Christian Leadership in Africa: Interview with an African Cohort of Christian Leaders

Petr Cincala, Ph.D., is Director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Assistant Professor of World Mission, Director of NCD America (Natural Church Development), and the Managing Editor of the Journal of Applied Christian Leadership.

In February 2019, Dr. Petr Cincala met with a cohort of Christian leaders from Africa and presented them with questions regarding leadership in their various countries. Comprised of one woman and eight men, between the ages of 31-60, these cohort members currently serve in a variety of capacities, including pastors, directors, conference executive/ministerial secretaries, and church workers, and have been working in Christian leadership or ministry anywhere from 6-10 years to 21—30 years. Six different countries across Africa were represented. As you can imagine, each member of the cohort brought different experiences and mindsets to the interview. (1)

Petr Cincala, on behalf of the Journal of Applied Christian LeadershipWhat characteristics would you expect in a “typical” Christian leader?

Participant 1: I would say a Christian leader should be honest, sincere, and impartial.

Participant 9: Also, he should be honest, full of integrity, and faithful.

Participant 3: I think a Christian leader is truthful, setting an example of Christian life. This includes being loving, self-controlled, and relationally warm. He should be committed to God’s work.

Participant 7: A leader should also be God-fearing and selfless.

JACL: How does one become recognized as a great leader in your country—in any context, not just religion?

P3: By his achievements. Specifically, when he achieves what is generally difficult for others to achieve. Also, by loving and being loved by the people in return, a leader can keep people on his side.

P4: There are many ways to become recognized as a great leader in my country. A leader’s love for God and the people he leads is a big indicator. Also, the way he manages and handles conflict without being biased, as well as how he delegates power and uses his various leadership skills. Lastly, he avoids being trapped in what is known as the “sin of leadership” (that is, pride, envy, etc.).

P7: In my country, bringing change in the community and having a fat bank account are ways that great leaders are recognized.

JACL: So with that being said, is there any prevailing (most frequently used) leadership style in Africa? If yes, can you describe it?

P1: In my country, leaders are authoritative; they attain leadership positions through force and once acquired, they do not want to relinquish it.

P3: It is similar where I live. I would say our leaders are authoritative/kingly; they read the policy and do not generally accept being questioned on issues.

P4: That is interesting because, in my country, I believe things are much more democratic.

P6: As a whole, I believe leadership in Africa is authoritative. It is run much like a kingship/monarchy.

P9: I would even say it is run like a dictatorship in some places.

P7: Yes. Subordinates must just accept and do what the leaders say.

P5: Leaders in my community are tribalistic. Usually at least one tribe dominates in terms of leadership. Nepotism is at its peak in my community. Community leaders, once they have ascended to power, want to be there for good. In trying to protect their positions, they are tempted to assassinate each other’s names, even going to the extent of practicing witchcraft; this occurs even in church circles for leadership positions.

JACL: What type of leadership style do you, yourself, employ?

P4: I embrace the servant leadership style because that is the leadership example given by Jesus Christ. Servant leadership means that a leader becomes a role model. He is there, ready to serve the people. He is leading, not to be served by the people; he is leading to serve. Servant leadership doesn’t mean that a leader stays stuck somewhere. He has a vision, which he casts out. He puts the peoples’ needs ahead of himself so that when they succeed, they succeed together.

P6: I use two leadership styles: democratic and servant leadership. As a democratic leader, I can’t come and say, “Oh, we have to do this.” I have to ensure that the church is really with me. For that reason, when I have any kind of vision, I have to set up that vision for the church. Once we all agree, we can put it into action.

P1: I use a transformational type of leadership. It is similar to the democratic or servant leadership styles, but it is not satisfied with the status quo. It is very visionary. Every entity has a plot; it has strategic purpose. I share my vision with the people I lead, and we move together toward that vision. This type of leadership also involves growing; I invite people to grow along with me toward that vision.

P2: For me, I prefer the democratic type of leadership because I want the people I am leading to own the cause. I want them to participate in it. Although, sometimes it is important to use, say, 5% dictatorship to make things move.

JACL: What reputation do Christian leaders have in your country?

P8: Some leaders have a bad reputation because of the discovery that they have been involved in bad deals, such as the exploitation of members for great wealth. Also, some Christian leaders are known to use “magical powers;” often these are the most influential and popular leaders. However, some Christian leaders have a good reputation, but most times these are not the leaders recognized by society.

P6: Aside from Seventh-day Adventist leaders, many Christian leaders are involved in political issues. They call their congregants to revolt against the government.

P3: There is a lot of distrust of Christian leaders; they frequently are not taken at their word.

P5: My experiences are a bit different. Christian leaders have an outstanding reputation; members of my country have respect for Christian leaders, such that they are free to share their challenges of life.

P4: Christian leaders are highly respected by the community and political leadership, as well. For example, a few months ago the President of my country called all denominational leaders, just to congratulate them for what they are doing in the community. One leader congratulated the Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership for the work done in the country regarding education and health teachings.

JACL: That is very interesting. Is there any striking difference between community leaders and church leaders?

P8: There seems to be no striking difference in my country because Christian leaders often try to be like the community leaders by the pursuit of wealth and their messages on acquiring wealth as a sign of repentance and salvation.

P5: According to my observations, I think Christian leaders stand out in the communities because they do not indulge in the same vices in which community leaders indulge.

P4: I agree. The discrepancy is clear. Christian leaders have the sense of the fear of God, and they are spiritually driven, whereas community leaders care for their positions and are ready to do whatever they can to climb the ladder of leadership.

P3: There is only a difference of belief and profession/work, not much in terms of leadership style. However, there is a marked difference of lifestyle in the area of entertainment.

JACL: What are the most frequent moral struggles or failures of Christian leaders in your country?

P8: I would say sexual sins are most common.

P2: It is the same where I come from; sexual misconduct is common, as well as money matters.

P6: Secularism and pride; these leaders want to be respected.

P3: I see this in my country as well. I believe the biggest moral failures of Christian leaders are a love of power and fame, which leads to a loss of love for fellow leaders.

P4: I have seen many moral failures in my country: the corruption of money, sexual misconduct, pride, and a desire for supremacy that shifts many from humility to a dictatorial kind of leadership.

JACL: How does culture shape Christian leaders in your community?

P4: Culture is a very complex and sensitive phenomenon that influences Christian leadership—both positively and negatively. We see its influence positively when it does not conflict with some of the Christian beliefs, but negatively when there is a clash with some Christian beliefs; in these situations, leaders are divided into two. Here there are people who embrace the country’s culture, but at the same time, Christian leaders expect them to embrace Christianity. Sometimes leaders are forced to follow the demands of culture for the sake of peace in their community.

P2: Many African people have grown up in a culture of respecting their leaders; this has shaped how they view Christian leaders in their community. Also, the leaders themselves feel that they are responsible to the community and are accountable to the people by ensuring that they serve their people well as respected leaders. Even so, issues of polygamy are common, especially in remote areas as compared to the cities. Christian leaders have to deal with issues in their ministry as per the standards laid out in the Bible.

P6: In my community, church leaders face the issue of tribalism; this self-centered culture can influence even church members. Also, considering that some so-called “members” are involved in rebel movements against the government, church leaders in our area are dealing with this issue.

P8: In Africa, women are not given much opportunity to function in the church because of the African notion of a “women’s role.” As a woman myself, this can be a hindrance to my ministry.

P9: There are certain rights of passage, including birth, marriage, and death, that include tribal rituals that are practiced. This is something our leaders need to address.

P1: Animism is frequently practiced in my country. Animism is a worldview in which there is a belief in the supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe. It is also described as a religious belief where various objects in nature and creatures possess specific spiritual qualities. You’ll find that most of the Christians, when there is a problem, perhaps a sickness, instead of tending to the new belief (i.e., in Jesus), turn back to the supernatural power who they believe can solve their problem. They go back to where they came from. They may be silent on the days when there is not a challenge, but when there is a challenge, they think of going back to their old ways rather than praying or calling people in the church to come minister to them.

P4: Yes, also in the place where I come from, there are some areas where polygamy is highly accepted and is taken as part of religion, whereby a man without more than one wife, two wives, three wives, is seen as a person who has nothing in his life. And so, there are some members of my church who believe in polygamy. Because of that culture, they don’t feel ashamed. They come to church, and sometimes they want to participate in church activities, and even take some church positions when elections come. They don’t keep quiet as if something is wrong; this puts pressure on the church leadership.

JACL: That all sounds very hard—quite a strain between Christianity and culture. With that clash in mind, what have you found to be the greatest challenge of being a Christian leader?

P7: I believe the greatest challenge for Christian leaders is doing what the Bible teaches and still keeping with the demands of the community.

P4: Yes, I agree. There is a constant struggle for balance between the cultural worldview and the biblical worldview.

P2: It is hard to balance the cultural issues of the people and still maintain Christian values.

P8: Outside of me personally, the greatest challenge for Christian leaders, in general, is crossing different ethnic groups with the gospel and making it relevant for each group.

P3: I see things a bit differently. I believe the greatest challenge for our Christian leaders is to build a united team of workers and followers who value their walk with Christ above social position and self-advantage.

JACL: That sounds difficult, indeed. On the flip side, though, what has been the greatest joy of being a Christian leader in your country?

P8: The greatest joy of being a Christian leader in my country is the joy of service—just as Christ did—and reaching out to the younger generation.

P4: For me, the greatest reward is seeing people coming to Christ in vast numbers, as well as helping church members become disciples of Christ and then disciple new members.

P2: I agree. It is pure joy seeing people change their behaviors from bad to good as they come to know Jesus.

P3: Yes! Presiding over a church where lives are touched positively and changed by the love of God is the greatest joy there is.

JACL: This is very encouraging! It is clear that God is working in Africa, in spite of many challenges. What are some specific ways in which you have seen God move through your own leadership experiences and ministry?

P2: There are several instances where I have seen the hand of God leading me in my leadership responsibilities. I have been sent to problematic districts, in terms of doctrinal and relational differences. However, in these places, I have seen God guiding and bringing peace. I have also seen people walking into the baptism pool after attending evangelistic campaigns. God has used me along with my church members.

P6: I truly feel prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit shape my leadership. From 2000 till now I see God’s hand in my ministry. As Education Director, more than 300 schools were built in our conference, tithing was instated in all schools, and today the average of school tithing is around $16,000 US dollars. In the mission where I work today, things that were once in a bad way have been worked out. Church members have changed their views of church leadership, and they are rejoicing now.

P5: My ministry life has been amazing! I come from a banking background. I always thought that my life was the best it could be until the call to ministry became evident. I made a decision to work as a full-time pastor, and the Lord has done tremendous things in my life. I was privileged to begin my ministry without any ministerial training. I have since worked in a number of districts successfully with the guidance of Jesus. I have held different decision-making positions and trained from the bachelor’s level to currently pursuing my Ph.D. The hand of God has indeed been with me through and through, even as I direct the critical departments of the church. Praise God for His goodness!

P3: There is overwhelming evidence of God working in Africa. It is a blessing to simply be a part of it. God’s work is well coordinated, and membership participation is at a very high level in church activities. Members are involved in revival and reformation and daily reading of the Bible. When there is a position taken or voted by the church entity (at all levels), the implementation is almost assured at all times. There is significant church growth and a high level of membership participation. God’s leadership among the leaders in my country is also evident as represented in the number of baptisms, church financial support, and the resilience of members under difficult economic circumstances.

JACL: Would a few of you be willing to share a story that demonstrates how God is using Christian leaders—yourself included—to move among the African people?

P7: There was a chief in my country who was a Seventh-day Adventist. He organized a ceremony on the Sabbath day. One of the Adventist church leaders had the courage to ask him, “You are a Seventh-day Adventist. Why are you doing this ceremony on Sabbath?” They had a talk. The chief really appreciated that the leader came to talk to him; he compared the leader to some of the other local pastors. He said, “The pastors want my money.” This particular chief is known to be very generous. He perceived that the other pastors just wanted his money, but did not want to tell him the truth. He said to the Adventist leader, “I really appreciate you coming out and telling me the truth.” This leader really made a difference, and as a result, the ceremony was organized in a different way; in fact, it became an evangelistic ceremony in a way.

P4: Two years ago, an evangelist came to one of the local villages, but his evangelistic campaign did not bear fruit. Because of that, when I wanted to begin another evangelistic campaign in that same village, there was resistance. This village is full of Roman Catholics, and the Adventist Church did not believe another campaign would be fruitful. However, I was highly convinced that the Lord was directing me. We organized a campaign, and after we had put everything in order, we started the campaign. Some of the church members were not encouraging; in fact, some discouraged other members not to give financially to the campaign. However, we were not discouraged. There was a feeling in my heart that God was going to do something great. We conducted a three-week evangelistic campaign, and at the end of it baptized 203 new converts who joined the Adventist church. It was something great! And after a year, those new converts were still in the church. It was a joy, and I felt that God was using me.

P1: I would like to reflect on where leadership has taken stewardship in my country through transformational leadership—the motivation to grow. In the last three years, when we compared our tithe with two other periods, we were at 148%. We also looked at how we could boost the support of the rural districts in tithing for the work of God. We began to collect “tithe in kind.” During this time, more than 600 animals have been given—cattle, goats, chickens, and so forth. We also collected maize and got more than 6,200 bags of maize in tithe and another 6,200 in offering. We are then able to convert these tithe and offering gifts into money by selling them. I feel so blessed that I was able to be God’s instrument as part of this process!

Note: In order to protect cohort members from any negative repercussions in their country of origin, their identities have been hidden. Their participant number, instead, identifies them.

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