I’ve noticed something lately that deeply troubles me: a lack of courage among church leaders.
Hear me out. I’m not saying church leaders aren’t godly people. I’m not saying I’ve lost all respect for church leaders. But as I talk to people around the country about a variety of situations in their churches, my uneasiness grows as I see a common thread. I’m sure it’s not new, but I’m confident God has brought several situations to my attention, so he could whisper something in my ear: “Be on guard.”
After listening to a youth pastor’s accusations behind closed doors for months, church leaders confronted the senior pastor with allegations of wrongdoing. Leaders did not have private conversations with the senior pastor before confronting him, nor did they encourage the youth pastor to confront the senior pastor and deal with the issue privately and interpersonally.
After hiring several new staff members, church leaders failed to ensure that everyone was working together effectively and efficiently. Job descriptions were unclear. Some staff members were unfairly criticized, while others were unfairly praised. Punishment and recognition became moving targets.
A staff member wasn’t living up to his responsibilities, but instead of confronting him and holding him accountable, responsibilities were shifted to someone else. But that person’s plate was already full because he’s an efficient and effective worker who tends to absorb the overflow of others’ responsibilities. The overworked person was then held accountable when the added responsibilities weren’t completed.
A senior staff member was weak in an area, but he had been around for a long time, and he was friends with church leaders. No one wanted to hurt his feelings or make him feel inadequate, so no effort was made to strengthen the weakness.
Church leaders decided to be united in a decision. However, once they left the meeting room, they talked one-on-one with each other as well as with friends and family. The second-guessing and rehashing of their decision raised questions, created doubts, and increased anxiety levels.
The Culture, Not the Leaders
The truth is, I have great respect for most church leaders. In fact, of the church leaders I know personally, there are few I don’t respect. I know the individual struggles and situations that make church leadership difficult. My husband and I have both been involved in various ministry leadership positions, so we know the challenges firsthand. My issues aren’t with individuals; it’s with a leadership culture.
For the most part, I don’t believe church leaders intentionally say, “Let’s not be courageous. Let’s choose the easy way.” Leaders are busy. Many issues and concerns must be prioritized and considered. In the process, some get set aside. When a concern is repeatedly raised in an elders meeting and then set aside, it becomes like a pesky fly. It gets shooed away and shooed away until, at some point, the chairman or the group has finally had enough and ends the irritation, once and for all with a hasty, thoughtless swat.
When a concern is swatted aside—even for valid reasons when other issues are more pressing—the concern becomes more irritating as it resurfaces again and again. Church leaders get tired of dealing with it, when in reality, they haven’t dealt with it at all—unless you consider an irritated flick of the wrist “dealing with it.”
The courageous response isn’t quickly to smash the irritant. People will get hurt unnecessarily in the process. The courageous response is to recognize much of the irritation comes not from the issue in and of itself, but the pressure of time and energy to deal with it fully. It’s difficult for leaders to find the right balance between coping with crises and developing long-term strategy. But here’s the truth: balance is part of leadership.
Biblical Leadership Roles
Consider a short list of leadership roles the apostles fulfilled.
Pastor to local church leaders
It’s tempting to add “master juggler” to the list, but balancing differs from juggling. Juggling involves tossing many items in the air and trying to make sure the timing of catches and releases prevents anything from hitting the ground. One moment of distraction, and items are dropped. Balancing, on the other hand, involves decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind. It includes what can be held in a hand versus what needs to be set aside. Balancing takes discernment.
God doesn’t call us to “good enough.” He calls us to “best.” And only he really knows what’s “best.” After Jesus fed the multitudes, he sent his disciples ahead, and he went to spend time with his Father. There are many good things he could have done: healing, teaching, feeding—to name a few. All these he had done and would continue to do—when the time was right. For that particular moment, only one thing was right: solitude. It was essential for spiritual renewal.
Church leaders need to grow beyond “good enough.” It’s not “good enough” to keep the peace. It’s not “good enough” to start a program. It’s not “good enough” to put together a wonderful-sounding church vision that never gets put into action. Church leaders need to settle for only one thing: God’s best.
What does God’s best look like for leaders?
Listening to God’s voice for direction.
Trusting God for provision.
Obeying God even through the difficult.
Holding each other accountable to godly leadership.
Handling all circumstances with biblical guidance.
Choosing discernment over reaction.
Being a lifelong learner, a growing disciple.
Becoming transparent in struggles and issues.
Courageous leaders trust God’s courage instead of relying on their own reserves of strength.
Courageous leaders intentionally approach all issues, initiatives, and relationships.
Is courageous leadership possible in our churches?
God says, “Yes.”
“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:26).
“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Susan Lawrence currently coordinates women’s ministries at Taylorville (Illinois) Christian Church and was previously on staff as the small groups coordinator. She’s also a women’s ministry consultant, national speaker, and author of Pure Purpose and Pure Emotion Bible studies; more information is available at http://purepurposebook.wordpress.com.