pascale suggests two polarities that, if managed well, create synergy on the leadership team. He calls them “fit—split” and “contend—transcend.” The term “fit” refers to that which binds an organization together. It is the group’s common ethos and purpose. “Split” happens when we intentionally allow for diversity of expression and thought on the team.

“Contend” is the permission, even encouragement, given by leadership to disagree, debate, and dialogue around core tasks. “Transcend” is the collective agreement everyone makes to overcome disagreement in order to find new solutions.

When facing any ministry issue, we begin by committing ourselves to the common mission of the group. We covenant to do whatever it takes to see our mission fulfilled. But this kind of interpersonal commitment requires a bond that goes beyond the professional relationships that exist on many church staffs.

We lived out our unity in Christ by living together, struggling together, worshiping together, praying together, and facing our problems together. It was the healthy trust developed on the team (fit) that allowed divergent opinions (split) to be expressed without fear of offending one another. It was the strong sense of commitment to one another that gave each member permission to operate out of his or her own ministry biases, and then unapologetically represent their perspectives on the issue at hand.

The apostle would press the need to galvanize the community around mission and extension. The prophet would challenge just about everything and ask probing questions about how God fit into our grand schemes. The evangelist would always emphasize the need to bring people to faith and expand the reach of the gospel. The shepherd inevitably expressed concerns about how the community could remain healthy amid change. And the teacher tried to discern the validity of any new idea from Scripture and history.

The presence of these divergent interests inevitably caused debates and arguments (contend). But we did not try to resolve disagreement too quickly—much to the discomfort of the shepherd on the team. In my experience, the greatest tension usually arose between the apostle (with the missional drive) and the shepherd (with the community health impulse), but we almost always managed to overcome conflict through dialogue and prayer (transcend).

Remember, we were committed to stay with the problem until we had assessed all options and had, through dialogue and debate, arrived at the best solution. As a result, the outcomes we reached were more full-orbed, faithful to God, sensitive to the needs of not-yet-believers, sustainable, mature, and theologically well grounded.

One of the techniques we used to help our team structure function is modeled from an idea developed by creative guru Edward DeBono.

Put on your APEST hats

“Thinking Hats” is a game in which participants adopt one another’s perspectives in order to solve problems. DeBono’s six hats represent six different modes of thinking. Participants agree to switch hats for a period of time in order to assume an approach to a problem other than the one they are naturally inclined toward.

The key is committing to think only in accord with the hat you are wearing. The goal is for each player to achieve a broader perspective.

We adapted DeBono’s method to the APEST typology. With the “A” hat on, everyone is forced to think apostolically. When the “P” hat is on, the whole group steps into the prophetic perspective, and so forth. This practice trains everyone to think more holistically on any given subject, and it also teaches the team to value one another’s perspective.

I have been in local, national, and “glocal” ministry for over 18 years, and I have had many successful leaders from outside the church tell me about their desire to be in “the ministry.” But when they pursued this calling, they were turned away from the church because they didn’t possess the right skills or gifts, meaning, they were not shepherds or teachers. Many of these gifted people have gone on to make a significant impact (and in many cases, a lot of money) in other domains, but it’s hard to calculate the loss this has meant to the church and its mission.

It is time for the church to recognize the importance of welcoming leaders with all five of the Ephesians 4 functions into the church. Every significant missional movement has in some way incorporated the five functions into its system.

When apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers are working together, a wonderful missional ecology is created. Not only is this a more biblically faithful model, it also provides a theologically rich, organically consistent, and organizationally comprehensive framework to help the church become more missionally effective and culturally agile. The time has come for the church in the West to rediscover the lost potential of biblical leadership that has been dormant for too long.

Alan Hirsch is an author, speaker, and the founding Director of The Forge Mission Training Network, an international organization.