Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Antidote to Anxious, Ambitious Imitation of the Powers

Written by: on November 30, 2023

Young, Ambitious, and Anxious       

My first few years of serving in local church ministry was at an “influential megachurch.” This was a big deal for me. I was eager to have my “big break” and become a successful leader within this institution. But I was not the only one with such ambitions. In fact, when I look back on those years, the underlying ethos of the church staff was ambition entangled with an insidious, pervasive anxiety. There was the desire to be noticed by the senior pastor, gain favor, and be in the inner circle with those who also had favor – the other influential leaders of the church. I was not immune to this. I wanted to imitate the senior pastor and anyone who was within the inner circle. Little did I know the culture of this church would cause immense harm to my soul. The toxicity went undetected. After reading J.R. Woodward’s The Scandal of Leadership[1], I am finally able to recognize and name this ethos while setting my mind to leading in a different way.

For this post, I will summarize the main ideas of Woodward’s book, reflect on an insidious power that needs to be unmasked in our culture (a power this church I was at was not immune to and, in actuality, perpetuated), and conclude with ideas on how-to live-in resistance to this power.

The Scandal of Leadership

In The Scandal of Leadership Woodward pulls back the curtain to reveal why the issue of domineering leadership in the church exists. Woodward contends domineering leadership is the result of leaders imitating the powers rather than imitating Christ.[2] To make his argument, Woodward converges three interlocutors: Walter Wink, René Girard, and William Stringfellow.  He provides a theological foundation for this by looking at the powers and principalities with the help of Wink, a framework for imitation (mimetic desire) with Girard, and resistance to the powers with Stringfellow.[3]

In reflecting on this book, I realized that the culture staff culture I was a part of was mimicking the idolatry of the broader culture, not resisting the Powers that influenced the broader culture while mimicking Christ. What is the cultural idolatry that created an ambitious and anxious staff? To this we shall turn.

Identity Dislodged and Relocated

Our Western, secular world inhabits a reality in which the “self” is dislodged from pre-modern connection to family, land, and religious/political institutions (church and sovereignty). Self is re-lodged in the “market” and “self-expression.”[4] Woodward writes, “Instead of our status primarily being ascribed according to our birth and family lineage, it has become more dynamic, primarily determined in direct proportion to our achievements, largely in the financial realm.”[5] The result: a pervasive anxiety. The pressure to reach one’s fullest potential, whether that be with health, finance, spirituality, etc., and reach the highest possible status within one’s aspiring group is immense pressure. To form one’s sense of self-worth and identity around status is cause for anxiety. Status climbing, I would argue, is an idol of our culture. Behind this idol is a Power that once named and unmasked, needs to be engaged with. But how?

A Remedy According to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

Woodward provides the book of Philippians as a letter by which followers of Jesus are invited into a new way of being human that does not involve the building up of one’s status.[6] In this letter, Paul calls for church leaders (Euodia and Syntyche) to lay down their rivalry (Philippians 4:2-3), and provides the ultimate example of self-emptying leadership: Jesus Christ (2:5-11). When we as followers of Jesus find our identities in being a part of the family of God (instead of pre-modernism’s finding identity in one’s biological family or modernism’s finding identity in one’s status climbing), and imitate Jesus who gave the example of self-emptying, we are able to be the kind of leaders we are meant to be. Not selfishly ambitious and anxious leaders who imitate the wrong examples and thus imitate the Powers. Rather, we live out the example of Christ non-anxiously in this world with Kingdom ambition as opposed to selfish ambition. This is made possible by our identity being securely fasted to God’s love, imitating Jesus’ example in the wilderness as he resisted temptations for money, power, and false ideology.[7]

[1] J.R. Woodward, The Scandal of Leadership: Unmasking the Powers of Domination in the Church (Cody, WY: 100 Movements Publishing Academic, n.d., 2023).

[2] Ibid. xxxv, 290.

[3] Ibid. 290-292.

[4] See Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, First edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 164-165;  Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback ed (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001); and Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132, 124.

[5] Woodward, The Scandal of Leadership, 245. Woodward pulls this from Alaine de Botton, Status Anxiety (New York: Random House, 2005), 31.

[6] Ibid., 248-258.

[7] Ibid., 223-232.

About the Author


David Beavis

David is Australian by birth, was raised in Southern California, and is the Youth and Young Adults Pastor at B4 Church in Beaverton, Oregon. David and his wife, Laura, live in Hillsboro with their dog, Coava (named after their favorite coffee shop). M.A. Theology - Talbot School of Theology B.A. Psychology - Vanguard University of Southern California

10 responses to “The Antidote to Anxious, Ambitious Imitation of the Powers”

  1. Michael O'Neill says:

    Awesome post, Dr. Beavis. Great analysis of the book. I was really looking forward to your post this week while reading this book because I knew you were employed at a large congregation. How has, or will, this book change the dynamic in your institution for you? Would you recommend this book to any of your colleagues? Do you have systems or strategies to keep your leaders in check so they do not become a product of the Powers?


    • mm David Beavis says:

      Thank you for your kind words Dr. O’Neill.

      Yes, this book came at a fascinating time in that our senior pastor was removed for good reason in February. He was not a leader who led like Jesus as displaying in Philippians 2:5-11, in a self-emptying way. He was self-serving and narcissistic. This helped me make sense of the unhealthy in our staff culture.

      The major change for me in reading this book is how I look at institutions I serve within such as the church I pastor at as well as the denomination we are a part of. I will look at institutions with this question: What is being imitated here? Self-preservation or self-empything?

      And yes, I have already recommended it to my colleagues!

  2. David – I appreciate your summary and insight a great deal. Having experienced the “back stage” of a megachurch like Woodward addresses in the book, I’m curious if you have thoughts about whether it is possible for a large church to remain healthy and continuously “die to itself” as Woodward suggests? If so, what do you think the key factors would be for that success?

    • mm David Beavis says:

      That is a great, and haunting question. I sincerely believe the mega-church has seen its peak. I don’t think mega-churches are going to disappear any time soon. And I do not think they don’t have a role to play. What I do see is if the mega-church is to be faithful to the call of God, and not the call of the idol of self-preservation or the narcissistic expansionism, then the megachurch needs to consider what it looks like to be resourcing centers for other small/medium-sized churches, training centers for church leaders and planters, and consider new metrics (instead of giving and attendance, look at how many leaders are trained and sent out to pastor existing churches or begin churches or social-good organizations). Therefore, the megachurch will need to lean into a culture of self-emptying (both in its funds and leaders) for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

      • I love the idea of mega churches being learning centers or resource hubs for smaller churches who don’t have the same capacity. What a great idea! I’ve seen this to some extent in Andy Stanley’s North Point church. Have you seen other mega churches who are taking steps in this direction?

        • mm David Beavis says:

          I’ve heard of some making steps in that direction. However, I have not yet seen it in action. Unfortunately, the norm among megachurches is self-preservation and not expectancy in sending out leaders.

  3. mm Daron George says:

    David, you insightfully identified the toxic ambition within church culture that aligns with the broader societal idolatry of status. In your view, what are some concrete steps church communities can take to actively cultivate a culture of ‘Kingdom ambition’ that resists the alluring pull of status and power?

    • mm David Beavis says:

      Hey Daron,

      I would say plurality of leadership is a good start. And from that plurality of leadership, a demonstration of humble mutual submission.

      Also, leaders practicing self-emptying from the top is critical. Then that becomes a part of the culture.

  4. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Great, heart-felt post. The gravity of the mega church is hard to escape from a professional perspective. They provide the larger platform, salary, professionalism, and missional capacity. Plus, pastors can specialize in a mega church. The other side of this, as you expressed, it is the ambition, ladder-climbing behaviors that give rise to toxic behaviors.
    I am torn in my own professional journey. I am currently serving a small rural church, while the last two churches I served had over 2,000 in average attendance on a Sunday. There are trade offs in each context. One that I am experiencing is how marginalized the smaller church is within my denomination. Our larger to midsized churches are the ones who are celebrated due to sheer size of ministry.
    In your reflection, how does this book shape your own professional ambitions and desires within a church context? Can we advance our careers while we practice self-emptying leadership?

    • mm David Beavis says:

      Chad, great questions. They are tough to answer. Unfortunately this is a reality in many church traditions and networks: the bigger the church, the more they are celebrated and elevated within the group.

      This book shapes in me a self-reflective suspicion of what I am imitating. Am I imitating the powers and principalities without realizing it? And when it comes to “career advancement” and “self-emptying leadership” that’s a tough one. They seem at odds. Maybe self-emptying means allowing the Lord to do the “career-advancing” and not put things into my own hands. Though that is a great temptation. Also, the Lord’s version of “career advancement” looks different to my vision of it.

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