"When Was the Last Time You Saw...?"
by Jerry Johnson (July / August 2004 — Volume 20, Number 4)
We seem to be plagued with a lay leadership crisis in our congregations as a result of placing people in situations for which they are neither gifted, qualified, nor prepared. Whatever the church is, I know it was not intended to be structured like a corporation, run like an earthly government, or treated as a personal possession. How many times have you heard the utterance “not in my church”?
1 Timothy 3 sets forth qualifications for various offices and positions of oversight in the early church. The titles of bishop, elder, and deacon have had varying meanings across time and denominational boundaries. Yet, I hold a belief that we should be able to draw upon Paul’s list of qualifications in selecting those to serve as lay leaders or elders in our congregations. I am particularly thinking of congregation council members and officers. Respectful, sincere, not indulging in much wine, keeping and holding deep truths of faith, not a recent convert, disciplined, temperate — are these not qualities we should seek out in leaders?
It is rare to see a congregation that applies these biblical standards to its lay leadership. This is for a variety of reasons, including a limited pool of candidates, which may keep a congregation from insisting on adhering to all qualifications for leadership. Paul writes that church leaders “must” have the stated qualifications. It is not a multiple-choice list or a case where if you have any quality from List A, it’s enough.
We are so afraid of offending people by excluding them from church leadership offices that we end up making the offices themselves of little value. If one is not qualified for leadership, it does not make them unfit for the kingdom of God, only for this particular office. If you will notice, all of the qualifications are things that can be observed by outsiders. They are not inward qualities, such as “having a heart for the Lord,” but are traits visible to those within and without the local church body.
|Church leaders have to be able to look beyond what they have already experienced and catch a vision of what God has in store for them.|
Church leaders are indeed to be role models and teachers to those within the church, and “without reproach” to those outside the walls. It is a shame that many churches do not want to do what is necessary to ensure that its leadership is in line with the biblical model.
Don’t get me wrong; there are a good number of committed people serving in our churches. Today, many good people who have spent years laboring in our congregations are faced with the realization that it is not always easy to stay true to their convictions. All leaders will invariably come to times in which they are compelled by conscience to question something — homosexuality being the current issue — and suddenly they run the risk of being dismissed with contempt. It is no wonder that most people would rather sleep in on Sunday mornings. Churches sometimes exist as nothing more than glorified country clubs where people who do come want to spend their Sunday mornings unfettered by application of conscience.
Many different types of people populate the local church assembly, like any group in society. There are those who are born into the church and attend out of habit or obligation. There are those who get drawn into the church by their good friends and continue to hang around as long as the friendship is intact and the related religious activities can supply some semblance of social life for them. There are those who, after abandoning the church during their “wild oats” days, return when they get older, praying that the “moral influence” of the church will keep their young children from doing those very things they did. And of course there are those who participate because they feel that “religion” is important for its own sake, a component that makes up a healthy lifestyle.
“When was the last time you saw such and such a person?” is a common question heard in congregations. Any church staff member who has served for a significant time will ask this question. “When was the last time you saw…? When I first joined, he was a dynamic leader. When I first came, she was in the center of things. Now, he has disappeared into the woodwork, and she has gone to another church.”
Why Leaders Leave
I’ve seen it repeatedly over the years — men and women move in and out of the leadership circles of the church. Why does it happen?
Sometimes it’s related to personality. We see evidence of this even in the New Testament, where Paul chided the Corinthians for dividing themselves into personality cults, some idolizing Paul, some following Apollos, some calling Peter their hero. The first-century Christians refused to follow anyone but the leader with whom they clicked personally. Because of human nature and diverse backgrounds, personality conflicts will always be around. Sometimes, in the ebb and flow of the life of a congregation, personality differences become more important than our common commitment to Christ. These personality conflicts cause some to surrender their leadership positions. Sometimes it’s related to one’s physical life. Burnout is a descriptive word for what happens to many Christian leaders. A willing spirit on one leader’s part leads to a massive delegation on everyone else’s part. The result is an overload of responsibilities that eventually wears a person out. In today’s world, it is easy to get “askew with muchness and manyness,” as one person put it. Leaders who get so busy doing things for God that they never do business with God will eventually fall by the wayside, burn out, and become used up.
Sometimes it’s a matter of vision. Church leaders have to be able to grasp the big picture, particularly in a large church. Although they can be passionately committed to an individual ministry within the church, they have to rise above their identification with that one ministry and make decisions that are best for the church as a whole. They have to be able to look beyond what they have already experienced and catch a vision of what God has in store for them.
In my experience, this inability to see the big picture has been the most common saboteur of leadership in the church. I’ve seen it in my own congregation. Individuals were not able to look beyond the interest of their group; people were not able to release the past which was gone and embrace the future which they could not yet see. A lack of vision caused them to forfeit their opportunity for leadership.
Sometimes it’s related to one’s spiritual relationships. Over the years my heart has been broken a number of times by leaders who, instead of maintaining an ever-deepening spirituality, have become stale in their commitment and stalled in their spiritual development, eventually allowing a character failure to steal their ministry away from them.
When this happens to rostered leaders, it is usually widely publicized. When it happens to lay people, little publicity is given to it. No public resignation is read. The former leader just fades into the woodwork.
And one day in a conversation at church, someone raises the question: “When was the last time you saw…?”
Jerry Johnson, an associate in ministry, is a church administrator at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Winter Park, Florida.