Who's the boss? Leadership in the christian church

Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

You can read a lot about leadership, whether in companies and in the church. You can attend conferences, read books, check out websites about leadership. You can find lists of the essential characteristics of good leadership.

But what does Jesus say about leadership? How does it fit with what the leadership gurus tell us? And how does it match with what we see in our churches?

Jesus said a leader must be a servant

Jesus’ basic teaching on leadership is very direct and clear. A leader must be a servant. We see this in so many places.

The one who rules should be like the one who serves

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

Luke 22:25-26

The least is the greatest

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Luke 9:46-48

Washing feet, the servant’s job

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:12-17

Serving is at the heart of the gospel

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:45

Don’t be blind guides

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Matthew 23:8-12

This saying comes at the start of a long critique of the religious leaders of his day. Christian leaders are not to be like them. Jesus’ teaching here echoes that of the prophet Jeremiah (31:34): “No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest”.

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow

Most church leaders I have met are very genuine, and committed to their ministry. Theirs is an honourable position deserving of our respect.

But, unfortunately, there are many small ways that church leadership can fall short of Jesus’ ideals, to the detriment of the church’s mission.

Taking too high a position?

Many churches and denominations elevate pastors and leaders to a status higher than the rest of us. This can be seen in many subtle and more obvious ways:

  • Despite Jesus’ words, we give our leaders titles that differentiate them – Reverend, Archbishop, Senior Pastor, etc. Titles are necessary, but we have to be careful how we use them to differentiate.
  • We even have words that separate – they are clergy, we are laity.
  • Special dress for clergy is still the norm in many of the more ancient denominations, though less so in newer denominations and churches.

In many ways these differences between clergy and the rest of us are minor, but they are symbolic, and the attitudes can lead to significant problems, as we’ll see. We need to more clearly practice the doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” – not least so that “laypeople” will start to believe it and act on it.

Too much power and authority

In the book of Acts, we several times read that a certain decision was agreed upon by everyone, or “it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit”. But in the twenty-first century church, decision-making is often narrowed down, to a board, to the staff or to the Senior Pastor. There are many stories of leaders abusing their power, via sexual misadventures, ordering certain behaviours or responses, giving autocratic advice, or making accusations against those who have alternative views.

Often the change to streamlined decision-making is made for management and efficiency reasons as churches get larger. Sometimes, especially in Pentecostal churches, the Senior Pastor claims to be the one who hears from God, so any disagreement is painted as rebellion against God. In more hierarchical churches, decisions by those further up the “chain of command” can be considered as the only way to keep the church from error.

In some churches, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or Communion (whatever it is called) can only be led and dispensed by those approved to do it, another indication of the authority given to those who claim a separate and elevated position above us ordinary people.

In more “Word” oriented churches, preaching is the ultimate activity, often jealously protected by those with the power and position, despite the proven fact that sermonising is a poor way to teach, make disciples or bring about transformation. But controlling sermonising goes a long way to keeping a congregation passive and acquiescent.

Sermonising was once necessary, when few people were literate, and before the days of the internet, but now information is readily available via podcast, video, website and blog. Younger people in particular are well able to research topics of interest on the internet, and sometimes they know more than their pastors on topics they have researched. Basing teaching and discipleship on sermons infers that lay people cannot or won’t learn for themselves, and need to be continually reminded of the same truths, sometimes for a lifetime. But still the practice persists, largely, I believe, because it is what pastors are trained to do, it builds their self esteem and control, and gives the illusion of efficiency.

It can suit the congregation also. Religion is almost universal in human culture, and seems to satisfy the human need for transcendence, assurance and comfort in the face of tragedy and our mortality. But it can sometimes be onerous to perform the required religious duties to satisfy God, whether that be participating in a ritual or learning doctrine, and it is easier for some to out-source their religious duties to the professionals.

We can see politics going the same way. The US already has a Presidential system where one man (and so far it has always been a man) has enormous power. The Westminster system in place in most other English speaking countries curtails the leader’s power, in theory at least, but politics in these countries is becoming more presidential too. I think the church is going the same way. But Jesus is supposed to be our President, ruling via the Holy Spirit living in each believer.

Doing too much

It is often reported that pastors take on too much, and burnout is a common problem for clergy. Sometimes lay people are clamouring to do more, but other times there are too few volunteers, and so staff have to take up the slack. Sometimes, for example with pastoral visiting, some laypeople demand that the pastor do the visiting rather than a trained volunteer.

But in many churches, the system works with staff doing more than their fair share of work, especially the more “religious” or controlling work, such as preaching, officiating at rituals and planning. In some churches, the staff do almost everything, even cleaning up, locking up and office work.

Pastors may say they wish it wasn’t so, but lay volunteers are not committed enough. But if pastors control the teaching, then either they are not teaching discipleship in a way that leads to commitment, or else preaching isn’t an effective method of building committed church members. Preaching tends to build passive people, and passive people don’t volunteer so much.

Further, if leaders control all the decision-making, laypeople are less likely to volunteer. They may not have the same vision as the staff, they may not have the same beliefs or values, and they may want to try different approaches and priorities than the staff have decided on. No-one has all the gifts, so ignoring the leadership, visionary, management or practical skills of the congregation when making decisions is unlikely to end well.

I see a particular issue in relating to the outside community via evangelism or service. Pastors tend to spend a fair bit of time with fellow pastors, staff and church members. When they do mix in the secular community, many people will treat them slightly differently because they are religious professionals. So they will often have far less of an idea of the concerns, values and interests of the secular community and be less able to converse meaningfully with them than laypeople who live and work every day with non-believers.

The cult of celebrity

Perhaps the worst example of non-servant leadership is when a church leader becomes a celebrity within the christian community, and sometimes even in the wider community. The church can become “Pastor X’s church” when of course, in reality, it is Jesus’ church.

Celebrities can get away with much more than the rest of us, in terms of being opinionated, autocratic or predatory, for most people refuse to see the faults of their idols, and there are few who are able to hold them to account. The christian world is littered with the damage caused by some of these celebrity pastors.

The way forward

It seems clear to me that churches have moved a long way from the ideal of servant leadership expressed so definitely by Jesus. Many leaders are servant-natured, but the system doesn’t always allow them to lead that way. Some churches are too big to be led in any other way but like a corporation. And doubtless the busyness of laypeople requires more staff to carry the work forwards than used to be the case, and affluence often allows this.

But we have lost a lot – often a sense of community and working together as a body, often the opportunity for laypeople’s gifts to be exercised, sometimes the health or marriages of overworked staff.

Here are a few thoughts.

Many hands

It is a truism that the more people involved in a task, the less work for any individual. Most management advice websites I checked out gave empowering and developing teams as one of the essentials of good leadership. And it is scriptural too.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”

Ephesians 4:11-12

Priority must be given to equipping, empowering and giving more freedom to gifted laypeople. If pastors do their job well, Jeremiah’s prophecy might be fulfilled and ministry into the community multiplied.

Meaningful work

Doing meaningful volunteer work is one of the keys to wellbeing. Laypeople can do much more than mow lawns and usher.

Tony Campolo once said that youth is made for heroism. But adults want to be heroic in a good cause too. Give them more opportunity!

Inclusive structures

Most pastors are trained in Bible, doctrine and/or pastoral care. Not so many have skills and training in management, strategic planning, community development, financial planning, logistics and team building. But many in their congregations have exactly these skills, often developed and honed in a business or government agency environment.

And it’s not only training, but gifts. Too often Senior pastors appoint staff and lay leaders in their own image. Some pastors seem to think that everyone is like them, or should be like them. But teaching oriented pastors need to know that some people are more “worship” oriented, and they need leaders with that gift. Inspirational leaders generally need managers and organisers to support their vision. And so on.

Gifted laypeople are a gift from God that is often under-used. A Senior Pastor was recently heard to say “we have so many gifted people in our congregation but we don’t know how to use them all”. But there were surely people in that congregation whose jobs entailed them knowing how to use people’s skills together to get a job done. So why weren’t they being utilised?

I know of one church where the senior leadership group has only one clergyman on it – the Senior Pastor who is a gifted visionary leader. The rest of this senior leadership group are professionals with management and planning skills, while the remainder of the staff are on a subsidiary body that uses their skills.

Less control

There is obviously a balance between freedom and control, but I feel the balance is often too much tipped towards control. Jesus seemed to be more relaxed. He sent out teams with little oversight and he cautioned his disciples from trying to control people acting in Jesus’ name but not from their group (Mark 9:38-39).

It is easier to restrain a fanatic than revive a corpse, as the saying goes. Giving laypeople more freedom and being less controlling shows trust and invites responsibility and initiative. Laypeople are just as trustworthy as clergy.

Transformational leadership

A leader who is a servant will want to ensure that the congregation is well equipped and motivated, so everyone can play their part in the church’s mission. This requires transformational leadership, which involves inspiring the congregation to commit to a shared vision and goals for the church, challenging them to be innovative problem solvers, and developing their leadership capacity via coaching, mentoring, and provision of both challenge and support.

This approach to leadership requires transformational learning, in which congregations don’t just sit passively while they are told information, but instead are coached by the pastor or teacher as they actively participate in:

  • learning together through new shared experiences, facing and resolving problems and developing a future vision;
  • challenges which assist in personal development; and
  • an emphasis on using new knowledge and experiences to engage actively in the mission of the church.

It goes without saying that this would be a radical shift for pastors and congregations alike, but one which secular educators have been working through for decades now.

Not so academic

Ministerial training is very academic, and ministers in a given denomination all tend to be trained in a similar way. In many cases it Bible knowledge and preaching are their main emphases.

It would help if ministers were trained and equipped in a wider range of skills and characteristics:

  • in transformational teaching (so they really know how to equip and inspire their congregations rather than just preach at them),
  • in character as well as knowledge (so they are willing to be servant-leaders),
  • in people management and team building (so they can better equip the laypeople),
  • in management, visioning and strategic planning, and
  • in the areas of their particular gifts.

It isn’t necessary for all pastors to have all these abilities (in fact it would be very unlikely that one person could do all this), but it is desirable that church leadership teams, whether lay or clergy, include these abilities. And for this to happen, Senior Pastors need to know enough to be aware of what is needed. For some clergy, this may require high level academic qualifications, but this would probably be the exception.

Smaller churches and missional communities

Studies show that creating a new church, or better still, a new missional community, will generally lead to more growth than increasing the size of the existing church. Growing a bigger church will also have the effect of increasing the separation of the pastor and staff from the congregation.

In most situations, a servant leader will therefore resist the temptation to grow a bigger church where they will build a reputation by leading and teaching a larger number of people, in favour of diversifying, by training and equipping entrepreneurial leaders who can establish new missional communities more suited to the culture around them.

Led by the Spirit

All christian living and mission should be guided by the Holy Spirit. And we see in the New Testament that so often the guidance of the Spirit came through the group, not just through the individual (e.g. Acts 13:1-3, Acts 15:32, 1 Corinthians 14:29).

A servant leader will share decision-making with other mature christians, and be open to correction and guidance from others.

Where the rubber hits the road

Not all the above ideas will apply in every situation, and I don’t suppose everything I have suggested is right. But you’ll find secular versions of many of the above points on websites which list the characteristics of good leadership.

So I think there can be little doubt that we have a long way to go for leaders to be servants in the way that Jesus taught and demonstrated, and which modern management teaches – and to even be willing to change.

I can’t believe Jesus would want it to come to where we are now, and somehow, we need to mature and change.

Graphic: Free Bible Images

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  1. This is a very succinct analysis of many traditional American churches. You also posit doable solutions. This article should be shared more widely and let this seed begin to turn around the business model of congregations to one of service.

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