5 – Lessons from Japanese Leaders

Lead Relationally Through Encouragement

What makes great Japanese church leaders tick? When I discovered several churches reproducing in Japan, I wanted to know about their leadership. Through careful research I uncovered a cluster of six related characteristics of leaders that facilitate church reproduction in the Japanese context.

In an earlier article in this series (Autumn 2012), I shared that these leaders’ unique view of the church as a dynamic sending community implies a unique view of leading a church. These pastors practice a highly relational role and style of leading people for ministry. Church planting and reproduction cannot be done without a team of people. Each team member requires encouragement, so the leaders I studied focus on encouraging. Their authority in these relationships allows them to release others into ministry, which generates more relational structuring of their churches. Overall, their priority is people, and they are extraordinarily patient with those they lead. In our practice of leadership we can learn much from these reproducing leaders.

Employ an encouraging role

These church-reproducing leaders choose ministry roles that build relationships and encourage. When asked what they see as their principal roles, every primary leader responded with relational roles more than organizational roles. They listed training, discipling, or teaching—and for them teaching is less lecture and more relational life-on-life training. Other role responses were encouraging and supporting, coaching and mentoring, equipping and motivating.

Though they list their primary ministry roles as relational, several leaders were clear that they did not see their primary role as pastoral care of people, but rather as encouragers. Their concern is that people are not merely cared for, but ultimately mobilized for pastoral care.

Pastor Kubo1 has promoted regular retreats for church planters. He also regularly visits them and even invited me to accompany him. He is excited about the important role of supporting and encouraging people, especially church planters. He said, “They don’t need our lectures; they need inspiration and encouragement.”

Checkpoint #1: How could you be a more encouraging leader of leaders?

Exercise relational authority

These reproducing church leaders use their relational authority to maximize personnel resources. Authority for ministry can come from four sources: position, expertise, relationships, and spirituality.2

These leaders do not lead primarily by means of their positional authority as pastors. They have many effective ministry skills, but they do not rely heavily on expertise for authority. They exercise authority chiefly through relationships. Their relational authority is interrelated with a ministry of encouragement where people are important.

Many have observed that a temptation to be “totally pastor-centered”3 and a lone autocratic leadership style remains common in Japan.4 This autocratic leadership pattern is often characterized by a lack of delegation, and it hinders the growth and reproduction of churches. Leadership that exercises relational and spiritual authority to empower ministry was found to be the most effective within growing churches in Japan.5

Church leadership is both relational and task-oriented. These leaders, in spite of their ministry success, are surprisingly not primarily task-oriented. They are not program or ministry centered, but people centered. The key to securing relational authority is the behavior and character of these leaders.

When asked what makes a good church leader in Japan, Pastor Abe responded that leadership is “acquired by love . . . . Through respecting and trusting others, we will also receive trust and respect.” The leader’s relationship with others is the basis of encouragement in ministry. Pastor Watanabe reflected that some pastoral leaders, because of limited life experience with people, develop inferiority complexes (劣等感 rettokan) due to the difficulties in building this relational authority.

Checkpoint #2: How can you further develop your relational and spiritual authority with people?

Release others for ministry

Both the primary and the secondary leaders6 in this study preferred a leadership style that allows freedom for lay people to minister (Winter 2013). These entrusted leaders are released without restrictions or limitations to fulfill God’s vision for their ministries (Eph. 4:11–13).

As revealed in this research, leadership issues relating to authority and control can restrict believers’ ministry. Authority becomes an issue when the leader comes between God and the believer. This direct obedience to the leader is viewed as oppressive and restricts ministry.

Pastor Watanabe defined strong leadership as, “the leader who tells people ‘follow me’ or ‘you follow Jesus by following me.’” Pastor Tanaka shared that this “obey me” style of strong leadership is an old style of authoritarian leadership once appreciated but no longer effective. Over-management and supervision can also restrict freedom and stifle ministry. Removal of overbearing authority releases people for further ministry, which these leaders endeavor to facilitate.

One secondary leader revealed that working with his current leader was different from a past experience. His previous leader demanded reports and became harsh when things were not going well. He felt this leader had been controlling. Another secondary leader disclosed that, “[The pastor] never controlled [支配 shihai] me. He would leave it up to me [任せる makaseru] to make my own decisions based on my options.” Pastor Tanaka in his interview affirmed, “Never control the person who does the new ministry. Give him “full independence” (完全な自立を与えて kanzen na jiritsu o ataete) and encourage him . . . Do not control . . . Give encouragement and give blessing.”

Pastor Watanabe believes using his authority to control people through over-management (管理しすぎ支配 kanri shisugi shihai) in the past caused problems and constricted the believers’ freedom. Practically, effective leaders do not tell other workers what they can or cannot do. They advise and discuss matters with them.

Just like with parents raising children, these leaders know they cannot live others’ lives for them. Releasing other people for ministry directly affects the growth of the church. But releasing people also means risk-taking faith in God (Summer 2012). Entire movements, not solely individuals, can be restricted. According to Pastor Tanaka, “If you control, it will die. The fire of church planting will be lost and the multiplication will be stopped.”

Checkpoint #3: How would others describe your leadership? Do you limit and control others or do you allow freedom and independence? How can you grow in your ability to release others in ministry?

Structure ministry relationally

Reproducing-church leaders encourage relationships in the church by utilizing structures that are more relational and less formal or organizational. This follows from a church philosophy that sees the church primarily as the people of God, rather than simply an organization.

While Japanese society continues to have vertical organization and relationships, these leaders—through relational leadership—have flattened the leadership pyramid, making it less hierarchical. One leader refuses to use the terms assistant, associate, or senior pastor, as he believes all pastors are on an equal level. He also has lay people serving as “staff” at the church. One leader is a member of a cell group and is accountable to the leader of that group.

These examples of the flattening of the leadership pyramid are a function of authority based less on position and more on relationships. These leaders preferred a leadership role of coordinating and coaching. Several relational metaphors can describe the authority structure in the church. As one person cannot do church reproduction alone, the church can be viewed as a team with the leader as the team captain.

Another metaphor describes relations in the church as a family. The father of the family is personal and caring, as well as the head. Pastor Suzuki saw himself as the leader of a church structured like a family (家族型教会 kazokukei kyokai). One secondary leader said his primary leader’s spiritual role in the church was a “spiritual father.”

In both of these metaphors, the relationship structure is less hierarchical or top-down bosses, and more like spiritual fathers. “First among equals” is another way to describe it. Relational encouragement for other leaders comes through the benevolent leadership and the more personal and relational structures of the church.

Checkpoint #4: How is your ministry primarily structured: By organization or by relationships? How could you flatten and broaden the base of the leadership pyramid?

Be patient with leaders who serve with you

Personal relationships are laden with difficulties, and in Japanese society, human relationships (人間関係 ningen kankei) are even more complicated due to group dynamics. Patience is important in relationships and is one spiritual instrument the leader deploys in relationships with those under him. Experiencing patience from their leader is incredibly encouraging for people in ministry. These reproducing-church leaders demonstrate incredible forbearance with people they lead as they deal fairly with interpersonal problems.

When asked what makes a good reproducing leader, Pastor Fuji said that it is patience (忍耐 nintai), and patience that is not mere words. It is important in selecting leaders, and through patience and encouragement people can be moved to situations more suited for them. Only one pastor divulged he had a patient personality.

However, several secondary leaders shared their view that their primary leader was long-suffering. In describing the leader’s personality, secondary leader Shimizu mentioned that “he is profoundly patient (忍耐ぶかい nintai bukai) . . . . For example, he does not judge people. He is patient with others, as he believes God can use anyone.”

Secondary leader Ando remarked, “People are not written off just because they have one fault. Some have great gifts but with one fault, it is difficult. But a place is found for them to work—we receive their ministry, we find a place for them. We do not say, ‘You have a fault and you cannot serve.’” He reaffirmed his view of this leader by exclaiming, “His patience is very strong!” Secondary leaders shared with me how their pastor exercised patience with them, which was especially challenging to me personally.

Checkpoint #5: How is your relational patience? How can you better demonstrate patience with those you lead in ministry?

Final thoughts

Pastor Tanaka said that in helping fulfill the vision God gave him for his church, his role is to support, encourage, and be patient. Mobilizing members for ministry necessitates that people need to be entrusted, given freedom, supported, and encouraged to continue in team ministry. Leadership must take care that their ministry role is appropriate, be cautious about the application of authority, and ensure that the structures of the church are relational. All of these point to the necessity of relational encouragement.

Pastor Watanabe said that his role “is to encourage supervisors and leaders. That means to share together with them about the vision and the purpose given from God.” Leadership of reproducing churches is very task intensive, but the leader must also be personally encouraging. How about you and your ministry partners?


1. The names used in these articles are pseudonyms. Due to the personal nature of this research, the true name of these leaders cannot be identified.

2. Steven L. Ogne & Tim Roehl, TransforMissional Coaching (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 263-267.

3. Stanley R. Dyer, Communication in Community: The Christian Witness in Cultural Context (Bellville, Ontario: Guardian Books, 2013), 97 cf. 103.

4. Mark R. Mullins, Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), 180.

5. OC International Japan, Establishing the Church in Japan for the Twenty-first Century: A Study of 18 Growing Japanese Churches (Kiyose City, Tokyo, December 1993), 14.

6. This research involved in-depth interviews with six primary leaders and eight secondary leaders of six reproducing churches.

About John Mehn 8 Articles
John Mehn and his wife, Elaine, have served in Japan with the US agency Converge Worldwide (BGC) since 1985. John’s ministry has been in church planting and leadership development, and he has served as the chairman of the leadership team of the JEMA Church Planting Institute (CPI). He has a Doctor of Ministry in Missiology from Trinity International University.