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.

4 responses to “Leadership for a Struggling Church

  1. Rex, I think the CofC has generally failed to recognize there is a difference between organizational leadership and spiritual leadership. And this common failure has been to our detriment, on the whole.

    Most congregations are, in fact, non-profit organizations. However, because our “tie” is spiritual, at its source, we tend to say that spiritual leadership is sufficient for every situation.

    In theory, that may be true, but in practice, it does not seem to be.

    I’m an advocate for organizational leadership, which is separate from the spiritual leadership. I freely admit, there are times, when it’s fair to say these needs overlap. But a lot of the time, they function on completely separate levels.

    And, I see no evidence from the Text or other history that suggests the way congregations manifest themselves today, is what God wanted.

    • Good thoughts. I don’t think we need necessarily to make an either/or between organizational leadership and spiritual leadership. Any ways, I think the biggest problem with leadership in the CofCs is that we’ve assumed that as long as we have ministers, elders, and deacons (which is assumed to be the monolithic biblical form) then everything else would work out correctly. That is, we have started with the question of “form” rather than “function” when I believe it should be the other way around.

  2. The first thing you have to consider is why you chose those people for leadership. Was it because they were genuinely good? Or did the men just have the requisite wife and two or more children? I tend to agree with elders working on religious matters with the ministers and a board and committees (no marital or parental questions asked) with term limits to manage everything else. There are many aspects of the churches that are non-profit businesses, e.g. HR, physical plant, finance, legal.

    One of the problems is that deacon and elder selection has a fairly low scriptural bar. Now that is not supposed to be the maximum but a minimum. However, churches which are having elder selection will ask if anyone has a scriptural objection. That leaves out any gut feelings and just bad vibes, which elders will likely use to hire ministers. Most elderships pick people just like them when more are needed and are thus self perpetuating.

    The saddest part is when deacons are put over programs about which they know nothing. They can then reverse anyone with competence who is not a deacon because of marital or parental status. What happens then is disgust by those who did not get married at young ages or don’t yet have children or are the wrong gender yet are competent otherwise. We step back and say “let’s see you do such a great job” and then when you fail, we say either “surely having the wife and children would make you competent” or “you met the requirements and so can run the program into the ground and no one will get upset with you.” And then there were fewer church members.

    Also, elders tend to put most of their time into HR and building issues leaving little time for spiritual matters. Very few people have ever seen elders teach the faith or do anything like that. I am not saying it is never done, but it is rare.

  3. Just seeing if comments show up immediately or not. My earlier one may be waiting approval or disappeared.

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