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The 5 Marks of a Great Christian Leader

Picture of Greg Stier
Greg Stier

Over the years I have had the privilege of knowing, working with and serving under some great Christian leaders. These leaders were not always the flashiest but they all carried a certain gravitas that everyone could sense.

It was this unmistakable aura that drew me in and made me reflect and dissect just what made these particular leaders so distinctive and effective. After years of watching, listening and reflecting I think I’ve narrowed their greatness down to a handful of very specific characteristics.


Here are, what I believe to be, the 5 marks of a great Christian leader.

1.  Great leaders lead.

Implicit in the word “leader” is the idea of moving with intentionality toward a clear and compelling objective and inspiring others to move with you. A leader has a mission to accomplish and rallies others to work with him/her to accomplish it. 

There is no better example of this in ancient history than Jesus. How could a modest carpenter out of nowhere lead a handful of overlooked, underestimated blue collar followers to “make disciples of all nations“? Answer: Leadership!

Jesus inspired his disciples and moved them toward accomplishing a clear objective. Before he ascended into heaven he reminded them of what this mission was (“you will be my witnesses“), where this mission would be carried out (across the street, across the tracks and across the world) and how this mission would be effectively accomplished (“you will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes on you…Acts 1:8.)

The test of a leader’s effectiveness is what happens to his followers when that leader is gone. The amazing thing about Jesus’ ability to lead is that his followers are still carrying  out his mission 2,000 years later!

Jesus was a leader who led. And, if you think about it, he is still leading, but now from heaven. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus told Peter, “I will build my church….” The ultimate leader in human history is still leading the charge from the right hand of the Father.

In my lifetime of studying living legend leaders I can’t help but think of former Senator Bill Armstrong. After serving in the Senate he eventually became the President of Colorado Christian University (my alma mater.) When he took over the helm at CCU it had fallen on dark times theologically. The school that I loved was sliding toward a very squishy, doctrinally liberal viewpoint.

But all that changed when President Armstrong took over. He was a leader who led. He didn’t just talk about it. He exemplified it.

Within a few short years he jerked the steering wheel right and got the school back on the path Biblically. Not only that, he put the mission of Jesus in the center of the school. He launched “The Year of Evangelism” at CCU and made sure both students and teachers were fully equipped to share their faith.

He turned the ship in a powerful and spectacular way.Colorado Christian University is the school it is today because of the great leadership of President Bill Armstrong. 

In the last few years before he went to be with the Lord I met with him as much as I could to learn from his leadership excellence. I have known several good leaders over my lifetime but Bill Armstrong was a great leader…because he led CCU to follow Jesus!

Great leaders lead.

2.  Great leaders model.

In Luke 6:40 Jesus said, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”

Great leaders live out what they are seeking to teach their followers. They don’t hand out pamphlets to places they’ve never been.

This is especially true of getting teenagers to evangelize. The youth leaders must model it first. As I often tell youth leaders, if your teenagers are not actively share their faith you may need a mirror and not a bullhorn. 

One of my best friends on the planet is Dave Gibson. He is a missions pastor at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. But he is more than a missions pastor, he is a legendary leader of the missions movement across the nation and around the globe. He has great favor with the top missions and church-planting organizations. He has more influence in these arenas than anyone else I know of. 

But what makes Dave Gibson a great leader is that he lives out his convictions. Wherever he is he shares the Gospel to whomever he happens to be talking to. Whether you go with him into a restaurant or onto a plane or into a gym you can be sure the Gospel will be shared. One of the reasons he has so much influence in the world of missions is because he is a walking, talking example of what it means to be a missionary wherever you are in the world.

If you want to be a great leader then live out your sermon outline. And live it out with authenticity and humility. When you do others will notice and follow your lead..

3.  Great leaders pray.

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”  Luke 5:16

Jesus was always escaping ministry opportunities to pray. He would get up early and go out to pray. He’d climb a mountain and pray. He’d go into a garden and pray. It was during these times of prayer where he got his marching orders from the Father. 

Jesus understood that to be a great leader you had to first be a great follower. And Jesus was following the Father’s lead. In John 5:19 Jesus gives us his secret to great leadership, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

Jesus used his prayer times to see and sense what the Father was doing…and then follow his lead. We, too, must make time to escape and pray. Whether it’s going on prayer walks with the Father or finding that quiet space in our houses, we must make time to pray!

The greatest Christian leaders I know are the greatest prayer warriors. They start their days in prayer, they sprinkle prayer throughout their days and, when they lay their heads on their pillows at night, they are often communing with God in prayer.

These leaders understand that the ultimate leader is God and, without him leading them, their leadership efforts are futile. Prayer is their pipeline for divine wisdom, power and courage. 

As E.M. Bounds once said, What the church needs today is not machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Spirit can use – men mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men of prayer.” And I might add, through women of prayer.

4.  Great leaders learn.

Great leaders are great learners. They read. They listen. They reflect. 

And to be a learner requires a certain level of humility. Those who think they know everything don’t learn anything.

I’ve heard it said that at the beginning of World War I the American soldiers were mocked as being among the worst but, by the end of the war, they were considered the best. The reason? They learned as they went! That’s why one of their mottos is “Improvise, adapt and overcome!” 

What was true in World War I is true today. In his excellent book Team of Teams former General Stanley McChrystal lays out how the US forces had to totally re-engineer their fighting strategy to beat Al Queda. And that’s exactly what they did. Instead of a hierarchical fighting force (with all the accompanying bureaucracy) they became a team of teams who fought as tightly connected networks of warriors. They learned from their enemies and then beat them at their own game.

We, too, must learn, re-engineer and grow to beat the enemy of our souls (1 Peter 5:8) and lead others to victory! 

5.  Great leaders love.

I can’t help but think of Debbie Bresina. She’s been working at the ministry of Dare 2 Share for 23+ years. Three years ago she became the President of Dare 2 Share (I was President before then.) Since her installation as President I have watched her lead in a profound and powerful way. And one of the keys to her effectiveness is that her leadership is defined by love.

Debbie genuinely cares for our staff and it shows. Her love for God and for them flows through everything she does. 

Don’t get me wrong. She’s not a mushy pushover. I know of nobody else whose resolve for impact and outcomes surpasses hers. People sit up straighter when she walks in a room because she asks hard questions and expects hard results.

But she understands that driving toward outcomes alone is not enough. You can’t “kill the goose to get the golden eggs.” Instead the “goose” must be nurtured and cared for.

Debbie loves the staff, prays for them, listens to them, encourages them and leads them. And our team would run through a wall for her because of it!

Maybe that’s why Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 20:25-27 the golden key to becoming a great leader. He told them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” 

These are what I believe to be the 5 marks of a great Christian leader. What did I miss?

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