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Church leadership follies

Each generation has had and will have their own ideas of what a good leader is for the church.

Those views will be shaped by their larger culture and their local subculture. How that shaping happens is almost invisible to those who are shaped, because to them it is ‘normal.’

For example, I have served in an area where if you had once gone bankrupt you would not ever be nominated as a Deacon, regardless of the reason for the bankruptcy. Probably at some time in the past a person who was a poor manager of finances went bankrupt and so that may (or may not) have been a reason to exclude them, but now it had become an ‘unwritten’ assumption. Just last week, visiting my old home church in New Westminster as part of the worship conference I attended, I saw that a man was now a deacon who a few decades ago effectively organized and ran the whole ‘boat people’ ministry. As Deacons we had tried to get him nominated as a Deacon, but back many years before he had been divorced, and so, regardless of the Deacon-like ministry he was leading and effective at, he would not receive the endorsement of council as a deacon. I also saw again another man would get nominated regularly, but when the vote (as was done in those days) was tallied, he was never voted in. Yet this man (I only learned this later) as a volunteer, visited anyone who needed a visit (anyone!) in the nearby hospital, and led chapels and more.  He did Elders/Deacons work. But because he stuttered when he asked good hard questions at congregational meetings he was never ‘approved’ as an Elder. I also had a man in one of my congregations who was a tremendous Elder/Evangelist. Even though the congregation was small and I was informed of hospitalizations and illnesses in good time, this man would very often have visited already by the time I got there. Yet, each season, he refused to be nominated. He kept doing Elders work, without the title.  

These experiences have helped me learn to look for those who are already doing the work if Elders and Deacons already or who have the passion and qualities to do so as I prayerfully think about nominations. In some ways I also began to see some of those I just mentioned above as ‘better off’ because they were not hindered by the responsibilities of meetings and administrative tasks and were free to do Elder and Deacon ministries.  In fact, at times I thought maybe they were better Elders and Deacons than the ‘elected’ ones…

Over time we sometimes begin to see the influence of mistaken thinking and we make corrections. For instance, many churches, like you, have moved to mixed system of selection that takes some of the ‘popularity contest’ factors out. I have seen a lot of good come from this change.

Having a mistaken idea of what a leader is and then selecting them according to that idea can lead a church into stagnation or worse problems than that. A direction I have seen as a dangerous one is the idea of a chairperson of council acting as a CEO. I had a 6 month contract terminated a month early by such a person in one church. He ‘hired’ me in the first phone conversation we had. When I asked “Don’t you need to consult with the council or Elders?” He said “No, they’ll approve.” I should have become cautious, but I needed the work back in 2007, so I accepted. Well, it turned out that the rest of council loved it that this former military man was being decisive for them and all they had to do was rubber stamp his decisions when they had a meeting. Folks, that is NOT the Reformed way, though it can be efficient.

Most often, when I have seen the selection of new officeholders and other leaders go off track or give offtrack outcomes, I think I have been able to track that back to one of the following causes:

1. Using the leadership criteria of the Kingdoms of this World to guide the selection process.

2. “Warm body” or “empty chair” thinking:

3. Agenda

I will flesh each one out a bit and give the beginnings of a countering approach.

1. Leadership in the Kingdoms of this World, which we’ve looked at a bit when I preached on the Kingdom of God, looks more like Pharaoh and Herod than it is like Jesus. So you can imagine then a church becoming like Egypt in it’s operation if such leaders are in place. It loves power, decisiveness, ‘getting things done regardless’ and it will often manipulate to get things going that way. The Kingdom of God has a radically different approach. It was founded by a leader who died so others could be part of the Kingdom. It’s leader relied on God’s spiritual power instead of earthly might and means. It’s leader washed the feet of those he led, and he told them that if they could not accept that then they could not learn to be leaders in the Kingdom of God. It’s leaders will show fruit from the Spirit at work in them. That fruit often makes them seem useless and weak to the Kingdom of this World’s rules.

2. “Warm body” or “empty chair that needs filling” thinking sees a leadership spot that is open and almost panics to get a body in that chair, without much thought to ability, calling or gifting of that person. There is an ‘anxiety’ until the spot is filled, and then a belief that the church is ‘whole’ again. Again and again I’ve seen this cause all sorts of problems. Most often problems of things not getting done on the one hand, or getting done roughshod and without consultation on the other. I’ve seen people who accepted sitting in the leadership position that was empty be very very miserable in it. Instead, I firmly believe sometimes leadership positions should be left open, or even ministries closed down until a suitably impassioned and gifted leader is found. This even happens with calling pastors (I call that “warm body in the pulpit” thinking) with unhappy results.

3. I have also seen problems arise when for example, a “more progressive” (whatever that means) branch of the church actively nominates people who agree with their view — say for example they want the parkinglot paved (to try pick a fairly innocent issue) — so that they can ‘get their agenda accomplished.’ Again, spiritual, emotional, qualifications in such cases are often completely ignored to get the agenda moving forward. Truly, leadership nominees should be picked on their maturity, spiritually particularly, but also emotionally, and not for their ability to support an ‘agenda.’ The main driving agenda for any church leader should be a humility before God’s agenda, and a willingness to flex even from their own preferences to follow that agenda alone.

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