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

Exploring Flat Leadership

Written by: on May 5, 2019

In the book, Being Smart about Congregational Change, author Diane Zemke explains why strategies that work for leading change in a business context can miss the mark when it comes to volunteer organizations, such as local churches.[1] One key reason that Zemke gives is the difference in leadership structures. “…leadership, authority, and power in a voluntary association are ambiguous….Pastors, in particular, are keenly aware that while they may have spiritual authority, real power rests with the members.”[2]

Mission organizations have similar issues. While in the one sense, they are also volunteer organizations, in another sense, they tend to be structured like businesses. Most mission agencies have organizational charts with management structures that look the same as a marketing firm’s. I report to a regional manager, who reports to a country leader who reports to a regional director who reports to a Vice President who reports to a President.

The problem with this structure is that in a mission organization, it a house of cards. In a business, profit is driving decisions and advancement. People are promoted based on success, salaries reflect productivity, and in general, those who are good at what they do get recognized and compensated accordingly. The structure works because people are paid for their work. But in most mission agency, the missionaries raise their own support. Their salary comes from the donations of supporting churches, friends, and family. And while the funds pass through the mission agency, every missionary knows that the mission agency isn’t the source of their income. In fact, the inverse is true. Most mission agencies retain between 10 and 20 percent of the funds that the missionary raises for organizational overhead. In other words, the missionary is paying the sending agency.

And while I wish that we were all so holy that the “money” trail” was irrelevant to our work, the reality is, since we missionaries know 1. That we are not getting paid by our agencies and 2. That we are volunteers as opposed to employees, there may be a surface-level assent to the organizational structures imposed by the mission agency, but there is not an assumed sense that those in charge have the right to lead or the missionary should necessarily comply everything the mission agency demands.

For example, my mission agency “requires” missionaries to fill out monthly metrics on ministry activities. On average, only 50% of the missionaries in our organization comply with this request. And in the end, there is no way the mission agency can “enforce” their rules, because they can’t “fire” missionaries because we are volunteers.

What I find interesting is that mission agencies continue to push towards the business models when they are clearly ineffective. I wonder if they would be better advised to move away from a hierarchical leadership model towards a flat leadership model. I’ve been doing a bit of reading about this—which is actually the model used with great success in business in Scandinavian countries. “Devolving responsibility and accountability stimulates collaboration, innovation and creativity. And that is part of what the Scandinavian Model of Leadership is all about.”[3]

What I’m gleaning from this and other articles is that greater innovation, creativity, and collaboration happen when the emphasis is placed on personal responsibility and mutual accountability. In a flat leadership model, people are encouraged to take responsibility for their own work and behaviour and to develop healthy reciprocal accountability structures that serve as sources of feedback and evaluation. I actually find this to be a highly biblical model.

Jesus wasn’t big on authority. He seemed to realize that humans don’t steward it very well, and pushed towards mutual submission as a better option. The disciples were constantly trying to establish hierarchies, and Jesus wouldn’t have it. If we would focus on all he “one-anothers” in the Bible, we’d have a highly effective flat-leadership structure.

And I really do think that that personal responsibility coupled with mutual accountability are the key components. Functional leadership expert John Adair sees leadership happening in three overlapping circles: the individual, the group, and the task.[4] At the individual level, people need to know their own gift and abilities. In the mission world, I’d add that they need to be convinced of their call and equipped to follow it. But going further, the individual must also take the initiative and the responsibility to steward those things. We shouldn’t need babysitters, we should be diligent to work our full hours, doing productive and fruitful ministry, because we are God’s servant and we delight in doing God’s work.

At the group level, we need to benefit from the insight and accountability of others. Accountability should be welcomed, because I should always want to be getting better at what I do. I should seek out feedback, not shy away from it. I should strive for excellence because I work for the best boss ever, who also loves me. Feedback and evaluation help me grow, and I need others for this. This can also cost me something. I need to be willing to give feedback as well, which takes tile and focus off of me and my ministries and puts it on others and their ministries. We need to be willing to serve each other in this way.

Finally, at the task level, with personal responsibility and mutual accountability in effect, then the tasks that get accomplished will have broader impact. As people are accountable to one another they will notice natural opportunities for collaboration. They will learn from each other, and start to call out each other’s gifting.

Like churches, mission organizations need to rethink their models. Business models can be helpful, but cannot be directly applied. Let’s imagine a new way of leading in the world. A Kingdom way.

[1] Diane Zemke, Being Smart about Congregational Change (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014). Kindle loc 214.

[2] Diane Zemke, Kindle loc 243.

[3] “Not Familiar With the Scandinavian Model of Leadership? Then You Are Truly Missing Out,” Ivy Exec Blog (blog), April 24, 2016, https://www.ivyexec.com/career-advice/2016/not-familiar-with-the-scandinavian-model-of-leadership-then-you-are-truly-missing-out/.

[4] “John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership Model – BusinessBalls.Com,” accessed May 5, 2019, https://www.businessballs.com/leadership-models/action-centred-leadership-john-adair/.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

14 responses to “Exploring Flat Leadership”

  1. Mike says:

    Thanks for your missionary service, sacrifice, and support for the Gospel of Christ to the people of France. Maybe missionaries can’t be fired, but they can be released from their sending organizations for poor spiritual fruit, and I have been involved in those scenarios before.
    I think you might find marketplace ministries more encouraging for you than the typical business model. I guess you would call it a mix of mission and business hybrid. We run one, and it has never been about the profit, but always about the people. We use God honoring business practices and focus on the people and let God take care of the revenues. So far, after 6 years He has done amazing works in our people and the business. The best part is sharing it as a witness on how well Kingdom principles do in business.
    I found your “devolving responsibility “discussion very interesting. The Western dictionaries describe the word as a negative state of affairs and use the words deterioration or degeneration. Looks like the dictionary needs to catch up with this application. I served in collective cultures so I am open to the idea you are describing.
    Great post Jennifer.
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

    • Thanks, Mike. I think as Kingdom people, we need to be living Kingdom lives in every realm–arts, business, sports, politics. God’s ways are so different from humans’ ways. This should show in how we go about every aspect of our lives.

  2. Great post, Jenn!

    You touch on the topic of voluntary leadership and congregational dependence. Do you think that certain leadership structures lead to a higher dependence on congregational cultures than others? For instance, are elder or pastor led churches more rigid and neglectful of congregational input compared to congregational-run churches?

    I found it interesting in reading your article from a missionary perspective. Since LOUD became a 501c3 last December, I’ve been trying to find the balance of being a missionary within my own agency. My checks and balances come from my board, committee leaders and ultimately, volunteers. However, I’m still free to make the final decision in regard to organizational change and implementation. However, my freedom is still tied to the congregational needs of LOUD Summit and volunteer team.

    You mention, “Most mission agencies retain between 10 and 20 percent of the funds that the missionary raises for organizational overhead. In other words, the missionary is paying the sending agency.” Do you think that it would be healthier if the mission organizations supplemented missionaries through match donations? Would this create a greater investment from the agencies?

    • I don’t think mission agencies should pay missionaries (there are some agencies that work this way–they raise all the money and “hire” the missionaries). I think we need to be honorable about how we engage in the work, seeking the advancement of the Kingdom and the glory of the King. Unfortunately, many mission agencies are seeking the advancement of their agency and many missionaries are more concerned about their own glory than growing in their ministry.

  3. Wow Jenn, you were the early blog poster this week. Way to start the summer quarter off ahead of schedule, even though it sounds like you and I both missed last week’s chat 🙂 (somehow I thought it started this Monday) I appreciated how you took this week’s text and applied it to the mission model, which I agree is very unique and often mismanaged. You said it well with…”Like churches, mission organizations need to rethink their models. Business models can be helpful, but cannot be directly applied. Let’s imagine a new way of leading in the world. A Kingdom way.” It is going to take a dynamic leader like you to create a Kingdom Way to lead missions around the world.

    • I had to post early (and respond late) because I had two back to back conferences Monday-Sunday, and I knew I wouldn’t have a moment to break away and work on school stuff!

      Fun seeing photos of Jenn’s graduation. Did it get you excited for yours?

  4. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn!

    I was instantly at attention with your opening paragraph. It is a dichotomy that we have mostly an all-volunteer army, but with them rests all the real power. I like it this way, but it comes with vast challenges.

    Christ said the “workers were few” and evidently it was a problem even back in his day. I know it is a problem in this current day!

    Does France have more “priesthood of believers” or do they rely mainly on the professional clergy instead of volunteering to serve in their giftedness?


    • France has a very heirarchical leadership model that definitely bleeds into church culture; however, the simple fact that mst pastors have to be bivocational means that they are necessarily more dependent on volunteers to keep things rollings. In most churches pastors, elders, and deacons all take turns preaching, for example.

  5. Dan Kreiss says:


    You have some great insights here and your experience in the mission/non-profit world enhance your understanding of some of the key issues. It is very true that most mission and Christian ministry agencies use a hierarchical structure in the belief that this generates greater accountability. I believe, like you appear to, that this is inherently false and actually fosters some resentment and additional challenges. I recognize that agencies by necessity must have some structure but I think your ‘flat’ model bears greater investigation, particularly in the US context as something more effective for Christian ministry. I look forward to seeing you continue to develop this idea and figure out a practical way to demonstrate it through either your current mission agency or in some other manner.

  6. Greg says:

    The tension I have seen has been with those who feel like that have earned the right to not be questioned about their action and ministry because they have “gone” when other haven’t. I do think we both have seen those that are also easily offended if any aspect of their ministry is questioned or critiqued. The hierarchy of leadership has almost always rubbed me wrong. I definitely like the theory of flat leadership but don’t understand it well enough to understand how it work…sounds good.
    I do think we all would love M’s, pastors, workers, laity that would serve the Lord without a “babysitter”. Finding that new model I believe is essential to the longevity and fulfillment of the service each of us are called to.

    • It’s weird to me that any of us should feel “above” needing feedback or evaluation. These things are not meant to grade or penalize us in a flat leadership model, they are to inspire us and challenge us to grow and improve. But each one must be willing to be vulnerable, and those giving feedback must be honest and genuinely seeking the good of the other and the advancement of the Kingdom.

  7. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I really love your approach to the transformation of leadership structure and the reality of the need for the flip in missionary organizations. I think the same is true for many churches. I could see my own denomination benefiting from the same change in personal responsibility and accountability. I am wondering if you think this is possible to pursue in your organization?

    • I’m trying it in a small way with some groups that I lead. I just gave them a mini-training on the model, and they were in total agreement with the idea conceptually. We’ll see how it gets lived out from here. 🙂 Worth a shot…

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