Am I a bad father? On Christmas morning, I felt like one.
My son decided his gift to me would be more than the usual gift card. He settled on a name-brand protective case for my name-brand smart phone. He was pleased with his thoughtfulness and generosity. I was pleased with the selflessness and gratitude he displayed.
There’s just one problem: I don’t want it.
More precisely, I don’t want to use it. Why? First, it’s designed to clip to my belt. Social science has irrefutably shown that a belt-clipped phone case increases a person’s dork factor nearly as much as a pocket protector. On a more practical note, the phone case is too bulky. With my phone inside, it feels like the Chicago Yellow Pages is hanging from my belt.
Even though it could protect my phone and lengthen its life, that awesome phone case is the best gift I never wanted.
Refused: Return to Sender
Many churches know exactly how I feel because they’ve received a gift they really don’t want. Unlike me, however, most churches politely pretend to desire it. When a church employs this gift, it can transform a small group, a ministry team, a church staff, an eldership—an entire church! Moses displayed it. The prophets modeled it. Jesus perfected it. Paul and Peter launched and shaped the original church using it. Every great church heavily relies on it.
Had enough of this riddle? The gift is leadership.
Lead Me . . . Sort of
Nearly every church claims to be on the lookout for gifted leaders. But I’m not convinced the search is genuine. I know a student minister who was hired to “lead” a church’s ministry to teens. However, his recruiters failed to inform him that one of his key volunteers didn’t like to be led. So, he attempted to lead and was stymied. Those responsible failed to support him. The message: lead . . . but not really.
Why do churches look for leaders, and then spend almost no time training people to follow? Why do churches tolerate a culture in which leadership gifts are resented, resisted, and squelched? Can you smell that charred odor? It is the residue of leaders who’ve been burned for daring to do what they were asked to do: lead.
Let me anticipate a rebuttal: If a gifted Christian leader is sincere and wise, people will follow him. When people reject a church leader, it is because of flawed character, serious mistakes, or lack of wisdom.
• Was it Moses’ fault when the Israelites grumbled and rebelled against him? If so, why did God punish the offenders with death? The Bible says, “No prophet has risen in Israel like Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:10). It also says Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Amazingly gifted and deeply humble—who wouldn’t follow that guy? A few million Israelites (and his own siblings).
• Was Jesus a leadership failure when many “turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66)? Did Jesus just not have the right stuff? Later, did Jesus lose his leadership mojo somewhere between the triumphal entry and Golgotha?
• Was the apostle a failure as a leader “when they (the Jews) opposed Paul and became abusive” (Acts 18:6)?
The greatest leaders in the Bible were ineffective in some instances with some people, but it normally wasn’t because of leadership deficiencies.
Let’s unpack two reasons the gift of leadership continues to be suppressed in the modern church.
Past Leadership Abuses
Jude 12 acknowledges that some people seek positions of spiritual leadership for self-gratification; they are “shepherds who feed only themselves.” However, the reality of counterfeit and inconsistent leaders does not justify the complete rejection of church leadership.
A church planter in Italy told me that great leaders rarely emerge in the Evangelical churches of that country. The reason: centuries of authoritarian oppression by Roman Catholic Church leaders left Italians scarred and suspicious; they recoil at any hint of biblical authority in the church. The leadership well has been poisoned. The result is weak churches.
Although Romans 12:8 was originally intended as instruction to gifted leaders, we can also read it as instruction to churches with gifted leaders in their midst: If a man’s gift is leadership, let him govern diligently. Even if you’ve seen leadership influence mishandled, don’t give up on the idea of biblical leadership. A woman who worked with me years ago was badly hurt when her husband left her. But, because she was willing to believe that some men are loving and faithful, she is now married to a terrific guy who treasures her.
If you’ve had an experience with unhealthy church leaders, don’t conclude that church leadership is a bad idea. Instead, find and learn to trust spiritual leaders who are capable and sincere.
Our Sinful Nature
I’m always fascinated by how slow Christians are to suspect that their unhappiness and frustration with church leaders is due to their own depraved thinking. James 4 begins, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have.” Some would rewrite that verse to read, “What causes fights among you? Clueless church leaders who won’t bow to your wishes!”
Gifted church leaders recognize that personal opinions and haughty behavior drive most of the conflict and unhappiness in a church. So, rather than allow themselves to be manipulated, wise leaders humbly, but confidently (wait for it) . . . lead.
There is an e-mail in my in-box from someone who refuses to admit personal responsibility for a problem that began with his own foolish behavior. If I were not a leader, responding to his e-mail would be simple—I would just agree with him. But my leadership instincts and experience are informing me of a dozen reasons why I cannot agree. So, I live in the tension of exercising the gift God gave me, even when people sometimes wish I didn’t have it.
Eddie Lowen is lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois. He also serves as a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.