church leaders are vulnerable
Speaking in real life terms, shepherds and sheep are independent entities. Sure, you might find them lurking in the same field, but whether from near or afar, you’d hardly confuse them. A shepherd is not a sheep and the four legged cud-chewer is clearly not a shepherd.
But in the stream of biblical thinking the same can’t quite be said. Shepherds are sheep; and some of the sheep are shepherds. The category of shepherd – a spiritual leader of the flock – is common parlance throughout the Bible (Ezekiel 34, Jeremiah 3:15, John 21:17, 1 Tim 3:1-2, 1 Peter 5:2, Hebrews 13:17). Christ is the Chief Shepherd and his under-shepherds assist him in sheep care (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Yet this is where the twist comes. The shepherd of Christ’s flock is also part of it. They are one of the sheep who has gone astray (Isaiah 53:6) and part of the number for which the Shepherd died (John 10:15). A man may play the role of a shepherd but he never departs his place in the flock. Like the rest, he exclaims with personal assurance: “the Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).
This simultaneous reality – that the shepherd is also sheep – is something we must hold in healthy tension. The term ‘shepherd’ reminds us of the leader’s responsibility. The term ‘sheep’ reminds us of his vulnerability. A shepherd is a role of strength. It involves leading, feeding and protecting. A sheep by contrast is vulnerable. Every sheep can succumb to suffering, or stray down an unwise path.
Reasons to consider vulnerability
As creatures and sinners I would argue that church leaders are always vulnerable. But to stress the immediacy of this, let me offer two stark reasons to consider the subject.
First, the growing number of church leaders who appear to be shipwrecking their ministries. Immorality, greed and doctrinal defection are hardly new phenomena (2 Samuel 11, Matthew 23:25, 2 Peter 2:1-3). But contemporary examples seem to be multiplying. Whether it’s big respected names or pastors only known locally, too many ministries are leaving a stench in their wake. The growing prevalence of abusive styles of leadership – whether by paid pastors or their fellow elders – is a worrying trend.¹ If these examples don’t cause us to look hard at ourselves, I don’t know what will.
Second, the growing pressures on church leaders as they shepherd their churches through the global pandemic. There is a deadly combination here of ‘more and less.’ There is more pastoral need than ever and more problems to resolve as a leadership team. Yet as more is continually demanded, the support church leaders receive has often been less. While marvellous attempts have been made to organise online support, the loss of face to face encouragement has been significant. At this point in time, church leaders have never been so vulnerable to the twin threats of suffering and sin.
SEVEN COMMON VULNERABILITIES
So what are some of the common vulnerabilities? In the list that follows (not exhaustive!) I’ll suggest what I think are seven of the most frequent. All of these have sadly featured at times in my own flawed leadership. They are also observations I have made of others, and the sort of thing I want to forewarn a new elder about as they enter the leadership arena.
1/ Positional pride (I have made it). A strange thing can happen when a person rises to prominence. They can morph from a humble servant into a self-assured proudling. Here the man makes his leadership position the general measure of his spiritual standing. He frequently and happily reminds himself of ‘who he is’ in relation to others. Such pride may not always ‘strut’ but is often more subtle and insidious. It can manifest, for example, in him becoming far too sure of each and every one of his personal opinions. Everyone must agree with him, listen to him and respect him no matter what. After all, he is “the pastor”, “the elder” etc.
2/ Projecting godliness (I can’t be honest). This is the next step to the previous danger. If we think that we have made it, we will start to act like it. We will project godliness. Now, one would hope that church leaders would unconsciously emanate godly character. But there is a difference between this emerging from a man, and it being projected by him. There is all the difference in the world between a man who is praying to God, and one praying to make an impression on his listeners (Luke 18:11). Similarly, we could ask our families the question: does the “godly” man in church bear any resemblance to the man we engage with at home?
3/ Unnecessarily defensive (I can’t be challenged). When a leader is projecting a spiritual image they will not take kindly to a critical comment. Granted, church members can be unfair and unkind in their assessments of us. But just as common a flaw are leaders who act like they are above criticism. Such a leader doesn’t listen to the critic but always responds with an immediate ‘comeback.’ (Sometimes this involves turning the tables on the critic in some way and pointing out their failings). Such a leader is always angry when they are criticised and will tend to throw others under the bus to save their own reputation being tarnished.
4/ Discouragement (I can’t keep going). Facing times of discouragement goes with the territory of Christian leadership. People wander away from the faith and the church. Individuals continue to squabble, despite your best efforts to help them see eye to eye. Evangelistic fruit seems little. Your own performance as a church leader disappoints you, nevermind anybody else!
5/ Burnout (I can’t stop or rest). Church leaders are some of the busiest people on the planet. This is especially true of non-church staff who juggle their jobs, family’s and a substantial church commitment. Being an elder isn’t something that fits into one time slot – like serving at the coffee morning on a Wednesday. And because we love people, we can find ourselves trying to fix them. Before long we’re trying to be everyone’s Saviour; something we would admit, Jesus is much better at than us (!). Slowly and inevitably, as we suffer from ‘hero syndrome’, we move ourselves further down the road to one destination. Burnout.
6/ Overly controlling (I can’t let others set the agenda). There’s nothing wrong with a strong personality, but it’s something of a red flag when a leader seems to get his own way every time. This sort of leadership micromanages everyone. This includes the other leaders, who need to follow my personal agenda. I use my personality, emotional pressure or personal loyalty to get people on side. I either withdraw or attack those who disagree with me. They soon learn not to dissent from me again.
7/ Ministry production (I start to see people as frustrations and obstacles, not as those I love and serve). When I started out as a young preacher, I think I was more passionate about the sermon than about the people I was preaching it to. An older gentleman in my church identified the problem. He took me aside one day and said “Colin – don’t forget that it’s about people.” That sage advice often rings in my ears. Whenever I feel frustrated by someone I remember that they are the very reason I am in ministry. People are not obstacles; they are those that God loves, those who I am called to serve.
we’re vulnerable – so now what?
So far I’ve majored on diagnosis, and you might think I’ve been pretty scant on remedy. I guess it is easier to expose the problems than to deal with their underlying causes. However I want to offer some practical thoughts on creating a more self-aware and gospel shaped leadership culture. These suggestions are not just for individual leaders but for the whole leadership team.
Talk and pray in such a way that alludes to your vulnerability as leaders. This isn’t about airing all of our dirty laundry. It’s not talking at length about our every struggle and mentioning them in every prayer or conversation. But church leaders should make it clear by what they say that they don’t have everything ‘sorted.’ We do struggle with pride. We can succumb to temptation. Our tongue gets out of control at times. We need ongoing grace, forgiveness and transformation.
Ask for prayer, as well as offer it. Of course we should spend much of our pastoral time praying for people and asking them what to pray for. But asking others to pray for us is a Pauline pattern (Romans 15:30-33; 2 Corinthians 1:10-11; Ephesians 6:19-20; Philippians 1:19-20; Colossians 4:2-4; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2; Philemon 22). Such a request expresses our own vulnerability, the great need we have for God’s help.
Consider ‘structures’ for pastoring each other. It is great when leadership teams support each other organically. But in the fast paced world we live in, some structure may be needed to ensure mutual support. In my own church, our elders are part of a leadership pair. The pair meet 3 times a year to discuss where we are spiritually and how we are coping with the demands and temptations of leadership.
Do something together that is just for growth. Read books together. Go to a conference. Have outside input from another church leader or organisation, just to learn. If the eldership team aren’t doing such things, it may suggest a ‘posture’ of unteachability.
Analyse the test case of conflict in your leadership team. Conflict reveals a great deal your leadership culture. Bear in mind that no conflict is a bad thing. There must always be room for healthy disagreement among leaders. Instead, we should ask questions like: how do people disagree? Do people ‘fight fair’?² Are some leaders unable to accept when they find themselves on the losing side of a discussion? Are there ongoing tensions in the aftermath, or are things resolved with generosity and forgiveness?
Keep applying the gospel to yourself as leaders. By this I don’t just mean that we should believe the gospel in a notional sense. We must relate the gospel to our view of leaders specifically. The gospel declares that we are sinners, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that in our own hearts as leader’s. But the gospel also proclaims freedom, forgiveness and hope. We can fearlessly face up to our sins because God is able to cover them and to increasingly empower us to turn from them.
God is well aware that even shepherds need shepherding. He understands better than we do that shepherds are sheep. I have long thought it telling that the New Testament contains so much material specifically directed towards leaders.³ Since the shepherds are also sheep, they also need fed, protected and encouraged. The call not only to watch over the flock, but to oversee own’s own soul (Acts 20:28) seems as loud and as relevant as ever.
(This article is an adaptation of a discussion/talk I had with a group of church leaders in January 2021. The examples it gives and focus tends to be on church pastors and elders. But there are principles here that apply more widely to leadership at all different levels across the church).
¹ Paul Tripp’s recent book Lead is worth reading in conjunction with his prior work Dangerous Calling. Dangerous Calling describes the dangers full time pastor’s face, while Lead looks at the wider leadership culture in which the pastor serves. Both can be problematic and unhealthy leadership can be just as present among the wider elders, and their power bases, as can be an issue for the set aside pastor.
² Check out the article: “How to fight right” for more on this. 2019-09-16-how-to-fight-right-tripp.pdf (csmedia1.com)
³ Consider the time Jesus invested in the apostles, the future leaders of his church. Note that out of Paul’s thirteen letters, three of them were written directly to those in leadership. We are also struck by the fact that Peter, an experienced leader, needed to be rebuked by Paul when he was acting out of line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14).