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.

Empathy.

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)

CALLING

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.”

Years.

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.

LEADERSHIP IN COMMUNITY

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.

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.”

CHARISMA IS NOT CHARACTER

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.

GOD IS NOT IN CONTROL and YOU SHOULD STOP SAYING THAT HE IS BECAUSE IT EXCUSES BAD BEHAVIOR

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.

LET’S DESCRIBE WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR

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.

Always.

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.”

When Church Leadership is Broken chapter 1.

“Let’s Blame Bad Pastors”

It was the last session of a youth workers conference when I first woke up to the reality that we are not all pastors for the same reasons.

A psychologist was on the platform. He had just published a new book on why teenagers act the way they do. But instead of talking to us about our teenagers, he decided to talk to us about why youth pastors act the way they do. One by one he started listing off the variety of reasons people become youth pastors. And one by one, youth pastors – some I knew and some I didn’t – got up and walked out. The truth was, we were all about finding out why our teens acted the way they do but calling out the reasons we might be doing what we do – hell no.

So we started voting with our feet.

This conference was always great about surveying us after the event to get our take on each main platform speaker. I’m sure this PhD didn’t do well in the reviews.

But to understand how leadership gets broken, we must include a conversation about why we become leaders. Why we say “yes” to being a leader. And in that conversation we have to acknowledge that some of us become pastors and leaders for all the wrong reasons.

Don’t misunderstand me, some of us (probably most of us) become pastors because we have been gripped with a dream of seeing the whole world experience the love of God through Jesus. And still, we all bring our baggage with us into our vocation. Some of us find healing along the way, many of us find more hurting and we double down on our dysfunctional ways of coping and managing.

Some of us never had many friends, or any friends, and being a pastor is the fast track to a posse, a group, a guaranteed bunch of relationships with you at the center. Some of us longed to be popular and being a pastor in the right kind of church in the right part of the country can make you wildly popular – men want to be you; women want you and children want to be like you. (I’m emphasizing men in this story not because you must be a man to be a pastor but because women don’t seem to fall as easily into these categories – at least not yet.) Some of us become pastors because we love power over, and we discovered at some point in our lives that pastors have incredible potential to have power over other people.

People are complex. Including people – or maybe especially people – who have a will to lead.

Even the New Testament recognizes the mix of motives that may bring someone to a place of leadership in the Church. Paul writes Timothy, “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” And he warns, “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader.” In Acts, Paul warns the Ephesian church that, “Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following.” And he acknowledges to the Philippian church that “…some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry” and preach with “selfish ambition.”

Peter contrasts two kinds of leaders in 1 Peter 5. How do some shepherds lead:

Grudgingly or willingly.

For what they will get for themselves or out of service to God.

And as lords to be obeyed or as examples to be imitated.

Jesus spends nearly four years with his disciples preparing them to become the leaders of the Church after his death, burial, and resurrection. He contrasted the way of the world with the way of the kingdom as it involves leadership. Being a servant was the path to greatness in the house of God. He emphasized character, focusing on humility. He warned about wealth and essentially promised them a life in which they would be learning how to die. He even warned them about taking for themselves titles of respectability and instead offered them working class titles of low reputation. He emphasized team and relationship and deference.

The Church didn’t even make it out of the first century before men came along and figured out how to make the care of souls a lucrative opportunity for themselves. A path to power. A means of popularity. We turned the description of a job into a title. We exchanged the bowl and towel for a platform. We transitioned from equipping the saints to enlisting the saints to fulfill our vision. And being a leader in the Church became a means to any number of ends that primarily served the one taking the lead role.

This is true – bad actors have and will find opportunities to exploit the Church for their own gain.

I once knew a couple who had many children and had suddenly appeared one Sunday morning at our worship service looking exhausted and nervous. As I got to know them, they shared their story of being part of a much larger church than ours and their allegiance to a pastor who told them when they could stop having children, exactly how to discipline each of their children, what kind of clothes to wear, who to vote for, and who had final approval on all their major purchases. And on their first Sunday worshipping with us, they were pretty sure God was going to strike them dead for being there. (spoilers – he didn’t.)

People are complex.

And that involves pastors and people who lead in the Church, whatever you call them.

The easiest thing we can do, the thing we love to do in our story, is to lean into the bad apple theory. We want to say that ALL the horrible experiences people have in the Church (#churchtoo) are because of bad actors, the bad apple in the bunch. Eliminate the bad apple(s) and we can all reset to nice, safe and good leaders in nice, safe and good churches. But at some point, under an avalanche of bad apples, we must eventually start to question the orchard itself. The system by which all these bad actors are being produced, finding platforms, being empowered to do harm and rewarded for their “success” has to be dismantled.

If you have been around the evangelical church at all, you know their names. Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, Brian Houston, James MacDonald, Bruxy Cavey, Ravi Zacharias, John MacArthur…the list is long and the celebrity pastors are merely the tip of that iceberg. You can get a more full but much sadder view of the rot in the “orchard” by reading at Julie Roys’ reputable website.

Here’s what we don’t want to acknowledge or talk about…we love wolves who get results. And we support systems that get results….even wolfy systems.

People are complex.

I got to know a church in Indiana who hired a senior pastor who led the church to growth from a couple hundred people to five hundred people in just a few years. At the end of the run, the senior pastor was called into a meeting with the elders of the local church who confronted him about the stories of countless volunteers who had complaints about the way the senior pastor had talked to them, treated them and pushed them to do more for the church, leaving them feeling – in their own words – used and abused. The elders listed the complaints, suggested a sabbatical, offered to fund specialized training for the senior pastor – they would pay to fix the problem and get the senior pastor to stop putting people through his meat grinder. After listening to all they had to say, the senior pastor simply said, “You’re asking me to change everything that’s gotten us to this point. You want me to not be myself. All the things that have made my ministry successful, you want me to change. You’re saying to me, we don’t want our church to grow anymore.”

The elders would meet with him a couple more times after that meeting but the final decision was that the senior pastor was right, why tamper with their success? The elders decided it was better to manage the hurt of people who volunteered for the “greater good” of growing their church than trying to “fix” the senior pastor. In the end, shouldn’t they just let him “be himself” as long as it works?

People are complex.

Sometimes leadership is broken because broken people bring their brokenness into their vocation and rather than getting healed, they exploit their brokenness, or their brokenness is exploited “for the greater good.”

Sometimes leadership is broken because broken people tend to use their power to stay in power.

Sometimes leadership is broken because someone doesn’t know how their church grew to where it grew and exerting control out of fear is all they can think of to do to keep it “on top.”

I know a pastor, we’ll call Bob, of a denomination who lives in a small city and he’s the only church of his denomination in that city. The city is small enough that it only has “one of each” of denominational churches in the city. When families at another local church were feeling particularly used and abused by their pastor, they packed up and moved, en masse, to the church Bob pastors. Bob welcomed them, empathized with them, cared for them and enjoyed the notoriety within his denomination of being the pastor who tripled the size of his church in a single year.

Bob was invited on the speaking circuit to tell all the other churches in his denomination how he did it. Not about being the beneficiary of the split at the other church but about their cell church program and a few other programs he started that received all the credit (along with Bob) for their explosive growth. 300% is a big deal. Bob became a celebrity.

Then, after a few years, the church that had split to the benefit of Bob’s church, got a new senior pastor and nearly all the people who had come over to Bob’s church started migrating back to whence they came. At the next city ministerial meeting, Bob presented all of the pastors present (including the new pastor) a sheet of paper on which was written an agreement he was asking them all to sign for the sake of the unity of the Church in their city. It was a simple proposal, we, the undersigned, agree to not accept anyone to our church by transfer from another church in our city. Read that again. Slowly.

Bob wanted to lock it down and keep people from leaving his church by insuring they would not be welcome anywhere else. His overnight 300% growth would stay intact, and his church would carry on as it was.

Not a single pastor around those tables would sign the agreement.

Sometimes leadership is broken because a person lacks any sense of self-awareness, and they can preach against the very things they themselves are doing without any sense of cognitive dissonance.

Sometimes leadership is broken because a person grew up in a dysfunctional home and they bring all their dysfunction into their church experience. We do what we know.

I was taught in Bible College that I can’t be friends with people in my church. I was taught a pastor should only befriend other pastors or people who aren’t in their church because it leads to trouble. Sometimes leadership is broken because a person was taught a broken way of leading.

People are complex.

The easiest solution to broken leadership in the Church is to blame bad apples. If we are honest and we really want to understand and address broken leadership, we must look at the orchard. Our orchard. We must examine our system and try to understand why we keep producing wolves, why we’re so susceptible to wolves and why we platform wolves, protect wolves and promote wolves. We must be honest about how much of the western definition of success and ethos of “for the greater good” has crept into our collective culture. We must embrace the investigation into how much we ourselves and our systems are complicit in the nurturing and production of wolves.

Next chapter, “Breaking Leaders.”

When Church Leadership is Broken

INTRODUCTION – Doing life together as the Church is challenging because it involves other people. And people are complex. Sometimes the very thing they want to do, they don’t do. Sometimes the one thing they don’t want to do is all they can think about. Often their stated reason for doing a thing is far removed from the actual reason (perhaps unknown even to them) they did something. The free will they think they are using is all bound up and the control they think they have is really just an illusion.

Good people do bad things and bad people do good things.

And it doesn’t magically get better because you decide to follow Jesus and become a part of the Church. Our story involves a process that goes by different names but I will call it, spiritual formation. Honest followers of Jesus will describe life as a journey and their own experience as moving along a line from who we were to who we are becoming but that line is anything but straight. And we’re not always moving forward. And some days we just want to sit out for a little while and evaluate.

Life together is challenging.

And when we do life together it means that decisions must be made. If we’re all in the same room together, someone must decide what the thermostat is going to be set on. That’s not the biggest decision that has to be made but even such a small, mundane decision has the potential to disappoint the greatest number of people and affect the experience they have when we try to do life together.

Taking care of each other is about making a series of decisions. Decisions that often build, one on another. Decisions that lead to action and actions that lead to consequences.

When my wife and I were first married, just a few months into our marriage, we came down with the stomach flu. Well, my wife, the elusive Donna, came down with the flu. And I tried to practice the golden rule, I did unto her what I would want her to do unto me. And I got out of the way, left the apartment, and I gave her space to suffer (and vomit) alone. She thought, “why is he abandoning me? Is this our future together? Will he leave me when the going gets tough?”

In less than 48 hours she was over the flu but seemed unhappy with me for reasons I could not imagine. Then I started throwing up.

While I lay in bed between hurls, contemplating my mortality, the elusive would come into the room and fluff my pillow, see if I needed anything, offer me things to read, ask how I was feeling and basically driving me crazy. I kept thinking, “why are you torturing me? Why won’t you just leave me alone?” She was doing unto me as she wanted done unto her. In the autopsy of our suffering, we both realized that we’d given each other what we wanted but never given the other what they most desired.

Recently, a friend posted about grief and experiencing sudden loss. They suggested the way to care for someone in a situation of grief and sudden loss was not to ask them what they needed or wait for them to tell you what they needed but rather go and do for them, do what you would want done, do what obviously is needed for people and come alongside them in their moment of deep pain. And I thought, dear God, please don’t let any of my friends ever do this for me. If I was experiencing loss and I was grieving and you should up at my door for tea and a chat or just to sit in the room with me, I would not feel loved. Put the food on the front porch, ring the doorbell and then run, that will speak love to me.

Life together comes with all sorts of challenges and one of the greatest of these is that people are complex. Their actions and reactions can have “right” and “wrong” labels but a lot of our actions and reactions are neither right nor wrong, they are just our reactions. You and I process the same stimulus in different ways.

Raising three children, the elusive and I realized that what worked with one did not work with the other. Whether it was loving together time or loving discipline time, each one responded differently and felt differently to the same things. Movie night was brilliant for one but game night was better for another. Sending one to their room elicited deep, lamenting repentance for one and felt like a holiday for another. People are complex and what motivates one doesn’t motivate another. What inspires one just bounces off the heart of another. What says, “I love you” to one, is meaningless to another.

When we think about taking care of the Church, we have to embrace reality: people are complex. And bringing them all to Jesus doesn’t take away their complexity, if anything, it amplifies it. As a result, leading a church has to be more complex than leading a business that builds widgets or sells sprockets. In truth, business has already acknowledged this complexity and created things like HR and developed more people-oriented ways of doing business. But I would contend the Church hasn’t done well at this shift. We still fall back on governmental models and CEO-oriented, entrepreneurial business models and dysfunctional family systems models and hierarchical authoritarian models, for doing life together.

All those models will “work.” All of them will accomplish a goal. But I would suggest that the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming and those models are not neutral and will each and every one produce unintended consequences as well as predictable consequences that look nothing like Jesus, who is the kingdom coming, and impedes the work of the people, inhibits their spiritual formation and creates more problems than they solve.

This is an introduction to a series of posts about what leadership in the Church can look like.

Growing Healthy

“Healthy things grow!” is what church growth experts have said. And if you could listen inside my head you’d hear, “and so do cancers.” I want to tell you what I think healthy looks like and how I think we get to healthy in a local church. I spend a lot of time reading about this and listening to other people talk about this and I’ve spent the biggest part of my life living through both the health and disease of local church life. But I am not writing this to tell anyone how to “grow” their church attendance or finally become that mega-church you have always dreamed you would become.

I want to share some quick thoughts on what makes for a healthy church.

And no, not every healthy church or every good church or every Jesusy church is going to experience steady or exponential numerical growth. That’s a myth used to sell product.

But after three decades of following Jesus and being a church volunteer, a youth pastor, an associate pastor, and a senior pastor, I have developed some ideas about what “healthy” looks like in a local church. Here’s my list:

1) Tension. I believe healthy churches exist in tension. In the olden days, tents were held up by the tension creating by ropes pulling in opposite directions. Healthy churches embrace tension, a multitude of counsellors, differing viewpoints and the goal isn’t to pull in the same direction but to pull for the same purpose – keep the tent from flying away! A multitude of leaders isn’t helpful if they all say, “Yes” to one leader who rules them all. Healthy means the freedom to express contrary opinions, it means that dissent is not only welcome but is protected and given recognized status. Healthy means a willingness to lean into hard conversations horizontally with no sense of anyone being above anyone else or “out of bounds” for disagreement and pushback. Healthy means people are never shamed, shunned, or otherwise punished for saying, “no” or offering critique.

2) Team. I believe that healthy church exists when served by a team of leaders rather than “a” leader with a team. It must be a culture of “our” church not “my” church. The deeply spiritual will say, “no, it’s Jesus’ church.” Yes, of course it is but that’s usually just code for a senior pastor to say, “this is Jesus’ church and he’s given it to me to manage (rule).”  A culture of “our” helps negate that temptation and develops a culture wherein nearly everyone cares about the health and well-being of the church. This requires a constant ego check and a commitment to resist strong personalities that will rise from the group and attempt to dominate overtly and covertly. Team requires checking our egos at the door seeing “second fiddle” as the most desirable position to inhabit.

3) Character. I believe healthy churches are committed to developing the virtues and living as people of character. We must tell each other the truth. Healthy means we speak honestly with one another, forthrightly, as we used to say. Healthy means valuing character over charisma – they are not mutually exclusive but for the health and well-being of the church, character must be prioritized and the pre-requisite for leadership. “Likeability” is not character. “Popularity” is not character. Often, I have seen people promoted in local churches for their charisma to place their character could not maintain them and they hurt others and themselves.

4) Discernment. I believe healthy churches are committed to detection of and confrontation of bullshit. I’m sure there’s a more acceptable way of saying that but I know there’s not a more accurate way. A healthy church has to have a low level of tolerance for people’s bullshit, especially from those who are in leadership roles. There’s a proverb that promises that when the barn is full of oxen it will also be full of bullshit. When life is happening, good things are getting done, the bullshit will still accumulate. Healthy means developing people who can distinguish between bs and wisdom, from faithful dissent and harmful divisiveness, from brainstorming and listening to the Spirit.

5) Consensus. I believe that healthy churches will operate by a consensus rather than by a majority. The principle of majority rule always creates a sense of us vs. them and produces loser and winners. The day is gone when we say the “winners” as committed to representing the “losers” as they are their constituency. Majority produces partisan practices. Healthy churches will seek to listen, to understand, to go slow. Slower than that. Much more slowly than even that. Healthy churches come to a consensus in which all sides feel heard and all options have been brought to the table and then we move forward collectively, confident that we have been heard and we will take the next step together, even if it’s not the step we initially supported taking.

6) Cooperation. I believe that healthy churches don’t isolate, insulate, or pit the interests of one another against the collective. Healthy churches are creating and sustaining a culture of helping each other, supporting each other, doing the life of Jesus together. It is easy for a ministry of the church to become so dominate in the hearts and minds of those most directly related to it that they will begin to judge those who aren’t on the same page, who don’t show up to serve in the same way, who aren’t passionate about the area they are. A healthy church is committed to cooperating with one another and with participation alongside the rest of the body of Jesus in the community of which they are a part.

7) Hospitable. I believe that healthy churches are meant to build bigger tables and take down walls built by human hands. Healthy churches are centered set and not bounded sets with belonging determined by relationship to the center and not by adherence to a particular set of rules or rituals. The practice of relationship, not the concept or belief in but the actual practice of relationship by sharing time, space, and stories with one another is essential for the health and well-being of a local church. Being truly healthy means holding space for each other and for strangers to our community and our experiences. Being truly healthy means not everyone sounds like you, votes like you, looks like you, likes what you like and does what you like to do. A healthy community reflects and embodies the cultures, races and ethnicities of their geographical reality and offers themselves and their life together, as a sign of the kingdom that’s coming.

8) Communication. I believe that healthy churches will develop a culture where they listen first and talk second. Healthy churches won’t keep secrets from each other, won’t treat information like a commodity or a reward and will endeavor to be open and transparent. Healthy churches don’t ask you to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) coming in or going out. The practice of healthy churches is to create avenues where people can voice their dissent, concern, disagreement or dissonance with the dominant vibe, in constructive and meaningful ways in which they will feel heard. Healthy churches don’t use suggestion boxes (anonymous or otherwise) but facilitate face to face communication.

9) Love. I believe that healthy churches practice love and you know it’s being practiced when you feel it without having to be told it’s what they do. Healthy churches live as the ongoing answer to the question, “What does love do?” It is the spring from which everything else flows out from and back to. This means healthy church pay attention to the margins and practice observation, inclusion and conversation. Healthy churches look for ways to meet the needs of people who have nothing to offer them, from whom there is nothing to be gained. Healthy churches will demonstrate their E.Q. as much as or more than their I.Q.

10) Servant Leadership. I believe that in a healthy church there are no leader-Lords. Healthy churches eschew hierarchy and authoritarian leadership. Greatness is determined by acts of service, kindness, and self-sacrifice and not by titles, job descriptions or positions. Healthy churches emphasize things like empathy, gentleness, meekness, peacemaking, humility and supporting others rather than leaders who accumulate followers and supporters. Healthy churches celebrate volunteer work and draw attention to the work of the people more so than the vocational kingdom workers employed by the church. Servant leadership is not serving by being a leader but rather a posture exemplified by Jesus as he washed his disciples’ feet and emptied himself so that we might become full.

These 10 are just a start but they are essential practices of a healthy church. I’m sure you have a great idea that should be added to this list. Please help me out and share the insight you’ve gained from your own experience in the comments.

Carnivorous Pastors

I am introspective by nature.

Ask me what I think and I will take a few minutes to answer. Ask me what I feel and I will have to get back to you in a few days.

Turning inward is my “go to” move.

As a pastor of a local church I know that I disappoint, hurt, confuse and frustrate people all the time. John Ortberg said, “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” I lean into that.

But the events that have transpired at Hillsong, Willow Creek, Harvest, Mars Hill and the stories of the women and men who have been used and abused by their former founding pastor are stories of another kind.

I’ve read articles and listened to podcasts and the gist of these has mostly been “pastor, look inward for there but for the grace of God you too will go…” and the more disturbing, “the only person who can sit in judgment of (mr. fill-in-the-blank) is someone who has risen to the same level of responsibility and authority…” yada yada.

And while I think we all need to look inward more – well, most of us, some of us probably need to pull up because we spend so much time down that well – this is not a “there but for the grace of God…” situation.

Unless your thing is to be a serial user and abuser. A predator. A shepherd with a hankering for lamb.

I know people who have had a slip. I know people who have become involved with someone who was not their spouse through work proximity or a an old friend or a new friend. I know people who have strayed one click too far on the internet. I can relate to all those scenarios. I am capable of all of those scenarios.

But setting women up, over and over and over again, multiple women in various situations, in and out of the local church in order to use them for my own gratification or need to feel powerful? Berating men, manipulating people, serial lying…that’s not a slip.

That is called a pathology.

That is a person who is locked into a compulsion that is destined to wreck lives, that will eventually include their own.

This week a report was released from Pennsylvania that details in over 900 pages the abuse of over 1000 individuals by Roman Catholic priests over a period of 70 years.

In Pennsylvania. Six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

This should not be read as a call to introspection. It should be read as, “If you are abusing women or children, sexually or otherwise, get the hell out of pastoral ministry.” You are caught in a pathology of sin, not a victim of ordinary temptation.

Get out. Confess your sins. Get help. But stop hurting people through your position as a pastor.

Let me be as clear as I can be. A male pastor who gets into a sexual relationship with a member of his congregation or with a staff member is not having an “affair.” They have enticed someone into an abusive relationship, an abuse of their power and position, their vocation and they are not a person who “fell in love” with someone who was not their spouse.

Paul warns the leaders at the fledgling church in 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! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you.” (Ac 20:28-31 NLT)

Someone reminded me that this passage is about guarding against false teachers, not serial sexual predators. My thought is that if we don’t think that abusing the sheep teaches them something false about the gospel, and doesn’t do damage to their faith, then we don’t understand teaching or the gospel or both.

As leaders and pastors we’re supposed to protect the sheep, not eat them. Roast lamb is never supposed to be on the menu.

Jesus told his followers, “But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Ma 18:6)

I think we need to take this as seriously as Jesus does. I think that’s what followers of Jesus do and I think it’s what the watching World needs us to do.

The World, I think, can tell the difference between a pastor who makes a bad choice and sinfully wrecks his own marriage and family and a pastor who preys on women and/or children in a series of manipulative and abusive encounters.

Sesame Street taught us that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. If we treat serial abuse the same as or equate it with a pastor who has fallen into temptation to embezzle funds, have an affair or get charged with a DUI, we are communicating something to the victims of these serial perpetrators that is not true and will do harm to their souls. We also communicate something false to other pastors that we believe that at any time they themselves will start down this path of serial abuse which will create unintended consequences for those who become consumed with fear.

I have read articles suggesting that accountability partners are the answer. Not lying to people is the answer. A serial abuser will look at you and lie to all your accountability questions because they are lying to themselves and everyone else already.

I have read articles that point to all the good that Bill Hybels and Mark Driscoll and Brian Houston has done. “We can’t read all those books and see all those people who have come to Jesus and throw it all out!” This response has made me question who we think is really behind all these good things. Did God build Willow or did Bill? Is God responsible for Hillsong, or is Brian? Did God speak truth to us through books written by Bill and his ghostwriters or was it dependent on Bill’s “anointing?” At Mars Hill, was Mark building his kingdom or God’s kingdom?

Recently I’ve come across a mega-pastor part of a huge church planting network that rhymes with “Ark.” He rips the scripture “strike the shepherd and the flock will flee” to justify rapid rehabilitation for pastors in their network who eat the sheep. The churches will fall apart and people go elsewhere, he reasons, so get these stars back into their pulpits asap. Fast track their repentance and restoration – for the sake of the kingdom.

Bad people can do good things.

Good people can do bad things.

But we cannot respond to serial abusers the same way we respond to people who slip and fall, own their stuff and get back up again.

Finally, please do not say that the only people who can speak to someone who has done the things Bill and Brian and Mark and James and [fill in the blank] have done unless they have the same life experience that they have. That’s precisely the kind of thinking that perpetuates the environment and culture in which this kind of abuse takes place.

Predatory sexual manipulation and abuse is wrong. Period. Full stop. Anyone who boasts about throwing people under the bus is not a shepherd. Isn’t that obvious? But perhaps we prefer John Wayne more than we prefer Jesus in our pulpits.

A six year old has all the authority he needs to tell you or anyone else, king or queen, that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. A child can announce that the emperor has no clothes on. It takes an adult to coordinate a conspiracy of silence “for the good of the kingdom.”

So, Jesus doesn’t love Bill and Mark and James and Brian and God’s grace can’t redeem them? Neither I nor anyone else I know is saying that. But being the object of God’s love and the work of his redemptive love does not give us a free pass to eat other sheep. We should not react to predatory behavior in leaders the same as we do another brother or sister who sins – or another leader who sins. We don’t put them back in the pulpit.

So what do we do?

We co-create healthy systems with God by his empowering Spirit.

We avoid dysfunctional systems that perpetuate this kind of serial abuse.

Here are some of the rules dysfunctional systems live by – avoid these, run from these, confront these:

· Don’t talk about problems.
· If you must talk about problems, never talk about the real problem.
· Don’t talk about your feelings.
· Never talk to another family member directly. Always go through another person.
· Do as I say, not as I do.
· Don’t rock the boat. Ever.
· Don’t tell people outside our system about our troubles.
· Don’t trust people outside our system.
· Keep our family secrets.
· Resists outsiders from entering the system to observe, interview or critique.
· Maintain fuzzy personal boundaries.
· Promote loyalty to the family system.
· Members who leave the system are not to be trusted and should be shunned.

To my brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry, things just keep getting harder but don’t let that keep you from caring for the flock of God of which you are a part. We need each other, now more than ever. We need to share our burdens with each other and stop buying the success illusion. Be faithful and don’t give up on your amazing calling to shepherd and protect. May we have the courage to dismantle the unhealthy systems we have created together that have turned the flock of God into ground lamb and may God empower us to say, “No.” to the opportunities to take advantage of our role whenever and wherever they present themselves to us.

Church Planting Secret Sauce

You know how magicians supposedly get really mad at magicians who share the secrets behind magic tricks? I’m going to tell you a secret, as a pastor, that is behind every successful church plant. This is THE secret behind every successful church plant. And I’m not going to charge you anything for it.

This is a freebie.

I’ve been in vocational ministry for over 30 years now. I’ve been involved in church plants, established churches, para-church, the whole deal. I’ve been able to hang out with some pretty well known people in vocational ministry – people who cover the gamut from apostle to preachers.

I’ve spent time with people who have planted and led mega-churches and others who have planted and led churches of less than 100 people.

And everything in between.

Today I want to reveal the secret of successful church planting.

This secret is the only 100% foolproof tip that exists for planting new churches. It always works. ALWAYS.

And it’s the only one that works without fail. Others will sell you a course, give you tips, offer you a package of messages or produce yet another book that promises to take you from zero to mega (or at least a respectable number for your particular denomination).

None of these are as accurate, reliable or as honest as the secret I am about to reveal to you.

Now, I need to be clear, I’m not talking about someone like Rob Bell who leads the Sunday night service at one church that grows to 1000 people and then moves across town to start a new church with that 1000 people. That’s something different. It’s not bad but it’s not a church plant the way most people who plant churches have lived it.

I’m talking about moving to a place you’ve never been, gathering people and becoming a self-sustaining congregation of Jesus followers.

There’s a danger in giving away this secret. Some of my fellow pastors will get mad at me. Like the magician’s lore, they won’t take kindly to me giving away this secret. And there’s another group, that curious group of experts with no real track record who sell secrets and the magic that reportedly goes with them to eager, hopeful pastors looking to plant and grow their own mini-mega. They will take exception with me just giving this info away to you.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Are you ready? Have I teased this out long enough? Are you anxious to discover this secret that can lead to you too becoming the planting pastor of a soon to be mega-church?

If you’re a pastor and you have email and you have ever used it to sign up at a Christian site for anything, you have email in your spam file offering you church planting magic secrets for a price. The thing is this, we want to believe in magic. Even when it comes to planting churches, we desperately want to believe that it’s magic.

A magic spell. A magic formula. A magic system.

We want assurances and certainties that some people – like David Copperfield – really can make that plane disappear. We want assurances and certainties that some people – purpose driven people – really can make a church appear and grow because they aren’t just doing a trick. They ARE magic.

And we can be magic too.

We tried this once in the denomination I am a part of. We went to people who had planted churches and whose church had grown to a great size and we said, “Obviously you have the magic. Please resign your position and turn over what you’ve built and go do this again. Because you’re magic.”

The buy in was, well, pretty much what you would expect. It wasn’t overwhelming.

But some pioneers, some real craftsmen (and women) stepped up and stepped out and went to plant again.

And WA-LAA! PRESTO! They did it again.

But sometimes they didn’t.

Sometimes the magic didn’t go with them. Sometimes the same magic words that worked the magic in their old location just – well – didn’t.

Of course, this didn’t stop people from selling the magic tricks to new people starting out who felt their own inner call to the world of magic and church planting.

And conferences and consultants and books and recordings have been, are being and will be sold that offer the secrets of lightning in a bottle.

And because 1 out of many many planters actually come up with the bottle of lightning and their plant makes it – and sometimes even goes mega – this fuels the imagination of all of us that the only difference between one persons success and my own is that they learned the magic correctly and I can too.

Hopefully we never stop to think about the kingdom ethics of charging people to tell them how to plant and grow a church. Planters are generally too busy for casual contemplation.

O.K., I’ve stalled you long enough and I feel badly about that. After all, there’s a church, probably another mega-church, just waiting to be birthed once this secret falls into your hands – because I GUARANTEE this will work. It ALWAYS works, every single time – and it’s the ONLY ONE THAT DOES.

There are three ingredients to this trick and you HAVE to have all 3 in place or it won’t work.

Ready?

The right people, in the right place at the right time.

Guaranteed. Foolproof. 100% certain to produce every single time.

Once in a great while the right place and the right time will make something happen but sustainability of the trick requires all 3 to eventually come together.

And that’s a freebie, you can thank me in the comment section. Everybody else, well, they’re selling dreams and that’s not bad, everybody needs a dream. But what I just told you, it’s the only thing that actually works. And if you have those 3, you can be pretty inept, a bumbler, an enneagram pick-a-number, and it will still work.

So enjoy, my friends, and let me know how it’s going for you.

To all my fellow magicians, I apologize but some secrets should not be taken to the grave.