In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “Lead us not into temptation,” which in the NRSV is translated “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” As the first disciples knew what it means, so do we.
Just as planning and organization, administration and follow-up have always accompanied life in the church, so church leaders have consistently been plagued by times of trial and temptations in the doing of them. Among the particular temptations connected with administration and organizational behavior are: going it alone, distancing dissent, a false sense of proprietary ownership by either pastor or a lay leader, majoring in minor matters, and a lack of joy in ministry.
Some years ago our family had the misfortune of sharing worship and work in a large congregation—where lay leadership and pastoral teamwork had been a hallmark— when a new pastor arrived as “Head of Staff,” he claimed. He wanted all significant matters to cross his desk for him to make decisions. Associate pastors, music director, Christian educator, and church administrator soon found other churches to serve, the youth program deteriorated most rapidly, and lay leaders began to people other congregations by the dozen. When he left only three years later, the church had been halved in active membership, and its ministry in the community was but a shadow of its former self. Our children led us to another congregation where they could participate in youth mission trips.
While some situations are not so obviously costly in discipleship and worship, the “solo pastor” temptation can wreak havoc in other ways as well. One of the more persistent seems to be the shunning of critique. Frequently this temptation is phrased (or implied) as “my way or the highway.” Among flying geese, the parallel would be to leave those who “honk from behind.”
It is so tempting and so human to exclude those who differ. A pastor or lay leader who seeks to “go it alone” may well feel threatened when a variety of alternatives are represented for a congregation. In most urban and suburban contexts, lots of other congregations are nearby. Might the person or family “honking from behind” fit in better elsewhere? Some analysts of congregations in the 1970s rather radically suggested that growing churches ought to stifle dissent, to offer a homogeneous home for people elsewhere forced to cope with pluralism and relativism. But such behavior seems terribly human; Jesus calls us to a different way of being.
Critical assessment is extremely difficult to hear, and in many congregations there are deeply ingrained habits in place to avoid it. As a result, some members may speak negatively to friends but not confront lay or pastoral leaders. Others may simply fade into the woodwork, finding extra time to drink coffee and read the Sunday paper. Still others, voting with their pocketbooks, may continue to attend but fail to give, or give little of their time, talents, and money. Of course the best assessment is that which occurs instantaneously—in a spirit of freedom to disagree quietly on the spot or to point to better practices or interchanges. In the healthiest congregations, there is concerted administrative attention toward actively seeking out various and divergent ideas and points of view. They also keep asking, “How’s it going?” and they make formal assessments.
Another temptation is a false sense of proprietary ownership by either pastors or lay leaders toward their congregation. For pastors, the worst part of succumbing to the temptation is that it undercuts the work of the laity, especially the officers and leaders of the congregation. A pastor who thinks it is his/her church will doubtless also bear heavy stress and ultimately experience a negative “double whammy,” undercutting both the pastor’s real authority and the power for leadership among a cadre of officers and members. But honestly, lay leaders can succumb to the same temptation, especially those leaders who consider themselves indispensable. Several times, I have seen a lay leader seek to have all the authority and even refer possessively to the church as “my church.” With natural “matriarchs and patriarchs,” women and men of longstanding leadership and wisdom, the step from “stewardship” to “ownership” can be almost imperceptible but nonetheless insidious.
Majoring in minor things is giving in to the temptation to give the newest demand of the day priority over everything else. Equally, we can easily lose perspective and think of the projects, ministries, and people in congregational life as successive “tasks” of equal significance. In these circumstances, even the simplest prioritizing of work— into items that are “crucial,” “urgent,” and “important” on the one hand and those that lack deep significance or urgency on the other—can increase effectiveness. Discernment among the first three—crucial, urgent, and important—yields even more accomplishment.
In our efforts to be effective we sometimes succumb to the temptation to stop cultivating joy. Congregational leaders should feel good about the work and about themselves. In more theological terms, Thomas Currie recently wrote The Joy of Ministry. Currie explores the “gift that issues in a certain boldness of spirit” that comes in ministry of various kinds. Personally, he finds the work of preaching most joyful, but he allows for others in ministry to sense the gift elsewhere in work. According to Currie: “The misery of mainline Protestantism today is not best described in rounding up the usual suspects of declining numbers of members, a smaller place in the religious marketplace … Rather what describes the true pathos of our situation is a certain joylessness, an inability to lift up our hearts in response to the risen Lord, who invites us to participate in his victory over sin and death.” Currie particularly shares his passion for the Christian gospel in the midst of what he terms “the hard work” of ministry. Although joy is not guaranteed in congregational leadership, especially in the work of organizing and following through administratively, it seems a shame if the work is joyless, if it gives little occasion to “lift up our hearts.”
Currie advocates prayer and other Christian practices to locate and receive the joy in ministry. It occurs to me that these practices are tried and true antidotes to others of the temptations enumerated as well. Perhaps it helps to examine congregations in which joy is evident, where teamwork and good communication foster excellence in a number of areas of administration, where good administration in turn opens and deepens pastoral care in the congregations and more widely.
Adapted from All for God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork by Louis B. Weeks, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
All for God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork
by Louis B. Weeks
Nobody likes scutwork, the unwanted dregs of the working day. However, it is through focused attention to the details of scutwork that pastors are able to build solid relationships within the congregation, and without the trust that comes from these relationships, no true pastoral care and leadership is possible. All for God’s Glory explores ways in which churches are engaged and can engage in practices of administration that deepen care and build a healthy congregational community.
Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace
by N. Graham Standish
Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us .
Choosing Partnership, Sharing Ministry: A Vision for New Spiritual Community
by Marcia Barnes Bailey
Partnership invites us on a journey that can transform us as leaders, as human beings, and as the church. Bailey invites pastors and congregations to a new understanding of ministry, leadership, and the church that challenges hierarchy by fully sharing responsibilities, risks, and rewards in mutual ministry. Partnership unleashes the Spirit to create a new vision and reality among us, moving us one step closer to living into God’s reign.
When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century
by Jill M. Hudson
Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement
by Paul Moots
Author Paul Moots details numerous examples to show how the ministry of encouragement offers a workable, effective pattern for church leadership. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that accepting Barnabas as my model has changed my ministry for the better and that Barnabas’s example can benefit any pastor and congregation who take his lessons seriously .”
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