Church leaders & believing our own hype

Churches and denominations are often guilty of talking themselves up in unrealistic ways. In certain charismatic and Pentecostal churches, for example, there is the perception that their calmer brethren are devoid of the Spirit. In the non-denominational church that I grew up in we seemed to think that the big Anglican church down the road was where our lukewarm members would defect to if they tired of our zeal and wanted to be anonymous.

One of the long-standing fictions that has befouled the denomination in which I now serve (and which in some measure is most likely true of every church) is that we are “getting it right” in a way that other churches are not. We have the Spirit (unlike the mainline churches). We have the Spirit without performative excesses (unlike the charismatics). We teach the Bible faithfully and well (and people only don’t flock to come hear us because we don’t tell itching ears what they want to hear).

All of us (I guess) believe our way is right, or else surely we’d do things another way, and so such prejudices are part of being human. Fortunately, many of our leaders have been self-critical enough to oppose such silly rhetoric.

Nevertheless, there is a fiction that our leaders might need to recognise in themselves, and that I think is universal enough to be worth raising more generally. For all our talk of servant leadership, it seems as though we actually have some difficulty coping with positions of authority, especially when a leader is clearly gifted in certain areas, and when God has used such leaders in the past. It can become difficult for such people to relinquish control or to acknowledge that God might gift and use others (even in their own congregation) without their help or permission.

I am prompted to bring it up because I discovered an interesting formulation of the problem in a book I am now reading about the prophet Samuel by an author named Marti Steussy.

Steussy is asking the question whether Samuel the prophet perhaps isn’t entirely blameless in the conflicts with Saul, and whether he isn’t motivated a little bit by the rejection of his own leadership and a desire to see Saul fail? (I think I probably disagree with her suggestions in this case, but nevertheless, the question is good. Whether one sees it in Samuel or not, it is certainly true that all of Israel’s leaders were deeply mixed characters, and it is appropriate to ask whether they are behaving rightly at any given point.) About the possibility that Samuel is over-stepping in his old age, Steussy writes:

“I have heard yet another kind of reaction to Samuel from students whose church traditions accord extremely high respect and authority to the pastor. A handful of such students have told me that Samuel reminds them of pastors they have known… These mentors were powerful, well-loved leaders who had earned respect by years of wise advice and courageous leadership. But eventually their leadership would be challenged, and the results could be ugly. The pastors seemed unable to accept that others might responsibly differ in their assessments of where the church should go. Too quickly, sometimes, the pastors equated questioning of their own programs with disobedience to God… Sometimes they used their power not only to resist but to punish those who, in their view, stepped out of line… Always they were hurt and confused by what they perceived as the ungratefulness of their congregations.” (Samuel and his God, p. 6)

Now I am not disputing that there is a legitimate problem when members of a congregation become divisive and oppose the pastor in ungodly ways. However, it is surely necessary to acknowledge that there is equally a possibility for leaders to become too convinced of their own centrality to what goes on in a congregation? Surely leaders can assert their leadership in ways that are arrogant or divisive or controlling?

Batman at the end of The Dark Knight preferred to die a hero rather than to live long enough to become the villain, and my concern is that leaders all run the risk of neglecting the wisdom of this idea. Countries often become enslaved to their old liberators, and church leaders too can become guilty of believing their own hype.

As wrong as Israel’s request for a king might have been, Samuel had raised wicked sons and intended to hand the reins over to them. When the people resisted that idea, he took it to be that they were rejecting his leadership. God had to re-align his thinking even on that point. Samuel’s leadership was only ever a proxy of God’s own rule—it was God they were rejecting.

The Apostle Paul, on the other hand (himself not a blameless character), was able to view opposition to his ministry with remarkable humility. When other preachers were trying to raise their own profile and add to his misery in prison—genuine selfishness on their part—what was Paul’s response? At least the gospel is being preached! (Php. 1:18)

Similarly, Christian leaders need to take extreme care that they cultivate humility and a deep sense of the precarious responsibility that they exercise. We who hold some position of leadership need to acknowledge with Paul that our achievements are losses (Php. 3:7) and that our only responsibility is the advance of the gospel. We might be called shepherds of the flock, but we are not owners. In another real sense, we are sheep ourselves. Whatever role you might think you have, it is Christ who is the head, and he demands that we recognise that our place in the body is limited and partial. The minister needs the church more than the church needs the minister: “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1Co 12:14), and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Co 12:7). Ministers do not lead a dumb flock; on the contrary, the point of good leadership is to facilitate the exercise of everyone’s gifts.

All Christians, but our leaders most especially, need to consciously and regularly remove ourselves from any thoughts that we are central to God’s plan. We are to remember that whatever gifts we have are lent to us, and they are to be humbly exercised for the gospel, for the many, and for the common good.

If it takes deep humility to become a Christian, how much more does it take to lead other Christians? May God help us all to give humility pride-of-place among the virtues.

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