DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Undefended Church

Written by: on March 12, 2020

Simon Walker‘s The Undefended Leader trilogy defines a model of leadership of selflessness. He invites leaders first to acknowledge how one’s upbringing influences their style and default settings in leadership. He talks about the front stage and back stage aspect of leadership and how these two aspects are connected and how they influence the leader’s words and behaviors.[1] He also argues for a form of leadership that involves sacrifice and self-emptying actions and behaviors. This comes from a place within us that is built and sustained by trust in one’s self and in others.[2] Finally, he explores how individual leadership is connected to the actions and behaviors of societies as a whole.[3]In reading the books, I began to take a deeper look at the church and the ways the institution deals with many of the same leadership challenges. Churches often fall into the same traps as their key leaders. What if a church were to adopt an “undefended” mindset and learned to operate from a place of servanthood in its communities?

In my project research, I am exploring how our churches, government agencies, and community resource providers can better work together to serve the needs of those on the financial margins. Admittedly, my work began by focusing on what we are all doing and trying to identify the gaps and the places where more intentional collaboration could solve problems. I have not, as of yet, had any conversations with the people who actually utilize these services. It became clear that my work so far is merely perpetuating the primary liability in the system. That is, service providers see the people they serve as needy clients who require help and not as neighbors who have gifts and resources and insight of their own to contribute.

My own local congregation has historically thought of itself as a leader in the community. It was the first church established in our town. Many of the town’s most prominent leaders have been members of this church. It has been a place where business relationships and political alliances have been formed and nurtured. Many of the church’s most revered former pastors were “strong leaders” with memorable personalities and bold vision. The church’s identity is that of an historic and influential community presence.

A few weeks ago, our church had Rev. Michael Mather from Broadway UMC in Indianapolis at our church to speak in a lecture series. Mike is a key voice in Asset-Based Community Development, a model that seeks to create abundant community by beginning not with needs and limitations, but instead with assets and opportunities. In his book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, Mike writes about his church’s former practice regarding their food pantry. Clients of the food pantry were asked to complete a questionnaire asking about their income and expenses. Essentially, the church saw their food pantry clients as needy and itself as the source to help supply resources. A simple shift in philosophy changed the dynamic both for the church and its neighbors. Rather than focus on the client’s need, the church began by asking their neighbors about their resources.

They changed their questionnaire and added three important questions. 1) What three things do you do well enough that you could teach them to someone else? 2) What three things would you like to learn that don’t already know? 3) Who besides God and me (the interviewer) is going to go with you along the way? This shift allowed the church to begin to discover the giftedness and resourcefulness of the people in the neighborhood. For one woman in particular, it led her to starting her own catering business, with a mere $20 investment (used to print 500 business cards) from the church.

Had the church maintained a mentally of top-down, service-based ministry and outreach, this woman, and many like her, would have likely remained in a cycle of dependence. Because the church had not expressed an interest in knowing her gifts and because her receipt of the food in the food pantry had been based in her need, not her abilities, this well-intentioned program was creating an imbalance of power. By changing the questions and leading from a position of servanthood (instead of service provider) the church moved from being a provider of goods to clients to a partner that collaborated with its neighbors.[4]

As I think about what my project might accomplish in my congregation and community, I am wrestling with the question of what would it look like for the church to adopt a more “undefended” posture? To be known as a place of humility and sacrifice for the sake of the people of our community? What practices would we be required to give up? What values might need revising? Is it even possible for a church with 139 years of history and tradition to consider moving from an image of power to embody humility and servant-leadership? Is it possible that the spirit of humble servanthood is already in our DNA, buried under layers of well-intentioned, but flawed leadership?

Our church has historically been very careful about what is seen and experienced on the front stage, while quite guarded about the back stage. In our internal efforts toward greater transparency and shared leadership, we hope to foster a greater sense of trust within the congregation. As we learn to do this, we might in time be able to drop the persona we have projected for so long and let our community see us for who we really are, strengths and flaws and all. If all our neighbors know of us is our façade, and if all we know of them is their need, there is no hope of a lasting mutual relationship. If we can learn to be real with one another, perhaps we will be able to form more fruitful friendships and work together to make life better for all people in our community.

I pray we have the courage to drop our defenses.

[1] Simon Walker, “Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership,” Book 1 of “The Undefended Leader” Trilogy, (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2007,) Kindle.

[2] Simon Walker, “Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power,” Book 2 of “The Undefended Leader” Trilogy, (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2007,) Kindle.

[3] Simon Walker, “Leading with Everything to Give: Lessons from the Success and Failure of Western Capitalism,” Book 3 of “The Undefended Leader” Trilogy, (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2009,) Kindle.

[4] Michael Mather, “Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places,” (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018,) 14-17.

About the Author


John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

12 responses to “The Undefended Church”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:


    It’s awesome reading about the various things your church has been involved in historically. It sounds like it’s left quite the legacy on the lives of individuals in your town. Have you ever felt the pressure of leadership in having to live up to the reputations of the previous pastors? What are some of the ways you can help move your congregation toward the “undefended” posture?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      There’s a wall in a downstairs hallway in my church with portraits of every senior pastor of that church- dating back to its founding in 1881. I call it “The Gallery of Old White Guys,” (of which I am now one!) There are some really “successful” people in that group- some who went on to greater things, some who achieved great things here, some who were just beloved. There are also some duds. It’s too soon to tell what they’ll think of me. But yes, there is certainly a pressure to live up to the legacy of the others and either outshine them or build on their success. Ironically, the history of my church also includes a long line of associate pastors- including the one I have- who all very much fit the “undefended” posture of leadership. It’s almost like my church knows and appreciates the humble example of leadership and servanthood- in its associate pastor- while still looking to the senior pastor for the more traditional examples of authority and power. Each day is a new opportunity to choose how I’ll be- and some days the choices are easier than others to make!

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        I’m just going pop in here, because I love how your assoc. pastors have a more undefended posture in their leadership. How might perceptions change if leadership titles and hierarchal structures were changed and leveled? Is there a way to move toward a more egalitarian structure? Knowing you, I think you already do this on within your teams, meaning people have agency in the decision making/leading process. But how might such changes begin to shift the perspectives of your congregation in regard to how they posture themselves within the community? Meaning, if the Senior Pastor isn’t the savior of the church, then the church doesn’t have to be the savior of the community. We can allow Jesus to do all that.

        • mm John McLarty says:

          One thing I’m mindful of, and a practice I adopted in my previous appointment, is that I never refer to myself as the “senior pastor,” instead simply saying I’m “one of the pastors.” Maybe that’s a start.

          • mm Darcy Hansen says:

            I figured as much, and yes, it’s a really good start. But I wonder how your congregation sees you? Or you surrounding community?

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Thanks for the glimpse into your world. A sense of purpose is a powerful motivator for those who have lost hope. How can positioning your church to being undefended leader oriented help bring a sense of purpose to both your church and those whose needs you are trying to meet?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      My church building is one of the more impressive structures in my town. It’s included on historical tours of the city from time to time. I’ve also heard from people in our community that because the structure is intimidating, they assume only a certain type of person can affiliate with the church. Nothing could be farther from the trust, but that’s how we’re perceived and what we’re up against as we try to engage with our community with humility and collaboration. Thankfully, the church is people- not buildings- and I’m prayerful that over time our people will as much (or more) of a representation of our church as our facilities have been.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    John, I absolutely love the posture shift! To give you some language for this, you’re talking about “co-creating” solutions with those with a particular need. I even catch myself almost typing “those in need,” but we all have needs and deficiencies, as well as assets and proficiencies. “Those with financial need” should be the people-first language, and I, too, wish that were my knee-jerk instincts.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    I’ve definitely become more aware of pateralistic language and ways to speak more to the issue than labeling people. It’s a process, that’s for sure!

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    I just finished up commenting on my post and came right to yours to see that this is the conversation that you’re facilitating here and within your congregation. So glad for that! And I really appreciate the project that is taking shape for you. How did you find the ABCD method? Is that a necessary tool to take the journey from defended to undefended?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I was introduced to ABCD a few years ago at a clergy training event. It has many applications and offshoots. I’m using it as a starting point to help reframe the conversation. Truth is, ABCD is not new. In fact, it factors greatly in the plot of the movie, “The Three Amigos.” If you know the movie, then you remember when they were seeking a way to defeat El Guapo, the Amigos ask the people of the village of Santo Poco what they are able to do well. The people come together to use their gifts of sewing to claim agency in their own success.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    To operate from a place of servanthood? To be a servant, to become weak, to go to the feet, to look upward toward another…this is counter-cultural! This would be a good representation of the Kingdom of Heaven. So, a sweet step for our churches in our corporate approach to engagement with the world around. Why do we not mission so?

    Recently, there has been a coming together with us here and a Sikh International Aid organisation called Khalsa. Not only are we sharing ideas for ministry and serving together through this Global Crisis, we are sharing prayers 🙂 we are blessing one another and encouraging one another. Only with open hands and deeply caring hearts and, God is present with us!

    Thank you, John. Your inclination toward what is true, the way that works, the nature and care of Christ…I’m so excited to learn of what comes of your studies, research and practise.

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