Friday, May 03, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: A Lack of Leadership

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Is a good man always hard to find?
Immanuel Can: Tom, we need a new generation of spiritual leaders in our congregations. But they don’t seem to be appearing in most places, and not nearly fast enough for the rising need.

What can we do?

What do you think of these suggestions?
“I look for disciples who bear fruit and are consistent in the way they use their time and talents.”
— Wilfredo De Jesus

“I am drawn to men and women who can settle their hearts long enough to discern God’s call. Those who immediately shout, ‘Yes,’ to an opportunity make me wary.”
— Tracey Bianchi

“New leaders must feel a burden for our church and be committed for the long-term.”
— C.J. Coffee

“(1) Are they faithful and optimistic as they walk, work, and worship God with others? (2) Do they avoid extremes and bring people together by communicating truth with grace, mercy, and love? (3) Do others speak well of them and affirm their ability to lead?”
— Mark DeYmaz

“We scan the church to see who God is raising to new levels of leadership. We provide ministry opportunities that match people’s gifts.”
— Dan Kimball
Tom: Interesting. Dan Kimball suggests that we make leaders of people who are already leading. I assume he means they are doing so in an informal way, without a title or a label, and probably without recognition. This is not a bad concept. David was a boy bringing food to his brothers when he ended up slaying Goliath. At that point nobody (including and especially King Saul) wanted anything to do with leadership. They were so unwilling to step up that Goliath mockingly says “Give me a man”, because evidently none were to be found in Israel. So David stepped into the gap without being formally trained, elected, ordained, without even being in the army and without a title of any sort on the basis of nothing more than willingness to fill a need.

Now willingness is not always enough, of course ...

Professional Leadership That Doesn’t Self-Reproduce

IC: No, it’s not … especially when you are hiring paid staff to do many of the ministries that should be open to everyone according to his or her gifts. The more people you hire, the fewer things are available to be done by everyone. And since the salaries for these “professional” people naturally come out of the common fund (i.e. the congregation’s contributions), individual believers tend to question why anyone would be both paying and expected to do the work themselves. After all, why hire a bunch of “professionals” and pay them a whole lot of money if they’re just going to turn around and try to offload work onto you? Let them do it.

Now, it’s not wrong to give individual diligent, ministering Christians some informal financial support as needed: but the minute you make them a salaried leading staff, you deny congregational members key leadership roles and kill their will to take those roles on. The jobs are filled.

Tom: Well, absolutely. If you’re talking about filling a salaried position, that’s one thing that changes the whole dynamic of looking for leaders, as you’ve well said. And if that’s the road you’ve gone down, don’t be surprised if when you need leaders you have to hire a bunch more of them fresh out of seminary rather than recruit from within.

The Best Possible Criteria

But suppose we’re talking about unsalaried elders who are simply looking for help, or looking to see who is going to replace them when they’re gone? Do you find that the sorts of suggestions made by our five “leaders” are the best possible set of criteria?

IC: Well, the interestingly-named Mr. “De Jesus” seems to have a good idea. But others … not so much.

Tom: Yes, I think he’s got a scriptural metric there in looking for fruit by which to judge maturity and readiness to lead.

IC: In contrast, Ms. Bianchi has two problems: first, she doesn’t know what “call” is, and secondly, her cautionary note that she prefers to avoid eager people is only her personal take, not a scriptural principle of leadership. I don’t know any verse that says, “Watch out for eager people.”

Tom: She could be thinking of “do not be hasty in the laying on of hands”, but that is more a caution about asking the wrong person to step up than a condemnation of enthusiasm. And, in fact, if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Oddly, that suggests to me that desiring and aspiring are good things, provided it’s the “task” to which one aspires, not some kind of position of authority.

IC: Right. Now, C.J. Coffee has also put things a bit poorly, I think: “burden” is not something one “feels”, but rather a responsibility placed on the Christian by the Lord. Some people don’t feel a “burden for the church”: but if they don’t, then I suggest the fault’s with them, since the scriptures teach we’re ALL in the church, and one cannot legitimately not have a burden for it. But “commitment” is good, as he says.

Tom: I’m not sure about his “long-term” commitment concept myself. Churches these days are full of programs. Too full, sometimes. Some programs are valuable and relevant and some are less so. I’d be willing to take on something of the latter sort in the short term, but not willing to invest myself in it mindlessly — and endlessly — just because it is a program my church has always run. Is it always reasonable, for instance, to gauge a man’s potential value as an leader by how many years he is prepared to invest in teaching grade schoolers?

Searching for a Scriptural Pattern

IC: Yes. Programs are not gifts. Nor is serving as a functionary in some program necessarily spiritual work. It might be, and it might not, depending on what is actually involved. But if you need someone to lead in the church more generally, then the comments of Mr. DeYmaz are on target, since he essentially paraphrases three of the items required of church leaders by scripture (faithfulness, graciousness and keeping a good reputation). But why not then just refer to the relevant passages in Timothy (regarding overseers) and Titus (regarding elders)?

Tom: That’s something I wondered about all of them.

IC: Fair enough. The last one is Mr. Kimball. I suppose his proactiveness in looking for potential leaders is good, but I’d be interested in seeing him flesh out the “we” whom he anticipates to be responsible for doing it.

Tom: Here’s a thought: we’re kind of unconsciously adopting the language of the article in Christianity Today where this subject is concerned, and that may not be a good thing.

Why don’t we define “leaders” first of all. It seems to me that some of the folks we’ve quoted are using the term “leaders” in a rather loosey-goosey kinda generic way, meaning nothing more than people who are active and involved, or who are good examples. I’d rather stick to using terminology scripturally if we can.

Leaders” is a scriptural word, but does it mean what I think they’re using it to mean?

IC: What are you thinking, Tom? Are you thinking of the idea of the formal leaders of the local church, who are the elders — or as the scripture says, lesser “shepherds” serving under the “One Shepherd” — or are you thinking of leadership in a more informal sense, as in “people who take initiative to exercise their spiritual gifts”? Given that all the contributors in the article above are identified as “pastors” (presumably in the paid way), it seems likely they’re thinking primarily of the second.

Tom: Well, this is the thing: are there church “leaders” in scripture that are not elders / overseers / shepherds? I’m not sure that would be easy to demonstrate. The term is not used like that, in older translations or modern ones. The “leaders” mentioned three times in Hebrews 13 — and the Greek there is hegeomai, used of those who make decisions — seem to be identified with the idea of overseers, since it says they “keep watch”, much as shepherds do over sheep. It seems to me that different terminology is used to describe different characteristics of the same men; those who perform the same task.

What is Leadership When the “Leader” is the Only One Salaried?

IC: Of course, if you’ve already got a paid-employee-pastor (or to use the scriptural term, “hireling”), then essentially whatever is left of so-called leadership means, “After I, the paid pastor, have exercised my primary leadership (setting direction, giving the teaching, controlling the platform, commanding my staff, setting up committees, etc.), I want you lay people to bat cleanup for me.”

That’s not a great offer of leadership opportunities, is it?

Tom: No, not at all. If I’m reading these folks right, what they call “leaders” are pretty much every Christian who happens to be exercising his or her gift. So the woman who teaches a ladies’ Bible study is a “leader”. The Sunday School teachers are “leaders”. Presumably the members of the “worship team” are “leaders”.

No wonder they can’t find enough of these folks. They’re using the word to describe service generally, not as it’s used by the writers of the New Testament.

IC: Right. They’re not “leading” anything … they’re just operating as a cog in a program, at worst; and at best they’re just doing the sort of thing every Christian is actually obligated to do in virtue of having been given a gift by God, i.e. to exercise it gratefully and obediently for the benefit of the church.

If those paid pastors in question think that that is “leadership”, then what does that assessment imply about how the average Christian in their congregation is treating the gifts the Lord has given them? It suggests that they’re not doing anything much with them at all, if even minimal commitment to obedience in exercising a gift starts to look like some kind of extraordinary “leadership”.

And really, if that’s what we’re doing it makes you wonder if we think those “gifts” are good or not.

But that’s a new subject.

Is There Really a Shortage?

Tom: So is there actually a leadership shortage? Or do you think the term “leader” has become so amorphous and ill-defined that Christendom is no longer able to discuss the subject intelligently?

IC: Oh, I do perceive we have a shortage of people who are willing to step forward and use their gifts, and I do believe we have a shortage of those who are willing to take on the tremendous responsibilities of being biblical elders. And as a backlash, we have all too many who are willing to substitute non-biblical innovations such as “pastors” and redefined kinds of “leadership”.

The real question is this: do we believe the scriptures enough to reject the innovations, renew our personal obedience to using the gifts God has given us, and thereby to become those biblical leaders we so desperately need?

We’ve got to stop looking around for answers, and start looking in the mirror.


  1. Allow me to weigh in on yet another "too hot to handle topic".

    What I say is based on personal experience of over 30 years as a
    "non-vocational" elder in two smallish Brethren assemblies in
    the metro Toronto area. And I've read all the books, and heard
    and by in large "believed" most of the dogma concerning
    non-salaried leadership and body life in the sense of every
    member playing their role in the building up of the body. I know
    the scriptural texts, in a soulish way. In other words I have
    attempted to live them and model them and from time to time
    teach them when the time was appropriate to those who had
    ears to hear.

    I have recently moved into my seventh decade of life.
    For the past ten years I have felt and believed strongly
    that the time had come to pass the baton to a new generation
    of leadership. To put that into practice, as a group of
    middle aged men, we have encouraged and invited over that
    time a series of five spiritually engaged, gifted and
    mature men to join the oversight. In each case they came,
    listened and participated. It was made clear that the future
    of the assembly/church was in their hands, and that there
    would be generally no resistance, from the current leadership,
    if we were to make some structural changed to better suit
    their generation. It was in effect: carte blanche.

    Most of these men, while meeting with the oversight, were
    making very good examples of themselves as leaders. In some
    cases, there were promising and visible expressions of
    spiritual and numerical growth in the fellowship. However,
    one by one, and for a whole suite of different reasons,
    each of them either left the role as elder/pastor/shepherd
    or declined the invitation after the 1+ year probationary period.

    Recently my son, who was one of the above who left our assembly ten years ago
    to do mission work in a muslim area in Toronto, told me of a recent similar story
    in his assembly in NZ, where he now resides. The elders had a Sunday afternoon
    meeting with all the 30-45 people/couples in the assembly. It was structured
    with the future leadership of their church in mind. There were three
    tables, each with a different question to be considered:

    a. What things need to change in our church
    b. What things should stay the same
    c. What should be our "mission" in our local community

    Each group went to each of the three tables over the course of an hour
    and at the end a summaries from each table were recorded and reported.
    You know the drill...

    But in the end, after some verbal discussion on the conclusions from
    each group question, NO ONE was willing to step up and take on the
    role/mantle as future leaders at the church.

    So... The result leaves us with some real problems in terms
    of future leadership. And upon reflection it forces one to ask
    the bigger meta-question of "why?". What is in the current
    cultural/theological/ecclesiastical air which the next
    generation is breathing that we have in large
    measure failed to discern and address? Incidentally non of these men have
    left the faith neither become disinterested in Christ and his

    I have some of my own conclusions. Perhaps it would be good to hear
    your commentary.

  2. Wow. Thanks for a serious and personal examination of the problem, Russell. I hear you. In fact, I've had ties to a lovely, serious church in another part of the province for years that seems to be -- if I read it right -- having exactly the same sort of situation. They have identified men who seem to be doing all the right things and demonstrating all the right spiritual qualities. They have met with them and asked them to step up. And ... pooof. Nothing.

    Perhaps some of these men will reconsider. They're all still meeting with the same group of Christians so far as I know. But it baffles me to see that result. It's not at all what I would have expected. If I didn't know the elders had done their due diligence and made the effort to bring in their own replacements, I'd think they were somehow to blame, but I'm not sure that's the case at all.

    I'm stumped, Russell, and perhaps that's why IC and I ended up bouncing this topic around. I wish I had more to offer and I'd love to hear more of what you think about it. It seems to me that this problem is a lot more common that we might have thought.

  3. Let me supply a story on the other side, Russell.

    In my local congregation, we have had a couple of late-middle-aged men step up recently. They did so because the need was so great, not because they felt ready or worthy to take on such a role, and yet they are growing into it nicely -- probably as much because of their humility as anything.

    Anyway, they approached a younger man from the congregation, one known for having a strong personality, some Biblical knowledge an ability to teach. They asked him to join them as an elder.

    He replied that though he was short one qualification on the Biblical list (having no children that believe, as per 1 Tim. 3:5, he felt he could not literally fit the whole bill) he was willing to do any *work* of an elder without the title. (As per 1 Tim. 3:1, which calls eldering a "work," not simply an "office") In this case, he was trying to say "yes," and offering all he could legitimately do.

    But no one knew what to do with such a situation. They knew what to do with someone who was ready to step fully into the role, title and position of eldership. Absent that, they couldn't think of how to make use of his "yes" at all.

    So let me float an idea here: maybe we need to consider becoming an elder as something we don't do on an on/off model, but on a continuum. So there might be people who ARE elders, others who are BECOMING elders, and some who are INVESTIGATING eldership by SERVING WITH designated elders. For I don't know how reasonable for us to expect people to go from zero to sixty on this one. Maybe leading is a thing you need to grow into. And maybe there are additional roles in support of eldership that can make the elders more effective.

    Could part of the problem be that we are asking for too much too suddenly, or that we are missing ways in which people who are not-quite elders but who are willing to serve in support of them can contribute? And if we had those things, would we have more elders?

    Just a thought.

  4. I heartily concur, and I have tested out his idea of making the process of becoming a leader/elder/pastor a continuous process rather than a step function. Thanks so much for this idea and clarification.