Missional Leadership: A Critical Review of the Research Literature

Truls Åkerlund


The article provides a systematic review and discussion of peer-reviewed articles and doctoral dissertation on missional leadership by addressing characteristics of missional leadership, how and where the phenomenon was studied, and the results of previous inquiries. The study detects a lack of consensus in the understanding of missional leadership, the role of the leader versus the community, and whether leadership should be shared among its members. The literature is unison on the contextual nature on missional leadership, but largely ignores the implications of missional leadership on the wider society. Some suggestions for future research are provided.



The term “missional church” has gained theological significance over the last two decades, and leadership has been a part of the conversation since the publication of the watershed book “Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America” in 1998.[1] Missional leadership is now the topic in a myriad of popular books and an emerging field in the academy. Despite this burgeon amount of publications, however, no article to this point has systematically summarized and discussed the definitions, claims, and results coming from this discourse.[2] A clearer understanding of leadership in the missional church conversation has been identified as an important area of research,[3] and it is the aim of this paper to contribute to the field by critically reviewing scholarly literature on missional leadership, depicting overarching themes, patterns, and methodologies in previous research, and suggesting possible pathways for future research. As an emerging field, the literature on missional leadership benefits from such a holistic synthesis and conceptualization of the research literature to date in order to provide a preliminary framework of the construct that offers new insight on the topic. The purpose is thus to reframe and extend existing knowledge, not merely rewrite it.

The following research questions guided this systematic literature review:[4] (a) How did the authors define and/or characterize missional leadership? (b) In what contexts was missional leadership (empirically) investigated? (c) How was missional leadership examined (i.e., the methodology)? and (d) What were the results of the examination? The literature was retrieved from various databases (ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text, ATLA Religion Database, DOAJ, ProjectMUSE, Academic Search Complete, ABI/INFORM Complete, Business Source Complete, Science Direct, and JSTOR)  as well as web applications such as Google Scholar, Google Books, and BIBSYS in May 2014. Retrieved titles and abstracts were initially screened for applicability to the topic before a complete reading was performed of the included material.[5]


For the integrity of the missional church movement and the criteria of inclusion in the present review, there is a need for a more specific understanding of the phenomena. In order to grasp missional leadership, it is thus necessary to position the topic within the larger framework of the missional church movement. The Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN), the group of American theologians and missiologists who published the initial missional church book, ignited this conversation and were the first to use the term “missional” in the way described in this article.[6] Bearing on developments in the ecumenical movement and the theology of Lesslie Newbigin, the scholars emphasized three types of activities that should shape the church according to its missional calling: analyses of culture and society; biblical and theological reflection; and vision for the church and its mission. Their central premise was that mission is not just a program of the church, but rather defines the church as God’s sent people. As the mission of God (missio Dei) defines the church, the challenge for believing communities is to move from a church with a mission to a missional church.[7] The being of the church provides the doing of the church,[8] and leadership must come from this center of being.

Hagley suggests that two books in particular demonstrate the implications of missional for leadership.[9] First, “The Missional Leader” by Roxburgh and Romanuk describes missional leadership as cultivating change processes in congregations.[10] The authors reject the therapeutic and entrepreneurial leadership models prevalent in the (American) church, and propose an alternative model of the missional leader as a cultivator of an environment that is able to discern what God’s actions in the congregations and its context.[11] Since leaders cannot assume up front what God wants to do, they must replace the linear process of vision and strategy development for a more complex interaction involving the whole congregation. As such, leadership involves an awareness of what God is doing among the people in the congregation, how the congregation can imagine itself as being at the center of God’s activities, and what God is doing in the congregation’s context.[12] As the leader cultivates the soil rather than provides the vision, leadership is open for the participation of the community.

Second, in “The Ministry of the Missional Church” Van Gelder argues that leadership of congregations always is provisional and contextual.[13] In order to engage the dynamics of changing contexts, the church needs to integrate and interact with biblical materials, historical polities, and social science insights. Because the church as an organization has a dual nature of being both holy and human, however, insights from organizational and leadership studies must be critically assessed from theological perspectives. This involves a hermeneutical process that invites the greater community, not only formal leaders, to discern what God is doing and where the church should be headed. Like Roxburgh and Romanuk, Van Gelder hence emphasizes the process of leadership over the person or position of the leader.[14]

Review of Literature

Having introduced the background of the missional church conversation and some of its implications for leadership, the article now turns to research on missional leadership retrieved through the search process described above. After a brief summary of the articles and dissertations, a subsequent section synthetizes and discusses overarching perspectives. Findings are summarized in Table 1 below.

Conceptual Works

Guder, one of the GOCN authors, connects the current discourse on missional leadership with New Testament patterns for ministry, showing that the functioning of the witnessing community, not titles or offices, was at the forefront of New Testament descriptions of leadership roles.[15] This changed in the course of Christendom, resulting in a loss of missional purpose and a strong separation between clergy and laity. As the Christendom model is faltering, Guder proposes three patterns of missional leadership that are crucial for a church converting from maintenance to mission. First, he highlights the equipping priority of the Word. The formation of missional communities for their calling happens as their leaders function as interpreters, catalysts, and resources for the exposition of Scripture, making it the lens through which the community sees themselves and their context. Second, the author emphasizes the collegial and relational character of missional leadership. When leaders interact and serve each other, it equips the community for their work of service, hence the modelling and mentoring role of missional leaders are pivotal. Finally, Guder stresses the connection between missional leadership and the personal apostolate, between the gathered and scattered church. The test of missional leadership is therefore how the gathered life prepares the believing community to live missional lives where God is sending them, to translate the gospel into the diverse contexts they enter in their daily lives.

Breedt and Niemandt discuss missional leadership in light of the Trinity, suggesting that leadership in the church should be modelled on the relationship between the persons of the Godhead.[16] Since the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit becomes prototypical for human community, leadership in missional communities should be highly relational. With this theological backdrop, Breedt and Niemandt turn to Relational Leadership (RL) as an appropriate leadership style to express the nature of the church as a relational life in the Trinity. Referring to Paul’s use of the body-metaphor in Romans 12, the authors suggest that any part of the body can take on a leadership role depending on the need of the community. Consequently, shared interdependency characterizes missional leadership, and the notion that the leader should set the vision is replaced by a reciprocal approach where leadership happens by means of example, servant leadership, and mutual submission.

Muzio aims at developing a missional model of leadership for Brazilian Evangelical churches by encouraging local pastors to understand leadership in urban contexts as a missionary endeavor.[17] The author insists that the incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation, and return of Christ should shape missional leadership. The most important task in leadership is thus the formation of a community that is molded in the likeness of Christ, meaning that the missional leader forms congregations into mission groups shaped by encounters with the gospel in the culture. In practical terms, the leader must answer questions of biblical (who are we?), historical and contextual (where are we?), cultural (when are we?), and practical identity (what do we do and how will we do it?) in fleshing out contextual models of missional leadership.

In another conceptual article, Hagley defines missional leadership as a practice of cultivating a fluid, public identity that embodies the good news of God in Jesus Christ.[18] As a an exercise of identity formation, missional leadership involves discursive practices in which congregations detect their identity by exploring plausible understandings of the biblical story for their particular setting. Drawing on organizational sensemaking literature, Hagley perceives missional leadership as the intersubjective practice of testing and shaping fluid corporate identities in negotiating between cultural, traditional, and biblical materials. This means that missional leadership is improvisational in nature because changing contexts involves constant processes of learning what it means to be church in the present. Missional leadership is also discursive because the myriad of factors influencing congregational identity come in the form of texts. Accordingly, missional leadership is rhetorical in the sense that those who exercise it functions as rhetors drawing from biblical, contextual, and congregational narratives. The intersubjective nature of the discourse secures a place for response, however, meaning that the leaders shifts from rhetor to audience. According to Hagley, then, it is precisely the rhetorical event resulting from such an encounter that creates missional identity.   

In an article promoting missional leadership for the African church, Ibengi and Starcher encourage leaders to examine their practice and passion to see if they are in line with God’s mission. As missional leaders are individuals who “God has called to provide direction to a group or movement to accomplish His plan and purpose,”[19] the authors hold that these people are essential to the work of God in a given area. In order to promote greater missional involvement in the African church, Ibengi and Starcher suggest that existing church leaders cultivate a healthy vision, function as facilitators rather than dictators, accept all positive change, devote resources to worldwide missions, step out in faith, and cultivate strategic partnerships.

Arguing for the integration of mission and leadership in the Episcopal Church, Lemler holds that mission needs leadership for focus and integrity just as leadership requires mission to serve and shape it.[20] As missional identity comes to the forefront of the church, Lemler contends that one should engage Scripture, tradition, and reason in reflections on ecclesial leadership. The author rejects any dichotomy between theology and leadership, and proposes several marks of effective leadership for mission: mission clarity (i.e., a clear sense of organizational and personal mission), confidence, learning, and perspicuity and vision. Such leaders are able to envision future possibilities and develop strategies, and are both entrepreneurial and evangelistic. 

Also writing from an Episcopal vantage point, Spellers argues for relational organizing (i.e., the art of building relationships in order to move groups into action for a common purpose) as a missional leadership practice.[21] Spellers holds that this method equips people for six essential leadership practices: (a) building a relational culture, (b) practicing facilitative leadership, (c) getting rooted in context and incarnational reality, (d) recalling dangerous memories and envisioning the world-as-it-should-be, (e) moving into action around the people’s passions and gifts, and (f) embracing transformation. Spellers voices the need for the church to reimagine itself in light of the missio Dei, a process that will involve the dis-organization of old patterns and systems in order to re-organize in the shape God intends. Missional leaders who are passionate about God’s people moving are central in central in all of this.

In another article advocating change in the Episcopal Church, Ward argues for a new kind of leadership necessary for seizing the missional opportunity in a postmodern context, a missional leadership that is “opening space in our lives for our ongoing conversion by the Holy Spirit to live more fully into the way of Jesus, so that we may be passionate in curating space for others to do the same.”[22] As such, missional leadership means being a curator of “open space” where the leadership of others can be developed, blessed, and released. Further, missional leaders have visionary and entrepreneurial abilities as they not only imagine God’s future, but also are able to see how the giftings of a particular community intersects with this future. Given this connection with specific contexts, Ward contends that missional leadership is contextual and provisional. It is also marginal and vulnerable, as missional leaders must take risks for the Kingdom in a culture where the church no longer has a place in the center. Finally, it is receptive because it is dependent upon God.

In a dissertation exploring the discourse on “emerging” and “missional” church, Doornenbal seeks to conceptualize leadership as phenomenon in mission-shaped churches.[23] Based on hermeneutical, critical, and theological analyses of the emergent-missional literature, Doornenbal defines missional leadership as

the conversational processes of envisioning, cultural and spiritual formation, and structuring within a Christian community that enable individual participants, groups, and the community as a whole to respond to challenging situations and engage in transformative changes that are necessary to become, or remain, oriented to God’s mission in the local context.[24]

The emphasis on process means that the author makes a distinction between leadership and the leader, indicating the need for shared leadership. This does not imply that leaders are irrelevant. On the contrary, they play a key role in cultivating vision, empowering people, and providing appropriate structures. Doornenbal rejects a sharp distinction between leaders and followers, however, and suggest that missional leadership shares many of characteristics of the organic leadership paradigm.[25]

Empirical Works

A problem with the missional church movement has been that the strong theological grounding in fact has overshadowed the practical applications.[26] Though practical suggestion obviously is evident in the dealings with leadership in the works discussed above, the review now turns to studies where missional leadership has been tested or operationalized empirically. One example is Miller, who employed a multi-case study methodology to reveal characteristics of leading missional congregations with the purpose of moving the conversation from theology to corporate praxis.[27] More specifically, the author studied motivation to lead, organizational culture, and primary practices. Miller nowhere defines missional leadership, but follows Roxburgh and Romanuk in emphasizing that the leader should cultivate a missional environment and extract missional qualities in a community rather than imposing prefabricated programs. [28] All participating leaders showed evidence of leadership self-efficacy, that is, confidence in their ability to lead others. Further, the study depicted extroversion, a desire for success and achievement, and past leadership experience as antecedents of affective-identity (i.e., the belief that one has the desire and abilities to lead), being the primary motivation to lead followed by social-normative (i.e., compelled by some sense of social duty and obligation) as the secondary motivation to leadership. In addition, leaders of the missional communities were found to lead in ways that differed from observed deficiencies in more traditional expressions of church.

Chai looked at the formation of leaders in Taiwan Southern Baptist Church (TSBC), more specifically at what kind of church leaders are needed for leading the church to participate in God’s mission in Taiwan, and how the church may form such church leaders in this context.[29] The work was informed by perspectives from biblical studies, theology, and theoretical perspectives drawn from contemporary hermeneutics, open systems theory, human ecology, and leadership/organizational theory. Chai used a mixed-methods approach with a sequential exploratory design to study the current situation of leader formation at three levels:  congregations, the convention, and the seminary. A quantitative survey of congregational leaders followed up qualitative interviews performed on the convention and seminary levels, revealing that the all three levels of the denomination lacked an intentional vision and strategy for the formation of missional leaders. Chai’s research also indicated that Southern Baptist congregations in Taiwan generally had too weak an understanding of leadership because of an overemphasis on leaders as servants. This led to insufficient programs and strategies for leadership formation as this concept was confused with making disciples. Chai hence suggested that the Southern Baptist seminary in Taiwan not only should shape student’s identity as servants but also their identities of becoming effective leaders. The study confirmed the three most helpful strategies for improving the effectiveness of leadership formation as: (a) using small groups to involve potential leaders into actual ministries, (b) developing clearer strategies in the formation of leaders, and (c) current leaders spending time to instruct potential leaders regularly.

Through a ten-session professional development program for pastors in the United Methodist Church in Upper New York, Cooke examined the effects of changes in spiritual formation and perception of the value of missional leadership.[30] Cooke emphasized the need for spiritual formation as “missional leadership involves the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ who understand their role in continuing the ministry of Jesus by reaching out in love to the world as the sent people of God.” As reflected in his understanding of missional leadership, Cooke holds that ecclesial leadership is not about techniques or programs, but centers on spiritual formation through the Christian habits and practices. Consequently, effective missional leadership stands and falls upon relationships with God, self, and others. Love, humility, integrity, and Christ-like character mark such leadership, and it rests on the ability to teach and model others in the habits that shape the identity of God’s people. Changes in the participants’ levels of spiritual formation and perceptions of the value of missional leadership were assessed prior to and at the conclusion of the program by means of a mixed-methods approach involving interviews, observations, and a questionnaire. Results indicate that two-thirds of the participants expressed higher levels of spiritual vibrancy, greater awareness of the relationship between spiritual life and ministry, and renewed conviction of the importance of spiritual formation practices after completion of the program. Also, the majority of the participants sensed a greater desire to model Christ-like leadership and an increased appreciation of mentoring others in practices related to spiritual formation.

Writing from a distinct Lutheran perspective, Elton asked what dynamics within a congregational system are vital to the empowering of missional leadership.[31] The author defined the characteristics of missional leadership as

persons who understand their calling as disciples of Jesus Christ, who see themselves as equipped by God with certain gifts to be shared with the larger body of Christ, and who believe they are empowered by the Spirit to engage the world through participating in the creative and redemptive mission of God.[32]

Seeing congregations as complex, open systems, Elton explored missional leadership within five ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations using a grounded theory approach, primarily through ethnographic methods such as field observations, focus groups, and journaling. Eight common cultural characteristics were found vital for the empowering of missional leadership across the congregations: an active view of God, the world as the horizon, discipleship as a way of life, congregational systems as a network of people, the dance of leadership, tension of ministry and mission, a vibrant Lutheran identity, and a changing and adapting posture. Of particular importance for the present study, is the concept of leadership dance, referring to the reciprocity of leadership between clergy and lay leaders, between official and unofficial roles.

In another empirical study, Graham explored the leadership required to grow a church that leads to the spiritual and social renewal of the city, more specifically the leadership dynamics needed to multiply a healthy church in the cultural context of Washington, DC. [33] The research involved two phases: First, a study of the city by means of literature reviews and demographic research, as well as interviews with nine neighborhood cultural leaders. Second, a church-wide survey, participant observation, and review of selected literature on leadership change literature were examined to develop a model for organizational change. Together these approaches revealed the leadership dynamics involved in developing a church that is both multiplying leaders and reaching the needs of the city. Graham found that the main problem of the District Church was the challenge of multiplying leaders with missional depth, and hence advocated an eight-step leadership change process for missional leadership in urban settings. Graham underlined the critical role of adaptive leadership that are able to keep the mission at center amidst contextual change and proposed a mission-centric construct for the leadership that promotes proclamation, hospitality, and reconciliation as central practices for the missional church.

Finally, Willis addressed the role of preaching in missional leadership and used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to look for practices, characteristics, and effects of leader-communication in relation to the shaping of a missional culture in people and congregations.[34]

Holding that the formation of such a culture is the primary task of the missional leader, the author found that that the missional leaders he interviewed purposefully shaped their preaching to serve this purpose. The study also revealed that missional churches were active in outreach and driven by missional values, and that leaders played an important role in moving a congregation in this direction. Missional leaders focus on mission and ministry rather than simply maintaining the organization. As such, they equip people to put their faith into action and create venues where they can do so.          

Table 1






Summary of Reviewed Articles

(note: to download full copy of table, click here)







Breedt & Niemandt, 2013

Relational leadership and the missional church

Missional leadership as relational leadership modelled on the relationship within the Trinity





Chai, 2006

Formation of missional leaders

A missional understanding of leadership formation bridges Trinitarian theology with ecclesiology, emphasizing the missionary nature of the church




Mixed-methods sequential exploratory design

Detected lack of intentional strategy for leadership formation

Cooke, 2013

Cultivating missional leadership characteristics through a small group spiritual formation program for pastors

Missional leadership involves the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ who understand their role in continuing the ministry of Jesus by reaching out in love to the world as the sent people of God




Higher levels of spiritual vibrancy, greater awareness of the relationship between spiritual life and ministry, renewed conviction of the importance of spiritual formation practices, greater desire to model Christ-like leadership, and an increased appreciation of mentoring others in practices related to spiritual formation


Doornenbal, 2012

Conceptualize leadership as phenomenon in Mission-Shaped churches, hence defining missional leadership

The conversational processes of envisioning, cultural and spiritual formation, and  structuring  within  a  Christian  community  that  enable individual  participants, groups, and the community as a whole to respond to challenging situations and engage in transformative changes that are necessary to become, or remain, oriented to God’s mission in the local context





Elton, 2007

Congregational dynamics to empower missional leadership

Persons who understand their calling as disciples of Jesus Christ, who see themselves as equipped by God with certain gifts to be shared with the larger body of Christ, and who believe they are empowered by the Spirit to engage the world through participating in the creative and redemptive mission of God



Qualitative (grounded theory)

Eight common cultural characteristics vital for empowering of missional leadership: an active view of God, the world as the horizon, discipleship as a way of life, congregational systems as a network of people, the dance of leadership, tension of ministry and mission, a vibrant Lutheran identity, and a changing and adapting posture


Graham, 2013

The leadership dynamics of a missional church in the city

Missio Dei as center for church structure. Missional leadership involves leading change in a way that multiply leaders and grow the church that leads to the renewal of the city




Suggest an eight-step leadership change process for missional leadership in urban settings that includes proclamation, hospitality, and reconciliation as central practices.


Guder, 2007

Missional vocation as walking worthily


Collegial in character, focusing on the equipping priority of the Word, and emphasizing the personal apostolate





Hagley, 2008

Missional leadership as public improvisational identity formation


The practice of cultivating a fluid, public identity which embodies the good news of God in Jesus Christ




Ibengi & Starcher, 2011



Role of leaders in accomplishing God’s mission in Africa

A person God has called to provide direction to a group or movement to accomplish God’s plan and purpose




Lemler, 2010

Characteristics of missional leader

Marked by mission clarity, confidence, learning, perspicuity and vision, ability to envision future possibilities and develop strategies,  entrepreneurial and evangelistic





Miller, 2011

Leader motivation, organizational culture, and primary practices of leading missional congregations

(Not defined)


Exploratory multi-case study in five missional communities




Affective-identity (i.e., the belief that one has the desire and abilities to lead) as primary and social-normative (i.e., compelled by some sense of social duty and obligation) as secondary motivation of missional leaders


Muzio, 2004

Missional leadership model for Brazilian Evangelical churches


Modelled on the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ, the missional leader is one who forms congregations into mission groups shaped by encounters with the gospel in the culture





Spellers, 2010

Six essential leadership practices that will help the church become the missional people of God


Missional leadership as relational organizing, that is, the art of building relationships in order to move groups into action for a common purpose




Ward, 2010

Visionary, entrepreneurial, and missional Anglican leadership

Missional leadership is opening space for the ongoing conversion by the Holy Spirit to live more fully into the way of Jesus, and creating space for others to do the same





Willis, 2008

How leader-communicators shape missional culture

Missional leaders equip people to act on faith, crate venues where people can participate in missional life, and shape missional culture through preaching





Missional churches are led by missional leaders, driven by missional values, active in outreach



Note. * Context and results are relevant for empirical articles only.

Synthesis and Discussion

Having reviewed the scholarly literature on missional leadership, the article now seeks to synthetize and discuss some overarching perspectives on this stream of research. An initial observation is that the literature defines missional leadership in various, at times even contrasting, ways.[35] Doornenbal found no less than fifty different terms in the summary of labels and metaphors used to describe leadership in the emerging-missional conversation. Despite this multitude of descriptions, Doornenbal notes that one seldom finds a clear definition of what leadership is.[36] This is evident in the present study as only a few provided a distinct definition of the construct rather but rather listed characteristics of such leadership. To advance the study of missional leadership, the sections below seek to highlight how the various authors conflict and concur on central aspects of missional leadership, and briefly discuss how these areas relate to developments in theology and organizational leadership research.

Shared Leadership

One major area of disagreement exists between those who ascribe leadership to certain individuals and those who hold that leadership is open to everyone in the community. Most works reflect the stream of research suggesting that leadership does not reside in individuals, but rather is a social process situated in the relationships among people.[37] Hagley adheres to this approach and suggests a fluid conceptualization of leadership involving both agency and roles. By emphasizing leadership as practice, he avoids the subject/object and agent/group dichotomies and makes clear that missional leadership is bigger than the missional leader.[38] In a similar vein, Breedt and Niemandt describe leadership in terms of “shared interdependency,” suggesting that any part of the body of Christ can take on a leadership role when needed.[39] Rather than decisions being dependent upon pastors or staff, leaders take on the role of mentors and coaches that empower and release other people in the church.[40] The collegial nature of missional leadership thus undermines the clergy/laity-distinction.[41] Hagley understands leadership as practice and emphasizes the shared and on-going argument in the community, implying that missional leadership may grow bigger than the missional leader.[42] Consequently, missional leadership is an aspect of the community rather than a possession of the leader.[43] It follows that power and authority not primarily stem from institutional, positional, or academic credentials, but from the character, gifts, and competence of the leader and the relationships in which all the community partake.[44] Effective leadership thus rests on the leader’s ability to create positive relationships within the organization.[45] For Guder, this means that ministry is “relational, takes place in networks of relationships, and demonstrates the nature of God’s love through the way that these relationships actually work.”[46] In short, missional leadership is a relational process rather than an objective status.[47]

The understanding of leadership as shared, relational, and reciprocal concurs with developments in theology as well as in leadership studies. Theologically, the growing stream of Trinitarian studies have informed missional leadership by insisting that communal and complimentary leadership reflects the intra-communal life of the Trinity.[48] Trinitarian leadership is fundamentally collaborative, mutual, vulnerable, and interdependent.[49]  Further, conceptualizations of leadership as follower-centric,[50] relational,[51] postindustrial,[52] and post-heroic,[53] signal a paradigm shift in leadership studies from “from individual to collective, from control to learning, from ‘self’ to ‘self-in-relation’ and from power over to power with.”[54] Doornenball’s proposal that missional leadership is organic leadership hence has some merit.[55]

This conclusion is not unison among missional leadership researchers, however. Chai’s research on formation of missional leaders in Taiwan revealed that the weight on shared leadership may come at a price, as an overly emphasis on leaders as servants may lead to insufficient programs and strategies for leadership formation.[56] Further, Willis claims that leaders are instrumental to change in congregations and that missional churches are missional because they have leaders who intentionally led them to be so. The author hence emphasizes the role of individuals in shaping missional values, culture, and behavior: If the leader is intentional and consistent, his or her values will eventually rub off on the organization.[57] These differing views and understandings of missional leadership is best illustrated in how vision is perceived, to be discussed next.

The Role of Vision

In line with mainstream leadership theory,[58] the majority of authors agree that missional leadership entails developing and articulating a vision for the organization. There is, however, no consensus on who and how in regards to vision work. Van Gelder affirms the critical role of visionary leadership in the missional congregation, but stresses that leadership is larger than a single leader and may involve large numbers of people.[59] In the same token, Doornenbal argues that it is a central task of missional leadership to assist in cultivating vision.[60] Miller too holds that the missional leader should guide the vision process, though it must be shared with a leadership team that moves it forward.[61]

Other authors highlight the crucial role of the top leader in setting direction for the congregation. Muzio claims that missional leadership involves developing a vision together with clear goals and strategies.[62] Ibengi and Starcher claim that all progress begins with vision, and that this work rests entirely on key leaders.[63] Along the same lines, Graham suggests that the greatest challenge to achieve this vision is bold leadership, implying that leaders have a responsibility to give direction, establish orientation, deal with conflict, and set norms, even to the extent that they are willing to loose members in the process.[64] In contrast, Roxburgh criticizes such top-down approaches, arguing that they suffer from modernist predispositions and deny the Kingdom of God by objectifying people as means to an end.[65] Hence, while Roxburgh and Graham agree about the post-modern and post-Christendom condition, they come to opposite conclusions in terms of how the church should encounter this context. In line with Kotter’s formula for change leadership,[66] Graham argues that effective pastoral leadership involves vision development and communication to the degree that “pastors who do not articulate a compelling vision to the congregation about who they are and about who they are to become are not likely to thrive in a post-Christendom context.”[67] The leader’s surrender to the Holy Spirit in articulating a vision that is greater than the church’s own self-understanding hence replaces Roburgh and Laminuk’s congregational conversation. For Graham, it is the main responsibility of the lead pastor to cast vision through preaching and leading staff.[68] This concurs with Willis’ research, which emphasizes the role of preaching in missional leadership[69] and brings the argument full circle back to the discussion on shared leadership above.

On a conceptual level, there is an unresolved tension in the literature between the descriptions of “the missional leader” and the claim that everyone is a leader. The emphasis on participation in leadership may in fact undermine any meaningful discussion about leadership because if everything is leadership, nothing is leadership. Uhl-Bien voices the question that needs to be asked once leadership is removed from the study of positional leaders as in much of the missional conversation: “How do we identify whether the relational process is ‘really’ leadership?”[70] Though a case can be made for eliminating the distinction between leaders and followers altogether,[71] a more common understanding is that the study of leadership must include some sort of disproportionate social influence per definition. According to Shamir, the notion of “shared leadership” is an oxymoron, as leadership can never be fully shared.[72] For a phenomenon to be called leadership, some actors must have more influence than others.[73] This is not to say that leadership is open only for people in formal positions, but participants in the missional leadership conversation need to clearer spell out their definitions of leadership and the implications these have for the members of the organization.

Sensitivity to Context

Though differing in their views on vision and strategy development, the authors concur that missional leadership is provisional and contextual in nature. Elton contends that leaders described in the Bible led in different ways based on the particularities of their time.[74] This contextual sensitivity was distorted in the Christendom period, but are now being rediscovered in missional churches that seek to take time and place into consideration in expressing God’s dynamic relationship with the world. Due to this contextual awareness, missional leadership will manifest itself in many forms.[75] As contexts change, so must leadership.[76] In the same vein, Guder contends that structures of leadership in the New Testament were part of the contextualization of various communities in diverse locations. Though the form and shape of that leadership varied, the goal was that the witnessing community could function in their particular setting.[77] Doornenbal suggests that “the particular task of missional leadership is to analyze the chosen structure(s) and suggest adjustments to keep the focus on the mission and vision of the community.”[78] As such, missional leadership is incarnational by manifesting the presence of Christ in concrete situations and contexts, applying the same missiological principles as do missionaries abroad.[79] The missional leader hence needs to know the wider context in which s/he ministers, and put the church in communication with its environment.[80]

Despite its missiological orientation, it is evident from the present review that research on missional leadership to a great extent is a Western undertaking. Miller speculates that is because the conversation has emerged out of a special milieu in which the connection between the church and lives of others are weakening or non-existing.[81] The fact that it is a predominantly Western phenomena does not necessarily imply that is betrays its contextual ambitions. Quite the opposite, the missional leadership discourse advocates that church leadership need to change precisely because Western culture experiences tremendous change, typically addressed in terms of post-modernism and post-Christendom.

 Ecclesiocentric Orientation

While there clearly is an emphasis on cultural engagement in the missional leadership discourse, it seldom addresses the implications of such an orientation to leadership on the wider society. From the literature reviewed in this paper, we may conclude that missional leadership is clearly ecclesial leadership; it has leadership in the church as its sole center. This is somewhat paradoxical, because the protagonists of missional church describes the conversation as a Copernican revolution where the missio Dei locates the church in God’s mission in the world, not the other way around.[82] If the church participates in what God is doing in the world, why then should leadership derived from the missio Dei be limited to ecclesial affairs? It is not problematic that the current conversation on missional leadership is embedded within ecclesiology, as the heritage of Newbigin primarily sees leadership in terms of equipping and mobilizing the saints for faithful witness in their daily lives. Yet, even Newbigin admits that there will be situations where congregational leaders must represent the whole church in public life.[83] This aspect of missional leadership is hardly addressed in the reviewed literature.[84]

Roxburgh acknowledges this inconsistency in a recent and self-critical article in which he confesses that the early approaches to frame missional leadership by the GOCN were tainted by the same modernist, ecclesiocentric imaginary it sought to correct.[85] Against this church-oriented perspective, Roxburgh seeks to (re)formulate a Newbigian understanding of leadership in which missional is not framed solely within the boundaries of the church, but rather has a different starting point – one that is understood and articulated from the perspective of God’s dealing with the world. Though Roxburgh may be accused of having an overly pessimistic view of contemporary models of religious leadership,[86] his critique is welcome as it seeks to correct the ecclesial bias that haunts the Christian leadership discourse.

Summary and Suggestions for Future Research

In summing up the study, one important finding is that different authors on missional leadership vary in major areas. A task for future research is hence to develop a robust framework that seeks to solve and/or incorporate some of the tensions discussed in this paper.

Miller has pointed out the inherent problem with the missional church movement in that its strong theological groundings have overshadowed practical applications.[87] As Elton’s study indicates, the transformation of a congregation towards being missional does not begin with an understanding of the church’s being but with its doing.[88] In doing acts of mission congregations are transformed. It follows that the need for practical models is critical. From this perspective, it is unfortunate that so little empirical research has been performed to develop and test constructs of missional leadership. Among the few studies that have been conducted to this point, most is qualitative in nature. This is natural since there is a need to explore the nature of missional living and leading. Also, since the missional church conversation emphasizes the unique and contextual, the use of idiosyncratic approaches is a valid strategy. While the applications of missional thinking certainly will look differently in various contexts, however, one should expect that some results would be the same across settings and environments. Though admittedly hard to operationalize, future research could look at outcomes of congregations that have embraced a missional mindset. Finally, the continuing conversation on missional leadership should address more thoroughly the implications of the missio Dei for leadership in the wider society. What does it mean that God is active in the world in terms of leadership? This is obviously not a questioned posed to missional leadership scholars alone, but it certainly is a question they need to address as leadership based on God’s mission should not be restricted to the community of the redeemed.


An early draft of this study was presented at the Nordic Conference of Practical Theology in Stabekk, Norway in June 2015.


[1] See Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). Leadership was also important for Lesslie Newbigin, the forefather of the missional church movement, as the transformation to a missionary congregation requires ministerial leaders. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), chap. 19. Discussions on leadership are so vital to the discourse that one observer suggests missional leadership as one of three branches on the missional family tree, see Ed Stetzer, “Missional Family Tree,” The Exchange | A Blog by Ed Stetzer, 2009, http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2009/february/missional-family-tree.html. From a popular practitioner perspective, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch even contend that the development of a new kind of (missional) leadership is crucial to the church’s survival in the future. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, Revised and updated ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2013), 205.

[2] Robert Doornenbal provides an excellent survey, yet with a slightly different purpose. For instance, Doornenbal did neither use a systematic approach for inclusion of material nor restrict his study to scholarly works. Like Doornenbal, the present study is concerned with the conceptualization of missional leadership, yet it also addresses results and methodology. See Robert Doornenbal, Crossroads: An Exploration of the Emerging-Missional Conversation with a Special Focus on “Missional Leadership” and Its Challenges for Theological Education (Delft, Netherland: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2012).

[3] Ibid., 12; Jason Clark, “Via Media: The Necessity of Deeper Theological Refection for the Genuine Renewal of Church in the Emerging Culture and Context” (D.Min., George Fox University, 2006), 105–109.

[4] “Systematic review” here refers to a protocol for inclusion based on clearly articulated research questions and criterion-based selection of evidence, making the search process transparent and reproducible. See Richard J. Torraco, “Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples,” Human Resource Development Review 4, no. 3 (September 2005): 360–361. A stringent procedure was followed to identify and analyze relevant literature in the review section, while relevant literature not detected in the systematic review was included to shed light on the topic in the synthesis and discussion section. See John A. Collins and Bart C. J. M. Fauser, “Balancing the Strengths of Systematic and Narrative Reviews,” Human Reproduction Update 11, no. 2 (2005): 103–4, doi:10.1093/humupd/dmh058 for the benefits of combining systematic and narrative reviews of literature.

[5] The initial search resulted in nine articles and eighteen dissertations. Upon a thorough reading, however, ten dissertations and two articles were left out of the final review, leaving 15 studies. The most frequent reason for exclusion was that studies did not discuss characteristics of missional leadership directly or because they used the term essentially different from the conversation framing this paper. In inclusion, preference was given to peer-reviewed articles that explicitly relate to the academic study of missional leadership, as opposed to popular books, articles, and blogs primarily addressing religious practitioners. Also, doctoral dissertations available in full-text were included, all in the English language. An essential part of the missional church conversation happens in the intersection between the academy and the praxis field, hence a hard-cut distinction between the two would keep out of the study important aspects of missional leadership. Given the prominent role of scholars belonging to the Gospel and Our Culture Network in initiating the missional church conversation, relevant publications by Roxburgh and Van Gelder have been included in this study. These works are briefly described in the background section in order to provide a backdrop for the review and the following discussion. As the book “Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America” marked the starting point for the current discourse on missional leadership, literature published prior to 1998 were not included in the review.

[6] See Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), chap. 1–3 for a summary of the background, development, and conceptualization of the missional church conversation.

[7] Guder, Missional Church, 6.

[8] Craig Van Gelder, ed., The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), vii–viii.

[9] Scott J. Hagley, “Improv in the Streets: Missional Leadership as Public Improvisational Identity Formation,” Journal of Religious Leadership 7, no. 2 (2008): 63.

[10] Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World, Kindle ed. (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

[11] Ibid., loc 676

[12] Ibid., loc 732-778

[13] Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007)., loc 1996

[14] Ibid., loc 2447

[15] Darrell L Guder, “Walking Worthily: Missional Leadership after Christendom,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28, no. 3 (2007): 251–91.

[16] Jacob J. Breedt and Cornelius J.P. Niemandt, “Relational Leadership and the Missional Church,” Verbum et Ecclesia 34, no. 1 (2013), doi:10.4102/ve.v34i1.819.

[17] Rubens Ramiro Muzio, “A Missional Leadership Model for Brazilian Evangelical Churches Mobilizing Pastors to Become Missionaries to the City” (D.Min., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2004).

[18] Hagley, “Improv in the Streets,” 75, 79.

[19] Roger D. Ibengi and Richard L. Starcher, “Missional Leadership for the African Church,” Global Missiology English 1, no. 9 (2011): 1, http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/article/view/683.

[20] James B Lemler, “Identity and Effectiveness in the Twenty-First Century,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (2010): 89.

[21] Stephanie Spellers, “The Church Awake: Becoming the Missional People of God,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (2010): 29–44.

[22] Karen M. Ward, “Back to the Future: Visionary, Entrepreneurial, Missional Anglican Leadership for Today’s Church,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (2010): 171.

[23] Doornenbal, Crossroads.

[24] Ibid., 200. The book is based on Doornenbal’s doctoral dissertation submitted to Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam in 2012. The present work only includes parts of the study that specifically addresses missional leadership.

[25] Doornenbal relies on Avery’s conceptualization of leadership in four paradigms (the classic, transactional, visionary, and organic), suggesting that the organic paradigm has become increasingly influential since the late 1990s. This approach understand leadership as interactions of reciprocal influence among people, meaning that it is shared across the organization and not the attribute of a specific individual. See Gayle C. Avery, Understanding Leadership : Paradigms and Cases (London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2004)

[26] Brian V. Miller, “Images of the Missional Church: Leadership, Culture, and Practices in Context” (D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2011), 115.

[27] Ibid.

[28] See Roxburgh and Romanuk, The Missional Leader.

[29] Tzu-Kao Chai, “The Formation of Leaders of the Southern Baptist Church in Taiwan: Exploring the Current Situation and Envisioning the Future” (Ph.D., Luther Seminary, 2006).

[30] David John Cooke, “Cultivating Missional Leadership Characteristics through a Small Group Spiritual Formation Program for Pastors” (D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2013).

[31] Terri Lynn Martinson Elton, “Congregations as Systems for Empowering Missional Leadership: A Lutheran Hermeneutic for Leading in Mission” (Ph.D., Luther Seminary, 2007). Elton’s proposal of a Lutheran theology of leadership is not included in the present discussion.

[32] Ibid., 10.

[33] Aaron L. Graham, “The Leadership Dynamics of Growing a Missional Church in the City: The District Church, Washington, DC” (D.Miss., Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Intercultural Studies, 2013).

[34] Randy Willis, “Leadership Communication: How Leader-Communicators Shape a Missional Culture” (D.Min., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008).

[35] This reflects the lack of a common definition of missional church as witnessed by Van Gelder and Zscheile, Missional Church in Perspective. How missional, and by implication, missional leadership is conceptualized is also influenced by ecclesial traditions, see Rick Richardson, “Emerging Missional Movements: An Overview and Assessment of Some Implications for Mission(s),” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 3 (July 1, 2013): 132.

[36] Doornenbal, Crossroads, 170–171.

[37] Richard Bolden et al., Exploring Leadership: Individual, Organizational & Societal Perspectives (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4–7.

[38] Hagley, “Improv in the Streets,” 75–79.

[39] Breedt and Niemandt, “Relational Leadership,” 5. Elton even argues that missional leadership is the call of all Christians.  See Terry Martinsson Elton, “Chararteristics of Congregations That Empower Missional Leadership: A Lutheran Voice,” in The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, ed. Craig Van Gelder, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), Loc. 1936.

[40] Roxburgh and Romanuk, The Missional Leader. Loc. 399. See also Cooke, “Cultivating Missional Leadership,” 112.

[41] Guder, “Walking Worthily,” 282–286.

[42] Hagley, “Improv in the Streets,” 78–79.

[43] Doornenbal, Crossroads, 182.

[44] Ibid., 177–178.

[45] Breedt and Niemandt, “Relational Leadership.”

[46] Guder, “Walking Worthily,” 282.

[47] Hagley, “Improv in the Streets,” 81.

[48] Van Gelder and Zscheile, Missional Church in Perspective, 155–157; Breedt and Niemandt, “Relational Leadership and the Missional Church,” 3.

[49] Dwight J. Zscheile, “The Trinity, Leadership, and Power,” Journal of Religious Leadership 6, no. 2 (September 1, 2007): 55–59.

[50] James R. Meindl, “The Romance of Leadership as a Follower-Centric Theory: A Social Constructionist Approach,” The Leadership Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1995): 329–41, doi:10.1016/1048-9843(95)90012-8.

[51] Mary Uhl-Bien, “Relational Leadership Theory: Exploring the Social Processes of Leadership and Organizing,” The Leadership Quarterly, The Leadership Quarterly Yearly Review of Leadership, 17, no. 6 (2006): 654–76, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2006.10.007.

[52] Joseph C. Rost, “Moving from Individual to Relationship: A Postindustrial Paradigm of Leadership,” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 4, no. 4 (1997): 3–16, doi:10.1177/107179199700400402.

[53] Joyce K. Fletcher, “The Paradox of Postheroic Leadership: An Essay on Gender, Power, and Transformational Change,” The Leadership Quarterly 15, no. 5 (2004): 647–61, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2004.07.004.

[54] Ibid., 650.

[55] Doornenbal, Crossroads, 187–193.

[56] Chai, “The Formation of Leaders,” 163.

[57] Willis, “Leadership Communication,” 77–81, 90.

[58] See Sooksan Kantabutra, “What Do We Know about Vision?,” in Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era, ed. Gill R. Hickman, Second Edition (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc, 2009), 258–69.

[59] Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, loc. 2415–2450.

[60] Doornenbal, Crossroads, 184.

[61] Miller, “Images of the Missional Church,” 59.

[62] Muzio, “A Missional Leadership Model,” 264–271.

[63] Ibengi and Starcher, “Missional Leadership,” 5.

[64] Graham, “Leadership Dynamics,” 133–137.

[65] Alan J Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, Kindle ed. (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2010), chap. 5.

[66] John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 1996).

[67] Graham, “Leadership Dynamics,” 162.

[68] Ibid., 153. Others contend that the leader should not cast goals and vision through preaching, but announce God’s word in a way that fosters dialogue so that the congregation, not the leader, develops the vision. Dave Daubert, “Vision-Discerning vs. Vision-Casting: How Shared Vision Can Raise up Communities of Leaders rather than Mere Leaders of Communities,” in The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, ed. Craig Van Gelder, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), Loc. 1714.

[69] See Willis, “Leadership Communication.”

[70] Uhl-Bien, “Relational Leadership Theory,” 667.

[71] Joseph C. Rost, “Followership: An Outmoded Concept,” in The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations, ed. Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen (San Francisco, Calif..: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 53–64.

[72] Boas Shamir et al., eds., Follower-Centered Perspectives on Leadership: A Tribute to the Memory of James R. Meindl (Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age Publishing, 2007), xviii–xix.

[73] Boas Shamir, “Leadership Research or Post-Leadership Research? Advancing Leadership Theory versus Throwing out the Baby with the Bath Water,” in Advancing Relational Leadership Research: A Dialogue Among Perspectives, ed. Mary Uhl-Bien and Sonia Ospina (Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, 2012), 487.

[74] Elton, “Congregations as Systems,” 68.

[75] Ibid., 10.

[76] Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church. Loc 1994

[77] Guder, “Walking Worthily,” 273.

[78] Doornenbal, Crossroads, 213.

[79] Muzio, “A Missional Leadership Model,” 261.

[80] Ibid., 238, 243

[81] Miller, “Images of the Missional Church,” 115–116.

[82] Craig Van Gelder, “How Missiology Can Help Inform the Conversation about the Missional Church in Context,” in The Missional Church in Context: Helping Congregations Develop Contextual Ministry, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), 20–21.

[83] Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 240.

[84] For instance, Elton (“Congregations as Systems,” 10) holds that missional leadership includes Christians serving in leadership vocations outside the church,  but nowhere addresses what such leadership will look like.

[85] Alan J. Roxburgh, “Missional Leadership,” in Religious Leadership: A Reference Handbook, ed. Sharon Henderson Callahan (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2013), 127–35.

[86] For instance, Roxburgh’s characteristic of servant leadership as “neo-romantic notions” (p. 131) that hinder missional imagination does not sufficiently take into consideration the church’s role as a servant community, a theme central also to Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 225. See also Jeppe Bach Nikolajsen, “Beyond Sectarianism: The Missional Church in a Post-Christendom Society,” Missiology 41, no. 4 (2013): 466–467.

[87] Miller, “Images of the Missional Church," 115.

[88] Elton, “Congregations as Systems,” 132–133.