“Churches, watch over your ministry staff!” Part 2: The Challenges of Church Leadership

Pastoral leadership is a good gift of God. It is very important to interrupt the sobering nature of this subject to recognise that we should value church leadership and church leaders. Church leadership is a really good idea. In fact, it’s God’s idea! Pastoral ministry is an essential part of the health of God’s church. It would be a mistake, for example, for a church to so emphasise every-member-ministry (Ephesians 4:7) that it has no place for pastor-teachers (Ephesians 4:11), or for it to be so democratic that there is no leader or leaders who can be meaningfully said to have pastoral authority. That is not a recipe for a healthy church. We must not think of leaders as a ‘necessary evil’ for churches; they are a necessary good!

Throughout Scripture God appoints leaders for his people. The Apostle Paul commanded that faithful leaders be appointed in all the churches (Titus 1:5). ‘Pastor’ is probably the best general term for this role. It covers the role that is variously called ‘elder’, ‘overseer’ or ‘bishop’ (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) [1]. Why ‘pastor’? It means shepherd. The term pulls together the Bible’s rich imagery of a shepherd caring for his flock of sheep. This is the Bible’s iconic image of church leadership. The job of pastors is threefold: they lead the sheep, feed the sheep, and protect the sheep [2]. Both the food they offer and the shepherds crook that they lead and protect the flock with is the Word of God. They preach the word, counsel with the word, correct with the word, and protect the sheep from error by appealing to the truth of the word. Faithful Christian shepherds have the Bible in their hands and in their mouths constantly.

But even the best shepherds in the Bible proved sinful and faithless, sometimes in dramatic and disastrous ways. Moses failed to enter Canaan because of disobedience (Numbers 20:7-12), David committed adultery and even murder by proxy (2 Samuel 11-12), and his son Solomon brought about the beginning of the end of Israel through idolatry (1 Kings 11). Only the Lord Jesus is the sinless and perfectly faithful shepherd of God’s people (John 10:11-16). Nevertheless, Jesus the ‘Chief Shepherd’ of the church appoints ‘under shepherds’, pastors who are themselves Jesus’ sheep, to care for his flock until he returns (1 Peter 5:1-4). Sharing in Jesus’ role of shepherding the flock is a tremendous privilege. Indeed, as the Bible says, it is a ‘noble task’ (1 Timothy 3:1).

The opposite side of the coin of pastoral authority is the command that churches submit to their pastors (1 Peter 5:5). This is a good thing. Pastors will have a lot of difficulty trying to lead sheep that keep making trouble or won’t listen to them! Thus the command to submit makes life easier not only for the pastors, but for the sheep themselves (Hebrews 13:17). If a pastor is faithfully leading, feeding, and protecting the sheep with Scripture, following them should be a relatively easy thing for any Christian to do.

More broadly the relationships that exist in churches are best understood in terms of family. Christians are adopted into God’s family in Christ. God is our Father, and fellow Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. The relational nature of church is reflected in the pastors’ job too. Only a man who leads his own household-family well can be considered suitable for having the same kind of role in God’s household-family, the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5, 15). The pastor’s first congregation is therefore always his own family. Only when this responsibility is performed well can it be appropriate for his pastoral oversight to extend to his church family as an appointed pastor.

All of this is deeply relational. However, once ministry becomes employment, things become more complicated. All of us have different relational hats that we wear in different settings and in relation to different people. Our relationships at church and at work are not of the same nature. At work we are primarily employees. At church we are primarily fellow children of God. But when it comes to being an employee in a church this is no longer straightforward. Now pastors are family members and family leaders, and also employees. Church leaders and their subordinate ministry workers must simultaneously nurture a family-bond relationship and a professional-employment relationship, but without distorting either one. This mixing of the personal with the professional makes for some very real tensions, and some very blurry relational and professional boundaries. Similar challenges can exist for pastors who serve in churches where the congregation has power to hire and fire. It can be hard to lead those to whom you feel subordinate!

None of this is straightforward. Every form of power has the potential to be abused. Abuse might arise from malice, incompetence, negligence, or a combination of these and other factors. A friend helpfully pointed out to me that all large organisations have the kinds of problems that I am highlighting. It is very common for ex-employees to claim damages on the basis of being mistreated by their former employers. Very often this occurs as a result of incompetence rather than malice. Many people who lead other staff just don’t know how to do it well, and their lack of managerial skill can lead to them inadvertently mistreating others. The damage grows when the leader starts trying to cover over their mistakes to save face, and even looks for other people to shift the blame to. This is a helpful observation about organisations in general and certainly applies to churches. Moreover, based on what I have said above, the challenge is amplified in the case of churches. When managerial incompetence occurs in a church it doesn’t just hurt employees; it hurts family members. Resolving these things will involve dealing with problems in entangled professional and family relationships without confusing the two. If this sounds complicated and difficult to manage then you’ve understood my point.

Managerial incompetency has certainly played a significant part in the mistreatment of ministry workers. This is a problem that can and should be addressed. However we must not reduce the problem to issues of competency. Sin is involved. Issues of pride, feeling threatened, and the desire to elevate one’s own self-esteem (and the congregation’s esteem of the leader) can lead to any number of sinful actions and self-justification in making them. Wherever sin has been committed the solution cannot be reduced simply to the need for more training, however helpful that may be. Right Christian dealing with these problems will always involve confessionrepentanceforgiveness, and personal reconciliation. Where a leader refuses to acknowledge the damage their actions have caused another person, even inadvertently, there is reason to be very concerned about their suitability for ministry, and to suspect that they will harm others in the future. Christians are marked out by an eager desire to repent of the wrongs they commit, and to be reconciled to their brothers and sisters. Where a Christian leader avoids these basic Christian practices there is reason to be extremely concerned indeed.

The intersection of all these factors – close family relationships, recognised roles of authority and submission, a mixture of personal and professional relationships, lack of managerial skill, and all carried out by human beings who bring their sinfulness, brokenness, and personal expectations and aspirations to the mix – makes for very potent ground for abuse. Church is good. Church leadership is good. But Christians continue to be weak and prone to sin even after conversion. We should expect to have to deal with sin and conflict in the church. In fact, part of the goodness of church is the set of gospel-centred practices that Jesus gave us to deal with sin and conflict in church. The main question is whether Christians are willing to use them or not. That’s where we’ll turn next.

[1]  ‘Deacon’ is a formally appointed role of service, not of teaching or leadership. ‘Pastor’ may refer to either subordinate or collegial leadership positions that involve pastoral authority and teaching responsibilities.

[2]  This is my rewording of Laniak’s threefold description of the role: protectorproviderguide. Laniak’s study is extremely valuable: Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. (New Studies in Biblical Theology 20. Downers Grove: Apollos, 2006), 106, 247.

If you have experienced difficulties in ministry then consider contacting Gospel Workers Advocacy for support and advice

Series: “Churches, watch over your ministry staff!”
Part 1: Identifying a Problem that Nobody wants to Talk About
Part 2: The Goodness of Church Leadership and some ‘Professional’ Challenges
Part 3: Christian Practices that are Too Rarely Practiced
Part 4: Ten Points for Churches on Dealing with the Mistreatment of Ministry Staff