On Christian Deconstruction and Social Media

A phrase that’s become popular to describe…well, that’s a problem…it’s a phrase or term that is used to describe many similar things that really aren’t the same thing. So any given conversation about “Deconstruction” could involve hard, academic work in which false information is replaced by true information or it might also be used to describe a person’s experience of disenchantment with Faith after watching a YouTube video.

And all kinds of conglomerations of information in between those two.

In the context of this post, it doesn’t matter where people are on that spectrum. People of all ages are finding themselves “deconstructing” faith in light of information – both reliable and unreliable – in ever increasing numbers because, I want to suggest, of the magic of Social Media.

Podcasts, blog posts, online articles, YouTube videos, TikTok videos…an ever increasing list of popular methods of disseminating narratives and information…have accelerated an epistemological crisis. And this crisis is a root cause, I’m suggesting, of the current state of our deconstruction. It didn’t start the fire. I’ve been deconstructing since I graduated from Bible College and started reading academic work we weren’t exposed to in my undergrad education – long, long before Al Gore dreamed up the interwebs.

Some wouldn’t even call the process that I’ve gone through, “deconstruction.” The first term I ever came across that captured my imagination and made sense of what I was experiencing was simply, “unlearning.” But often when people talk about “deconstruction” they are not only replacing “alternative facts,” they are also talking about the measure of their experience against the reality of their evangelical upbringing. Even while I was in Bible College there was a struggle to reconcile the things we said about relationships in the church with the reality of the relationships we were experiencing in the church. That cognitive dissonance was enough for several of my Bible College friends to abandon faith.

And 35 years later, the amount of abuse that seems to have been baked in to the evangelical system – abuses of power, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, financial scams, spousal abuse, child abuse – and the coverup of all the above, once whispered about is now the topic of six new podcast series and one new specialty cable series.

The phenomena of social media has provided an incredible opportunity for everyone to get a front row seat and private tutorial on some of the best of Christian scholarship and academics. It’s also made equal or greater space for piles and piles of “fake news.” If your confirmation bias is itching, there are dozens or even hundreds of possible social media outlets that will scratch that for you. Are you pretty sure the “Libtards” are witches in league with Satan who eat human baby embryos during weekly bridge club meetings? There’s a TikTok for that and maybe a YouTube channel or two as well. Want to hear someone “spill the tea” on their time in MegaChurch X and how horrible it was? There are a hundred new TikToks and 8 new podcasts.

The challenge is that some solid academic, data based, scholarship based, and still faith based, information is now accessible right from the academic source now without the filter of a denomination or local pastor who have “protected” people in the past from information that might trouble their faith. Like the Bibles that used to be chained up that protestant Bible College learned about in church history class, information that practitioners felt was too dangerous for normal people to have to process – because we never helped people learn to process – was put on the high shelves away from “the kids.” But now a 3 minute video, with very little context and little opportunity to process, is coming directly to your phone every few minutes. Not just the Dan Brown, Davinci Code nonsense, but excellent, accurate scholarship that is supported by facts and data.

And when people feel like those who know things have been keeping those things from the people who want to know things – they don’t react with warm gratitude and increased feelings of trust and respect.

We are in an age of epistemological crisis and it won’t be well met by people in power shouting, “trust us!”

“Me too!” was the galvanizing cry of survivors of abuse that empowered thousands to come forward with their own stories of abuse. “Church too!” was the muffled cry that escaped the gravity of evangelical church culture to air our dirty laundry as well. As more people tell their stories the less credible evangelical culture and leaders become – not because of the stories, because the stories are everywhere – but because our typical response is to shame and blame the accusers and story tellers even as our self-defense rhetoric exposes our brokenness.

As a pastor of an evangelical church within and evangelical system, I can tell you that one of the greatest pressures we face – as pastors – is that people of a certain age crave certainty. Despite belonging to something we say is “by faith” we want to know and we want guarantees. Recently I saw a TikTok in which a young, evangelical pastor was musing about theologians questioning what the Bible actually says about hell (not much btw). This earnest young man asked, “Why would anyone become a Christian if there was no hell?” Actually, I imagine by the way he said it he would capitalize that, “Hell.” Bless his heart. Faith isn’t a matter of coercion, it’s running to someone, not running a way from some thing. “But if I can’t believe that YouTube video about the man who visited hell in a vision and was raped by demons, can I believe any of this is real?” The path to church growth among people of a certain age is certainty. Offer it. Guarantee it. But that same certainty is, to people of another age, repugnant. I don’t mean a lack of knowledge or belief or conviction but rather that certainty that believes it has all the answers and that all the questions have answers and there is no room in faith for doubt. That’s what makes a lot of people embrace deconstruction.

So let me eject this post onto the interwebs. Not as an answer but just as a notification. We’re in an epistemological crisis.

The Church as Other

Eugene Peterson once wrote a kind, personal response to a letter I had written to him, early in my story of being a pastor, and encouraged me to remember that my primary role in this life was to be subversive. I’m here to be other. That the Church and all who make her up are supposed to be other, living subversively in Babylon, offering an alternative narrative to Empire – not by our preaching but in our living.

35 (ish) years later, I think about what Peterson wrote. A lot.

I think over the last 4 decades and feel deep discouragement at the way the evangelical church of which I am still a part, has leaned into consumerism and now has flirted hard enough with nationalism that we’ve lost our virginity.

It’s as if we assessed things that Randall Balmer details in Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory and determined that the proverb, “if you can’t beat them, join them” is inspired wisdom. We criticize the syncretism in the distant history of the Roman Catholic church and cite the ways in which their absorption of pagan cultures baptized pagan practices but then we hold patriotic fourth of July celebrations in our spaces previously dedicated to the veneration and worship of God alone. We hardly pause when the icons of a nation are given sacred status and documents of the Empire are called “inspired” in the same way previously reserved for Scripture.

We platform bullies who lead our churches and protect them from criticism “for the sake of the kingdom work” and for the “souls being saved.” While bodies pile up under and behind the bully driven bus, we consider these acceptable losses as long as we aren’t one of those bodies and as long as we perceive that our church or movement or denomination is growing.

We promote these leaders no matter how much they act as kings and bosses despite the words of Jesus that tell us this is not how the kingdom comes into the world. And we are so committed to our preferences that we ignore what Jesus tells us about how the Church is supposed to be in the world and we act like the Beatitudes are either for the next life or just the fever dream of a Messiah that didn’t understand how life really works.

We embrace being driven when we have always been called to be led by the Spirit.

We accept each other’s lies and alternative facts even while we worship the One who associated himself exclusively with the truth.

We build systems around the popular notion that the ends justify the means even as we use the name of the One who said that the means defines the ends.

Despite claiming to follow and honor the One who died for ALL, we continually dismiss or exclude each other for trying to apply that love in the same way. We wink at our list of preferred sins and we shake our fingers at those we have deemed to put on the very short list of things we would NEVER do.

We’re neither hot enough to make a good cup of tea or cold enough to quench a thirsty throat. We keep staking out the space in the middle that is always in the direction in which the wind is blowing. We make bold, provocative statements that put us firmly in the middle of the people we want to be like while othering those Jesus came seeking.

Somewhere along our story we gave up our birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, we traded being Other for being Accepted and we gave up the way of the Lamb in favor of the way that gets things done. May God have mercy on us all.

Gossip, Control and Spiritual Abuse

There are so many stories.

Almost every week a new podcast, website or TikTok channel launches that features a person, couple or group of people who have survived an abusive church/leader situation.

I don’t think that the abusive system or abusive leadership is new but the opportunity for survivors to share their stories and to do so publicly in a way that is not easily shut down, is new.

One of the go-to practices of spiritually abusive leaders and systems is to attack people who tell their story. Rather than calling people sharing their own story “testimony,” it’s called “gossip.” They make it a sin to listen to people’s stories and a sin to share your own story. Strangely, these leaders and systems often don’t define their own storytelling as “gossip” as they carry out ad hominem attacks on those calling out their behavior or the abusive practices of the system.

Telling people what happened to you is not gossip. Gossip is when you tell people things about other people and events about which you have no personal knowledge or experience. If my granddaughter comes home and tells me that her teacher yelled at her in class and called her, “stupid,” I don’t scold her for being a gossip, I head to the school for a face to face meeting with the teacher and an administrator.

In sixth grade I had a teacher who bullied me. I don’t know why he chose me to dislike but he blamed me for everything I never did. It was very weird. One day, someone in our class opened up a bottle of nail polish and the unmistakable smell filled the room. “Metzger!” my teacher yelled, “did you just open a bottle of nail polish?!” It wasn’t my practice at the time to paint my nails or to carry nail polish to school. By itself, not that big of a deal but as 1 of 100 instances of being called out for or criticized for things I had nothing to do with, it was wearing my little sixth grade spirit down.

In my English class at that time, we were made to keep a daily journal. That day, I journaled about what that teacher was doing and about my feelings of being picked on by that teacher with specific examples.

Handing back my graded journal, my English teacher thanked me for my honesty in my journal writing. I thought that was the assignment. About a week later I realized that the teacher who had been picking on me had, for no obvious reason, stopped coming at me. I have no proof, other than the abuse stopping, but I am pretty sure my English teacher spoke to him and told him to stop.

I wasn’t gossiping in my journal, I was telling my story. In that instance, it just happened to be read by someone who could do something about it.

It’s not gossip to tell your story or share your perspective that is based on your own experience. Gossip, is when you tell others stories about which you have no firsthand knowledge, no experience, no primary source.

But people in power, especially Christian people in power, will drop the gossip card to silence you and protect themselves.

Now, I’m a firm believer in Hanlon’s Razor. “Hanlon’s razor is the adage that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. Applied broadly, this principle suggests that when assessing people’s actions, you should not assume that they acted out of a desire to cause harm, as long as there is a reasonable alternative explanation.” I don’t think everyone who does something hurtful is a serial abuser or necessarily wakes up in the morning looking for ways to do harm. Nevertheless, the fact is that people get hurt and hurting people should feel the freedom to share their own story and how they were hurt.

At this point, people in Christian systems will ask, “Before you told your story to others, did you speak to the person who hurt you?” This is a reference to a passage of Scripture in which Matthew has Jesus offering a description, a very Jewish description of how personal disputes can be resolved.

If the offense is systemic, who do you confront? If the offender is insulated from personal contact with you, how does this private meeting take place? Knowing what we know now about abuse, abusers and abuse victims, how are we not compounding the trauma or abuse by requiring the person feeling victimized, oppressed or abused to first go face to face with the one who they feel has done them harm?

What if we carefully read this passage and see that the context is not about a person telling their own story of being abused by a church leader or leadership system and rather it is about a Jesus community working out the process of expelling someone who will no longer be considered a brother or sister? No longer belonging to the community of Jesus followers.

Let me show you what I mean.

In Galatians, we have Paul enscripturating (very publicly!) the story of Peter and Barnabas being bigots at the church potluck. No private discussion, just the story of how he publicly called them out for being stumbling blocks and empowering the Judaizers unhealthy racist system. So people who never had to hear that story – were not involved in that event – get a front seat via Paul’s storytelling. So Paul didn’t feel bound to the Matthew account.

Later, in a letter Paul is said to have written, we read this line, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” I won’t argue from silence that Paul didn’t talk to Demas before printing this, but I will suggest this is Paul blogging about a personal story and airing the dirty laundry that involves other people by name. He’ll go on to drop another name, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done.” Paul isn’t gossiping. He’s telling his story. The Holy Spirit did not inspire him to gossip and we don’t get to say it wasn’t gossip simply because of inspiration. It’s his testimony. It’s his story.

When people behave badly and when broken, abusive systems hurt people, Jesusy people are under no compulsion to maintain our silence for the sake of unity. We’re only as sick as our secrets. Rigorous honesty is the way to healing, not sweeping things under the rug. You have permission from God to tell the story of what has happened to you. You have permission from God to speak truth to power, to confront church leaders who behave badly and to confront systems that harm and abuse individuals or groups of people.

People with power tend to use their power to stay in power and consolidate their power. They will tell those who have a story of abuse, misuse and harm telling their own story is unacceptable. They will insist you have to first go to the individual who you claim did harm (even or especially when the system – which may be victimizing the leader in question as well) before you can tell your story to anyone else and then will control the circumstances of that meeting, insisting on their own criteria, agenda and rules for meeting. They will appeal to unity in a way that always sounds like you need to modify your behavior for the sake of behavior and seldom that they need to modify their own.

You have permission from God to tell your story about the things that have happened to you.

It is not gossip.

When Church Leadership is Broken, chapter 8

The Bible Study Chapter: What does normal look like?

(Links to Intro, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven)

There are a pile of memes about our expectation of pastors. They visually describe the qualities we look for in a pastor and usually are intended to reveal the unrealistic expectations we have for pastors. Back in my Bible College days, a picture that was often posted on classroom bulletin boards and in pastor’s offices was of a man, surrounded by labels, depicting the “perfect” pastor. These were meant to critique the often unreasonable and sometimes contradictory things we’re looking for from pastors.

But what is normal? What should we be able to expect from senior pastors, or pastors in general? Is there any kind of standard we can go by for the way that senior pastors relate to the rest of the Church and particularly the church of which they are a part? Can we pinpoint any expectations that are normal and that at any time and in any place we can feel comfortable and confident that any pastor should conform to these expectations?

In this chapter I want to give you three anchors for the expectations for the role of pastors that we should be able to call “normal.” A baseline. The very lowest and most common rung at which the bar can be set.

First anchor is the message found in Matthew chapters 5 thru 7 along with their companion commentary in Luke, 6. And my big idea is really simple: any pastor should behave like Jesus describes in this passage of Scripture. Not perfectly, but acting with these three chapters as a guide to what normal interaction with saints and sinners looks like. If we can’t aim for this mark as normative and mostly hit it, we’ve decided to move our approach to leadership outside of the Jesus way.

The essential characteristics of a pastor, the normal expectations we should have for them, women and men, in church and in para-church organizations, is that found in the first ten verses of Matthew 5:
those who are poor and realize their need for him,
those who mourn,
those who are humble,
those who hunger and thirst for justice,
those who are merciful,
those whose hearts are pure,
those who work for peace,
those who are persecuted for doing right.

Often, church leaders who behave badly, will pushback, when confronted, and ask you to name the sin(s) they’ve committed. No adultery, no murder, no theft of their neighbor’s oxen and even though you know they are behaving badly and bodies are piling up under the bus, it’s like nailing jello to the wall to come up with their “sin.”

The questions shouldn’t be “which commandment did they break?” As leaders in the Church it is more simple and more basic than that.

Do they display Jesusy character in their interactions with sinners and saints? Do they display humility? Do they indicate they don’t think they’re “all that?” Is their heart set on doing things God’s way? Are their interactions and words full of mercy towards others? Are they working towards peace with people? Do they get in trouble for doing good or are they getting in trouble for being jerks?

Pastors are not exempt from the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount. We aren’t supposed to get a free pass because we’re “visionary leaders” or because being a pastor is hard work. Like any other vocation, we are expected to embody the message of Jesus about the actions and attitudes of those who follow Jesus.

We’re not supposed to harbor anger or belittle people. If we know someone is angry with us or has been hurt by us, we are supposed to go to them, not wait for them to come to us. We’re supposed to go the second mile and turn the other cheek. We’re called to love our friends and love those who live as enemies to us. By the end of Jesus’ message in Matthew, he warns, “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act.” (Mt 7:15,16) Based on the text, this warning was about those who are not living out the words he’s just been detailing – again, you don’t have to violate the top 10 in order to be out of line with the way of Jesus as a leader in the Church.

It is not unreasonable for Christians to expect that their church leaders live up to Jesus message about kingdom living in Matthew, chapters 5-7. Not being “perfect” at it is not an excuse for ignoring it as the standard of what is normal for a person who preaches, teaches, and pastors the Church.

We can also see what “normal” looks like by considering the passages of the New Testament that we consider the “one anothers.” Again, these aren’t passages for us to preach about how others should behave but about all of us are meant to behave in the kingdom towards one another, towards saints and sinners, in the kingdom of God. Pastors and church leaders don’t get a pass on the “one anothers.” These should define our behavior and attitude even more so than those we are called to lead, feed and guard as the flock of God of which we are a part.

There are approximately 59 occurrences of specific “one another” commands teaching us how (and how not) to relate to one another.

Obedience to those commands is an imperative.
They are all things God means for us to do.
They are not suggestions or things to think or pray about.

These form the basis of true Christian community. These are the basic practices of relationship in the kingdom of God. Our ability OR inability to practice these “one anothers” directly impacts our credibility as witnesses of what God has done, is doing and will do in the world.

The following list isn’t exhaustive, I’m suggesting it is normative. This is the low bar. The most basic expectation on the attitude and actions of church leaders.

At the very least we are called to:
Love one another (John 13:34 – This command occurs at least 16 times)
Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10)
Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
Build up one another (Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Be likeminded towards one another (Romans 15:5)
Accept one another (Romans 15:7)
Admonish one another (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
Greet one another (Romans 16:16)
Care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)
Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:2, 32; Colossians 3:13)
Be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13)
Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15, 25)
Be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21, 1 Peter 5:5)
Consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)
Look to the interests of one another (Philippians 2:4)
Bear with one another (Colossians 3:13)
Teach one another (Colossians 3:16)
Comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13)
Stir up [provoke, stimulate] one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24)
Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
Employ the gifts that God has given us for the benefit of one another (1 Peter 4:10)
Clothe yourselves with humility towards one another (1 Peter 5:5)
Pray for one another (James 5:16)
Confess your faults to one another (James 5:16)

Pastors aren’t exempt to any of the above.

Sometimes we can forget these simple standards when our church is being led by charismatic, gregarious, charming leaders who can talk a good talk. We can set aside these standards of kingdom attitudes and actions when a strong leader is pushing to get things done. And when things are going “well” and the church or network is growing and growing and people are being added all the time and money cometh – our usual signs of success – we can put all those things above the “one anothers” and above the sermon on the mount in our list of acceptable behaviors.

The same can happen with the negative commands, the “how not to treat one another” commands in the New Testament:
Do not lie to one another (Colossians 3:9)
Stop passing judgment on one another (Romans 14:13)
If you keep on biting and devouring each other…you’ll be destroyed by each other (Galatians 5:15)
Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:26)
Do not slander one another (James 4:11)
Don’t grumble against each other (James 5:9)

Success becomes a filter through which we view attitudes and actions. We can ignore all the above when things are going well corporately and personally. Even as staff members, we can observed the breakdown of all the above but if things are going well, if our positions are secure and we feel good about our own place in the organization, we can easily overlook or wink at the bad behaviors and attitudes that violate all of the above Scripture. Recent history has informed us that the evangelical commitment to Scripture is apparently easy to set aside if they jeopardize the position and power of those in pastoral roles.

If we’re going to be kingdom people it has to start with us, all of us, especially leadership people, living up to the most basic and simple expectations Jesus has for all of his followers. It’s not wrong for a church goer to expect normal, Jesusy behavior from their pastors and leaders. It’s not too much to expect adherence to these ways of living and being with one another, it is actually normal and we need to normalize it again in a world in which we no longer see this as normal.

If we’re going to reduce things to the lowest bar, the simplest expectations, the most basic expectation that we can agree is a kingdom standard for church leadership, for pastors to live up to, let me suggest these three words, “Do no harm.” Can we get any more basic than that? It seems pretty easy to achieve that.

“Do no harm” doesn’t mean, “don’t upset anyone.” It means, don’t harm people that you are called to protect, look after, nurture and help flourish. Jesus upset loads of people, but he didn’t harm anyone. But today we’re seeing people driven to mental health therapy for mental health collapse because of how they’ve been treated, used and abused by pastors. Staff pastors have resigned positions because of the un-Jesusy way they’ve been treated by senior pastors. Things that would never be acceptable in Corporate America that would create HR nightmares are common occurrences in the Church. There are a multitude of Reddit forums for victims of church abuse perpetrated by a single pastor or systems protecting multiple pastors. Thick reports have been written about large, respected denominations and the abuses perpetrated by pastors/leaders of that denomination – not only perpetrators but also cover ups of the transgressions of those abusers.

There are blogs, podcasts, books and TV documentaries – currently – about pastors who do harm, who have done harm, who are doing harm. This is not an “out there” problem, this is a homegrown, in house problem and it exists because we allow it to exist, we tolerate it and in some cases we embrace it, “for the sake of God’s kingdom.”

Being a jerk is not o.k. And being a jerk is not some immeasurable characteristic. But not everyone gets to see a leader be a jerk. The offensive behaviors are behind closed doors and only other leaders and staff are privy to these out bursts or character defects. That’s why we need to speak up. That’s why we need to tell our stories. That’s why we need to believe each other when we share our stories. That’s why we need to investigate accusations of bad behavior, not as a witch hunt but as the people of God wanting to do things the kingdom way – regardless of how successful we perceive our institution to be.

Church leaders are not exempt from malpractice. And it’s ok to have the expectation that church leaders and pastors will do their best to live up to basic standards for kingdom living, the lowest bar, we read in Matthew, chapters 5-7 and the “one another” passages of the New Testament. You are not being rebellious or factious to expect church leaders to live up to the very basic characteristics of the relational way in which we are supposed to live with one another.

When Church Leadership is Broken, Chapter 7

Church Leaders Behaving Badly

(Links to IntroChapter OneChapter TwoChapter Three, Chapter FourChapter Five, Chapter Six)

What are we supposed to do when a leader or THE leader of your local church or network or denomination behaves badly?

In a perfect world this question would seem like a problem that would be so rare and so far removed from our everyday experience that it’s hard to see why we would have to ask. But this isn’t a perfect world and the experience in our times is that we need to have an answer to this question not for if it happens but for when it happens. It’s depressing to me that I don’t have to think very hard to come up with some concrete, real life examples of church leaders behaving badly. If you’re even slightly aware of news in Churchworld, you can recite examples yourself.

Church leadership, when broken, will create rules and formulas and systems by which they themselves are protected from the consequences of the harm they do. People with power tend to use their power to stay in power. Church leaders, when broken, will use scripture to prevent confrontation and being held accountable for the things they have done. Church leaders, when broken, will use spirituality or fidelity to Jesus and the kingdom of God as leverage against exposure and bringing dark deeds into the light. You might even hear an appeal to all the people who have “accepted Jesus” whose faith will be “harmed” if they find out the person who baptized them was actually a tyrant behind the public persona, or a serial abuser, or a control freak or a manipulative narcissist who treated people as disposal and who would have been long ago fired by a secular organization with a reasonable HR policy.

We have been conditioned in the Church not to air our dirty laundry. Not to say things out loud that might “shipwreck” someone else’s faith. Far worse than the church leader’s bad behavior, we have been led to believe, is exposing that behavior in public. Historically we have shamed the whistleblower and comforted the church leader who behaved badly. This is particularly true when that church leader is well regarded by those who are either like them, who enjoy the results of their work even though we might not like how they get them, or who are enmeshed in the system, or who are codependent or who have simply never been close enough to see the harm the leader has done to others.

Perhaps it’s simply too hard for us to accept that someone we like or from whom we benefit, is capable of doing hurtful or evil things to someone else we know. But our big story in the New Testament affirms this happens.

Sadly, because we are often made more uncomfortable by a confrontation than we are the behavior, including abuse, that we’re oblivious to, we will easily dismiss those who bring charges and accusations or simple complaints. The fastest path for me to feel better about our church and my part in our church is to silence, ignore and/or disbelieve the allegations that have made me feel uncomfortable. And so, like Sgt. Schultz, “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing!”

Hans Christian Anderson told us the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. We might read it as a cautionary tale against confidence men who take advantage of people with their con game – but that’s not the purpose of the story. Anderson reminds us that broken leaders will ensnare people in their illusions and their “version” of reality. Once enough people are in, most adults are not strong enough to resist capitulation to the crowd mind. “No one else is complaining.” We think. “No one else seems to have a problem with this…” we say to ourselves and we go along with things even when a little voice inside of us is screaming that the Emperor is buck naked. Don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. Don’t speak up and create problems when we don’t have any.

Anderson ends his story with these words (translated):

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

…And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

Some people will feel the freedom to see the truth and speak it out but still others, especially those who share in the power of the Emperor, will stay committed to the illusion, the lie, the broken and even abusive system. And usually, the Emperor himself will double down on their story rather than come clean or tells some version of the story that feigns confession but never produces true repentance.

I have been in meetings with people in power and I’ve played the part of the little boy who spoke up. I’ve also been in meetings where I’ve lifted my corner of the Emperor’s invisible train just a little higher when allegations came up. And more times than I would like to admit, I’ve played the Emperor. We are not immune, none of us are immune – our story, in the Church, is that we are susceptible to this gravitational pull – some through pride and some through the sheer power of being enmeshed in a dysfunctional system in which we feel compelled to go along with things we would not ordinarily accept.

Until we don’t.

When you speak up in the Church about leaders behaving badly, the practitioners of truth and lovers of justice, you discover that you often stand alone. Literally, people step away from you in relationship. They might privately say to you, “I’m so glad you spoke up…” but in person they’ll almost act as if they don’t know you. They certainly won’t speak up inside the room. It’s just not in them.

Someone in the group (there’s always at least one of these someones in the group) will “bravely” take the “sage” position and offer a middle ground perspective – “I can kind of see what you’re saying,” they’ll wisely say, “But I also see [our leader’s] perspective and I think from their perspective they are right.” These bold “peacemakers” honestly come by this and shouldn’t be despised, just pitied for the dysfunctional family system they have been a part of makes them painfully uncomfortable with and feel existentially threatened by conflict.

Just don’t look to them for help.

So what are we supposed to do when church leaders behave badly?

Speak up, regardless of who follows, agrees, or stands with you.

Because that’s always the right thing to do.

BUT, and this is important, and I’ve told this to more people than I can remember, count the cost.

Jesus once said that people who’ve lost family and place – their identity in that context – would get it all back in his kingdom -now and later. I would want you to know for sure that speaking up, speaking truth to power in church leadership – no matter how right you are – will cost you. It will cost you your place and your family and it might even feel like it costs you your identity. You will likely lose your place in the local church. Even if and when things come to light that prove your perspective or story to be true, as the boat rocker, the whistle blower, the troublemaker, you will still find yourself on the outside.

Because people intuitively know this, many will never say a thing. Never. Even while the metaphorical house is burning down around them. They just don’t want to be that person.

So what can you do? Count the cost, and speak up anyway. It’s the right thing to do. Always.

Tell your story. What happens to you, telling others what has happened to you is your story. It’s not gossip when it is the story of your experiences, your conversations, your situation. You are telling the truth and that’s what we’re supposed to be about. But people with power will tell you that you telling stories to others about the way they yelled at you, berated you, mocked you or made demands of you is gossip. They are wrong.

They are wrong.

As my friend Matte has said, quoting Anne Lamott, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

Tell people your story. And tell it again. And when you find people who have the same story that you have, tell your stories together. Part of the healing from trauma is found in telling our stories together.

If you’re part of Churchworld you probably have a “But whatta about…” rising up in you at this point.

What about Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 about how we are supposed to handle things like this in the Church?

People with power, people in power, in the Church will often pull out Matthew 18 in conversations like this. We’ll often, in order to use this passage, disregard everything we know about hermeneutics in order to apply this passage of Scripture.

Here’s what it says:

15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. – Matthew 18:15-17

One of the primary rules for understanding the text is always context. What came before this? What comes after this? This passage has a context and that context matters. These thoughts come in the middle of a talk about our relationship with those who reject God’s way. Some are triggers who lead others to sin, some are those who get triggered and wander off to follow sin. The question arises – what do I do when someone directly sins against me without knowing what they’ve done? That is the question Jesus is answering. That is the specific situation these verses are meant to be applied to.

For instance, you might imagine a conversation like this…

ME: hey, what’s up, you look troubled?

FRIEND: yeah, the other day when we were out, I put money on the table to tip our server and I noticed as we left you picked up most of it and put it in your own pocket.

ME: well, I thought you left too much for the tip.

FRIEND: o.k. but that was my choice and you should have said something to me and not just pocketed money I left for someone else.

ME: I only took it to help pay for the check.

FRIEND: dude, it was not the right thing to do, it was not the Jesus thing to do. We need to go back and give that money to the server.

ME: Snowflake! Get over yourself. Your money went to help pay the check, I covered the rest of it, get over yourself.

FRIEND: sigh. Let’s ask a mutual friend to weigh in on this and help us sort this out…

Matthew 18 is NOT about a church leader who comes to your home and tells you that in prayer, God told him you and your spouse were worshipping an idol and you need to show him your financial books. Which you do. Then the church leader notices an $18k profit you made on a recent sale. “There it is,” he says to you, “write a check to the church for this amount and God will forgive you and your business won’t be under a curse anymore.” (yeah, this happened in real life to someone.) Matthew 18 does not apply here, this is extortion. This is evil and an abuse of power. Tell everyone. Call this leader out.

Matthew 18 is NOT about a church leader who meets with a 14 year old girl in his office for private counselling sessions who turns this into an opportunity to satisfy his own perversion and evil. That little 14 year old DOES NOT have to go to the church leader before she can go to the police, or her parents or anyone else in the entire world she wants to go and tell. People in power will use this passage to try to insulate themselves against accountability and try to silence the person reporting them by saying the WAY they did it was wrong.

But even if it was wrong…even if…what they did to that little girl is still sin and wrong and evil and sexual abuse…and if we – you and I – don’t respond to THAT, no matter how a traumatized person reports it and to whom they report it, we are complicit in their evil.

Fortunately, the New Testament helps us out by giving us a real time example of this kind of situation where the inspired writers of the New Testament circumvent this Matthew 18 procedure.

In Galatians 2 we read:

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ – Galatians 2:11-14 NRSVA

Cephas is Peter and when he acts the racist, he gets Barnabas to join is racists ways and Paul calls Peter out, publicly. He doesn’t go to him privately as Matthew 18 describes, not because Matthew 18 hadn’t been written yet, but because that process does not apply to leaders who sin in public, who do the opposite of Jesus’ way, even leading others to do the same – you call them out. Publicly. It doesn’t matter if it’s racist segregation at the potluck or prayers of Christian nationalism from the pulpit or sexual abuse in the pastor’s office – speak up, speak out, tell your story and get other people involved.

Blog it.

Write the book.

Go on the TV news program.

Post it on social media.

Tell your home group.

Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”

Go for it. “For the time has come for judgement to begin with the household of God…”

I understand if you’re unconvinced. That’s a big knot of unlearning to trust me on. Check out these links to do some more reading on your own about Matthew 18 and the mess we’ve made applying it.

Misuse of Matthew 18

Abusing Matthew 18

3 Ways to Wrongly Apply Matthew 18

Matthew 18 and Spiritual Abuse

Our silence is what keeps us sick. Not telling our stories. Not speaking to one another about the hard things. Not confrontation over being treated badly. Not from victims of sexual abuse telling about what happened to them. Whistleblowers are not our enemies and we in the Church, and we who are leaders in the Church, need to stop treating them like they are the enemy. We must stop putting the burden of settling things with the person who feels victimized or wronged or sinned against and put it with the person who did the offense to make amends, confess, repent or seek to understand the person who has something against them.

When church leaders behave badly, the most spiritual thing you can do is speak the truth in love and tell your story. Always.

When Leadership is Broken, Chapter 6

(this is the book I’ve been writing…)

(Links to IntroChapter OneChapter TwoChapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five)

The essential quality that can produce healthy leadership or restore healthy leadership when it’s been broken is character. The absence of character in leadership will make a mess of anything and everything else we might attempt. When character is present in leadership, things can still go sideways but leaders with character will re-orient in the best possible ways. Still, for a church to thrive, leadership not only has to have character, leaders must also have a sense of vocation or calling – a ‘knowing’ that they are doing what God means for them to do and a sense of where they are leading – their TELOS – their raison d’être.

The third ingredient after character and calling that will also make or break a community is, cooperation. Or to say it in simpler terms from our grade school report card, “plays well with others.”

Coming back from a break down or nurturing the kind of leadership that doesn’t create a break down, takes leadership that plays well with others by fostering a sense of belonging, of being seen and heard, and making explicit that each individual’s contributions are valuable and have meaning. Eddie Gibbs writes, “Leadership is about connecting, not controlling.” There’s a vast difference between a partnership and being a part. You can be a partner in producing something or you can be part of a machine being used by a driven leader to accomplish their purposes.

Gibbs describes the benefit of this cooperative, team building approach in leadership, “This process establishes, deepens and reinforces mutual appreciation and lifelong friendships. As the team continue to build trust and understanding, more sensitive issues are discussed openly. At times, even most unexpectedly, conflict between team members actually helps relationships to become symbiotic over time. Where there is trust and mutual appreciation, sharp disagreement germinates new insights.”

There is bound to come some trouble but tension can actually assist a team and provide opportunities that can otherwise be missed.

A team building approach is not the same thing as an approach that involves a staff or roster of volunteers. I’ve seen pastors pit staff and volunteers against each other and solidify their own sense of authority and security by managing disunity among their staff and/or volunteers. They had a team but their team didn’t feel like they were on a team. The cartoon office world of Dilbert illustrates the way in which a leader may have a large staff but no cooperation, no sense of “playing well with others” is developed because the leadership does not model it or seek to grow that kind of culture.

When I was in Bible College I was told by some of my professors that I could not and should not develop friendships with people in my congregation or the people on my staff because it could create jealousies and it would make it difficult for me to be objective as a pastor. I’ve been told countless times since then by other pastors that my friendships should be with other pastors outside of my own church so I could talk openly and honestly because, the implication was clear, I have to stay guarded with those who I pastor. There have been endless invitations to meetings for senior pastors that other pastors on my staff were excluded from because “senior pastors need to talk about things confidentially.” Church culture tends to be segregationist and it extends beyond race to status/caste and a perceived “otherness” that does not serve the work of cooperation and playing well with others.

A team building approach, or leadership that practices playing well with others, is also not about squashing dissent or creating a climate in which we define as “our problem” those who disagree with what or how things are being done. Often times insecure leaders will define the real problems of their organization or team as those take a contrary position to the ideas and decisions of a senior leader or senior leadership. Emotionally insecure people will perceive this as a threat to their leadership and will knowingly or unknowingly further marginalize those who pushback. They will, to use the schoolyard again, not include those people the next time they decide to pick teams.

Brene Brown writing about leadership, says, ““We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”

Here are three quick aspects of playing well with others that deserve special attention.

First, playing well with others requires a leader to have a certain level of Emotional Quotient (EQ). I will even go further than that and say that it takes an awareness of their own mental and emotional health and a willingness to engage in practices that support emotional wellness. The danger with emotional self-care is the like the danger of spiritual self-care, we can adopt the language without engaging in the practices. Everyone involved in pastoral ministry should have a therapist and should learn and put into practice the steps to recovery. The truth is that the physician who treats themselves has a fool for a patient. So too, the pastor.

EQ first is attuned to our own well-being and inner life and then becomes a way to “read the room” and develop and accurate sense of how everyone else is doing. It’s not the responsibility of the team to let the leader know what they think and feel. It is the responsibility of a healthy leader to suss out how their team is feeling and what their team is genuinely feeling about their mission and goals, their relationships and their practices. Playing well with others involves creating a culture where a contrary view is not only tolerated but welcomed and appreciated. This doesn’t mean that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” – that’s equally unhealthy – but rather those who have a different perspective will not feel penalized or ostracized for sharing their perspective.

And we all know that you don’t have to tell someone that dissent is unwelcome. We pick up on it very quickly.

Emotional wellness is critical for playing well with others as it helps us develop a second essential characteristic of healthy leadership that can repair or preserve that which leadership has broken – empathy.

Not sympathy.


Healthy leadership maintains the ability and practice of empathetic listening, of imagining the lives of those being lead, of being aware that communication is about much more than what is being said and following the immersive approach of Jesus to identify wholistically with those you are leading. Empathy is very challenging when what we’re really all about is accomplishing our own plans and our own purposes. Empathy requires us to be in a cooperative mode – not to get compliance for the sake of our own ends but to develop the kind of relationships that are worthy living for and having when we finally reach the end. Empathy means listening to words and to hearts, of using our intuition and our reason, of following the words of Jesus to “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”

Brene Brown, our contemporary Teresa of Avila, writes, “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” When people feel misunderstood or unheard, community will break down. A lack of empathy from leadership will create unhealthy systems and unhealthy relationships and it will be transmitted like a virus throughout the structure that this is how we lead, this is how we relate to others. The presence of empathy will slow things down and will take us longer to reach perceived goals but it will bring the greatest number of people along with us who want to be part of a healthy community.

Most people aren’t looking for perfection but they are hungry for empathy.

Finally, cooperation, or playing well with others, means letting others play their part and not over playing your own.

My family had, for a very long time, a tradition of playing volleyball at our family reunion annual gathering.

At some unscheduled point, some time after we had all had plates full of incredible food and first and seconds on dessert, a bunch of us would waddle onto the makeshift volleyball court for the annual match. The winning team would get bragging rights that would carry them through our annual Christmas gathering and into the following year’s reunion.

Each team, without planning or prompting, always had that one member of the team who played everyone else’s position, including their own. As the score went up and the end of the game got closer, particularly if it was close, there was always that one player who run over other people on the court in order to get their own hand on the ball and, from their perspective, secure victory for the team. And while they may indeed have spiked the ball for the winning point, nobody felt much like celebrating…except the over-player who credited themselves with the victory.

These matches did more ego building than team building, good for a person, not so great for the family.

Years went by and I wondered why we made this part of our annual family tradition? If people disliked the over-players so much, why keep up the game? Here’s what I’ve come to believe: no one disliked the over-player, they disliked that they over-played. So we played on in hope that our beloved over-players would finally stop being jerks and be the person we knew them to be off the court. We also, the rest of us, enjoyed playing together and we were willing to suffer the over-bearing and self-appointed over-playing player/coaches because these were our people, our kin, and we were willing to put up with the over-players for the sake of being able to enjoy the time with the rest of our family.

Sometimes, family goes along to get along, but if these kind of overplaying behaviors continue or multiply, they will dissolve family bonds and family connections and will lead some family to stop coming to the reunions if they can’t get the family to stop including the games.

Some people just aren’t people people. Some of us perceive people as a means to an end or as roadblocks to our ends. But healthy leadership recognizes people as the image bearing creation of God and fosters a culture and community of cooperation that plays well with others and resists the temptation to use people, abuse people and treat people as obstacles to get around or commodities to be used. Again, Brene Brown writes that, “Daring leaders work to make sure people can be themselves and feel a sense of belonging.” Unhealthy leaders put the responsibility for that sense of belonging on the members of the team themselves and will simply tell them to feel this way. Healthy leaders will create an atmosphere and a culture in which that sense of belonging is nurtured through simple practices of listening, responding, being together, making sure everyone gets to play and everyone feels heard, seeing that authentic and meaningful change is affected by the input of those who are on the team and directly affected by the actions of the organization or system.

This means a leader and leadership has to be willing to set aside their own way of doing things and their own path to outcomes in order to include those most invested in the outcomes. Very few leaders choose this path. Very few leaders are invested in their own emotional, mental and spiritual healthy to pursue this end.

When Church Leadership is Broken, chapter 5

(Links to Intro, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four)


There’s an old joke about a farmer who is feeling unsettled in his work. A church going man, he feels like God has something more planned for his life than what he’s doing. As he prepares for harvesting his soybean fields he prays to God and asks for a sign about what he should do and suddenly, in the sky above him, God gives him a sign.

Months later he is at Bible College and he’s preparing to become a preacher. But he’s not really enjoying it. He’s struggling with the schoolwork, the discussions and in preaching class he gets uptight, nervous and eventually falls apart before he finishes his sermon. In frustration about the whole situation, he approaches his homiletics professor one day, after class.

They talk and he describes how frustrated he is to the professor, who asks him, “What brought you here in the first place?” The former farmer tells him the story of praying for a sign one day while he was out in his soybean fields. “I looked up into the sky,” he tells the professor, “And God gave me an unmistakable sign, there were only two clouds in the sky above me and they had formed a giant PC right above my head.”

“And what did you make of that?” the professor asked.

“I knew right away that out there in the middle of my soybean fields, as I prayed for new direction, that God was calling me to Preach Christ.”

The professor thought for a second and then said, “Maybe God was just telling you to Plant Corn?”

The people who lead in the Church need to be people of character. Character that looks and feels like Jesus. They also need to be people who have been called by God into a leadership role in the Church. They need to be people who know they are in a story, who know the story they are in, where it’s come from and where it goes from here and have confidence that God has placed them in the story to be leaders who are responsible for the well-being of others and their spiritual formation into the image of Jesus Christ.

Stanley Hauerwas tells us, “It is a story, that is, the story that we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story, it is a story that has at its heart the attempt to make us tyrants of our own lives. But no one is more lonely than tyrants. Since they must always distrust everyone around them, because they know that they want their place, of course, the problem with the story that you should have no story, except the story you chose when you had no story, is you did not choose that story.” The story that there is no story involves individualism and self-determination and being self-made. These three things are essential for creating tyrants but they are hostile to the gospel of Jesus.

Hauerwas goes on to say that, “Abundant life, the life that Jesus offers, is a storied life made possible by a common life that recognizes that before we were, we were storied by a story we did not choose. It is called creation. It is called redemption. And that story, the story of creation, the story of redemption makes possible friendships between strangers, just to the extent we learn that we share a common story that we have not chosen.” Eugene Peterson writes, “Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins.” Hauerwas and Will Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “We are not sure that our clergy know where we are, much less where we ought to be, so how can they be expected to know what they should be doing?” In a review of Peterson’s book for Christianity Today, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “Still, if you spend any time with pastors…it is clear our vocation is facing something of a crisis. Many pastors aren’t sure how to describe their calling or explain why it matters to the rest of the world.”

Detached or ‘narrative deprived’, we are adrift and unable to see the story we are in or, if we sense we are in a story, we cannot see how our story connects to the bigger story of the Church or the world around us.  This has resulted in a crisis of identity for pastors.  They’ve been cast in a play-in-progress but no one has informed them about the part they are playing or what the first four acts have been about.  Anxiety will naturally develop in the midst of such systemic uncertainty. External criticism based on conflicting expectations and ambiguous expectations will create stress.  An inability to measure up to a standard that is inconsistent, hidden or unworkable will create depression.  The loss of a collective narrative creates a vacuum for competing narratives to fill and the song becomes just so much noise.

Vocation fixes us in the story. We are called.

Called by God for a purpose.

Into his story, not our own story.

We have a part to play in the story but we don’t determine the outcomes, we aren’t responsible for the conclusion, we can’t change the ending.

Knowing the ending, our vocation is to do the work God has called us to in the way God has called us to do it – because the way the story gets told IS the story.

The medium, it turns out, really is the message.

Dr. James W. Thompson of Abilene Christian University, in Pastoral Ministry according to Paul, explains the impetus for his book written in 2006: “After years of educating future ministers, my colleagues and I finally took on the task of writing a vision statement to serve as a foundation for our curriculum and to describe the ministry for which we were preparing our students.” This proved problematic for Thompson.  Trying to reach consensus with his colleagues at the university proved to be a challenge.  “We discovered that we work with many unstated and differing assumptions about the nature of the ministry.” The remarkable thing is not their inability to reach a simple consensus; it is not that they all taught at the same university but held different views; rather it was that this revelation occurred to them “after years of educating future ministers.”


One can only imagine the fractured image of ministry with which each student was graduating.

Eugene Peterson recalled, “My seminary professors had no idea what pastors were or did.”

It’s inevitable that leadership in the Church will become broken when we can’t agree on the story we are in.

What we’ve been called to.

It’s essential then that a leader in the Church, any leader, has a clear sense of calling to the work that includes some understanding – not a perfect understanding – just some understanding – of the story we are in, what it means to shepherd the flock of God of which they are a part. Of course, this means having at least enough of an understanding that they are able to articulate for themselves and others, the story we are in, so there is clarity on where the story is going and how leaders in the story are called to lead.

Because it’s not their story.

And misleading people about the story by the way they live it, tell it or perhaps sell it, can land them in a great deal of trouble with the author who, we have been told, can be harsh with people who twist his story.

When those preparing people for their pastoral vocation struggle to define that vocation, it should not surprise us to find pastors and churches struggling with their sense of identity.  Ministry becomes a Rorschach test in that what comes to mind when you picture a pastor probably says more about you and the culture that has shaped you than it does about the objective role or vocation of a pastor.

In the introduction to Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson suggests, light-heartedly, that he has been planning a new money-making approach to pastoral formation. “For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation.”  He outlines the curriculum that consists of only four courses: Creative Plagiarism, Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling, Efficient Office Management, and Image Projection.  He would include a week long refresher course each year to “introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends…”  Ultimately his joke lost its humor when he began to see this curriculum being offered, albeit with slightly different titles but the same content, all over the country.  Peterson says the content was the kind, “…that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion.” The absence of a coherent, connected story will create pressure for a pastor or “pastor in formation,” which is a healthier and more accurate way to view each other.  This pressure, to be relieved, can lead us to adopt or coopt nearly any other story that we come across that promises the outcomes we would like to achieve or they have been told they should achieve.

Knowing your vocation is leadership in the Church, and knowing the story we are in is the story of Jesus, we find the narrative of Jesus reshapes and repurposes our lives, and brings us into the church to lead, feed and protect fellow Jesus followers in the ongoing story of God’s Kingdom.

Knowing your vocation is leadership in the Church in the Jesus story, leaders learn to describe their story in the context of the multi-faceted story God is telling with a rich variety of characters through whom it is being told.  Leaders who live out of their sense of vocation feel no compulsion internally or externally to coopt someone else’s story because they can see that their own story is rich enough, textured enough and interesting enough to form and fill their lives. 

Leaders who live out of their sense of vocation do not have to forge a new identity because the story itself provides identity.  They no longer feel compelled to prove their value through accomplishment or status because they have discovered that their participation in the story itself provides meaning and value to his or her life. The ultimate questions for the “storied” leader then are simple, “Am I improvising my own part in the story faithful to what has already been told before me?” and “Am I improvising my own part in the story in a way that is in obvious unity with the conclusion our story has always been moving towards?”

A leader who leads from their sense of calling understands that the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that is coming.

A leader who leads from vocation mines the stories that have come before us for gold with which the future can be built. The daily work of the “storied” leader engages with other contemporary stories in a collaborative effort, not as independent characters passing through one another’s stories but as interconnected stories that are part of a greater narrative. Ultimately, the “storied” leader’s primary role is to live out an alternative story to the dominant story that has shaped the consciousness around them: subversive storytelling.

When you know the story you are in, you have the necessary “thickness” to withstand the pressures that will come from within and without to live out of a different narrative – the Entrepreneur, the CEO, the Multi-level marketer, the Benevolent Tyrant, the Franchisee, the Hired Hand, or the King of Israel.


A friend likes to say to me, “If you think of yourself as a leader and you turn around and no one is following you, you’re just out for a walk.”

Sometimes leadership in the Church gets broken – not because the leaders don’t have a sense of their vocation – but because the Church itself has lost the plot. Churches are made of people who, as Hauerwas says, believe that their story is “the story that you should have no story, other than the story you chose when you had no story.” We have entire congregations of people who are living a story that is similar to the story of Jesus and his kingdom but are more closely aligned to the story of American exceptionalism or Religious Nationalism or White Supremacy or Big Box Consumerism or the Customer Is Always Right Capitalism or some other familiar story with just enough Jesus in it to control people and assure outcomes.

Hauerwas and Willimon write, “The Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with God.  Scripture is an account of human existence as told by God.  In scripture, we see that God is taking the disconnected elements of our lives and pulling them together into a coherent story that means something.  When we lack such a truthful, coherent account, life is likely to be perceived as disconnected, ad hoc.  In trying to make sense of life, when we lack a coherent narrative, life is little more than a lurch to the left, a lurch to the right…No wonder modern humanity, even as it loudly proclaims its freedom and power to choose, is really an impotent herd driven this way and that, paralyzed by the disconnectedness of         it all.  It’s just one damn thing after another.”

One of the primary tasks of leadership in the Church then is embodying the story we find ourselves in. It is impossible for the Church to hear the story we are telling with our words if the way we are living keeps getting in the way. And sometimes Church leaders act the way they do because the rest of us want them to or the rest of us let them.

Because this post is already longer than anyone wants to read, let me break these two down in broad terms.

Sometimes we get the leaders we deserve instead of the leaders that we need. Collectively we are embodying one of these alternative stories and we end up with a Saul or a Solomon or a Jeroboam. We seek out people who will make us successful in ways that don’t look anything like the kingdom but count on a scoreboard or look good in an annual report for a shareholders meeting. We want leaders who will make us great again – and we’re all for it until it costs us more than we were willing to pay – usually this involves a very personal cost – and we find ourselves on the fringe rather than the center of the success.

John Wimber said that we’ll vote with our feet. That when bad shepherds come along and abuse the sheep, we’ll all get up and move on and that will end their story of tyranny.

Only, John was wrong. Abused people will hang in there a long time with the one or the ones who abuse them. They can be conditioned to do so. Or it can just be the way in which Church tends to enmesh our lives with each other, our history, our future, our families, our friendships, our service and tearing apart all this enmeshment can be more traumatic – or seem like it would be more traumatic – than actually putting up with the bad behavior of abusive people.

So we stay.

Longer than we should.

Shall we recite together the names of all the Churches we know of in the last decade in which this has played out?

Sometimes we’re a bunch of cantankerous consumers who have built our iron throne and by God, we will have a king like all the other nations. Taller than the rest of us, barrel chested, a man we all want to be or a man we all want, a man who takes charge and has a vision. And that’s just what we get and when he behaves just like he would, we fain surprise and talk treason.

Sometimes we enable bullies, sometimes we endure bullying, sometimes because we get trapped, and sometimes because we’ve convinced ourselves it is for the greater good.

What we need is an unwillingness to settle for any story but the story Jesus is telling and for leaders in the Church who have demonstrated a clear vocation to the kind of leadership that the story of Jesus shapes and empowers that will not fulfill the American dream but will keep us embedded in the story of Jesus and the spiritual formation that story promises to fulfill.

So…what’s your story?

When Church Leadership is Broken, chapter 4

(Links to Intro, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three)

“The Essential Thing”

There are a lot of needful things when it comes to leadership, especially when it’s broken, but there is only one thing that is essential. Over the next three chapters I want to unpack the three qualities that can produce healthy leadership or restore healthy leadership when it’s been broken. But I won’t bury the lead. I won’t build up or count down to the essential quality. I’m going to start there because without this essential thing, the other two just don’t matter. Without this essential element, you will never have healthy leadership.

Recently, Michael Frost posted this: “Church Growth Theory didn’t result in church growth, and the Christian leadership industry didn’t give us better leaders. So can we stop trying to do Christian ministry with tools from the fields of marketing, management and psychology now?!” He went on to provide commentary to his own post by saying, “The proof is in the pudding. After half a century of Church Growth Theory the church in the West has shrunk. And after 30 years of ‘leadership studies’ we’re seeing an unprecedented number of leadership failures. Where else can we turn?” (Michael Frost online)

In his book, A Church Called TOV, Scot McKnight offers two early warning signs of a toxic culture, both of which are centralized on leadership. First, narcissism. McKnight writes, “If we are to have any hope of developing a goodness (tov) culture in our churches, these narcissistic, unempathetic leaders must be resisted and replaced.” A broken leader will create a broken culture and culture eats your mission statement for breakfast every day. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is what you do and best intentions have no chance against a broken leadership producing a broken culture. “Friends don’t let friends become narcissists.” (McKnight, A Church Called TOV)

The second warning sign of a toxic culture, McKnight warns, is power through fear. “Perhaps the most common temptation for church leaders is to wield their assumed authority and position as weapons of lethal wounding power. When a leader manifests the power hatchet, a culture is formed that adjusts to the blade of fear. Power and fear are close companions. Combine this with narcissism, and a toxic culture is sure to form.”

McKnight quotes Ronald Enroth on power-mongering leaders, “Ruler is the right term to describe the kind of people in authoritarian leadership roles….They are spiritual tyrants who take unholy pleasure in requiring obedience and subordination of their followers…The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership.”

We might imagine this means a leader who rages and screams things like, “Who do you think you are?!!!!” at people. But often it’s really just a leader who leaves you with the clear impression that they are very disappointed in you, you’ve really let them down and chances are good you won’t be given another chance to let them down again. You find yourself replaced in your volunteer role and only find out when the new person who has been appointed to the role you once held, contacts you to let you know they are now the new “whatever.” Broken leadership tends to start with small acts of tyranny that we can easily excuse or overlook “for the greater good” but often gradually increase in size as a leader’s brokenness expands to fill as much space as they are given before they run into significant consequences.

The essential thing, the thing that must mark a leader and a leadership culture or it will break and break others as it collapses under its own hubris, is character.


Dan Wilt writes, “Character is indeed the defining issue for the Christian leader.” I would say it’s the defining issue for any leader. In the Church, the kind of character we’re looking for, the kind of character we are needing is the kind of character that Wilt describes, “Godly character is the reflection in a person’s life of the attitudes, actions and attributes of God as revealed in Jesus and the scriptures.” (Wilt, Leadership by Character)

Dan goes on to write, “I am convinced that the issues of character will become the greatest mark of true spiritual leadership in our generation’s tumultuous days…Unless we understand that the penultimate goal of God is the formation of His character in our lives, we will fall into the patterns of this world and its values, even in our Christian stylings, and be lost to the purposes and plans of God. Power and gifts will become our goal, while in the heart of God power and gifts have always remained the natural supplement to the life full of purpose and integrity.”


The danger that plays out time and time again in the Church is the confusion of charisma for character. Often we assign an inherent amount of character to people based how we perceive their charisma. A guy is fronting the well-known Christian band at the music festival who sings about Jesus and leads the crowd in “the sinner’s prayer” at the end of their concert – 100 character points! The speaker at the conference told a story about a young woman he personally delivered from demonic oppression and then led her to Jesus? 100 character points! The cool author in the skinny jeans who tends to rehash the work of other people that aren’t as cool and don’t get read as much and tells us a hilarious story that has us crying at the end about their son’s struggle with asthma – an easy 100 character points. I don’t know them at all but I can tell from that story they are so much like Jesus.

The mega-pastor with mega-stories, 100 points, automatically, because God wouldn’t bless him with mega if he didn’t have character.

That well-known author and speaker with the almost impossible to believe testimony, who says hard things to us in such nice ways that makes us feel bad enough to feel like we’re convicted but not sooo convicted that we change anything – 100 points, clearly a person of character because I felt so convicted and that testimony was killer.

That cool pastor who dresses cool and talks cool and has cool hair and just walks in a cloud of coolness – 100 character points – you just can’t be that cool and not be a person of character.

The white missionary woman to Africa who oversees thousands of orphans and has photos she works into her talk to remind you of all the thousands of orphans she’s been photographed with – 100 character points – she’s a white woman living in some distant African country where they don’t have same day Amazon delivery – you KNOW she has character.

And then, when the stories start coming out about their lavish lifestyle, we can dismiss it because hey, we KNOW they have godly character because they are cool, well-known, on a mission field, on a stage, have a big church, blah, blah, blah. And as the bodies pile up under the bus, we count their “success” as character or as proof as character and we insist there must be another side to the story or at least more to the story – because we couldn’t have been taken in. God would NOT bless someone who didn’t have character. That’s like, biblical or something.

Or it can just be really simple – our church/movement is growing, therefore our leader has character and we will not question their character even when we see them behaving badly, even when the warning sirens are going off inside our spirit, because it’s good to be part of this successful thing that makes me successful as a part of this thing and good people don’t question their leader’s character.

You can almost be certain that if you are in a system in which you are afraid to question your leader’s character, you are in a system with broken leadership or you have been in a system with broken leadership.

Our whole story has a central belief that we all mess up. We all fall short. We all wander. And the most susceptible of us are those with power. Leadership breaks when we give cool people a pass on character. Leadership breaks when we confuse charisma with character. Leadership breaks when we ignore all the warning signs of toxic leadership because they make us feel special and important and good about ourselves – for now.


You can overhear people in a conversation about badly behaving leaders say something like, “God’s in control, I’m not worried about it, God will sort it all out.”

It sounds profoundly spiritual but it’s wrong. Spiritually wrong. Biblically wrong. Theologically wrong. It’s just wrong in the totality of wrongness.

Paul tells the elders at Ephesus, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!” (Acts 20 NLT) Paul’s advice isn’t, “trust God to work it out.” It’s “Watch out!” Paul tells Titus, “If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them.” When Peter shows up to the potluck for the churches in Galatia and sits with the circumcised, Paul confronts him in public, “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision…When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions? You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

Paul didn’t seem to think God was in control of this situation and God would get it all worked out. He publicly confronted Peter for his hypocrisy before it could become any more contagious than it already was. Broken leadership will lead to a broken culture and a broken Church if we “leave it to God.” We don’t need to be Paul in order to recognize wolves or wolfish behavior. Unchecked, leaders without character will create a toxic culture that will destroy the flock of God to which it is proximate. God gives the Church shepherds and prophets and apostles in order for them to speak into these situations, not sit and wait for God to do something.

Again, McKnight writes, “…Each aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is also an act of resistance. To do tov requires us to resist what is not tov, what is bad and evil and corrupt. To live in the Spirit is to resist the works or acts of the flesh.” (McKnight, TOV) Character won’t just happen. We must pursue character, nurture a culture that values and promotes character and resist cultures and people who are not acting in the character of Jesus. Relying on the sovereignty of God to eliminate what God has already told us is our job to watch out for and resist is to deny the sovereignty of God.


In logic there’s a thing called “the argument of the beard.” It speaks to our tendency to get technical and deny our ability to define certain things like when a beard is a beard and not just a collection of whiskers. We dismiss someone’s point because it’s not as precise as we’d like, it’s too vague. Or it’s a big idea that seems hard to get our heads around, like character. How are we defining the kind of character that creates healthy culture? Let’s get precise.

First, like the argument of the beard, you know a beard when you see a beard, you know character when you see character – and you know…not character, when you see it too.

But let’s get a little more precise for all of us who prefer fine tuning.

Dan Wilt offers us some descriptions that come from the Bible for the kind of character that is healthy and produces healthy cultures that create healthy churches.

He starts with “brokenness” by which he means a person who has learned to suffer well. Character includes the capacity to extract the precious from the worthless, beauty from ashes and love from hate. He goes on to highlight humility, integrity, patience, perseverance and love. (Wilt, Leadership by Character)

McKnight calls it “Nurturing Habits of Goodness.” He describes the character of a tov leader and tov culture as:

Nurture empathy (resist a narcissist’s culture)

Nurture grace (resist a fear culture)

Put people first (resist institution creep)

Tell the truth (resist false narratives: form a truth-telling culture)

Nurture justice (resist the loyalty culture)

Nurture service (resist celebrity culture)

Nurture Christlikeness (resist the leader culture)

Scot writes, “The word Christoformity means ‘to be conformed to Christ.’ In other words, it is Christlikeness…No pastor is perfect, that’s for sure, but pastors are to be mature enough Christians to be able to mentor others into Christlikeness as they are moving into Christlikeness themselves. We are in this together.” (McKnight, TOV, p212.)

Let me wrap this up by emphasizing one thing in McKnight’s list I think we struggle with the most: Tell the truth.

Stanley Hauerwas said, “From Pascal’s perspective human society is founded on mutual deceit because our loves, and in particular our self-love, requires that we hide from one another and ourselves the truth.  We fear wounding one another with the truth because we so desperately want to be loved.  We do not wish, therefore, for anyone to tell us the truth and we avoid telling it to others.  These habits of deception become rooted in the heart making it impossible for us to speak truthfully from the heart.” (Hauerwas, Commencement Sermon)

One of the greatest challenges facing the Church in North America today is our lack of honesty and truth-telling. Not only our lack but also our aversion to truth-telling. It is so hard for us that we’ve made truth-telling a vice rather than a virtue. In the Church we’ve created an evil system that we call good that is named “the honor culture.” We tell people how awesome they are, how much we respect them, how much we love what they do – we “honor” them – while they create toxic cultures and do harm to the saints.

My daughter was on staff at a church once upon a time, as an intern. She was astonished to watch a senior pastor speak rudely to support staff and volunteers and treat people badly behind closed doors. She spoke to other people in the office and asked, “Why doesn’t someone tell him that’s not acceptable?” “No, no,” she was told by an admin, “you can’t say that to the senior pastor.” My daughter said, “If he talks to me like that, I will.” My daughter understands tov, she understands that we are all in this together and we have to speak to one another in love. Leaders, especially, don’t get a free pass.

If I think a person is on a self-destructive path or an anti-tov path and I don’t speak up, I’m keeping us from goodness. If I see people being mistreated and oppressed and I don’t speak up, I’m keeping us from goodness. Proverbs says, “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” And while, like most of the Proverbs, you can find its exception, this is a practice we need in the Church in North America today, that will help us move towards wholeness. A significant aspect of character that is needed now, more than ever, is speaking the truth in love to each other, especially to leaders, especially by leaders. Simply put – tell each other the truth.

One thing that keeps this from happening is when leaders punish people for telling the truth. That’s evil.

Character is the essential thing. It’s why Paul tells Timothy, “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader.” Share four seasons with a person before you give them a leadership role. Get to know someone as well as you possibly can before giving them a leadership role. Watch how people behave when they think no one is looking. Listen to how they talk to people who serve and who relate to them in a subordinate position. Pay attention to how their children and spouse relate to them and they to them. Know them long enough to know how they respond to suffering, what they do when they are angry, how they behave when there are humble tasks in front of them, take note of who their mentors are. Character will make or break a person, a marriage, a home, a family, a friendship and a Church.

When Church Leadership is Broken, chapter 3

(Links to Intro, Chapter One, Chapter Two)

“Awakening From the Western Dream.”

The easiest answer to broken leadership is to blame the bad actors. If we can eliminate all the bad apples, we eliminate our problem. However, once we count all the bad apples we have to consider the orchard might just be toxic.

When we are honest about how pastors are often treated in local churches, and the conflicts they often face with boards and lay leaders, we also recognize we have created systems that empower many people to behave badly, excuses harmful behaviors and even covers up for abusive and predatory individuals. If our systems are left unexamined, if we consider our systems neutral, we’re inviting wolves to apply for the shepherd’s position and preparing lambs for slaughter.

Or at least to get thrown under the bus.

We’re also perpetuating a way of doing life together that has been proven harmful for both leaders and churches. Normal is what we know, what we’re most familiar with and sometimes our experience has given us no way to imagine that things could be better. This is how it. This is how it will always be. World without end. Amen and amen.

Jesus interrupted the leadership systems in his time by inviting his followers to engage their prophetic imagination. To believe that things didn’t always have to be the way things were.

In Jesus’ time, leadership was broken. And while he may not have prescribed a detailed system for leadership in the Church, he wasn’t silent on the subject. And he said enough that was very clear, clear enough, for us to be very sure that the western dream of leadership as power over, as positions and titles and hierarchy, was not his way and not the way of his kingdom.  

I’m not unaware that a big chunk of that last paragraph would be hotly contested by the Theobros who are very big on being “biblical” until it challenges their notions of a god-ordained, patriarchal hierarchy. They see a prescribed system of gendered leadership that starts with God, the Father at the top of the power chain and ends with men (males, not mankind). This understanding of authority is central to their theology and practice, their hermeneutic of the Bible and of life. None of them will be convinced by anything I have to say about this, it’s hard to change someone’s mind who clings tightly to a “thus sayeth the Lord,” no matter how misguided their understanding may be.

Jesus has a surprising amount to say about leadership in the Gospels. In part this comes from his obvious disdain for the leadership of his people in his own time. It had been the same way for the prophets. Our human lust to dominate and be dominated gave Israel a series of horrible kings that God never intended for them to have. God may have ordained David and he may have been “a man after God’s own heart” but he was also after his neighbor’s wife, and his other neighbor’s wife, and…well, you know the story. God has no more hope that David was going to get it right than he had for any of the other kings of Israel. But still, God works with what he has.

So when the Exact Representation of God shows up on earth and speaks about leadership, like so many other “you have heard that it was said…, but I tell you…” things that Jesus addressed, leadership is one he speaks about often.

In Matthew 20, James and John send their momma to try to get them promoted over the rest of Jesus’ disciples in the kingdom coming. She wants them to be Jesus’ AM, assistant messiahs. That’s her big ask and Jesus tells her, “nah. You don’t know what you’re asking.”

But when the rest of the disciples find out about her ask, knowing John and James were working Jesus over with their momma, they don’t like it and things heat up. Jesus pulls them all in for a huddle and tells them that, once again, they aren’t getting what the kingdom coming is all about. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

All this plays out again in John’s Gospel in chapter 13. It starts with the narrator letting us in on what Jesus knew – he knew all authority had been given to him. So the next thing you expect is for the king to take his throne but what Jesus does instead is take the bowl and towel and get on his knees to start washing his disciples feet – including the feet of his betrayer and denier. After Peter offers his usual objections and then finally concedes to letting Jesus wash his feet, John tells us, “After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.”

Jesus says, “I know who I am, you know who I am, and if I take the position of servant and lead from this posture, you will too, if you’re my followers.”

Luke, in his Gospel, tells us that around this very table, Jesus’ disciples started arguing about who was going to be greatest. While Luke omits the foot washing, we can hear it reflected in the words Luke records Jesus speaking to his disciples in that upper room, “Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.”

I had a well-known prophetic person tell me once that he served the people in his ministry by letting them serve him. Sending “Bob” out to get his latte for him was how he “served” him. This well known guy saw it was a privilege for “Bob” to go get his latte for him and while he could have done it himself, letting “Bob” run down to the Starbucks for him, and then clean his office up, file his papers and carry his junk into their building, was his spiritual act of “serving” “Bob.” I laughed out loud and then realized he was serious and then we shared a quiet, awkward moment together.

Sending someone after my latte or doing something for me I could do for myself, is NOT equivalent to washing their feet. (In case that isn’t clear.)

Still today you will find church leadership systems in some groups in which people, sometimes called “shield bearers” and sometimes just called, “interns,” are given menial tasks – mowing the pastor’s lawn, picking up their coffee order, getting their shirts from the cleaners, washing the pastor’s car – who are given these “opportunities” which are really – and let me be as clear as I can be – an abuse of power and an exercise of privilege. These are the kind of things Jesus would tell us lords do but his followers don’t.

I’m not saying that people who are pastors or elders or have some leadership function in the church should pull a “Peter” and never let people serve us. There must be a culture of mutual submission, of serving one another, but Jesus never had in mind a group of people who served the Church by bossing them around and being served by the Church. Tasking others to serve us is entirely different than people exercising their own agency and choosing to do something for us. A pastor or an elder or a Pope who won’t stack chairs, clean toilets if needed, pick up loose trash on the floor or tie a child’s shoe or wipe their running nose, has missed the way of Jesus – whether they are in a church of fifty or five thousand.

In Matthew 23, Jesus teaches his followers something about leadership among the people of God by telling them NOT to be like the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Do what they say, don’t do as they do.

Jesus is inviting his followers to imagine a religious world that is not dominated by a hierarchy with privileged positions and titles to which others in the Beloved Community are expected to pay deference and honor. Don’t create hierarchies. Don’t put people above other people. Rather than holding a race for the top, Jesus’ dream for us is that we’d try to out serve one another. Jesus’ dream for us is that we would live in and promote the practice of a culture of mutual submission. Jesus did not come to bring a kingdom in which we compete with each other for top spot, or even a spot near the top, or any spot at all that puts us over others.

Paul describes this life in his letter to the Galatians, “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” Even when we have a brother or sister trapped by a sin, don’t feel superior, don’t see yourself as being ahead of them, that’s when you’ll get trapped too. Instead, bear burdens you didn’t create for someone else who did and resist the temptation to think you’re all that. Humility, meekness, mercy, these are the traits of those who will lead in the kingdom of God, in the Church, in the Beloved Community of God.

This is the very definition of being counter-cultural.

But too often, the systems and ways we adopt for the Church look just like the world. We are coop-cultural.

I’ve been in systems that precisely mimic the United States system of federal government. The pastor and staff represent the executive branch, the elders and deacons are the legislative branch as the senate and house respectively, and trustees are the judicial branch. They who control the budget control the vision and pastors and staff can be stonewalled in all their efforts to do ministry by the “check” of the legislative branch. Congregational voting leaves the decision about the “will of the Lord” in the hands of people who are on the church rolls but who may not have attended church in years or thought about God much since their baptism. You might even elect an official to a high office who is a popular yet disastrous choice.

I’ve been in systems that were designed by and operated by men, exclusively. And while women may have done 80% of the work of the people, they had no seat at the table, no voice – other than through male relatives – at the table. Decisions were often made that directly affected them with the men feeling no sense of need to have the direct input of women in order to make our decision.

I’ve been in systems that were based on a monarchical system of government. The senior pastor was the king and all others served at his (and sometimes – rarely – her) good pleasure. The king had the last word and usually the first word. In churches you can often recognize this system because a great deal of time is spent preaching in the Old Testament and hierarchy and respect for the authority structure is dropped into messages without context and we use words and phrases like “honor,” “honor culture,” and “umbrella of anointing.”

I’ve been in systems that offered a diagram of an inverted pyramid to describe their approach to church leadership. The Grand Poobah is at the bottom and everything goes up from there – but in practice, in everyday experience, everyone knows that it’s just an upside down pyramid and power still flows from the Poobah on to the next level and then the next and then the next. Until finally it comes to the everyday people who are still feel voiceless and detached from the ability to enact change or be a vital part of the work of the people.

I’ve been in systems that are based on a CEO model of entrepreneurial business development. We talked branding, bottom lines, ministry units and corporate culture. I once heard a National Director of a group of churches say about the local leaders – “I love this couple because when I say, “Jump!” they just ask, “How high?” My wife and I looked at each other and had the same thought, “It will not go well for us here.”

I’ve been in systems that are based on the Amway model of multi-level marketing where people at a certain level derive their power and authority by the number of legs under them and the number of legs under the legs under them…and so on. The real bosses were removed from the legs and larger gatherings were all about getting people jazzed again about going home and recruiting new people to grow their business within the business.

So many models. So many more than I’ve listed here. The thing is that the models we keep imagining have more to do with how we perceive power and where we understand power comes from and how we understand power is applied than it does taking care of people or looking like the kingdom of God. I would even suggest that the Theobros and others keep reading hierarchy into their Bibles because they look for justification and sanctification of the power and power structures to which they have grown accustomed.

We accept as a given what Jesus calls a lie – the only way to lead is to have power over.

We accept as a given what Jesus calls a lie – that to lead someone you must have or create a mechanism of the enforcement of your will. (pro tip – if you have to enforce your will, you aren’t really their leader in a kingdom culture.)

We accept as a given what Jesus calls a lie – hierarchy is neutral. I can be a benevolent lord. That’s the argument that white slaveholders used while they kept the Gospel away from their slaves.

As long as we keep pursuing the vision for leadership and being in charge that the western world has fed us, we’ll keep getting the broken leadership we’ve always gotten. It’s impossible to point to a time or leader who has participated in this system who has not harmed people in their practice of governance. Myself included. Maybe myself as one of the chief practitioners. Being a despot always produces bad fruit no matter what your intentions were in the beginning. Lording it over people is a broken system in the kingdom and it always leads to harm.


We have to begin to imagine a world in which leadership means an unwillingness to build hierarchies and instead, demonstrating a more Jesusy way. We have to imagine a world in which we don’t give in to top down ways of leadership but practice mutual submission in the unity of the Spirit based on a bond of love. It will mean changing some of our definitions of success but it will mean that the kingdom coming is God’s kingdom and not mine or any person’s or group of people’s. We have to imagine a world in which discernment is our way of making decisions and not the will of a minority or of a majority. We have to offer a counterculture in which people feel honored and respected and included and valued. Where mutual submission and not mandatory submission is the culture. We need to collectively decide together that Jesus was very serious about what he said about leadership and whether you are in a local church, a world-wide denomination or a trans-local network of churches, we have to reject authoritarian structures of a centralized governance that exerts power over (even if doing so while calling it ‘power under’).

“OK,” you might say, “let’s go back to the thermostat my little hippie friend. In your imagined utopia, are we going to vote on who gets to set the thermostat or are we voting on what temperature the thermostat is set at?” It’s a practical question and it’s a fair question. And my life at home has taught me that setting the thermostat can be one of the greatest power struggles and struggles for authority known to humankind in these modern times. “Does everyone just get a go at setting the thermostat whenever they feel too hot or too cold? How does this hippie Nirvana work on a practical level without any bosses?” To which I will reply, “This is a fantastic question that I will answer in another chapter.”

Next chapter, “The Essential Thing.”

When Church Leadership is Broken, chapter 2

“Breaking Leaders”

Introduction here, Chapter One here.

I had only been following Jesus for a few weeks when I felt called to go into ministry. In the church I was in, at the time I was in it, the starting place for ministry was Bible College. Off I went, with no idea what I was getting myself into. My experience in the Church was extremely limited and I had no idea what life in ministry looked like. I had ideas about what Bible College would be like. I imagined what it would be like to be a pastor. And I was wrong about both.

I was just reading the Old Testament through for the first time in my life. On one of my first days at school I asked one of my professors if he could help me locate the marriage ceremony inside my Bible because I couldn’t seem to find it. I had seen pastors marry people and they seemed to be reading from a book that I assumed was the Bible and I was becoming concerned that I had purchased a defective Bible because mine didn’t include the ceremony for marrying people.

I was a newb. And the prof was very kind, and he gently explained to me how the marriage ceremony is in a different book, that I could buy, but it wasn’t in the Bible. There was so much I had to learn but school was the easy part. Learning “Church” was the hard part, the emotional part, the one aspect of my education that has nearly caused me to give up my vocation.

The school I attended required us to be involved in local church ministry as a part of our education. Unfortunately, they didn’t include a “debriefing” component, so we were left to talk to each other or pursue one of our professors or an outside source to try to make sense of some of our experiences in the local churches in which we served.

People are complex and when you believe that the Gospel is simple and Church is simple and our mission is simple and truth is simple and the Bible is simple, combining all that simple with a little complex is a combustible mixture.

I was fresh off the new believer’s boat when I was introduced to the bloody conflict over replacing the King James Bible in the pews with the New International Version. I was only in my second semester when the senior pastor I was interning with as a youth pastor confided in me that the Treasurer of the small church in Kansas we served would pay all the bills of the church first, and then pay him if there was anything left. And often there wasn’t enough to give him his full check. Or any check.

On my first summer home, I attended an elders and deacons meeting in which the main agenda item, producing a lengthy and sometimes contentious discussion, was how many inches tall the grass could grow at the church owned parsonage (housing for the youth pastor) before they could require him to cut the grass. One Elder wasn’t satisfied until they had defined the actual inch to which it could be measured and to which they would require the youth pastor to keep it mowed. When I suggested they could all take turns mowing his lawn for him whenever they were worried about it, there was a brief moment of awkward silence and then we moved on to the next agenda item.

I went to Bible College thinking I would learn all the “things” and then go out into the world and find eager people, hungry to learn the Bible and tell others about Jesus and live out our mandate to love one another. The reality I experienced before I ever left Bible College was that people are complex and doing life together was going to be a challenge. Wanting to do life together would become an even greater challenge as I had more and more encounters with people who went to church but didn’t always follow Jesus who seemed determined to make it as hard as possible for me to live out my vocation.

The word that a lot of my colleagues would use to describe how they felt treated in our vocation when we were sharing our experiences in the local church was “hireling.” People greeted new pastors by saying things like, “I was in this church long before you got here, I was in this church before several pastors before you, and I’ll be in the church long after you’re gone.” Or the classic, “We told God that we’d keep you poor if He’d keep you humble, and we mean to keep our word.” whenever you asked the board to give you a living wage, just something above the poverty line.

Often the system of governance in the local church is intentionally adversarial. It was built to produce a me vs. them vibe and some elders and deacons and other leaders for whom titles are given, see their primary work to be obstructionist, to be the check, to resist what the pastor is trying to do. The line is something like, “We want you to revitalize our church, bring in more people, thrill our souls with the gospel but it’s very important that you don’t change a thing.”

People are complex.

A cartoon I wouldn’t have understood when I first came to Bible College but deeply appreciate now, shows two men standing in front of a locked filing cabinet, on which is written, “Our Real Agenda.” One man says to the other, “And when you’ve been here three years, we finally give you the key to this.” The cartoon was published because it would resonate with a lot of pastors who have found themselves wrestling with Jello only to find themselves three years in before they finally found out what was really going on at the church.

Who was really in charge?

How decisions really got made.

What the elders and/or deacons and/or board were really looking for.

One pastor I know was sitting in his living room, eating a plate of warmed up leftovers in front of the TV, watching a hockey game, when he was sure he heard someone walking around his house. Since he was the only person who was supposed to be home, he put down his plate and looked around his house. Now, the house he lived in was the parsonage, the home provided to him as the pastor by the church. Housing was part of his compensation package. As soon as he walked through a doorway and into the hall, he almost ran into one of the Elders from his church who announced, “Just here to do a quick inspection of the house to make sure you are keeping it in good condition.” The pastor noticed the key in the Elder’s hand that he didn’t realize anyone else had. He asked the Elder to leave the key and to leave the house. The Elder left the house but didn’t leave the key and in a very short amount of time, after some very heated Board conversations, the pastor left that church.

In different denominations the tenure of a pastor is determined by several things. In some systems you are moved by the denominational leaders every three years (maybe a little more, maybe a little less). In others, the pastor determines when they will move and in others, the pastor or the local church board might decide when they move. I was part of a system in which I had to pass a congregational vote each year to stay employed by that congregation. A certain level of people pleasing gets built into a system like that if a person wants to stay where they are. In most cases, pastors don’t stay very long. I mean, to a dog, they’re there forever but to humans, usually eight years or less. In some systems, less than four years – by someone’s choice.

People are complex.

Pastors are “armchair quarterbacked” more than coaches and quarterbacks. The old joke is that on Sundays, families come home from church and sit down around the table to enjoy Roast Preacher. They have a surplus of people who want to tell them how to do their job and how not to do their job, what they should have done or shouldn’t have done, and all from people who have never pastored a church before. And add to all this what the apostle Paul calls, “the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.”

Along with the local church pressures that pastors face, there’s the larger pressure to be a success in their own eyes, in the eyes of their peers, in the eyes of the people they respect. Pastors attend workshops and seminars and consume books and recorded teaching on “growing their church.” They spend a week learning from an “expert” only to come home and duplicate the process they’ve just learned but getting no results or even negative results as someone leaves the church over this “new” thing the pastor has “pushed through.” Pastors try “proven methods of success” only to fail and this leads to feeling like a failure and seeing yourself as a failure. We are constantly being lied to by the Christian Industrial Complex about what success is, how to grow a church, what “visionary leadership” is and how we to can build a mega-church. Because success sells.

And if something didn’t work for us that worked for Rick Warren, the problem must be us…not our location, the people in our church, the demographics of where we live, the timing, our history, or that simple fact that the grocery story was out of toilet paper for a week last month and that started a cascade of consequences in an inexplicable series of connected events and moments that led the basket you had all your eggs in to not only split open but to also catch fire and burn to ashes.

People are complex and life is complex.

Have you ever played tug-of-war? At school we played it at a big end of the year party we would have out in our green space. People would organize their own teams and compete against other teams in a series of eliminations to finally reach a…well…final. Inevitably, as you watch the competition, you will see a David vs. Goliath match wherein one scrappy team gives their all but is eventually pulled over the line by the giants. You will also see the inevitable drop-out match where you’ll watch one team drop out, during the match, one by one until only the person at the very front is left pulling, unaware that everyone behind them has dropped out but very much aware that it’s become impossibly hard and losing is inevitable. The look on the person’s face at the front when they realize they are the only one left pulling is, well, what pastoring has felt like sometimes. You pull and pull and give and give because we’re all in this together and then you take stock, have a really good look around, an honest evaluation of the buy-in of your group of leaders and realize you’ve been pulling by yourself for quite a long while now. That can break a good leader.

Focus on the Family, in an online article about suicide among pastors writes,

The job of being a pastor is not what it once was. Few individuals who graduate seminary or Bible College to be pastors are still pastors even 10 years later. Some data show that over 1000 pastors leave the ministry permanently every month, and only 1 in ten of those who begin as pastors will retire as ministers.

If you can imagine the expectations of CEO leadership, Super Bowl coaching, professional therapist, and mystic monk wrapped into one, that’s a bit what a pastor feels is expected of them on a regular basis.

Pre-pandemic, the Gospel Coalition reported, More than half of evangelical and Reformed pastors told the Schaeffer Institute in 2015 and 2016 that although they’re happier (79 percent), they don’t have any good and true friends (58 percent). About the same number reported they can’t meet their church’s unrealistic expectations (52 percent).

In the latter days of the pandemic I can assure you things are worse.

We have built church systems that place tremendous pressure on pastors and church leaders and have created inhospitable working environments for them to live out their vocation. Some pastors, in response, have developed their own approach to leadership – or given the opportunity, new networks and new systems that insulate them from the pain and grief they experienced or associate with other ways of doing life together. Sometimes pastors behave badly, not because they set out to do harm, but because harm has been done to them and they want to make sure that never happens to them or their family ever again. And then we pass these insulating, isolating ways of doing life together down to others (without their own painful experiences) as “how we do.”

There are wolves, of that, there is no doubt. But sometimes leadership is broken because we broke the leaders, the pastors, the elders. And if we don’t own this reality, if we don’t accept our part in creating this trouble, we can never fix it.

Next chapter, “Awakening From the Western Dream.”