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What it Takes to Lead the Church

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My views about leadership are informed especially by the scriptures, rather than by slick approaches to church growth, many of which are actually anti-biblical.  I am in line with a number of theologians who are disturbed by trends in the church today. I am necessarily restricting the focus of this paper to the top levels of leadership.  This is because I see this type of leader as the most sorely needed at the church right now. 

The Church and Culture

As a student both of church history and of culture and its impact on the church, I would have to say that the church at the end of the twentieth century is dangling over a dangerous precipice though it thinks that it is standing on solid ground.  Two of the major influences are as follows:

(1) All around us the influence of social and psychological Darwinism abounds.  It has infected the church via Deweyism and the pragmatic philosophy that Dewey brought to American education.  Because Dewey saw human beings as simply the highest order of creatures, his educational program argued for democracy as the best form of government, creature comforts via science and technology as the greatest educational objective, and pragmatic relevance as the only curriculum.  The problem with this, of course, is that it caused a slow erosion of aesthetics, history, languages, the arts and humanities, and above all religion.  These topics were perceived by Dewey as wrong-headed because they affirmed humanity's distinctness.  Further, absolute truth would find no place in Dewey's scheme since that implies a reality beyond ourselves. 

The pragmatism has especially infected the church in various ways.  Relevance has become more important than truth and a knowledge of God and his ways via Scripture has become marginalized.1  Those who take a stand for truth in the church today are often labeled pejoratively: argumentative, elitist, inflexible, etc.  To be sure, often such labels are deserved.  In particular, the most grievous aspect of many of them is that they do not follow Eph 4:15: "truthing it in love."  But just because many truth-seekers and truth-proclaimers are one-sided does not mean that all are.  Further, to reject the necessity of pursuing and proclaiming truth because some folks do it poorly is hardly the answer; the alternative is to be tossed by every wind of doctrine on a sea of emotion.  The concern of pragmatists is very real: truth needs to be relevant and packaged in love.  The real problem of the church today is that truth has been downgraded to simplicity, while transparent relevance has been put on a pedestal.  The starting point of our quest then often becomes "Is it relevant?" rather than "Is it true?"  We are a generation away from biblical illiteracy on a scale that mirrors the middle ages. 

(2) Another major influence is the Enlightenment.  Modern Americans are children of rationalism and philosophical materialism.  The impact on the church has been to move us in the direction of a purely cognitive faith.  Now this may sound contradictory to what was stated above.  In a sense, it is.  But that's because there really are two kinds of evangelicals today, broadly speaking: those who worship God in spirit, and those who worship God in truth.2  This is a false dichotomy ultimately, yet we have managed to maintain the tension.  Hence, we have the extreme 'spirit' types in the charismatic and Pentecostal camps; we have the extreme 'truth' types (or better, 'knowledge' types) in Col. Bob Thieme's form of ecclesiology.  For one group, personal and idiosyncratic experience is everything; for the other, absolute and dogmatic knowledge is everything.  Most Bible churches have imbibed in the latter and are now turning toward the former.  Most Bible church leaders do not even perceive what the cultural antecedents are that are moving them.

In short, today I see the church in a crisis of the Word and the Spirit.  We are becoming polarized when we should be getting together.  A leader in the church needs to be aware of these issues so as not to conform to the world (Rom 12:1-2).

A Parable

Permit me to begin with a parable of church leadership.  Suppose that instead of training leaders, the task here was to train bus drivers for a large, rural elementary school.  George is in charge; he needs to find bus drivers for next fall.  So George sets out to find his people.  He first writes up a list of non-negotiable criteria.  In his list of non-negotiables he writes down the following, with annotations:

Desire and enthusiasm.  But armed with such motivation, there must be more to being a bus driver.

Not a new driver.  New drivers simply do not have the experience needed for taking on such huge responsibility. 

Someone without a criminal record; further, someone with a pretty clean driving record.  Perfection is not required nor expected, but respect for and knowledge of the law of the land is.

Few or no accidents on record.  Again, perfection is not required nor expected, but respect for and knowledge of physical laws is.

Trainable.  This requires respect for authority, humility, and a willingness to be stretched, and to learn.  Ultimately, it results in knowledge and expertise.

A love of children.  The best kind of bus driver will be compassionate and understanding, tolerant, and not easily flustered. 

Not easily distracted.  The best kind of bus driver needs to be one who knows his route and sticks to it.  He does not deviate to one side or the other.  His compassion for the children is tempered by his duty to get them there safely, without detours.  In short, he knows where he is going and he is able to bring his children with him. 

A safe driver and one who can be trusted.  Both the children and the parents have confidence in him because they know that he knows his job. 

Now, George begins to look for qualified individuals.  He posts an ad in the local newspaper.  This will attract those who have the desire to be bus drivers.  But in the process, George soon discovers that some potential candidates are motivated by the wrong things.  Thus, their moral character needs to be screened carefully.  But George is running out of time.  The training takes several weeks and the screening process takes almost as long.  So he cuts short both in order to get his half dozen bus drivers needed for the fall semester.  He justifies this because of the necessity to fill the slots.  After all, it is every child's right to get on the public bus. 

The results are mixed.  Three of the bus drivers turned out just fine.  Their character was exceptional, they took well to the training (two even had been truck drivers before and the other was an exceptional driver), and they had the prerequisite qualities George was looking for.  Fortunately for him, these bus drivers were 'found,' not 'made.' 

One bus driver however was a high school student.  Jimmy was too young and too immature for the job.  This affected the safety of the vehicle, the confidence level of the parents, and his own distractibility with a bus full of loud children.  Near tragedy came when the bus took a corner too quickly on a rainy day and slid into a tree.  Several of the children were hurt, though none badly.  Still, the psychological scars could not yet be determined.

Another bus driver allowed her love for the children to override her duty.  Margaret soon began to make special detours for the children in order to please them.  One day, she stopped at a convenience store on the way home and bought all the children snow cones.  This was a nice gesture, but the delay worried all the parents who did not know where their children were.  Early on in the semester Margaret waited for several minutes for a tardy child.  This not only made the entire busload of children late for school, it also set a precedent for the tardy child.  Within a few weeks, he became regularly late--by as much as twenty minutes.  Margaret waited patiently.  All the children suffered for it and the one child and its parents did not learn to face responsibility.

The last bus driver George hired proved to be disastrous.  He was a man with a criminal record.  His motivation was money.  He had little respect for authority.  The curious thing was that because George was rushed in the process he was unable to detect these flaws in Daryl, in large part because he was such a likeable person.  Daryl was able to play the pied piper with the children and get them to embrace him as their leader and hero.  The children of course are not to be blamed too heavily; after all, they were children.  But about three months into the fall semester Daryl persuaded the children to take a little outing on a Friday afternoon.  Two hours later they had not come home.  Some parents got worried and called the police.  No trace was found after several hours of looking.  The next day Daryl called up the school principal from another state, over 500 miles from home.  He demanded a ransom for each of the children.  The ransom was eventually paid for each one, all but one were returned safely, though one is still missing.  Daryl escaped, never to be found.

After this first year of the new bus program, George did some serious thinking.  At first he glibly thought, "Well, three out of six turned out OK.  I guess my training program worked pretty well."  But this was thinly disguised rationalism, intended to ease his conscience.  As he reflected on the preciousness of the lives in his care and what the real task was, he realized that he had failed the children and the parents miserably.  Further, he failed the bus drivers by not really training them and screening them properly.  Most of the pain and tragedy could have been avoided had George not cut corners.  He realized that his first assumption was a wrong one: he did not need to fill the slots.  It would have been better for some of the children to walk to school than to subject their lives to detours and dangers.  So the most valuable lesson George learned was not to put a person behind the wheel of a bus until he had been properly checked out and properly trained. 


Church Leadership

OK, I know this was a long-winded parable!  But I trust you can see some real parallels with leadership in the church.  Leaders must have more credentials than mere desire.  And though they love their flock, love that is not anchored in truth degenerates to mere sentimentality.  We can see plainly what is required of a bus driver in part because we can see plainly what a bus driver's primary goal is: to get the children to school safely and on time.  By analogy, part of the reason we are not sure what church leaders are supposed to look like is because we have lost sight of the goal. 

(1) I take it as axiomatic that our ultimate goal is to glorify God, both individually and communally. 

(2) Glorifying God requires a knowledge of him and his will.  For church leaders, a basic knowledge of the Bible and of Bible doctrine is indispensable.  (A sine qua non  here is that a leader needs to develop lifelong habits of spiritual discipline, feeding himself in the Word, coming to the text without an agenda, and being able to impart to others what he has learned.)  Otherwise, leaders will not be able to discern when some of the flock are wandering.  They may even be leading the charge!3  Along these lines, leaders also need to know what truths are non-negotiable and which are more peripheral.  Toleration and fellowship must reign supreme in the less central areas.  This requires time in the Word.  A mature leader is one who knows what truths are necessary for the life of the church, which are vital for the health of the church, and which ones belong to the category of "sapiential preference"--that is, views that are borne of one's wisdom and walk with the Lord, but may well be wrong.  This last category especially requires great humility.

Concomitant to a knowledge of the Scriptures are two other elements: A commitment to its authority in all areas that it teaches, and a respect for others in the body for their diversity of viewpoints and diversity in gifts.  There is no room for either belittlement or intimidation.

(3) Further, this foundational knowledge must result in alteration of beliefs and character.  It is an overly simplistic model to say that application of biblical truth must always be behavioral.  The Bible is more about belief modification than it is about behavior modification.  To be sure, behavior will be affected by beliefs.  But we start at the wrong end of the stick when we focus just on externals.  As Charnock points out, when we sin we are really playing the atheist, because otherwise we would fear God and obey him: “All sin is founded in a secret atheism” (Stephen Charnock, Existence and Attributes of God, p. 93).  Our lack of belief affects our behavior.

To put this another way, we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt 22:34-40).  Every aspect of our lives--both individually and communally--is to be subject to Christ's lordship. 

(4) Our beliefs and our character must be transferable.  A leader must be willing and able to duplicate himself in others: "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:39).  This requires a radical commitment to others, regarding them as more important than oneself (Phil 2:1-11).  And it requires the passing on of truth embodied in human flesh (2 Tim 2:2).  In short, leaders must be able to "truth it in love" (Eph 4:15). 

(5) Our commitment to the gospel of Christ requires of leaders a willingness to get outside their comfort zone.  Paul became all things to all men--as difficult as that was for a former Pharisee (!)--that he might win some.  The gospel requires of us a massive flexibility, especially in cross-cultural settings.  Not only does this mean a willingness to share our faith, but also a recognition that the nature of the church is essentially heterogenous.  That is, each local expression of the body of Christ should transgress racial, economic, educational, age, and sex boundaries (Gal 2:1ff; 3:28; Eph 2:11-22; 4:1-6).  The supernatural nature of the body of Christ is most clearly seen when its existence and unity cannot be explained on natural grounds.  There are very, very few churches today that are going about this properly.  Indeed, the most popular method of church growth now advocated is a homogenous approach.  Part of the motivation for this is the underlying assumption that rapid growth is necessarily good and right and essential.  But how a church is growing is far more important than how quickly it is growing.  Churches that miss this principle are like a healthy newborn baby with a yet-undetected congenital disease.  Sooner or later the disease will come to full flower and the child will suffer pain, illness, perhaps even death.  It is true that a healthy church is a growing church; the converse is not necessarily true however, viz., that a growing church is a healthy church. 

A biblical church should be heterogenous and one that grows by multiplication and depth rather than by addition and shallowness.  In the end, a church moving in this manner will eventually have explosive growth (since multiplication ultimately catches up to and then surpasses addition) that is deep-rooted.  The leaves will be green and will survive harsh conditions because the roots are deep.

(6) Biblical leadership cannot be accomplished at a distance.  It fundamentally requires personal involvement.  The abstract truths of theology must be made concrete and personal in intimate, godly discipleship.  This, of course, implies a cetain amount of messiness.  Avoidance of conflict or fear of involvement ought not to characterize true leaders in the church.  Among other things, this requires of leaders that they not be threatened individuals and that they conduct their mentoring in a mutually accountable manner.  At bottom, great numbers do not make a church great.  Godly people make a church great.

(7) Finally, a leader must be honorable, vulnerable, humble, and tolerant.  I realize that these are themes mentioned already.  But they bear repeating and isolating.  God never waits for a man to have all of his theological ducks in a row before He begins using him.  As Dr. John Hannah has put it, "All of us are heretics.  We just don't know it yet."  But the humble man is willing to learn from others, recognizing that he does not have a corner on the truth.  And because he is not omniscient, he is tolerant and respectful of those with whom he disagrees.  Arrogance has no place in the ministry.  Further, a mature believer is not yet perfected.  The more he can admit this to himself and to others the more they will be willing to follow him, for they will see him as follow-able.  His vulnerability keeps him authentic and gives him an attractiveness that is to be prized in the man of God.

As the leadership of a church goes, so goes the church.  If the goal is merely pragmatic, or programmatic, or organizational, or numeric, or entertaining, the results will be less than pleasing to God.  At bottom, leaders need to be the kinds of people whose lives are wholly dedicated to the God whom they profess to serve.

To sum up:

The essential requirements of the highest caliber of leaders in the church today are as follows:

Engagement with culture from a thoroughly Christian perspective.

A life-focus, both individually and in communion with others, to glorify God.

A nuanced knowledge of the Bible which involves a hierarchy of doctrines, a commitment to the Bible’s final, infallible authority, and a profound respect for others who may disagree with our fallible interpretation.

Progressive submission of all aspects of one’s life to the lordship of Christ, including character, beliefs, and behavior.

A transferable life, a desire not just to communicate truth, but truth as it bears fruit in one’s life, to others.

A willingness to get outside one’s comfort zone for the sake of the gospel.  In part, this requires a willingness to grow the church God’s way and to recognize its essentially heterogenous nature.

A commitment to be personally involved with others.  The transferred life must be an accountable life on the most intimate, godly levels.

A leader must be vulnerable, humble, tolerant

God and Mammon

One of the temptations that growing churches face is debt-service to new buildings. There is a tragic repetition that has littered our landscape with half-empty buildings: A church begins growing, usually because it has a new pastor. The bills are being met and there is a desire to build a new facility to accommodate all the recent converts. All this is fine. The danger comes when the leadership becomes impatient and projects that it can go into debt on the new building without going into the red in the annual budget. The church then moves into the new building when it is only partially paid for. Because of the influx of new people, the leaders are unprepared to handle the growth. Too many Christians still in their spiritual diapers and not enough leaders to help them grow. A number of problems can result from this: the pastor tends toward entertainment, blind spots get revealed that can’t be easily resolved without losing members, etc. The bottom line problem, though, is this: the leaders are now held hostage by the mortgage payment rather than submissive to the Word of God. All decisions are filtered through the impact this would make on the financial stability of the church. The Word gets marginalized.

The solution? First, churches should not, as a rule, go into debt. New buildings should be entirely paid for before construction begins. Churches that hold a firm line on this often get enormously blessed by the Lord; the funds are often raised much more quickly than anyone could have predicted. But whether or not that happens, the church demonstrates its obedience to the Lord by its patience.

Second, what if leaders are already facing debt on property? Here the temptation toward pragmatism (whatever keeps the church numerically strong) will be great. But though the church may be in the black financially, it often gets in the red spiritually. The leaders need to make a renewed commitment to follow scripture at all costs—even if doing so means that they might lose the property. Financial difficulties have a way of eroding our principles. When we have such difficulties in life that are beyond our control, that is one thing; but when we actually invite them by incurring debt, it is more difficult to own up to our responsibilities.4 But true leadership requires a certain vulnerability, even to the point of admitting that some major decisions made previously are wrong. The Lord certainly knows how to take his people from where they are to where they should be, but he does not do so unless they admit that were they are is not where they should be.

1 Several notable theologians are arguing this point now, especially in light of the inroads that postmodernism is making into the church.  Cf. David F. Wells, No Place for Truth  (or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?); idem, God in the Wasteland; Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind; D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God; multiple authors, The Coming Evangelical Crisis; etc.  As well, not a few secular writers have noticed some dangerous trends in American education and culture, most notably Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind; E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy

2 This very tension can be seen within my church.  One Sunday school class may focus on experience so much that the content of that experience is almost never measured against the Word of God.  Another class might focus so much on the cognitive elements of the faith that an implicit sense of "I know the truth; therefore, I am spiritual" can be unintentionally communicated.

3 Paul’s last letter was to Timothy.  In 2 Timothy we see Paul’s swan song--the words of a man who knew he would soon die.  It is not insignificant that fully two-thirds of Paul’s commands in this letter have to do with the word.  Timothy’s primary task was one of pursuing truth and proclaiming truth.

4 The principles suggested here are not entirely transferable to one’s personal life. I see no problem with a mortgage on one’s residence (if the marriage is strong) because such a debt is both an investment and is made by a couple who are necessarily more committed to each other than a church ands its pastor are.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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