Turnaround Fellowship, part 1 – Leadership, part 1

Business Odyssey 036This is the first installment in a series of blog posts, entitled, "Turnaround Fellowship." If you didn't read the last post, I would recommend doing so before reading subsequent posts. It will help you understand why and how these blog posts will be offered. The topic of leadership in Churches of Christ is so huge several books could be written on it. So, I simply couldn't get this into one post. I'll try to fit it into two, but limiting this to two parts will be hard. Today's post is an effort to describe, in part, healthy and unhealthy leadership. Tomorrow's will be more practical and solution oriented.


It all begins with God.

He then typically chooses to use leaders. He always has.

Churches of Christ are blessed to have many godly, intelligent and sage, elders, ministers and members. I was blessed to grow up in a church where those leading the church were spiritually-minded and of high-character. As a minister, I have been blessed to work alongside some of the best leaders in Churches of Christ and, in truth, some of the worst. As a consultant to churches, I've seen good bad, and ugly. For that matter, my own leadership ebbs and flows more than I wish.

This is all to say that churches and our fellowship have seasons in which leadership is healthier than others. However, there is a chronic form of leadership dysfunction common to Churches of Christ. Like certain diseases and behaviors travel through a family genogram, leadership dysfunction seems to have found it's way into our family heritage. I'm not exactly sure how. As a devotee of a "systems" approach to ministry, I believe at some level it exists because it's allowed to, and because our way of life creates it. I also believe that our way of doing leadership is deeply entrenched and is not likely to change (homeostasis) until enough well-differentiated people work diligently to change it for a long enough period of time in enough places.

I do not want to suggest that there aren't healthy church leaderships out there, or that every, or even most congregations are a leadership wasteland. However, we need to be honest here. IN GENERAL – Church "meltdowns" are far too common in Churches of Christ. Ministerial tenures are far too short. Some elders meetings are absolutely grueling and largely void of spirituality. Some ministers offer God what they have to, not what they should. Some churches are bed sore for years of lack of movement of any kind. In other churches, big givers hold the church hostage with the almighty checkbook. All of these are symptoms of deep spiritual sickness and betray a lack of strong leadership.

If a church or fellowship of churches is in need of a turnaround, leadership is almost certainly a part of the reason why. Based on my own experiences and that of my colleagues, leadership is probably the single biggest practical "maker or breaker" there is. Never have I seen a church rise above God or Satan's work through leadership. If you think leadership doesn't matter that much, open the Scriptures and read the stories of Moses, Joshua, the Judges and the Kings. Read of the Lord Jesus' leadership and that of Paul, Peter, and John. Leadership matters…a lot.

Ministry leaders and those who serve in the church as a whole are a part of leadership. However, the most pivotal layer of church leadership is comprised of elders, staff, and the elders/staff unit as a whole. All three need care and growth all the time. If the leadership garden is tended well, spiritual and numerical growth will be virtually inevitable. If it isn't…well, you know. It's dysfunctional…and people will get hurt in big time ways.

Dysfunctional Leadership carries with it certain traits. Such as, but not limited to:

Inability to Keep Confidence/Gossip – Leaders who cannot keep confidences betray the trust of the people and make it difficult for people to speak truthfully and candidly in their presence. This often births a culture of secrecy, side-barring, and many forms of emotional triangulation that break down trust within leadership. Many of these dysfunctional leaders also love to cut down their fellow leaders to others. This slowly begins to constipate the ministry system of the church by slowing decisions down and removing passionate debate from discussion on important matters. But, the big thing is… people stop trusting one another.

Commoditization of People – People in the church (often ministers in particular) are viewed as commodities that provide value, not as human beings created in God's image. This is common in "high turnover" churches. People are viewed and treated like bags of oranges or barrels of oil. They are easily dispensable and not treated generously or fairly in many cases. Those who serve the church in any capacity are often disheartened and devalued. In such environments, people are rarely thanked, and usually criticized.

An "Ends Justify the Means" Mentality – Such leaders are willing bend or break the truth, cover up all mistakes, excuse sin, show ungodly favoritism – all "for the good of the Kingdom." When sin triumphs in leadership, God will not bless.

Vanity – Dysfunctional leaders love their titles, and they enjoy exercising power. They are proficient at "lording over," in both subtle and overt ways. It's Pharisaism at it's best: Keep the phylacteries close at hand. The basin and towel…not so much. Dysfunctional leaders trapped in vanity believe that all decisions must be made by them. They love to put their authority on display. They love to take credit for the good and dodge blame for the bad.

Cowardice – This may seem a harsh term, but it is what it is. This trait of dysfunctional leaders causes them to orient their decisions around chronic complainers, big givers, etc., and to avoid having to exercise much faith in the practice of leadership. These leaders are about peace-keeping (to be distinguished from peace-making), not courageous leadership. These leaders lead in fear of the congregation, and thus cannot lead effectively or in an enjoyable way.

Spiritual Weakness – This is the biggie. It is God who provides wisdom and the resources for godliness. When true dependence on the Holy Spirit wanes, so do wisdom and godliness. The result is ugly.

Likewise, strong, godly leadership possesses certain traits. Among these are:

Spiritual Vitality – Healthy leaders' lives are fully surrendered to God. Such leaders are prayerful, rarely making decisions without asking what God would want in the situation. Healthy leaders' lives pulsate with the Spirit's presence. They have a high-degree of trust in God, allowing them to make courageous decisions knowing that God will provide and God will keep the church safe. They decisions based on principles before utility.

Confident Humility – They understand they don't know everything, but understand God has called them to something valuable. Leaders argue their case, and then submit themselves to the cumulative wisdom of the group. They believe their opinion is valuable and helpful, but so is that of others. They do not see themselves as "above" the flock, but also understand that they have been called to partner with God in a special way. They are willing to entrust high-capacity leadership to those outside their group, but don't shy away from making the decisions God has called them to make. Humble leaders give God glory for the good things that happen, and are willing to accept responsibility for the mistakes they make.

Unity – They prize unity and attack schism for the cancer it is. They don't cave to a vocal minority, thus reinforcing a spirit of schism. They are not "group-thinkers." There is not a spirit of suspicion among them. They are able to lock arms and confront harmful behavior in the church or within their ranks. They look out for each other and pastor one another even as they pastor the flock of God…even if it means disciplining one another for harmful behavior. If someone in leadership is an obvious detriment to the health of the Body, they confront the behavior with strength and humility. In healthy church leadership, there is a palpable spirit of support between ministers and elders—each seeking the success of the other rather than grappling for power. I once had the opportunity to hear the elders of Southeast Christian Church talk about their relationship with Bob Russell, the Senior Pastor of forty years. One elder said, "I feel as though I'm called to do everything in my power to make sure that Bob is successful for the good of the church and the Kingdom." Bob was asked to respond. He did by saying, "I feel the same way. I'm called to help these guys be successful." They were using the term "successful" in the Kingdom sense, and that's what unified leadership looks like. Or, to use my father-in-law's term, "One-Another Leadership." I'm sure such leadership has played a significant role in Southeast's growth from 30 to over 20,000 and Bob Russell's 40-year tenure. I feel we could use a lot more of that spirit.

Courage – They do not shy away from tough conversations. They have them with people who are struggling spiritually, and people who are acting out in the Body. They are willing to take holy risks. They are not afraid of the church or of making mistakes occasionally. They know God is at work, and want to see that happen with profound passion that gives them the courage of David and other great people of God.

Vision – They actively seek God's direction and act on it. They are open to vision coming through them, or through whomever God gives it to. They actively seek the advance of the Kingdom and the growth and health of God's church. They believe God is able to do more than we ask or imagine according to His power that is at work within us. They are capable of dreaming big dreams, and leave room at the dreaming table for those who aren't formally a part of leadership.

Grace – They demonstrate the heart and attitudes of Christ in their treatment of people. They search for the redemptive outcome in each situation.

This list is not exhaustive, but it's a start. I could go on forever about church leadership, but won't. However, I will take this opportunity to beg us to pay attention to it. We must choose leaders that embody these qualities, and offer them whatever resources they need to grow in these areas and others laid out in the Scriptures.

If leadership is unified, Spirit-dependent, and humble enough to adapt when the times call for it, it's rare that a church struggles. It's virtually "unsplittable" and "unmeltdownable." If leadership is dysfunctional, rigid, and spiritually barren…watch out.

Tomorrow's post will attempt to offer some solutions to common problems. Please remember that all of this is done with redemptive intent. I love the Churches of Christ and want to see them prevail for God's glory in the 21st Century. That's going to require Spirit-led leadership. As the Fruit of God's Spirit to born more fully within leadership, we can expect, at the very least: fewer meltdowns; longer and more productive tenures of service among elders, ministers and ministry leaders; the realization of more big Kingdom ideas; more true unity in the Body; and less fear in the atmosphere. I know there are many churches where these things are happening, but wouldn't it be wonderful to see such things break out all across the Churches of Christ?

Questions for today: Is there anything you would add to these lists? Do you agree or disagree that Churches of Christ are, in general, in need of more healthy leadership? What role do you think unhealthy leadership has played in our current malaise? What other traits have you seen in healthy leadership?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

7 thoughts on “Turnaround Fellowship, part 1 – Leadership, part 1

  1. Tim, great post. I look forward to the whole series.
    Todd, I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out the lack of training/development for leaders. On the whole, we do a terrible job of investing in leaders for the church. We either assume that corporate success will automatically translate into successful church leadership, or that the “natural” progression from member to deacon to elder will somehow result in the kind of leadership necessary for a church to thrive.
    Instead of rolling the dice, we need to intentionally create and cultivate environments for growing leaders–not to use them as commodities in ministry, but to raise them up to spiritual maturity and readiness so that they are prepared for whatever leadership role God calls them to…even if that role isn’t in the church.

  2. This is a very helpful post, Tim. It is quite exhaustive, so much so that it makes me first wonder, “Who can meet all the qualities of a perfect leader?” Of course, none of us can alone. But elders and leaders as communities and groups should enable each other to model these principles.
    My initial observation is that most of the failures I’ve seen in church leadership were not for lack of good intentions or even mature spirituality but lack of training and exposure. Those of us in ministry positions study for three years to be a M.Div., we expose ourselves to “successful” church models and ministries, and we are in constant relationships of creativity. Yet, we are governed by people who often are not exposed to any of this at all, creating a constant tension between the “learned” minister and the non-trained but “in charge” elder. Of course, some elders are proactive and seek out training and exposure to ideas, but in my experience, they largely are not.
    As one who has spent the last two years observing a denomination outside of the C of C, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the “vestry” or elders make what we would call “deacon” decisions that are about carpets, lawns, light bills and compassion ministries. The pastors of the church are empowered to make ministry and strategic decisions in cooperation with the vestry. But there is no doubt that the senior minister/rector/ is where the buck stops, not with the vestry other than hiring/firing decisions.
    I think one can make a good case for that kind of structure from I Timothy and other texts, though I know it raises biblical issues for some. But it does seem to me that the way we have interpreted these texts often leaves those least trained and least informed to govern the church, and those most trained and most informed at their mercy. That’s a recipe for a train wreck most every time.
    I’m not sure what to do about that given our theological and historical assumptions, but I do find it to be one of the reasons we find ourselves in frustrating situations. And by the way, I applaud those good elders that I have known who take their calling seriously and do train themselves for leadership.

  3. Wonderful post, Tim!
    I can’t wait to read the rest of them. It really gives me some thoughts on what kind of leader I want to be in the church someday. It also helps me to realize how difficult leadership is and how important it is to the Body. I really appreciate your thoughts.

  4. I can’t think of anything I would add to either list. I just wish that church leaders (elders, preachers, etc…) would be evaluated more on catagories such as these. Typically, the Pastoral Epistles have been used as a check-mark to determine the qualifications of elders and preachers (an approach that completely ignores the occasional nature of the Pastorals). While these epistles do have something to say about leadership, they are not an exhaustive document on church leadership.
    Grace and peace,

  5. My brother – having served a long time as first a pulpit minister and later as a shepherd, I have been on both sides of the elder/minister tension. I think I will wait until you have said all that is in your heart on this subject before I comment. I have admired you from the first time we met because I saw in you a brother with the heart to stand before God’s people and speak HIS words without fear. You have shown that even now by opening up discussion on one of the “sacred cows” of the Churches of Christ. The greatest elder I have ever known was my maternal grandfather, Sid Darnall. He once told me this “If you don’t preach to your elders, who will?” He always encourage me to be a prophet, fearless to speak for God.
    I have worked with lots of elders, most good and decent brothers who did the best they knew. But, most of them simply reproduce the past because they have no real training to do anything more. I have known a few with the courage and faith to move beyond the comfort levels of their flocks to try to see more than they had ever experienced. I still praise the Father for their example even though it cost some of them a lot to think beyond the absolute traditions of the Churches of Christ.
    I learned to see church leaders’ families as the true measure of the man. A big part of my ministry even now is to those who were were reared in the family of a church leader and the disconnect they grew up with.
    None of us is all that we can be but when we quit trying to learn beyond what we think we already know, our only enemy controls the outcome.
    Keep at it my brother, you have something to say and there are many of us who want to hear it. I love you.