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There Are No Fences!

Learning about Biblical Leadership in a Chicken Coop

Sure, Jesus used farmers to teach the disciples, but chickens? Little did producer DreamWorks and directors Nick Park and Peter Lord know when they released Chicken Run (2000) that their movie would be a modern parable.

Ginger (Julia Sawalha) is an intelligent, independent chicken with a heart that tells her there’s more beyond the chicken coop (and eventually, the chopping block). She has a history of trying to escape, much to the chagrin of her owners, a bumbling wife-and- husband team (Miranda Richardson,
Tony Haygarth).

The audience chuckles when they see the personalities that somehow must cooperate to achieve the escape. There’s a gruff old general (Benjamin Whitrow), a matter-of-fact scientist (Lynn Ferguson), and not a few flighty egg-layers. Yet, Ginger is able to share her vision with all of them, transforming a coop of doubting chickens into an animal house of hope.

At first her repeated attempts to mobilize less-than-imaginative fellow chickens only result in even more restricted freedoms for herself and the others. She admits the mistakes of her approach, and even goes too far by chiding herself for thinking she could lead. At this point, she asks for heaven’s help.

Rocky (Mel Gibson), a rooster with an ego bigger than his tail feathers, falls out of the sky. Chickens swoon. Rocky struts. And the vision blurs. Ginger immediately believes Rocky will provide the strength she is lacking, and he allows her to think he knows how to fly. She sees promise in teaching the chickens a new skill; he sees an opportunity to hide in a henhouse full of beautiful chicks. He agrees to lead without having a personal investment in their freedom. In his own words, he “tells them what they want to hear,” so he can get what he wants.

One scene vividly depicts Rocky’s selfglorifying leadership style. He proposes an entire day of flight training and orders the chickens through grueling exercises. However, he doesn’t explain the process or the logic behind his training, which leaves the chickens literally spinning while he sits back and observes.

While Rocky’s confidence as a leader stems from his belief that “I’m gifted, they’re not,” Ginger seeks the opinions and support of others to form a community-based plan. From her earlier failures, Ginger learns that she must take part in every step with the group, not as a director of affairs, but as a willing participant.

Leadership does not mean refraining from any sort of individual action or confrontation, however. At times, leadership requires confrontation to express passion and purpose for the common good. We often envision a warm-fuzzy Jesus, like a politician kissing babies and patting puppies on the head. But remember the Jesus of the temple, vehemently opposing the wrong being done in God’s house and to God’s people (Mark 11:15–17)? Of course, he certainly would not be an effective leader if he were raging mad all the time, and in fact followed up his outburst with a time of healing for those in need (Matt. 21:14). Leadership involves discernment to know when to step forward and when to support from behind.

Ginger reflects this same sensitivity. She is willing to try other’s plans, even asking Rocky, whom she does not get along with, to continue sharing his wisdom with the group. However, when she sees he is not following through with his commitment to the chickens, she confronts him. Like Jesus reclaiming the temple as a “house of prayer for all nations,” Ginger declares the world beyond the fence as the well-deserved home not just for roosters, but for all chickens. Her impassioned speech causes Rocky to rethink his approach and in turn, they work together to plan a real escape. This is biblical justice in action.

While the two characters portrayed do not necessarily point to male versus female styles of leadership, the contrast does highlight a much-needed distinction for Christians of both genders to practice. London Bible College professor Mary Evans used Chicken Run as an illustration in her workshop on “The Powerless Leader: Contradiction in Terms or Biblical Ideal?” at CBE’s 2004 International Symposium in Durham, England:

Ginger has no power, no authority. But Ginger is a leader who enables people to reach their full potential. Leadership for Christians is never about the matter of claimed authority, status, or power. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a matter of servanthood…We take servant words and turn them into status words: minister, pastor, deacon. But the picture of Jesus and the disciples indicates strongly that the leader does not make decisions for the led, but enables those who are led to make decisions for themselves.

Ginger embodies this biblical vision of leadership when she answers the concerns of the doubting chickens. Like the disciples, they vacillate between faith and fear, often preferring the predictable daily feedings inside the cage to the possibility of freedom outside it. “Who feeds us?” one nervous hen ventures. Ginger responds, “We feed ourselves! And there are no fences!” Even without seeing the “other side,” Ginger believes in the promise of a better life. In the end, hope (seasoned with humor) does indeed lead the chickens to freedom.

Chicken Run is not only a quick-witted, entertaining movie for both children and adults (listen for reference from movies like Braveheart and Star Trek), but is also a representation of Christ-like character. True leadership looks past the fences to the forces that created the fences in the first place. It is motivated by common suffering, and therefore works for the common good. Servant leadership means admitting when you are wrong, recognizing the resources available, and being open to revision. Most of all, it involves empowering others to identify and use the gifts God has given them,

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