Notes on the Crisis of Pastoral Leadership in the North American Church

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I have been a Senior Pastor of a large, non-denominational, evangelical church for the past ten years, and been in pastoral ministry for nearly twenty years now. Maybe, like me, you realize there is something happening in the life of the North American Church that could best be described as a crisis of pastoral leadership. We see it around us and we feel it in our souls. There is something wrong and we cannot turn our eyes away. We must wrestle with the deeper issues of this crisis for our own soul’s sake, but also for the sake of the church. What follows is my fumbling attempt at reflection on this crisis, my wrestling with the challenges and questions, and also my invitation for you to engage with me in this. May God guide us and make something redemptively beautiful in His church and of His pastors.

 

The pastor who uses preaching or other forms of ministry as a means to platform himself or herself is doing disservice to themselves, shaming their calling, abusing their church, and turning their back on Messiah Jesus. Ministry is not about platforming ourselves, but about directing attention to Jesus and serving others in love.

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The pastor who aims merely to write books and speak at conferences has confused after-effects with goals. We should not seek these things, but, after serving faithfully and fruitfully, agree to some of these things also, although we know they threaten to damage our souls and distract us in ministry.

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A wise pastor once told me that God is more interested in having all of us than He is in having us do things for Him. Yet we are often more interested in having people recognize us for what we have done than for the degree to which we reflect Christ in our whole lives.

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The crisis of pastoral leadership in the evangelical church is a crisis of discipleship, ecclesiology, and authority. It is a crisis of discipleship because our shepherds cannot lead us to the deep places with God because they do not regularly go there themselves. It is a crisis of ecclesiology because we have misunderstood what it means to be the church at nearly every level, from foundations to expressions. It is a crisis of authority because we have set celebrity pastors in positions of nearly unbounded power without appropriate personal or institutional accountability to Christian formation.

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Ministry arises from the overflow of our own life with God. Failure to understand this and live by it will not only hinder our vibrant ministry, but also ruin us in the process. It will ruin us because the outward appearances of ministry activity will increasingly be at odds with our personal lack of discipleship.

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To step away from celebrity and into obscurity can be a gift to the soul that strives for recognition and hungers for approval. At the same time, such a move toward obscurity can also become an attempt at escape from responsibility or another bent impulse toward recognition through reverse optics.

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Toxic leaders and toxic environments often overlap and feed one another, but are not the same thing. Health will not come merely by addressing one but not the other. Health comes in the church when we address the personal issues of spiritual malformation, while also addressing the systemic issues of spiritual malformation in the environment.

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The one who appoints himself or herself as a prophet is likely not a pastor, and is more likely someone with an axe to grind. The true impulse of the prophetic comes only from the Holy Spirit, not from the self. In Hebrew Scripture, the self-proclaimed prophet was to be killed by stoning.

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To resist sin and temptation we must name it for what it is superficially but also subterraneanly. Every weed has a root, and many times the root is stronger and deeper than what is seen at the surface. The initial longings interlaced with temptation are not necessarily evil in themselves. It is the response to the longing that makes the difference. Naming the longing correctly often leads to an appropriate embrace of our weakness in relation to that desire that may lead us toward God. Giving in to temptation most often is connected with an inappropriate suppression or denial of desire, leading toward a whiplash of activity that will neither satiate our impulsive passion nor fully satisfy our desires because the true longing is ignored. Many pastors’ lives are like gardens whose weeds are plucked from the surface, but whose roots are still strong and just waiting to burst through the surface.

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Is the vision before us the glory of God in Christ or is it something else? Is it the glory of ourselves in earthly exaltation? Is it the glory of liberated pursuits of our fleshly desire? The vision before us shapes our pursuit and the path of the road by which we travel our life’s journey. Pastor are ironically capable of seeing this in others, but often blind to the vision before us in our own lives.

 

Real Shepherds: Thomas Oden on pastoral leadership as service

tom odenIn Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, he takes one chapter to reflect on the analogy of pastor as shepherd. In the midst of that chapter, he strikes at the heart of what I think is missing within much of pastoral ministry as it is currently practiced in North America: pastoral authority approached as service.

The shepherd is not without authority, but it is of a special sort. The shepherd’s authority is based on competence grounded in mutuality, yet this authority requires accurate empathy to be properly empowered. Pastoral authority is not primarily coercive authority, such as that of a judge or a policeman, but rather authority based on covenant fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding (Gregory, ACW, vol. 11, Part 2).

This conception of authority has a christological base in the minds of Christian believers. From where else did Christianity learn this unusual view of authority? It is precisely from the servant messiah that we learn of the paradoxical unity of dignity and service. It is from the true God, true man, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9), “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, RSV). The pattern of authority is that of the incarnate Lord, who expressed in a single, unified ministry the holiness of God amid the alienations of the world, the incomparable power of God that was surprisingly made know in an unparalleled way amid crucifixion and resurrection.

Wherever Christians speak of authority or dignity of ministry or headship of the shepherd, those are not properly understood as coercive modes of power, but persuasive, participative modes of benevolent, empathic guidance. This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and highly nuanced conception of authority, but it is intimately familiar to those who love Christ and listen for his voice. The proper authority of ministry is not external, manipulative, alien power that distances itself from those “under” it, but rather a legitimized and happily received influence that wishes only good for its recipient, a leadership that boldly guides but only on the basis of a deeply empathic sense of what the flock yearns for and needs. The analogy of shepherd was not promiscuously or thoughtlessly chosen by Jesus as the centerpiece of ministry, but wells up from the heart of God’s own ministry to the world. (p. 53)

Five Themes of Resilient Ministry

fullsizeoutput_abeThis week, I am spending time in reflection about what it means to be a pastor, what ministry is all about, and what it means to be the church. Earlier this week I shared some insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together about the church and from Dallas Willard on the nature of ministry in a consumer society. Today, I want to turn my attention toward pastoral ministry.

In their book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie outline five themes of resilient ministry that I have found valuable as I reflect on what is most meaningful in my life as a pastor. They write:

After seven years of studying our [pastoral] summit participants (including their marriages, families and ministries), we learned a lot about what it takes to survive and thrive in ministry. Five themes, each with multiple factors, stood out as the keys for pastors to remain resilient in fruitful ministry for a lifetime.

In chapter two, the authors introduce those five themes, so here they are in summary form.

Theme One: Spiritual Formation

The study reveals that focus on personal spiritual formation within the life of the pastor is incredibly important to pastoral resilience. “In our work with pastors, we have come to define spiritual formation as the ongoing process of maturing as a Christian, both personally and interpersonally” (19, italics mine). This is not something that has been attained, but is an ongoing process in which leaders give attention, as any disciple of Christ should, to their ongoing growth with God. Along with this, the authors emphasize that pastoral resilience arises when this emphasis on spiritual formation is not only persona, but interpersonal. That is, spiritual formation must involve others and, though this can be a problem for pastors to find, must involve safe places for vulnerable disclosure.  They quote Diane Langberg, who says “Before you were called to be a shepherd, you were called to be a lamb” (21).

Theme Two: Self-Care

As pastors take steps to live out self-denial with intentional spiritual growth, they must also give attention to appropriate self-care. “The idea of self-care involves the pursuit of physical, mental and emotional health” (21). The work of ministry is very demanding in terms of time, life issues, and the sense that it is a 24-7 role. However, in the midst of those stresses, we cannot lose sight of taking care of ourselves through meaningful physical exercise, good sleep and eating, activities outside of the church, and some life-giving hobbies. As someone once said to me, “The best thing you have to offer to the church as a pastor is a healthy you.”

Theme Three: Emotional and Cultural IntelligenceRead More »