Pastors and Leadership

From John Frye:

Many pastors feel like the pastor in a cartoon I saw years ago. The congregation of people was running fast down the road and the pastor was running far behind shouting, “Wait! Wait for me! I’m your leader!” There is more confusion per square inch in pastoral ministry over the definition of leadership than over most any other topic. I have read the books that set your hair on fire with “choose the hill that you’ll die on and go for it!” type of leadership. I have read other books that suggest if you ask “Who’s in charge here?” you have already abandoned Christ-like leadership. I have read that there is the biblical gift of leadership (see Romans 12:8) and I’ve read that all spiritual gifts have within them a latent, yet effective leadership component. I have  read good books that try to baptize the culture’s view of successful leadership into the church and I’ve heard suggested that the gospel of the kingdom of God radically transforms the world’s view of leadership. Many have tried to transform military-style leadership and USAmerican business-style leadership into pastoral leadership. I think “mutate” is a better word for it than “transform.” During the 1990s it seemed that if you just tacked the word “servant-” onto any form of leadership, it was considered biblical, like Jesus, the Servant-Leader.

When big-hitter pastors host conferences in their mega-church venues and talk about leadership, you can count on many little-hitter pastors slinking back to their home churches not feeling the least bit like leaders. No matter what is said at the conferences, the medium is the message. The message is: real leaders build and lead mega-churches and host stimulating conferences. Getting caught in that fierce undertow of USAmerican success, many pastors flail just to stay afloat.

So, what’s a pastor to do? As I have wrestled with and reflected on pastoral leadership, here are a few of my observations:

  1. The gifting and calling of pastors by Jesus Christ includes dimensions of leadership. I do believe there is a specific gift of leadership and pastors need those gifted folks in the church. Yet, the pastor is a leader as well and those gifted leaders without solid pastoral direction can become wrecking balls in the church. The pastor as leader will keep her specific focus and use her arsenal of resources to enhance her leadership.
  1. Pastors lead by communicating ideas that are shaped by imaginative reflection on the person of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God that he represents. A congregation is not going to fix their eyes and hearts on Jesus Christ unless the pastor stays absolutely fascinated with Jesus. The pastor’s transparent journey into his or her own Christian formation is a high pastoral priority. (See my post in the Jesus Creed archives titled “Lashed to the Mast”).
  1. Pastoral leadership is conversational, even leisurely, and filled with attention to details.  Pastors observe and reflect on in the ordinary, day to day lives of the people. Pastors are on the look-out for those spontaneous brushes of the Spirit and the tiny shoots of grace growing in backyards of the lives of people. In this sense, pastoral leadership is prophetic. “Prophetic words are never detached from the concrete, historic situation. Theirs is not a timeless, abstract message; it always refers to the actual situation” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man). I owe the image of shoots of grace in the backyard of people’s lives to Eugene H. Peterson in Five Smooth Stones.  Hopefully, pastors are learning that homiletically casting grand doctrinal ideas (timeless truths) Sunday after Sunday is not the heart of pastoral work.

Like most pastors I’ll continue to read books on leadership. Readers are leaders. I’ll try to glean what I believe is helpful to me as a pastor and let the rest go. Anything that I read that reminds me of Jesus the Christ and what Jesus stands for will always get my attention.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ben Cachiaras

    Good observations and important. Whatever other forms and functions of leadership pastors take on, we are at the end of the day called to be spiritual leaders. As a pastor I am often told one of the most helpful things I bring is what you called the prophetic voice, and helping us think Christianly about our mission, our culture, and what is going on in the “shoots of grace” in our midst.

    That said, I was pretty disheartened by this: “When big-hitter pastors host conferences in their mega-church venues and talk about leadership, you can count on many little-hitter pastors slinking back to their home churches not feeling the least bit like leaders. No matter what is said at the conferences, the medium is the message. The message is: real leaders build and lead mega-churches and host stimulating conferences.”

    The reason that is so dispiriting to me is that as a pastor in a church that happens to be labeled “mega” I’m stuck in a mold that assumes the reason we pour ourselves into other churches and share our resources and insights with any who want them is for self-serving purposes, to bolster our self-image as “big shots” who don’t really know what “real” leadership is, but merely mimic “the world’s” version of it. In fact, the reason we pour ourselves out (at considerable expense) to help others by offering our learnings to others who are interested is out of a posture of humility and stewardship. We believe that maybe some of it would help another pastor be a better leader, and however you want to spiritualize it, the fact is that many churches are ineffective at accomplishing much mission or exercising good stewardship or living as outposts of the Kingdom — and one of the largest reasons traces directly back to the doorstep of its leaders. It is not that those churches do not have access to the transforming power of the Gospel. As Luther would say, “the Spirit and the gifts are ours….” But we lack ability sometimes to put it all together and lead people forward.

    I suppose the Church of Jesus Christ is not dependent on any of us in the final analysis. But in my experience, a local ministry of any kind will rise no higher than its leaders. We’re in crisis, so i believe we need to encourage good thinking and practice about leadership — as you have repeatedly done — but in my book, it is unfortunate that you imply that this means discounting learnings from those evil business people with their horrible determination to be effective at doing something, or leading groups of people, or providing clear supervision.

    So you’re hearing from one of those megachurch pastors who resents the implication that the reason we might offer to gather others and talk about, among other things, leadership, is for our own self-serving purposes, rather than for expanding the kingdom of God. And i suppose you’re hearing from someone who happens to believe that the definition of leader you provide is exactly what i would see it to be, but in addition, i would also include some of that “shallow, borrowed from the business world” stuff — and if you want to call it baptizing it, go ahead, but the truth is it is simple stewardship of the gospel and a decision about whether we want to have an effective missional component to our church or not. There are plenty of churches that are smugly content at their ineffectiveness because they have a higher or more noble understanding of leadership. At the end of the day, I guess i’d just rather see us humble ourselves to learn whatever we can, from whomever we can, if it will help us to be who we are called to be and do what we are called to do. Thanks.

  • John W. Frye

    Ben, thank you for your thoughtful response and irenic push-back. In other posts I’ve expressed my appreciation for the resources mega churches bring to the table. I’ve benefited much from WCA’s leadership conferences. I don’t doubt your dedicated, cruciform life as a leader in your context. Yet,
    .5% of all USAmerican churches are in the “mega” category (1000 or more attending). I’m writing on behalf of the other 99.5% of churches and their leaders. May God bless you, Ben, and you work.

  • Matt Brough

    Thanks for this post. I’ve found that much of my leadership involves sitting with individuals or families for a couple of hours listening and then sharing ideas together about what the Church is up to and what God may be up to in our midst. The key tasks are: knowing with whom to have the conversation, how to guide it while being attentive to pastoral concerns.

  • tedstur

    Here in Orlando we have had three mega-pastors fall from grace in the last few years. These have been very public shamings of the Christian worldview. As I have reflected on these events I can’t help but conclude that we have created a system of church that places unrealistic expectations on a small number of leaders. We reward these leaders with a huge platform and encourage them to propagate their leadership model. And then this same system squeezes the life out of them, the church and our witness in the culture.

    This isn’t, in my, a few guys dealing with personal sin. The system itself is partly to blame. A system that people seem to be unable to evaluate because they are enamored by the size of it all.

    I think this post describes something very real and very troubling in our approach to ecclesiology. I don’t fault the mega-church pastor, Ben, and I don’t blame anybody’s motives. God knows I couldn’t handle that kind of influence and power. However, if you participate in this sort of mega-ministry then you had better be very aware of the dangers that accompany it. I don’t think we take this serious enough and protect these people from themselves while also protecting the reputation of the Kingdom.

    I would encourage the small church pastor to rejoice in the grace that a smaller scoped ministry offers. Quit going to those conferences!

  • Mark Stevens

    Ben may I ask an honest and respectful question? How do you keep it real? How do you avoid the pitfalls of celebrity that so often come with being a pastor in a large church.i guess what I am asking is how do you remain a pastor and not fall into the mega aspect of that?

    Grace and peace

  • Phil Miller

    Maybe this is me projecting my own issues onto things, but I feel that the term “leadership” itself is throw around so much in Evangelicalism that it almost has no meaning. When I was in campus ministry I got so many emails advertising conferences or curriculum about leadership development often using jargon like “training the next generation of leaders!”. But as I think about it, it’s not just in the church where this type of language was used. The university used it a lot, too. I’ve joked with my wife that if everyone was supposed to become leaders, I wonder who they’re all going to lead.

    Personally, I think Americans are drawn to leadership language because it stokes our egos. It gives us the idea that we’re blazing our own trails, making our way in the world, etc. It kind of even harkens back to the whole idea of Manifest Destiny.

    All I know is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of pastoral work isn’t really exciting or visionary. It’s more like digging a very big ditch. You’re lucky if you can get people to help you at all. I’m not saying that in a defeatist way. But the pastors who I’ve come to respect the most probably don’t have what most people would call great leadership ability. They are, however, good solid men and women.

  • tedstur

    Your comment reminds me of a study Barna did and then popularized a few years ago. It showed how few pastors saw themselves as leaders as if we were experiencing a huge crisis in the church. I remember thinking, “Well, perhaps they see themselves as… pastors!”

    It’s unfortunate that we use the word “pastor” and “leader” as if they were interchangeable.

  • Dianne P

    Just speaking as a plain old layperson… I don’t want a “leader”. I want a pastor.

  • Don

    Good word Scot. After 33 years of this, I’m more concerned about being a good follower that leader. If I’m following well, the leadership happens.

  • John W. Frye

    Don, Scot did not write the post.

  • John W. Frye

    Dianne, I’m interested in your comment. What do you see as the primary distinction between pastor and leader?

  • Scott C

    Thanks John. “Pastors observe and reflect on in the ordinary, day to day lives of the people”. I love this! But…how can it be done from the pulpit? It, of course cannot. Do mega-churches perpetuate the false idea that “pastor” is tantamount to “preacher”? Jesus taught by walking, literally, with people.

  • Dianne P

    Wow, John. Don’t know where to begin with that one. I think I could write for hours on this. Or at least babble. Much of what has been said here (except for Ben – with whom I disagree on so many levels) goes to this distinction. To begin, I don’t know where in the Bible that priests/pastors are called to “lead”, whatever that means. Last I checked, Jesus talked about serving and shepherding. He looked on others with compassion. He taught with authority – authority that didn’t come from a strong voice listing the rules, but rather from a gentle voice that looked beyond the rules to the Kingdom of God.

    The word “lead” is entangled with so much western culture, corporate culture, and individualistic culture, that it mostly makes my head spin and my feet want to run as fast as I can in the opposite direction.

    If the goal is to get the biggest head count into your own church (and we know that many if not most of those come not from new believers, but from other churches), then I guess “leadership” is the right word. But if the goal is to “make disciples”, then I think serve and shepherd (dare I say pastor?) are the right words in order to live out the Kingdom of God this side of eternity. And in preparatory anticipation of the not yet.

    So to wrap it up as best I can, to me, to pastor means to be, above all, a loving servant – love God, love people – who looks with compassion on the world and all in it. And in order to “look” with compassion, one has to slow down to “see”. Be vulnerable. Be interruptible. Be available. And all that implies. Like Jesus. I’d follow that pastor anywhere – does THAT make him or her a leader??? It does for me.

  • DMH

    John, Not sure if I have in mind the same things as Dianne but I have never seen those terms as having to be synonymous either. For example, I see my wife as a pastor. She is a wise and godly women. People (both men and women) feel comfortable with her and come to her for wisdom and guidance for both practical life circumstances and more theological issues (less so on the theology). She “shepherds” them. She has shepherded me at times. She has no official position, she does not preach (and probably couldn’t do so on par with most “preachers”), and she doesn’t lead a group of people. Am I wrong to think she is a pastor?- yes, I know, not in any traditional sense.


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