Category Archives: Leadership

When Preaching Fails

One of the books I’m reading for my upcoming class is a book that my teachers, David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, wrote titled Prodigal Christianity. One of the stories they tell in the book is about watching this street preacher stand for the truth (as he understand it) with boldness as he preaches, only to be rejected by the people he is preaching at. So the authors make this very good point:

“We acknowledge the need for grounding in truth, but when we are too quick to make bold pronouncements, we compromise our ability to witness because we have not truly entered into the cultural world to be with people: to listen to, seek God with, an learn from those with to whom we are witnessing” (p. 53).

Thanks to another preacher, John Dobbs, here’s a video of some other preacher that helps illustrate their point:

Similar to Fitch and Holsclaw, my friend Fred Liggen says that leadership requires listening, learning, and loving. He’s right. They’re right. Before were can lead others some place, which is what preaching seeks to do, we must listen to them, learn from them, and love them.

For Ministers: Serving With An Assumption of Grace

Every Christian is a human, including elders and ministers. All are redeemed but all are still being refined and made into the image of Christ.

With that being said, let’s acknowledge that there are some very bad elders just as there are some very bad ministers. I’m talking about people who are very unethical and even malicious in their treatment of others. However, in my experience, this is the exception rather than the norm.

In fact, in my experience, most church leaders mean well and intend to do well. However, like everyone else, every church leader has faults and weaknesses too. That includes me too. Realizing this has become very freeing because it has allowed me to forgive and move on. I’ve learned to minister with an assumption of grace towards others, including other church leaders. That is, I don’t expect other church leaders (e.g., elders) to be Jesus, I expect them to be themselves and I have already forgiven them for that. I hope they will forgive me for being myself too.

This is freeing as it allows me, as a minister and church leader, to serve my church with grace because I know that I am in as much need of grace as they are. Yes… our churches will disappoint us from time to time. But as difficult as the disappoint will be at times, learning to minister with an assumption of grace will allow us to serve with joy even in the difficult moments.

May the grace of God in Christ and in the power of the Spirit be upon us all!

Ministry Leadership: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

You’ve heard it said that leadership is influence and the ability to influence. There’s a lot of truth to that, especially when you serve among a church or any other organization where leaders are dependent upon volunteers. That begs the question of how a person acquires this ability to influence others?

There are likely a variety of factors that contribute to a person gains the ability to influence. Position, charisma, and expertise come to mind. In ministry, if one has good experience and a solid theological education to go along with a very engaging personality that exudes with vision and decisiveness then that minister likely some ability for influence. But don’t be fooled! Relying solely on position, charisma, and expertise has limitations that will become apparent sooner than later (as almost every President discovers). Also, reliance upon position, charisma, and expertise can easily become repressive, requiring more manipulation than influence, creating a toxic culture.

Another asset in gaining the ability to influence is character. People are willing to listen and follow a person who consistently demonstrates a virtuous life. This includes the way any would be leader treats other people, including his/her own family. For ministers, especially those who regularly preach and teach, character also includes demonstrating trustworthiness with scripture . . . showing people that you will preach and teach healthy doctrine. So character is very important and it is also important to remember that leaders can spend years growing a healthy tree and cut that tree down with one very unwise move (be thankful for the mercy that God often shows towards are mistakes that have not undone us!).

Beyond position, charisma, and expertise, and beyond character is one other attribute that will allow those whom God has called to serve in ministry to gain the ability to influence. This attribute is what I’ll call blood, sweat, and tears. The church is a community of Christians and as such, Christians are to bear the burdens of each other (cf. Gal 6:2). Whether it is sitting in the hospital visiting room with a family whose child has just been air-lifted to the trauma center, helping a family move from one house to another, or something as seemingly mundane as just picking up the telephone to call and say “Hi!”, you are engaging and sharing in real life with the people of the church . . . sometimes helping them bear a real heavy burden. That is, you’re showing your willingness to bleed, sweat, and shed tears with them.

When a leader is willing to share blood, sweat, and tears with the people, then they earn the currency to influence. This is, I believe, an important yet somewhat underrated aspect of leadership that is seen in everyone from Jesus and the Apostle Paul to more contemporary leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. So also should it be among ministers, elders, and other church leaders. So if your a minister or serving in some other capacity of church leadership, let me encourage you to look for opportunities where you can share some blood, sweat, and tears with your church!

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

What If Our Churches…?

Maybe it’s time to admit that we’re broken! As Christians, we live in a culture that appears increasingly secular and uninterested in the gospel our churches have to offer… and maybe we just don’t have as much of that gospel to offer as we would like to believe.

Yesterday I posted an article titled Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t… It was a response to an article titled Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church in which the Christians involved in the study seemed to cast blame on their church as to why they’re not participating. My post was intended to counter that blame because it is easy for Christians who are not involved in the ministry of their church to just place the blame on their church, when in fact they are part of the problem.

But the truth is that yesterday’s post does little to nothing in terms of offering a better way forward. So it’s time to shift the conversation back to Jesus.

A Different Way!

Do we know how to follow Jesus? Learning to follow Jesus is where we need to begin. After all, it is the invitation Jesus extends us. After commanding us to “repent and believe the gospel,” he invites us to embrace the challenge of being his disciple saying, “Follow me…” (Mk. 1:14, 17).

Now we can point the blame at each other for the problems facing our churches. Church leaders, like myself, can say it’s the fault of members who want to just sit in worship as consumers attempting to feed an appetite that will never be satisfied. Likewise, church members can blame the leadership for the lack of vision and courage as they keep trying to pour new wine into old wineskins in order to avoid upsetting the status quo too much. Ministers can blame the elders, who blame the deacons, who blame the ministers… and round and round we go.

But really, what good is blaming one another doing? I don’t recall reading any “one another” passages in the Bible that says we should blame one another.

Perhaps what we need is to take a step or two back and ask ourselves what does it mean to follow Jesus? What would it look like if we followed Jesus together? What would it look like if we change our expectations (repent) of what the entire church stuff is supposed to be and live with anticipation (believe) of seeing God at work (the kingdom of God at hand) as we follow Jesus together? What kind of activities would we then do together? What sort of things would we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus again?

Leadership for a Struggling Church

This Sunday I am beginning a new message series with the Columbia Church of Christ titled Leadership in the Local Church. Beyond the need for understanding local church leadership, this series should help the move forward rather than becoming complacent with things as are. But given some of the questions about church leadership that I have encountered as a minister, I want to say a few words about the issue and what a struggling church needs in terms of leadership.

Church and Leadership?

For some time the subject of church leadership has been all the rage among evangelical churches. Some might say the issue has become an obsession among certain pastors. The interest has yielded both a plethora of books on the subject as well as numerous conferences. Though I am painting with a very broad stroke here, much of the conversation has focused on incorporating insights and the practices of corporate business models. The pastor or minister became the “Senior Minister” acting as the church CEO with associate ministers and assistants carrying out specific ministry responsibilities (functioning as support staff) and a board of elders providing administrative oversight (functioning like a board of directors). While the Churches of Christ have not taken this approach as far as some other evangelical churches have, the corporate business model has  increasingly become operative to carrying degrees.

In the last few years as the missional church conversation gained more traction, there has been some push back on the obsession with church leadership. To a certain extent, this has been necessary. If we take the scriptures seriously in the way we think about church, then our construal of church leadership is amiss when corporate business models–rather than the gospel–define what local church leadership is. Some seem to be pushing back even more, suggesting that talk about leadership altogether is wrong. However, in my view, that is too much of an over-reaction. The local church is always an organization or people brought together by God for life and mission and like any organization of people, a local church community needs leadership.

What Sort of Leadership?

The question is what sort of leadership is necessary for a local church? This is part of the question I hope to begin answering in this message series on church leadership. Yet, I want to say up front that the sort of leadership needed is above all mission-oriented and Christ-formed. Church leadership is necessary so  that the local church may live as a participants in the mission of God and this requires that leadership functions in the way of the crucified Christ who came to serve, rather than be served. Leadership is about being present with people showing them by example and service how to journey on mission with God. So even as we read key texts from scripture on the responsibilities of ministers, elders, etc…, we read through the lens of the gospel itself.

Yet there is more we must consider when asking about the sort of leadership necessary for a local church. That is because every local church is set within its own context and therefore the form of leadership must fit within the context we find ourselves in. When it comes to form, all local leadership is contextual leadership. One size does not fit all and having the “biblical” form (the form of church leadership in the New Testament is far from monolithic) does not automatically translate into a healthy functioning leadership. The struggling (and often smaller) churches today must remember that they are neither the church in Ephesus or Crete that Paul had in mind when writing the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus nor are they the latest and most trendiest mega-church. All churches must take their own context into consideration as they think through leadership issues.

Where To Begin

Having said all that, thinking constructively about leadership in the local church begins by taking the scriptures seriously as well as taking serious the mission of God and the life we are called to follow Christ in. But the aim should not be the reduplication of the form per se of any church in the first century, sixteenth century, or twenty-first century. Instead the interest is helping construct leadership that contextually fits with the church in its own context so that it may live as a participant in the mission of God, wherever that may lead.

Church Leaders and Spiritual Responsibility

When talking of church leadership, the discussion of “spiritual authority” usually comes to mind. It’s the question of what leadership roles does the church have and what authority do those roles have.

Despite the overemphasis on leadership in some Christian circles and the emerging pushback, there is validity to the discussion of spiritually authority and church leadership. We are told in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” The text never specifies who these leaders are, just that the church must “obey” them and “submit” to them. This assumes a high degree of authority without saying a word about how the leaders exercise this authority. So how is such authority exercised by leaders of the church? Such a question is important but it gains even more importance whenever we think of stories where leaders have acted with unhealthy authority, causing great harm.

Jesus Shaped Leadership…

As one who believes that we must read all scripture in light of Jesus, the self-sacrificial servant lifestyle of Jesus is the first hint at how leaders must exercise authority. Jesus was bold and decisive, unwilling to compromise his convictions, but he was also a servant who never forced anyone to act against their own free will. In fact, he even washed the feet of the one who betrayed him and those who deserted him when he was arrested and crucified.

In Matthew 20:20-28 there’s a story about the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit at his right hand. Apparently, these two courageous boys put their mommy up to this because Jesus responded to them, telling them that they were clueless about what they were asking and then asking them if they could drink the same cup as Jesus. But this upset the other ten disciples who became angry, so Jesus responds in vv. 25-28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The key words in this text are “not so” and “just as,” which specifies how Jesus his disciples to exercise spiritual authority.* Instead of a top-down dictating authority, Jesus insists that spiritual authority must come from the act of becoming a servant.

Spiritual Authority Responsibility?

The life of Jesus and his teaching about becoming a servant should then form the basis for how the leaders mentioned in Hebrews 13 are to exercise authority. That is because within the kingdom of God, all church leaders are followers of Jesus first. The authority of church leaders comes from service, not demand. Consequently, because of some top-down understandings of authority present in our own culture, I think we may be better off talking about spiritual responsibility instead of spiritual authority.

In this regards, the church has leaders with certain responsibility which the church must recognize. In exercising responsibility, the leaders are guiding the church towards greater participation in the mission of God. Yet because leadership responsibility is exercised from the role of a servant — as followers of Jesus — church leaders go first where they want to lead others. Put another way, such servant leaders will never ask others to do what they themselves are unwilling to do.

One Caveat…

I might be wrong on some of what I’m saying or over-simplifying the issue a bit, as I’m more so just thinking out loud as I work through my own questions about church leadership. However, over my lifetime I have known of stories involving both elders and ministers who did much harm. Yet I’ve never heard of leaders doing harm among a church because they were trying to lead like Jesus, as self-sacrificial servants.

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* This insight comes from, Randy Willingham, a church consultant and ministry professor at Harding University.