Church Leadership Friday is For Friends

A Weakness with Formal Ministry Preparation

Driving across rural Kansas in December I couldn’t help but be reminded of this fact:

  • In the New Testament, nearly all of the illustrations Jesus used were agrarian.
  • In modern times, nearly all modern formal education happens in the city.

It’s a conflict that most people training for vocational ministry either completely ignore or they think they can read a commentary which will explain what Jesus was referring to. (Most of these commentaries aren’t written by people who don’t know anything about that stuff either… they are written by people who live in the city but did research from other books about what to put in the commentary.)

And the implication is that most ministry models emulate a business structure and worship is built around a lecture when Jesus’ illustrations for believers were that ministry should run like a farm.

But I think most Americans are so removed from agrarian life that they miss what life in ministry could really be.

And so I’m left to wonder:

  • How can people learn to shepherd a church flock if they don’t know anything about actual sheep?
  • How can you “fish for men” if you don’t know how to fish?
  • How can you “reap a harvest” if you’ve never planted a crop?

And let’s state the obvious… I’m not aware of any ministry preparation that places wanna-be pastors on farms or commercial fishing boats or herding sheep.

Instead, we send wanna-be pastors to the city where ministry preparation looks like any other course of study.

And we wonder why our churches look like businesses, why church workers are comfortable in offices, why they are white collar workers completely missing the blue collar majority of our population?

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus *said to him, “Tend My sheep.

John 21:17

But most of us couldn’t pick a sheep out of a line-up.

Photo credit: Deputation by Peter Eskersley via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Church Leadership

Looking for Help in the Wrong Direction

Pastors have an infatuation with the business world.

I’m not exactly sure where it comes from but it is unhealthy. Perhaps it’s because church hierarchies tend to favor business people on boards and committees and eventually they give in to the way business people think? Or perhaps it’s kind of an Oedipus or Freudian thing with pastors looking longingly towards the business world, pinning for the type of money and success they think they deserve?

The irony is that successful businesses create community and benefit their employees in a way churches only wish they could. So, in a lot of people’s lives… they go to church and see a poorly run business but go to work and experience the church.

Business Books are Taking Us the Wrong Direction

When I hang out with a pastor I’m always intrigued by what they are reading or who is influencing the way they pastor. And frankly, there’s a lot of influence tracing back to two particular books: Jim Collins Good to Great and Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing. (With Godin, many pastors are impacted by derivative works of Godin. Most of his new books simply flow from or expand on the lessons taught in his first major book though.)

Both are pretty old. 2001 and 1999 respectively. And they were pretty good books with some impact on the business community. But within churches? Their influence is huge. They are getting booked to speak at church leadership events but not with very many business leadership conferences anymore. See, when I hang out with start-up leaders and business folks… Collins and Godin are in the rear view mirror, artifacts. In an age of big data do you really think “Permission Marketing” is influential? If you are trying to get acqui-hired do you really give two craps about building a great company structure?

Where are the books on farming?

So here’s my point.

Do you really think people are coming to your church to experience a business? Have we devalued the churches sacramental, innately desired place in people’s lives to leftover department store management mantras and outdated marketing techniques? Is that all that’s left of the Good News? 

There’s bunches… MULTITUDES… of “church leadership” books which are built on business and marketing principles that were popular 15 years ago. But there is very little written about or learning experiences created for pastors to learn from the metaphors Jesus actually used relative to leading a church.

  • Shepherding a flock
  • Managing a field, pruning a vineyard
  • Casting nets to catch fish

These aren’t things you learn in the city. These aren’t things you learn in a classroom. You learn these things by getting dirty, long hours doing menial tasks, being patient, and learning skills from a master shepherd/farmer/fisher who learned from another master.

But formal ministry preparation looks almost exclusively to the city and never to the farm. The very act of getting ministry preparation usually means coming to the city and learning from city people.

Yet when I read the Gospels I see Jesus rolling his eyes and walking away from the rabbis and formally trained religious people in the city to go and invest in the regular people who understand some things only regular people can understand.

Friends, the Gospel isn’t elite. It’s not about sales and marketing. It isn’t reserved for those with the resources.

The Gospel is about bringing Good News to those who are hungry for it, the regular Joes.

Get your nose out of business books and start planting a garden, raising chickens, cast a line, going on a hunt…

Jesus said, “The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time!

John 4:34-35, The Message

Church Leadership

A Leg to Stand On

Our high school small groups have a confidentiality rule. So I can’t get into the specifics of what happened last night, but I want to share something that happened last night in general terms.

Brian, our high school pastor, kicked it off by asking one of our college-aged volunteers to come up and share a conversation they’d had. The gist was that Brian was celebrating that she had come to him with her questions… questions spurred on by her taking the initiative to read the Bible and write down her questions.

His point was to encourage students to keep reading this year’s framing content from the Simple Truth Bible. But when we got into our small group time the guys said something like, “Is that what we’re doing tonight? Asking questions?

My co-leader and I did the exact same thing when they said that… folded up the nice little paper we were given as the nights lesson and put it away. “Yup, if you have questions… let’s go.”

A Leg to Stand On

Over the next hour or so a room full of high school sophomores asked us really, really hard questions. As I’ve said over and over again lately… we can’t forget that high school students are reading Shakespeare, Plato, Twain, Hemingway, and other classic literature. (Um, when was the last time you read the classics?) They are being challenged to think deeply, to unleash their intellectual minds, and to ask hard questions of the text.

But at church, [church at large, not Journey] we have a movement underway that assumes the audience knows nothing and regularly dumb things down to an irreducible minimum level of intellectual understanding. In short… we take things which really aren’t that simple and try to make them simple, for a head nod and an amen and a box checked.

Last night was a reminder that students, if given the space, have really good, important, and honest questions. I was asked questions last night about things that I’d never even thought of!

But I’ll tell you what: As these guys were asking and going from rabbit hole to rabbit hole of theological and biblical questions I was happy to have a leg to stand on

See, I’ve done plenty of personal and group Bible study. I’ve taught the Bible for years. I’ve read way too many theology books. And I’ve heard approximately 2.5 million sermons.

But in that moment, when the questions were flying, I was relying on formal education and training.

I’m convinced that youth workers, paid and volunteer, need the rigors of formal education and training.

It’ll stretch you and deepen your own faith. And it’ll prepare you for the random (but very important) questions of students in your ministry.

  • That means churches need to invest in formal education.
  • That means they have to pay people right when they’ve been properly trained.
  • That means they need to encourage (and expect) formal education for lay leaders.
  • That means they need to stop dumbing down the Gospel or theology or Bible teaching to an irreducible “felt need.”
  • That means they need to posture themselves as a place of exploration and discovery.

Can I Ask That Student SQUAREI didn’t write this post with this in mind, but it came to mind as I was writing. If you’re looking to get students asking questions and exploring deeper stuff… I highly recommend checking out Can I Ask That? from our friends at Fuller Youth Institute. We are selling a ton of it on our website.


Church Leadership

A Problem of Polity

Controversial Seattle megachurch founder Mark Driscoll will step down for at least six weeks while church leaders review formal charges lodged by a group of pastors that he abused his power. source

Most people seem aware of the situation with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. However you feel about the situation we can all agree on one thing: It’s a mess.

There’s little doubt that this has cast a shadow over a ministry that’s bigger than it’s leader. I can’t imagine trying to recruit people to check out a small group. “Yes, we’re a small group of Mars Hill. No, we’re not a cult. It’s just that… Yes, I understand. OK, thanks for listening. Goodbye.” I’ve heard from staff people who’ve lost their jobs. And I know other people who once went there and are hurting.

But this post isn’t about Mars Hill, really.

Turning Towards the Mess

If you’ve read about the Mars Hill mess and others like it, you’ll see that there’s a point in the growth of a church that people point back to as a turning point into the mess.

And that point is when the churches by-laws are changed.

Up until about 15 years ago most of these non-denominational, conservative evangelical churches had a church polity of congregational rule. Autonomous congregational rule is something of a baptist distinctive. Part of being baptist, or baptistic, as non-denominational churches like to set themselves apart by saying, is:

  1. autonomous – they don’t want anyone beyond the local church to have outside power, such as a denomination. But they’ve also been very shy about outside influence, as well.
  2. congregational rule – 15-20 years ago it was normal that a major part of membership at a baptistic church was voting rights. You’d go to congregational meetings, there would be presentations, things would be opened up to the floor for discussion, and if there needed to be, a vote would be taken.

Sometimes this autonomous congregational rule was very healthy. And other times it was really problematic for the pastors. They had a hard time getting people onto boards, getting people hired, or keeping people from getting fired. In unhealthy situations, a small group of people could call a meeting, they could make a case, and force a vote to ouster the pastor or change the direction of the church altogether.

But, as church polities go, the traditional baptist church polity did a fairly good job of providing checks and balances for the pastor and staff. They were largely able to do their work under the authority of the deacons or elders, but were always mindful that they could get questioned in a congregational meeting. It was a double-edged sword, but it was still a sword… the congregation had power.

There have always been hot shot, arrogant staff members. Heck, I’ve been one and a bunch of my friends have been that person, too. But the checks and balances of the church polity always managed to balance things out. A person got too brash or sloppy or whatever: The congregation fired them. Want to continue in ministry? You learn real quick.

The Making of a Mess

But, about 15 years ago, autonomous congregational rule started to fall out of style. 

I don’t remember where it really got going or who originated it. But I remember that by about 2005, our staff fell in love with a series of podcasts/books by Andy Stanley, and the point of emphasis for their entire case was built around moving away from autonomous congregational rule and moving your congregation to an elder rule, staff lead polity.

“If you want to get stuff done and your church to grow, you’ll first need to get the congregation out of the way.” Not the exact words, but definitely the message conveyed.

What does “elder rule, staff lead polity” mean? That means that, in most instances, the bylaws of the church are changed so that the congregation loses voting rights over the activities of the church. Instead, if they are asked to vote at all, they get to vote on elders. But ideally– the goal, in a true elder lead polity, is that the congregation doesn’t have any voting rights and essentially the pastor and elders of the church completely control the church.

Why would a hot shot pastor want that? Practically speaking, this means that a relatively small group of hand selected people act as general oversight but the staff make 100% of the daily decisions for the church. In some megachurches, these elders aren’t even people who go to the church at all, they are essentially board members and friends of the pastor/church. So why would I want that type of polity? Because if I want to be the captain of my ship… it’s a whole lot easier to dominate 8 of my friends than it is 2,000 voters. 

When making the change, the argument that’s made is a simple, yet powerful one. They reason that the average person in the pews can’t possibly understand the rigors of vocational, professional ministry. “So why let them make decisions?”

And, if you believe in the priesthood of the staff, that’s a perfectly acceptable position. (Whereas, another baptist distinctive is doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.) And if you’re a hot shot pastor what’s a little Scripture-twisting to get what you want? People are eating up my messages; I can say whatever I want!

See, here’s where the mess happens. It’s relatively easy to convince non-professional, non-vocational church attendees that the staff is best prepared to make all the day-to-day decisions of the congregation without any non-professional help. It’s particularly easy to convince 51% of the congregation that they aren’t highly trained, vocational church staff.

And so they vote away their voting rights and the staff takes over. 

Is It Always a Mess?

Of course not.

Thousands of congregations have made the move from congregational rule to elder rule and not had problems. For many of them, a self-governed staff has lead to brand new and powerful seasons of ministry. They are thriving under this new polity. So I want to be cautious and make sure I’m not painting a picture that the new fashion-forward-look of elder lead polity is necessarily bad.

But, at the same time, I want to bring up two points of caution:

  1. Putting all of the political power of a large, religious organization into the hands of a very small group of people is risky. As an outsider it might not seem like a lot of power, but to a vocational staff person, it is. It can be glorious and it can be a disaster. Either way it is risky.
  2. I think fostering a congregation whose only voice is whether or not to show up or whether or not to give financially is a short-term strategy. The most concerning thing you hear, as a congregant, in how people talk about this on the inside is a staff attitude of “if you don’t like it, find another church.” That gets to the heart of the matter: Pride.

Also worth pointing out? This style of elder lead, staff ruled polity has taken off at the same time as the church planting movement. Thousands of church planters look towards these folks as their heroes and have set-up their church polity exactly as their heroes have told them, meaning the conditions for a mess to develop could be incubating right now in lots of congregations around the country and you’ll never hear about them.

Avoiding the Mess

I don’t know how you can read 1 Corinthians and come to the conclusion that 1% of people can make 100% of the decisions for a congregation. Call me old school, but even as a staff member I really liked the traditional congregational rule. (I like the way Presbyterians handle polity, too.)

But if you’re going to operate this way, here are some suggestions.

  1. Require the congregation to get financially audited by a group like the ECFA every year.
  2. Term limits. For elders, specifically. But I’d be open to exploring the impact of term limits for pastoral staff. That’d certainly cut down on the pride issue.
  3. Create and foster a specific place the congregation can be heard. The Holy Spirit isn’t limited to speak just to the staff, give the people of your congregation a real voice… not a microphone in a room of 1,000 people. Maybe this is a non-staff lead committee?
  4. Create and empower a staff relations committee. The stuff I hear about the hiring, firing, and staffing conditions of people who work in churches is often times appalling. I can’t believe that if a congregation really knew what was going on that they’d stand for it. I’m not saying a larger church shouldn’t have an HR person, but I am absolutely saying that the HR practices should not be a staff-only thing. They need outside help to prevent abuses.

In short, if you are going to govern with an elder lead, staff-driven concept: Don’t set yourself up to fail. (Morally, legally, functionally)

You have the power to create  transparency, fairness, and internal controls… so don’t abuse the power given to you.

Obviously, this is all just my opinion. It’s not well-formed or anything that I’d call “an official position on church polity.” But it is environment I see that’s fostered some of the abuses in the publics eye right now.

Church Leadership

Muzzled Leaders

In 2010 Andrew Marin got himself in trouble for calling out a room full of Christian leaders. It was the best kind of trouble… black balled for saying what needed to be said.

Here’s what he said:

I stand silent to give dignity to a moment many Christians take for granted.

There are only a few sacred moments in one’s life—one of them is when you know in your heart that you’ve been set apart to dare to be remarkable by doing nothing other than believing in a just and powerful God.

The last great Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, commented about power by saying:

“But who is to guard the guards themselves?”

I am standing in a room with 600 gatekeepers to our faith. 600 influencers. 600 people that stand amongst and above the rest.

Maybe you don’t feel as such in your own mind.

But the Christian hierarchy proves different.

Jesus said that: “wisdom will be proven right by her actions.”

Well, our actions have only proven that ‘wisdom’ must be an elite group of predominantly white upper class individuals who care about their “Christian brands.”

I don’t care about your Christian brand, and neither does the Lord.

God says to Isaiah:

“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.

Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.

Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder.

The wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

You all are the best; you are all the brightest that our faith has. And yet where are your hearts with the gay community?

How have your tangible actions proven the Lord’s wisdom right?

Is the culture war it too political? Too divisive? Too scary? Too unknown to stop us from changing our medium of engagement with gays and lesbians.

In his famous speech apologizing to America after his sex scandal, Bill Clinton said:

“This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people.”

Friends, I plead with you today that you stop being a gatekeeper and start acting like Jesus.


Every day I’m astounded at the silence of Christians who are in leadership positions. In the face of abuses, they are silent. In the face of corruption, they are silent. In the face of social injustices, they are silent.

Many define themselves by what they say on the platform. But I think their public silence defines them.

It’s easy to say “I’m minding my business” or “I don’t want to risk hurting my organization.

But the silence gives permission for atrocities to continue.

The silence implies approval.

The silence proves to those you are called to lead that you aren’t a leader taking them bravely where they need to go.

The silence says you value your position more than you value your calling to serve something bigger than a job.

You think being silent sustains your ministry because you don’t want to make enemies with powerful people when, in fact, it kills it.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

You have a platform, not a brand.

Speak up.

Your community needs you.

Speak up. Speak out.


You don’t have a brand.

You only have Jesus.


Photo credit: Microphone by Evan Forester via Flickr (Creative Commons)