Review: The Scandal of Leadership - Word&Way

Review: The Scandal of Leadership

THE SCANDAL OF LEADERSHIP: Unmasking the Powers of Domination in the Church. By JR Woodward. Foreword by David Fitch. Afterword by Amos Yong. Cody, WY: 100 Movements Publishing, 2023. Xxxix. 371 pages.

Churches are often told that if they wish to grow, they need to embrace corporate business practices and models of leadership. We are pointed to Starbucks and similar entities and told to follow their lead. Often the models suggested follow top-down patterns of leadership. When that occurs, the pastor may portray himself (normally a male pastor) as the one in charge, perhaps accountable only to God. They may provide the aura of accountability with a board of elders, but a board appointed by the pastor. In other words, the pastor rules without any accountability. This is often the pattern found in megachurches. Perhaps it is not surprising that we are regularly witnessing the fall of pastors who are being forced to step down due to abusive relationships and sexual impropriety. Of course, such patterns can also be found in small churches, they just don’t make the headlines like megachurch pastors. The question is, why is this happening? Could it be that the “powers of domination” have taken root in the church? That is the contention made by JR Woodward in his book The Scandal of Leadership.

Robert D. Cornwall

Woodward is the national director of the V3 Movement and a leader in the Missional Church movement. His book The Scandal of Leadership is based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Manchester (UK). Therefore, this book does take on a more academic tone. Nevertheless, it is quite accessible to clergy and church leaders who have a modicum of theological and biblical sophistication. JR approached me about reviewing this book after he read my review of David Fitch’s book Reckoning with Power: Why the Church Fails When It’s on the Wrong Side of Power. In my estimation, these two books complement each other quite well.

David Fitch, who teaches theology and ministry at Northern Seminary, writes the foreword to this book. As he does in his book, Fitch notes in his foreword that too often we assume that leadership is leadership. That is, all forms of leadership are essentially the same. It is a message shared in numerous resources offered to clergy and congregations. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions offered too often fail. Therefore, Fitch believes that what we need is “a profound reevaluation of leadership, a deep searching of the Scriptures, and the seeking after the person of Jesus Christ for another way to lead God’s people” (p. xix). This is what Woodward attempts to do in The Scandal of Leadership.

The central message of Woodward’s book is that the powers of domination are present in the church and if the church is to be truly missional, these powers need to be unmasked. What he seeks to do in this book is not only to “link the fall of church leaders to patterns of domination, but I also hope to demonstrate a link between imitation and the Powers. I want to explain how leaders who uncritically imitate patterns of power seen in the fallen world are liable to fall into patterns of domination” (p. xxviii).

The question facing us here concerns the identity of these Powers, which he identifies as being spiritual in nature. He writes that “High-profile ‘fallen leaders often share common characteristics: pride, manipulation, seeking status, isolation, a lack of community to hold them accountable, using status to push an agenda, love of the crowds, an abuse of power and role, a push to ‘succeed,’ and a sense of self-importance.” (p. xxxi). With these concerns in mind, Woodward asks whether those in leadership wish to imitate Christ or the Powers. As he demonstrates in the book, the temptation to imitate the Powers that promise success is enticing.

Woodward divides his book into five sections with either two or three chapters each. He begins in Section One by addressing “The Challenge of Missional Leadership.” In this section, he diagnoses why leaders, especially megachurch leaders, fail. He then lays out the need for missional leadership as an alternative. Finally, he turns to Scripture to find examples of domineering leadership. With that in mind, he looks at texts from 1 Peter in which Peter calls on church leaders to follow Jesus. He points out that the problem of domineering leadership is not new, as seen in Peter’s guidance offered in the letter. He introduces us here to the power of imitation, something he takes up later in the book in conversation with Rene Girard.

Section Two is titled “Missional Leadership and the Powers.” In the two chapters in this section, Woodward engages with Walter Wink’s trilogy, which speaks of naming, unmasking, and engaging the powers. Many of us have found Wink’s work on the Powers illuminating since he views them as spiritual in nature but embodied in systems. These Powers include ecclesial systems. In the first of the two chapters, Woodward introduces us to Wink’s life and work. It should be noted that throughout the book, the author uses biography to help the reader better understand the message of the authors he is engaging with. In the second of the two chapters, he uses Wink’s work on the Powers to better understand and diagnose domineering leadership in the church. It should be noted that Wink is not afraid to speak of the Powers being demonic, leading to the creation of the Domination System, which seeks to subvert God’s purposes.

After Woodward discusses Wink’s understanding of the Powers and how they function in the church, offering the dangerous possibility of falling into the trap of domineering leadership, he turns in Section Three, which is titled “Missional Leadership and Imitation,” to the work of Rene Girard on mimetic desire and the power of imitation. I am less familiar with Girard’s work than with Wink’s, but I found this chapter intriguing. Concerning mimetic theory and its impact on imitation, Woodward suggests that on the practical level of a congregation, “according to mimetic theory, disciples subconsciously capture the desires of their models. They then start to desire the title of lead pastor and the prestige that they feel comes with that title. In turn, the lead pastor senses that this person desires the title, which increases their desire for the title, eventually leading to memetic rivalry, often to the bewilderment of those caught in the mimetic trap” (p. 158). In other words, the Powers (Satan) uses “envious desires of leaders to create chaos and scapegoating in a community.”

Section Four: “Missional Leadership and Subversion,” brings into the conversation a third figure, Attorney/Theologian William Stringfellow. Woodward notes that Jesus never bowed down to the Powers, but instead resisted them. His resistance led the Powers to respond by capturing our attention, leading humans to give themselves fully to them, such that they demand our ultimate allegiance. He offers Stringfellow as an example of someone who sought to counter these Powers by subverting them. Again, Woodward uses biography to provide depth to the conversation. For Stringfellow, the Powers and Principalities can be defined using three terms: Image, Institution, and Ideology. Woodward explores each of these terms, which he says correspond to three contours of leadership: identity, praxis, and telos. The message here concerns resisting and subverting the Powers through prophetic witness, something Stringfellow exemplifies. Woodward writes that Stringfellow understood that racism and nationalism, two issues still present in contemporary society, are Principalities that need to be named, unmasked, and engaged, therefore, his “remedy required him to go beyond the ideologies of his day — humanism and liberalism — which still linger today. Stringfellow viewed life through the lens of the power of death and the power of the resurrection” (p. 209). The choice is ours as to how we respond.

Having addressed the Powers that lead to domineering leadership, unmasking their identity, while suggesting ways of resisting/subverting the influence of the Powers in the church, Woodward turns in Section Five to constructing a positive vision for missional leadership that takes seriously the challenge posed to missional leadership by the Powers and Principalities. Having demonstrated that there are forms of imitation (mimetic desires) that are destructive to the church and its leadership structures, he responds to those forms by offering a positive form of imitation. He uses Jesus’s temptations as an entry point for understanding Jesus’s own identity formation. From there we are invited to follow Jesus’s lead so we can seek to imitate Christ as we develop our sense of identity (chapter 10). In Chapter 11, Woodward takes us into Paul’s Philippian letter, using a Girardian lens, to explore how that letter can help us embrace Jesus’s sense of kenotic leadership. Finally, in Chapter 12, he points us to how Paul practiced Jesus’s kenotic leadership. To illustrate what kenotic leadership involves, Woodward points us to the example of Oscar Romero, the sainted martyr Archbishop of El Salvador, who suffered martyrdom in support of the rights of the people.

Churches and other faith communities require leadership, but not all forms of leadership are the same. Some forms are inappropriate for missional leadership because they are beholden to the Powers. Therefore, Woodward offers us in The Scandal of Leadership a look at leadership that falls into the trap of the domination system, leadership that is destructive to the church and the leaders themselves. Having unmasked those powers, he offers us a different vision of leadership, inviting us to follow the positive examples of Jesus, Paul, and Oscar Romero. There are forms of leadership that one should not imitate (domineering leadership) and those that one ought to imitate. While the message of this book applies to the entire church, Woodward’s primary audience is the missional church movement and those involved in the field of missiology. However, if we understand Christian ministry to be missional in character, then this is a book that can prove extremely helpful to all church leaders, especially pastors. That includes small church pastors (that has been my place of call) as well as megachurch pastors. The latter may be more tempted to embrace domineering forms of leadership, but we can all end up, as David Fitch reminds us in his book Reckoning with Power, on the wrong side of power. To counter that, Woodward offers us what he believes is a “more robust theology of the Powers,” which he deems to have been underdeveloped within the missional conversation.

As I noted in the beginning, The Scandal of Leadership is based on JR Woodward’s PhD dissertation, which means at points it can get highly technical, especially when dealing with philosophical and sociological terms such as mimetic desire, but I believe that working through the book will be worthwhile to those who seek to understand why church leaders fail, as well as discovering a better way of leading (by imitating Jesus).


This review originally appeared on

Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at