Biblically, the people of God have struggled between trusting in the leadership and providence of God and needing the tangible reassurance of a human leader. In Exodus, when Moses ascends Horeb, leaving Israel temporarily without a human leader, anxiety engulfs the people: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod 32:1). Aaron willingly fills the leadership void, and leads the people into idolatry and immorality – a breakdown of social order and boundaries.
During the period of the Judges, God raised up leaders as circumstances required to unite the tribes of
to address internal and external threats. Buber (1967, 67-84) notes the ambivalence in the book towards the idea of a monarch, rejected in Judges 1-16, but embraced in chapters 17-21, in which the anxiety of the people over the ad hoc leadership of the Judges causes them to call out for a king. The narrative pattern described in Judges 2:11-19 is repeated throughout the book: “Israel does evil, God sends an enemy; Israel cries in distress, God sends a judge or deliverer; Israel again does evil, and the cycle repeats” (Olson 1998, 725). Whenever Israel has a judge to lead them, it says, “the land had rest (שָׁקַט)” (3:11, 3:30, 5:31, etc.). Without a leader, the people fall into sin, victimization, and distress. Israel
Similarly, leadership transition is a prominent theme in the New Testament. As Brown (1984) points out, nearly all of the New Testament was written during the “sub-apostolic age” of the last third of the first century, as the various communities of Christians addressed the needs that arose in the absence of apostolic leadership (1984, 13-16). Even those writings with greater apostolic authenticity, such as the Pauline corpus, often address concerns that emerge while the apostle is absent or imprisoned.
The archetypal model for leadership transition, however, is found in the accounts of the transition from Christ’s earthly ministry to the apostolic age, in which Jesus anticipates the role of the Holy Spirit in leading and organizing the church. In the upper room discourse (John 13-17), Jesus portrays the Spirit as the source of consolation (14:16), the master teacher (14:25), the true witness (15:26), and the righteous judge (16:8-11) – all leadership roles or functions. In the post-resurrection appearances (John 20-21), however, the role of the Spirit is less direct: to equip or empower the apostles to perform the leadership functions of exercising judgment and grace (20:22-23).
In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples express their anxiety to Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). Jesus assures them only that they will be empowered by the Spirit: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (1:7-8a). Nevertheless, the disciples fail to comprehend the magnitude of Christ’s promise. Their anxiety over a successor to Judas (1:15-26) is based on a perceived leadership deficit rather than trust in the power of God. The casting of lots – a method of selection to which Luke refers elsewhere only in regard to the disposition of Jesus’ garments (Luke ) – suggests a decision-making model more appropriate to Jesus’ enemies than his disciples. Despite repeated assurances of the continuing presence and power of God, the people of God throughout the Bible fail to manage leadership transitions successfully.
The failure of God’s people to manage transitions is often the result of anxiety. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes his disciples not to worry (μεριμνάω) about food, clothing, or other temporal needs, employing the verb six times in a single passage (Matt 6:25-34). The NRSV translation of μεριμνάω as “to worry” emphasizes “anxious thought” over the more literal “caring” or “striving” (Guelich 1982, 335). This reading is buttressed by the usage in Phil 4:6 and 1 Pet 5:7: “These exhortations to prayer are thus designed to give absolute freedom from care as anxiety” (Bultmann 1967, 591). Jesus encourages his disciples to trust in God’s providence for their needs: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33). Boring notes, “Matthew wants to relate his key word (δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē, “righteousness”/“justice”) both to the idea of the coming eschatological kingdom and to the idea of trust in the Father’s providential care” (1995, 211).
This theme is repeated in the upper room discourse of the Gospel of John as Jesus comforts his disciples in preparation for his departure: “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus instructs in 14:1 (and again in 14:27). The verb ταράσσω (“troubled”) has specific usage relevant to an anxiety response in the face of death, as suggested by John 11:33 and 13:21 (Brown 1970, 618). To quell this anxiety, Jesus offers his “peace” (ειρήνη – ), a benefit of believing in God and “also in me” (14:1).
In the Reformed tradition, the antidote for anxiety is faith in the providence of God. Bouwsma’s “portrait” of Calvin (1988) begins with Calvin’s theological response to anxiety. Calvin understood the doctrine of election as a response to the human anxiety over salvation. Similarly, Calvin addressed anxiety for daily needs in his understanding of divine providence (Leith 1989, 107-120). It was Calvin’s conviction that “there can be no security felt unless we satisfy ourselves of the truth of a divine superintendence and can commit our lives and all that we have to the hands of God” (Calvin 1863-97, 31:590, quoted in Leith 1989, 117).
According to Bouwsma, anxiety was a principal theme not only of John Calvin’s intellectual life, but also of his personal life. Calvin apparently lived a life in constant dread of calamity (such as being struck by falling masonry from the buildings of
). His great contribution to the Reformation – his doctrine of election – was intended to be a pastoral remedy to the anxiety of the faithful regarding their salvation. Nevertheless, even Calvin himself was also known to express anxiety over the leadership succession in the Genevan church: “It is not strange that today the authority of God’s servants, whom he has furnished with excellent and wonderful gifts, protects and preserves the church. But once they are dead, a sad deterioration will promptly begin, and impiety now hidden will erupt without restraint” (Commentary on Joshua 24:29, in Bouwsma 1988, 33). Geneva
Issues of leadership and authority were central to the Reformation. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was a cornerstone, emphasizing not only equal access to God, but also shared responsibility for ministry and leadership. Calvin’s understanding of the office of elder reflects this. His unique contribution was the identification of two kinds of eldership in the New Testament church: those who prophesy, exhort, or teach; and those who govern. The latter he based on the use of the word κυβερνήσεις (kybernēseis, Latin gubernationes) in 1 Cor 12:28, which tradition had identified with ecclesiastical rulers, including the exercise of discipline. Contrary to his contemporaries, Calvin insisted that these gubernationes should be lay leaders, not magistrates (McKee 1990, 152-54). While Calvin emphasized the distinction between lay elders and civic authorities, he simultaneously de-emphasized the distinction between lay elders and clergy, as it pertains to the leadership functions in the church.
Paul Lehmann makes a distinction between the charismatically empowered koinonia, which he describes as “the fellowship-creating reality of Christ’s presence in the world” (1963, 49), and the institutional ekklesia. As an ethical and prophetic community, the church is always koinonia and never ekklesia (1963, 50n). More recently, feminist ecclesiology, articulated by Russell (1993) emphasizes mutuality of ministry within the church, in other words, the presence of koinonia within ekklesia. Russell uses the image of the community of faith gathered at God’s table to express the model of relationships within the church. Borrowing from 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4, she outlines a charismatic model of leadership based on the gifts of the Spirit rather than on hierarchical distinctions between clergy and laity (1993, 64). While noting that the gift of kybernesis (which she identifies with “administration” or “leadership”) is mentioned only once, Russell states that “all the gifts listed are what today would be considered gifts to be used in the leadership or building up of the church for service in the world” (1993, 66). This expresses an “authority of purpose” as opposed to an “authority of position or office.” She explains,
Power understood as the ability to accomplish desired ends is present in human relationships no matter how particular communities or societies are organized. Nevertheless, Christian communities recognize that the source of power in their life is the love of Christ which inspires and directs them. This is a style of power not of coercion but of empowerment of others. (1993, 66)
The polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reflects this concept of shared leadership. The Book of Order envisions a mutuality of ministry not only between ministers and elders, but among the whole congregation (G-6.0101, G-6.0102). Moreover, the ministry of elders complements and even overlaps that of the pastor:
It is the duty of elders, individually and jointly, to strengthen and nurture the faith and life of the congregation committed to their charge. Together with the pastor, they should encourage the people in the worship and service of God, equip and renew them for their tasks within the church and for their mission in the world, visit and comfort and care for the people…. (G-6.0304)
This signal contribution of the Reformed tradition – the parity of ministry between clergy and lay elders – is tested during pastoral vacancies when elders are faced with their divine mandate to lead the church. Indeed, during such times, not only is such leadership necessary, it is also ultimately the source of congregational health and mission vitality.
 Brown’s thesis is that the sociological settings of the various apostolic communities gave rise to differing theological concerns and ecclesiologies in the next generation. A more negative appraisal of this phenomenon is offered by Fiorenza (1983) who traces the eclipse of the egalitarian leadership model of the apostolic church by the patriarchal leadership model in sub-apostolic generations. Fiorenza attributes this to the collapse of the radical ecclesiology of Jesus under the authority patterns of the dominant culture; in other words, a homeostatic response due to systemic anxiety during leadership transition (1983, 285-288).
 It may be argued, however, that the New Testament writers considered the entire post-resurrection era to be a transitional period until the Parousia.
 G-6.0101: “All ministry in the Church is a gift from Jesus Christ. Members and officers alike serve mutually under the mandate of Christ who is the chief minister of all. His ministry is the basis of all ministries; the standard for all offices is the pattern of the one who came ‘not to be served but to serve’ (Matt. )” (emphasis added).
 G-6.0102: “One responsibility of membership in the church is the election of officers who are ordained to fulfill particular functions. The existence of these offices in no way diminishes the importance of the commitment of all members to the total ministry of the church. These ordained officers differ from other members in function only” (emphasis added).