Church Leadership

High-trust, low-control

A movement cannot grow in a low-trust, high-control environment. 

But a dictatorship can. (Cuba)

A corporation can. (McDonald’s)

A gang can. (Al Capone)

In a low-trust, high-control environment leadership is supreme. Decisions flow from top to bottom. A high value is placed on replication and copying and perfecting. Efficiency is more important than individualism. And the everyday worker has virtually no voice. In fact, the less voice the worker has the better.


You want to see what church growth looks like? Remove the money. Learn about the Boxer Revolution and how that changed the church in China. All the western missionaries and their hierarchical structures went away. (Or were killed) And the church went underground.

Thus, a low-control and high-trust structure was forced to emerge. When the church went from an Augustinian mindset with paid staff and buildings and budgets and fake-butts-in-seats to an underground movement of unpaid pastors on the run, meeting in house churches, and people risking their life to be a part of it… the church became a movement again. The Gospel spread neighbor to neighbor because it is Good News. People risked their lives to be called a Christian.

And it became an unstoppable force. (I’ve heard estimates in the hundreds of millions of converts during the 20th century in China.)

Jesus designed the church as an insurgency. Looking at church history, the times when the church has been most effective have been in a high-trust, low-control environment. The Roman Empire conquered every people group in its path but was conquered from the inside-out by an insurgency of the heart.

A core problem in America is the rapid embrace of a low-trust, high-control leadership structure. “Church growth experts” (and their books and conferences) encourage church leaders to remove the voice of the people and go to staff-lead models. To generalize, the staff become the local experts on everything from discipleship to sex and the people become relatively voiceless, idea-less, worker bees in support of the vision of the leadership. These high-control, low-trust leaders proudly say things like, “This is the type of church we are. If you don’t like it, you can leave. There are plenty of churches out there.

I’ve heard leaders say that at leadership events. And people in leadership write that down. And underline it. As if asking people to leave who disagree with you is a sign of a powerful leader. (Hint: Surrounding yourself with people who agree with you makes you a wimp of a leader.)

So many people have left the church. Sure, there are examples of big churches you can look to and hope for growth in that model. But I can schedule a tour of a 25,000 square foot church for sale 500 yards from my house that says there is no hope in that model.

You can’t create an insurgency of the heart with a low-trust, high-control model. People will die for Jesus but they won’t die for you. 

La Raza

The church will grow when we give power back to the people. Not just the power to serve leaders vision, but real— actual power over their day-to-day church life. We give lip service to the Priesthood of all Believers but we don’t live it out. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium Predigtamt) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom.” In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: “No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.” Source

Friends, our lips say we believe in the Protestant doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers but we fund a priesthood among us.

Are you saying we have to fire people?

Listen. I’m not saying that we need to eliminate church staff. I’m saying that if we want to see the church grow again, in a post-Christian America, we need leaders to lead towards decentralization of power. We need paid staff to see their job as expert equippers and not expert speakers. We need to measure leaders on their ability to replicate Jesus and not themselves. We need leaders to unleash an insurgency and not continue an occupation.

So indeed, we probably need to fire some people who won’t embrace the present reality we live in. But new leaders will emerge. The Holy Spirit has always provided. Indeed, there are leaders in your pews today who could do this if only you allowed it.

And which people should we pay? Probably the ones who don’t want to be paid. 



Here’s a little lesson on hype for all my wanna-be self-promoter friends.

If you hype something you’ve got a vested interest in it’ll come off as fake.

If someone else hypes it for you, even if you lose some level of control, it’ll go a lot better.

Three examples:

  • I follow hundreds of pastors on Twitter and Facebook. (Totally guilty as charged) They are all excited about what they are teaching and think hundreds of people should invite their friends to come hear them speak. Their band is gonna melt your face. Their preaching is going to be super cool. They’ve got an illustration that’ll make every knee bow and tongue declare that Jesus is Lord.
  • Lots of people I know have written books or created a product you can buy. (Again, guilty as charged) There’s a fine line for an author between being accessible as an author and overhyping your product.
  • Each day I write a blog post. If I post a link more than twice, the click through rate on that to my blog goes straight to zero. Knowing that it drives me nuts to see bloggers post a link, 8-10 times per day to their blog.

You need recommendations

Times have changed. It used to be that having access to an author or a speaker somehow validated their message. But now, since everyone is instantly accessible that is no longer the case. In many case the best way to hype something is to limit access to the creation process. (Apple is the master of this, all the hype is in the speculation)

Think about your actual decision-making process. Take a few minutes to do some self-examination. I think what you’ll see is the power of recommendation. A recommendation is infinitely more powerful in my day-to-day life than hype.

  • I rarely go to a restaurant for the first time without checking Yelp or asking about a place… unless I want to discover something so I can recommend it.
  • Wander through the maze of a bookstore. The average Borders will have 100,000+ titles. You wouldn’t have a clue what to read if it weren’t for recommendations.
  • Think about the products over $100 you buy. Or the places you take your kids. Or the things you try at work. Now think about how you heard about those things or knew it was worth putting your name behind.

Right now, it’s all about recommendations.

If you want to (or need to) hype something, focus all your energy on recommendations. And stop with the self-hype.


Bottlenecks, rubberneckers, and other people who slow you down

Every commuter in Chicago is familiar with the Hillside Strangler. Prior to the early 2000s, this section of interstate where two major 6-lanes of highway merged onto a 3-lane onramp to a 5-lane city-bound highway doubled the commute of everyone. 11 lanes of traffic don’t merge into 5 lanes very well.

The Hillside Strangler was a bottleneck. Everyone had to go through the bottle neck to get work done. Truckers. Commuters. Tourists. School busses. All of the pressure of the cities west side was placed on that 3-lane onramp each morning.

People left an hour earlier just to sit and listen to the radio and sip coffee while they waited their turn.

Conversely, on the ride home everyone hated rubberneckers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in traffic for up to an additional hour just so people in front of me could slow down and watch AAA change a tire or watch two people who got into a fender-bender fill out paperwork.

Both are aggravating and all-too-common for commuters.

And both are aggravating and all-too-common in organizations.

Organizationally, bottlenecks are people, teams, or systems that slow things down at the point of decision making. While a legitimate part of the bureaucratic process they are frustrating to deal with for those who like to (or need to) take action quickly. For people on the front lines bottlenecks always take too long and  the mantra “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” takes over. Which is why those who are the bottlenecks describe their job as herding cats.

Likewise, within every organization there are rubberneckers or gawkers. These are people who like to talk about and look at things more than they like to do them. Sure, they claim it’s all human nature to want to talk about what is going on. But in the meantime they slow everything down.

Every organization I’ve ever worked in has these two problems which slow everything down. Bottlenecks of decision or execution and rubberneckers who slow down to talk. (Or study, or hire a consultant, or pray, or wait for the board to meet, etc.) In many ways these are just the ebbs and flows of work life as you try to balance going about your everyday balance while trying to push forward to grow.

Some organizations solve this by dispersing their teams

Plenty of companies, some Fortune 500, are dispersing their staffs and closing offices to remove rubbernecking while dealing with the obvious issues of bottlenecks, internally. Working remotely, while once laughed at, has become en vogue as a way to keep people working and happy by eliminating the commute and office life altogether.

Would this work in the church? Absolutely. Most church staff members I know look at their offices as more a liability towards reaching their community than an asset. No one went into ministry to be a desk jockey… but that’s most of what we do.

Why aren’t we doing it? Perceptions and trust.

Christian Living Church Leadership

Snake bit

Darkness creeps in at weird moments.

A comment. A ungaurded remark by the wrong person. A glance or a stare that you can’t get an explanation for. All of those are things that can set me off inexplicably.

Normally, I’m pretty happy-go-lucky. Why do those tiny things trigger the my mind so wildly? I wonder those things as I lay in bed with my mind literally swirling in the darkness.

At times when darkness creeps in I’m left asking myself questions like this:

  • Are these people playing me?
  • Am I just being set up to be the fall guy?
  • How do I get out of the way of this situation I’m imagining?
  • Am I prepared to go another direction, right now?
  • What would happen if….

If what? That’s when I snap out of my anxiety-filled, irrational Risk game and wake up to reality. No one is out to get me.

Disappointed with myself, I am left self-reflecting: How did I get to that place… AGAIN?!?

Snakes in a church?

You see, like a lot of people who are involved in Christian leadership, I’ve been bitten by a snake before. And once you’ve been bitten you don’t ever want it to happen again. As a result, people who work in churches tend to have a healthy fear of snakes.

In 2002, Kristen and I left an over-resourced church we loved to accept a call to full-time ministry. It was the culmination of years of hard work, prayerful steps of obedience & preparation, and a lot of sound advice. We left Chicago and headed west for an under-resourced church in an area which described itself as the armpit of California. A huge unchurched population. Rampant adolescent problems. And no viable, functional Christian ministry to those kids.

Our hearts were way ahead of our skill level. The church wasn’t nearly as willing to reach “the wrong kids” as they originally said. The meth epidemic was exploding all around them and they didn’t know how to respond. So instead of reaching out the leaders decided to close the shutters and try to ride out the storm.

Within a few months every friend and mentor I’d ever had was telling me the same thing: Bad fit, get out.

So we did. I began a quiet process of finding another place to do ministry while at the same time respecting my obligation to the church I was serving at, holding out some hope that things might turn around as I was looking and we’d be able to stay.

A few months later, Kristen and I found a much better fit, well-suited for my skill level, and closer to our family. We accept that churches call, signed a contract, and were eager to close things up at one church to move on to another, better fit. We had kept everything on the up-and-up. I’d asked the advice of people far more seasoned than I and followed their advice closely.

All that was left was to tell the elders.

The meeting didn’t go well. They turned on me. These men slobbered angry tears at me about how they wished I was going to be the son they wished their sons had been to them. And they told me I was a horrible husband to Kristen. And a horrible father to my daughter. And that I was unfit for any kind of ministry. And that the devil must have confused me into thinking I was called to ministry when I was clearly not.

I took it all in. I apologized for disappointing them. If the room full of men turned into bitter boys, I’d be the one in the room to stand up and take it like a man.

Then they explained to me that they couldn’t allow me to quit because that would be an embarrassment to them. I couldn’t quit because they were firing me! Later, they produced a letter and “a review” of my performance based purely on things they had heard, filled with quotes from my volunteers, things they later told me they never said, and the viscous letter even went so far to say that Kristen was an unfit mother.

And I was told to read a different letter to the church the next Sunday. (I read parts of it, ad libbing the rest. Oops.) And they were to pay me off to get me out of their sight. Then, when that was all over- phone calls came because they said things about me in private to other people. Letters arrived at our house. People drove by our house slowly to stare. My neighbors wouldn’t talk to me.

The next 30 days before our moving van left were the worst 30 days of my life. It made no sense whatsoever. I hadn’t done anything wrong. All I had done was quit one job to take a job that better suited me. But, the men I had trusted suddenly turned into snakes, biting me repeatedly.

I’ll never forget my last conversation with one of the elders. The one whom I’d been closest too. As he walked me to our car on the last Sunday, he handed me an envelope full of money and pretended to say nice things. He tried to apologize for how the elders had acted, but since he was also delivering their hush money, it was all kind of a lie and he knew it. He said, “You know, I’ve wanted to know this whole time something, maybe you can help me? From the first day you’ve loved kids here that none of us would love. You’ve reached out to people we don’t want to even look at but probably should. What book did you read that taught you how to love those kids?” I looked at Kristen. Her jaw dropped. She shook her head. One statement summed up the entire disconnect that haunted the last year of our lives. I help back a smile. I said, “Mark, I learned those things from the life of Jesus. That’s the entire point of the New Testament. The Gospel isn’t just for people born into the church, it’s for everyone.

Snakes. I never felt so sick to my stomach in all of my life. As Indiana Jones so famously said, “Why did it have to be snakes?

Darkness creeps in

The last 24 hours, memories of the snakes have crept back in. I wish I could explain it. I guess old fears lurk just under the surface. But these fears paralyze me. I wish it weren’t true. But it is. It’s a weakness I wish I could grow out of but I fear it’s become part of my DNA.

It’s not a fear like the fear of the boogie man. Instead, it’s a fear of knowing that one day in the future you might have to face that same situation… and how will you respond differently?

“Am I more prepared today to deal with that situation? Am I more mature? Am I more self-confident?”

Questions that wake you from a deep sleep. Or prevent you from sleeping to begin with.

Fear is irrational. It comes from an emotional place. When darkness like that swarms in I’ve learned to rebuke it. That sort of fear isn’t from God.

That’s where truth always wins.

The Groom would never treat His Bride that way. Though Jesus had the power, he chose to win our hearts instead of capturing our hearts. He’s doesn’t demand our trust, He asks us to freely give it to him.

Whom do I trust?

If I learned anything from being bit by a snake it’s that I need to be secure in whom I put my trust.

Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

Proverbs 3:3-8

Church Leadership

Putting your worst foot forward

Photo by Kevin Trotman via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Which of these introductions garners the most trust to you?

  • Hello, my name is Adam McLane. Thank you for inviting me here today. As an expert in my field, I look forward to sharing with you this morning 7 insights which will revolutionize ________.
  • Hi. I’m Adam. I guess you’ve invited me here this morning because you’ve tried everything and looked around and found the one guy in the world who has tried more ways to _________ than you have. Well, I guess a broken clock is right twice a day. Let’s get started.

Chances are you like the first one a little better. The first introduction would cause you to reach into your bag and fish out a pen and some paper. But the question isn’t who would you like better or who would give you the most stuff to write down, it’s which introduction garners the most trust?

An experts role is to teach 5 things in an outline, collect his check, and move on to the next place. But a teacher creates questions inside which spurs on your own thoughts and solutions to the problems you are facing.

I have a tendency to trust the second introduction a lot more. I might not write down as much stuff… but that second introduction will cause me to lean in. Something about that humility tells me he has something to say.

It tells me that this person isn’t just rolling out their presentation… but they are probably going to take me somewhere I need to go. They are going to help me recognize that while I’ve failed in the past I can keep trying and searching for the answers I need.

And they aren’t going to lie to me and tell me that success is just 5 bullet points away. I already have mountains of notebooks filled with outlines on things that didn’t work. The second person is going to share the truth that the journey to success is paved with many pitfalls and traps along the way.

I can trust that person.

I think this is one subtle way the world has changed.

  • Expert = distrust
  • Humble guru = trust

We laugh at the irrelevance of the person who stands on the street corner proclaiming into a bullhorn that he has all the answers to life. Turn or burn, that’s all you need to do. Stop fornicating and you’ll be fine.

Let’s face it… it’s a stupid way to communicate. But it’s not unlike what we do in our churches. We hide behind our degrees, we point to our bookshelf, we hide from tough questions and real ministry by filling our schedule with meetings, and we gather as a staff to celebrate how awesome we are. But in the quiet moments, sharing coffee with a friend, we are no more faithful or have the answers than the person sitting in the pew behind us.

Trust me, but how?

I think most of us were raised in a time when we were told to always put our best foot forward. So we do that.

But times have changed. We can no go faster and further with people in building trust when we start by putting our worst foot forward.

“My name is ___________. I’m no better than you. I don’t have all the answers.”

Go ahead, repeat it out loud until it feels natural. It just might lead to something unbelievable.