Empowering Leadership over Empowered Leadership

Years ago I went to a conference on Multi-site churches. Most of those who had mega-multisite churches were Independents— not part of a denomination. But one of the main speakers did have a very large church that was multi-site and was part of a denomination. During the Q&A time, an acquaintance of mine and from my denomination, asked this pastor a very relevant question. It was, “As a megachurch leader but also a member of a denomination, what would you like for your denomination leadership do to help you be more effective in your doing your ministry?” Since the acquaintance of mine was in denominational leadership, it seemed an especially relevant question.

The megachurch pastor said at first, “Stay out of our way.” But then he laughed and said he should give a better answer than that. He then said, to the effect,

The difficulty that denominations have is that they are led by pastors. It makes sense that the leaders of groups of churches should have previously been leaders of churches. But there is a problem with this. You see, pastors are “vision-people.” That is, they embrace the role of guiding the church in the way it should go. They gain a vision of where the church should go and then try to instill that same vision in the membership of the church. That is fine, but when they move into denominational leadership, this tendency doesn’t go away. They still seek to be the visionary people. Now, however, they start to see the various churches in their denomination as the tools to carry out their vision.

But this is the problem, because churches already have visionary leaders and have their own vision which is appropriate to their own “Church-DNA” and setting. What is needed is denominational structures and leaders who do not see individual churches as the tools to carry out their own denominational vision. Rather they need denominational leadership that identify and affirm the visions of individual churches and embrace the idea that the denominational structures and leadership are tasked to help empower individual churches to execute their own visions.

At the time I thought that was a pretty insightful image… and I still do. I also think it is somewhat unrealistic. If the ministry as a vocation promotes visionary people (we tend to think the religious leaders SHOULD be visionary)… and ministry has a hierachical structure, it is hard to imagine a system that promotes vision up to a certain level, and then supports empowerers above that level. It is like expecting politicians to actually be “servants of the people” when the finances and process of move to higher levels politically require being a servant to political and financial allies.

But imagine for a moment if a system could be developed in missions that follows the ideas of the quote above.

Imagine a mission agency that seeks to support the vision of missionaries within their organization rather than seeing them as pawns to be mobilized for their own vision?

Again, these may be a bit unrealistic. However, I think that at least there is a possibility of some modest changes that can be done so that hierarchies can empower rather than disempower and embrace vision from others rather than crush it.

  • Set up a structure that embraces training, and supporting the troops on the ground to carry out their task. Reject a military war model of a group of generals far removed from the front lines moving around troops.
  • Seek top-level leaders whose vision is more about empowering others rather than being empowered by others.
  • Seek to establish patterns that affirm empowering leadership at the lower levels so that at the higher levels the pattern and process doesn’t have to change.

On this last point— Imagine a missionary who seeks to work with local leaders by empowering them to do what God has called them to do.  This would be quite different than the more common method of a missionary coming in with a clear vision of what he or she wants to do and seeks to find local allies who can be brought in to serve the missionary’s vision.  Imagine a church pastor who sees himself as one who as an empowering leader seeing the church as a priesthood of believers, and works with the church rather than rules over the church.

Who knows…. it just might work.

Congregational Leadership Wheel (and Missions)

Leadership Wheel

I don’t normally emphasize my Baptist ties on this website since I don’t see that sound Christian Missions should be particularly denominationally driven. If one is focused on God’s Kingdom, you don’t focus on your own fiefdom.

However, I have been seeing more and more problems with self-destructing leadership in both church and missions. The numbers may not be increasing… it just may be that I am interacting with more.

Clearly, one problem is a lack of accountability. I have seen a number of church leaders do remarkably bad, selfish, self-serving, … evil…. things, and then seek to justify them (or at least escape the consequences of them) under the guise that they are the pastor (if the pastor does it, it must be okay), the shepherd, the “anointed one.” <wow! “anointed one”  That sure is a term that has been abused and misused.> The Shepherding Movement sought to theologize such a system suggesting that Jesus was the shepherd (covering, umbrella) of the church leaders, and the church leaders are the shepherds (covering, umbrella) of the church members. This was a bit of a return to the system of the vicarious hierarchy.

There are advantages and disadvantages in such a system. An advantage of such a system is singularity of vision. A committee often makes decisions based on the path of least resistance. Great visions are often crushed. Another advantage is the relative simplicity. One person makes the decisions and the others follow. What’s simpler than that?

But there are disadvantages as well. While having a single leader who cannot be questioned gives singularity of vision, usually that vision is not very good. Individuals who truly are visionary are few and far between. Most “visionary people” are simply limited in exposure— so they read one article or visit one church and suddenly they have a “vision” of what needs to be done.  Most good visions come through interaction with others. Most great visions are good visions that have been honed through wrestling with others. <As always, there are exceptions.> Many leaders like to say that their vision is from God. However, that forces people into an uncomfortable position. Their leader is a liar? Their leader is foolishly mistaken? Their leader is correct that the vision is from God? Even if a “vision is from God” it can always use a bit of tweaking. Recall Jethro’s wisdom to Moses (Exodus 18) that adjusted, improved, that general vision from God that drove Moses to lead his people.

The biggest disadvantage is that lack of accountability is bad for the church leader. Pastoral staff have a considerable amount of ecclesiastical authority/power. In addition to this, especially for “preachers,” there is a considerable ego boost every time they stand up in front of a congregation to speak. There is risk that narcissistic or emotionally stable personalities will be attracted to this, and actually be further damaged. The Lord Acton quote on the corruptive nature of power is quite accurate. An immature person will not handle power well. It is actually cruel to give power to a person who cannot handle it.

Some hierarchal structures provide accountability but only outside of the church. Certainly, accountability in this manner is better than nothing. (In fact, even congregational, autonomous churches would benefit from an external leadership audit.) However, hierarchal structures without an internal check and balance can lead to the theologizing of the structure and supporting an idea that the leadership cannot be questioned, challenged, and held accountable.

The Congregational structure (that most Baptists and several other groups use) seeks to limit this problem. Ecclesiastical power is centered (primarily) in the pastoral staff. The Pastoral staff guides/leads the staff. The staff (whether professional or lay) leads/guides the leaders of specific ministries. These ministry leaders guide individual members. However, these individual members constitute the church body and so each individual acts to guide the church body which selects and guides the church council (or whatever term one uses to describe a group in this position). The church council, in turn, guides and oversees the pastoral staff. Is the system perfect? No… and as a church gets larger, there seems to be a greater need for power to be centered in the staff, and it becomes more difficult to provide internal accountability. Still, when the system works, it provides what the pastoral staff needs most… accountability.

In truth, on some level, all churches are congegrationalist. That is because, in all churches, members vote. Some churches allow their members to vote with their hands and voice. But in all churches people vote with their feet and with their wallets. That is why churches that are trying to maintain a highly authoritarian structure seek to theologize giving, membership, and leadership. You must give to this ministry or you are fighting God. You must not leave this church or your soul is in danger. You must submit to this authority or you are rejecting God’s authority. (In Slideshare, I have some powerpoints on  Churches that Abuse.)

Okay… so what does this have to do with Missions?

Actually, a huge amount. That is because many missionaries are churchplanters. And many “mission” churches, if they are not led by missionaries, are financially supported by a missionary or mission group. The problem is that the accountability structure becomes messed up. A missionary is normally accountable to his financial supporters and to his mission board, not to the members of his mission church. Often the missionary actually owns the church land and building. Essentially, there is no accountability. A similar problem occurs when a local pastor is set in place by a missionary. In this case, the finances and control are in the hands of an outside entity. The local church membership, in either case, is disempowered and the pastoral staff lacks the internal oversight and accountability it so sorely needs.

For missionaries, I believe that NORMALLY missionaries should not pastor a local mission church for a long time. It should be a transitional thing. For church leaders who receive outside funding and control, this again should be a transitional thing. It should not be long-term.