¶252.7 Book of Discipline — The Church Council shall endlessly discuss the best course of action for the local congregation, finally approve it, and then present it to the whole church where it will inevitably be rejected after contentious debate.

No, don’t bother looking this up in the Discipline.  It isn’t there.  I made it up, based on lived reality rather than abstract intention.  I cannot believe the number of times I see the leadership of the church abdicate its responsibility and authority to make decisions under the pretext of being nice and kind and inclusive.  We keep looking to books, seminars, and studies to magically deliver us from our plight, and wonder why we never seem to get anywhere.  In our misguided, but well-intentioned, efforts to keep everyone happy we undermine our structure and process by turning our representational hierarchies into democracies.  We end up with anarchy that works to preserve the status quo.  Jesus wept.

Why, in the church, do we get so upset when leaders lead instead of manage?  Our resistance to change is so strong.  We are a mass of paradox and irreconcilable contradictions:  we want growth, but not change; we want new members but fear strangers; we want benefits without costs and gains without losses.  We want shepherds that will protect us from the world rather than empower us to transform the world.  We like what we like the way we like it — regardless of what God’s vision and will might be.  This puts visionary and transformative leaders in a terrible position.  They are elected to move us into the future, but they are criticized for doing anything that dishonors the past.  They are charged with the task of creating a congregational environment that reaches out and receives new people, relates and connects people to God, strengthens and nurtures people in a dynamic spiritual growth, and equips and sends them into the world as witnesses to and members of the body of Christ.  They are attacked for anything and everything that challenges people’s sense of comfort, security, and the familiar.  Trouble is, we can’t have it both ways.

When elected leaders (and paid staff) take seriously their work as defined by the Book of Discipline (for real this time), they are almost guaranteeing themselves some discomfort and strife.  Leaders take people where they would not ordinarily go.  Church leaders are not defenders of what is, but champions of what can be.  As church leaders together, we work to create what God is calling us to, and our God is a God who challenges us to grow, to sacrifice, to give, to share, to witness, and to serve — all activities that will move most of us from our comfort zones.  When leaders encounter resistance, they don’t cave in — they deepen their resolve to help the whole community of faith move through the wilderness (and out of captivity) toward the Promised Land.

I often meet with church leadership groups that are very cautious about making decisions.  “Who are we to think we know what’s best for the congregation?” one man asked me recently.  Well, the answer to that is simple: we are elected to lead in our churches through prayerful discernment, faithful conversation, patient consensus for the very purpose of… MAKING DECISIONS!  You don’t hear ditch-diggers ask, “who am I to dig this hole?” or musicians questioning “who am I to play this song?”  When we are charged with a task or hired for a purpose — paid or volunteer — then we have both the right and the responsibility to make decisions (and then to deal with the consequences, both positive and negative).

Certainly, we can gather input and listen to the hearts and minds of our congregants, but when push comes to shove, it is up to those elected and hired to make decisions to do just that.  Our churches are mired in the status quo.  “We’ve always done it that way,” are some of the most destructive words ever uttered in service to the Christian gospel.  Good news goes right out the window when it becomes old news.  The ability to adapt, to discern opportunity, to begin new initiatives and to end old initiatives, these are the essential work of our boards of trustees and church councils.  Allocating human and material resources, training and equipping leadership, setting priorities, and holding the entire congregation accountable to its mission and vision is the job of those who say yes to lead in the congregation.  Anything less is inadequate to meaningful, transformative ministry.

Our dominant cultural consumerist values make church leadership all the more challenging.  Many people attending our churches carry in an entitlement mentality that expects (demands) the church serve their needs and desires, and they can be quite vocal about the things they don’t like.  While they have a right to their opinion, they cannot be the voices that carry the day.  Our mandates and marching orders come first from scripture and second from our denominational mission and vision (as contained in our Book of Discipline).  Ours is a higher calling than the cultural expectation to be coddled and accommodated.  We are called to be the body of Christ for the world, and we simply cannot do that sitting still.

And we also cannot do it sitting around conference tables waiting for secret spiritual knowledge to magically appear.  We have created a silly paradox in the modern-day church.  We look for other people’s formulas and processes to follow, then we call that leadership.  We look for “how to,” “we did it, you can do it too!” magic bullets, and then we wonder why we are so mired in mediocrity.  We believe the answers to all our problems are “out there” somewhere, ignoring the fact that we are a unique group of people in a unique setting with a unique set of skills, knowledge, and gifts, empowered by God’s own Holy Spirit.  It is highly unlikely that what works for Church of the Sainted Savior in East Jesustown is going to work for us, but we keep on looking and hoping, copying and cribbing, nonetheless.  There is no secret knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered — just the opportunity to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling — and deep joy, satisfaction, and excitement.  It is time for our leaders to lead and stop worrying so much about keeping everyone happy.  Leaders, encourage one another in love, build trust, pray together, and take thou authority.  Your church needs it now more than ever.

18 replies

    • Absolutely. We take in members, without finding out where they are in their faith walk, then in our rush to fill postions on this board or that committee, we place them where they are asked to make important decisions that might indeed be controversial. They have no real idea what the goals of the United Methodist Church are, or even the Christian concepts behind what we believe, so they fall back on “the will of the people” which is whomever buttonholed them and screamed the loudest last. The cry of “People are leaving the Church” sends them into an instant panic and they feel they must act to stop people from leaving, when some of those people really needed to leave to start with. We put ourselves in a bad situation by leaving off the teaching they should have been given before becoming members, or the training they should have gotten before they were ever asked to serve.

  1. Great article, thank you.

    We have been charged by Jesus to create disiples in the world. If we are to take that mission seriously, we must filter our actions and decisions through that mission statement. Each church should have a mission statement and leaders need to use that mission statement to make decisions. We will be uncomfortable. We will face strife. And we will grow.

    Transformational leadership is certainly what is needed and effective communication is key in this process. A leader needs to inspire followers or there will be no one following. Proper discourse, in safe environments, that inspire creative “soul – stretching” is what Jesus offered so often. Followers may state, “We’ve always done it this way” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Positive leaders need to respond, meet followers where they are, and “sell” them on the vision that Christ so clearly laid out before us. It is an easy sell if a leader first attempts to understand the follower.

    Finally, decisions must be made in the presence of God’s love. Decisions based in fear rarely turn out well.

    Thanks again, Dan

  2. I never really considered this post to be about the problems with autocratic leaders who take on too much power, which I think is a totally seperate discussion. I think what Dan is speaking of are the PPR/SPR committees that keep letting a group of the chosen and frozen convince them that running off pastors who are change oriented is the “will of the people.” The same might be the case of the Finance Committee that will only cut budgets because they don’t want to upset the “you can’t talk about money in Church crowd.” The list goes on and on. There rre also those who get on these committees just to make sure nothing happens that they do not want to happen, which usually limits the church to doing nothing. Dan Dick has nailed it very well with this column. While a lot of the emphasis for change seems to be on the clergy, the problem is really more with the Laity that have long since forgtten why they are supposed to be a member of the church. They have adopted the Country Club idea of how the church should operate, and that is usually a fatal mistake.

  3. Great Post……..Concept………Reality

    Dan — I am glad you’re helping our “managers” learn process to “lead”.
    I am looking forward to seeing more of the Dan Dick I think I know in that help.

  4. “It is time for our leaders to lead and stop worrying so much about keeping everyone happy. Leaders, encourage one another in love, build trust, pray together, and take thou authority. Your church needs it now more than ever.”

    I would have to agree with this, but part of the reality is that our conferences, let alone our churches, aren’t structured to affirm this. We do not applaud the “risk-takers” and those who try to step out and challenge the status quo.

    We have clergy who have been trained to manage rather than lead. Our laity are busy, and are not often trained for the jobs they hold, so it’s easier just to keep doing what we’ve always been doing.

    Here in our conference, we’ve had wonderful training and trainers – Doug Anderson, Dick Jones, you… and we’re still where we were 10 years ago.

    I believe we are building a system to turn around through our circuits, but our Superintendents are putting out the fires of discontent fielding calls, letters and emails from clergy as well as laity. They are stretched thin, and when they offer training events, such as recent SPRC training, and only a handful of people attend (less than 30 at one recent district event), and the things that are taken back and acted upon are how we can do the “minimum” (Continuing Education funds, for instance), how in the world will we turn it around?

    Leaders lead! Yes – but get ready for the push-back! It’s not going to be pretty – but in the long run, it will be healthier and much more alive than we are now. It will tear up our families. Stress us clergy to the max… but…

    “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Wesley

  5. This post is good as far as it goes. I have definitely served churches suffering from paralysis of analysis (this absolutely describes us as a denomination … “let’s commission a task force to study the findings of the task force we commissioned four years ago, so we can commission another task force to study their findings four years from now”) and “we’ve always done it that way.”

    But I’ve also served the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m pastoring a church right now where I am constantly cleaning up messes from a predecessor who threw around his “authority” as the pastor, making decisions that he really didn’t have the authority to make. But the church didn’t know any better … they just knew they didn’t like the changes he was making, but felt powerless to do anything about it. This is not a case of the church simply resisting change. They are very pliable and open to change here. This is a case of someone who abused his position of authority. This is the second time I have had the task of “cleaning up” a situation like this. (I hope I’m not getting myself “type-cast” for these kinds of appointments.)

    But this is another challenge we face, and one not acknowledged above. I have no problem with leaders taking authority and making decisions they have been empowered for, but so many tend to go far beyond and abuse their position of authority. These are the real gnostics among us, those who presume they are in possession of some secret knowledge from God and therefore should be followed without question.

    We must always remember our primary orientation as followers of Christ, and that we lead only from that position. My fear (and I’m probably speaking more here of paid staff than of the volunteers on our Church Councils)is that we have many in positions of leadership who don’t lead as followers, who overstep their bounds, who view all opposition as stubborn, backwards, even ungodly. Lord Acton was right.

    We are paralyzed on both ends of this issue.

    • I don’t disagree with you, except at one vital point. My definition of true leadership is collaborative, not autocratic. When we have deigned to talk about leadership, or to lift models from our current reality, we tend to focus on charismatic, entrepreneurial individuals, not teams or partnerships. The number of churches suffering because a misguided individual threw their “authority” around is yet one more symptom of an organism in need of remedial help. Jesus and Paul both taught “you” in the plural much more often than in the “singular.” To be the body, we must learn to work and lead together — under the head of Christ and empowered by the Spirit.

      • Not sure that’s such a disagreement, as I am on board with the need those who can facilitate collaboration and motivate people to pull in the same direction. I think, however, the need to clarify this is what you mean by “leadership” points to the ubiquitous nature of the term. There have probably been more books (written specifically for the church or “borrowed” from the business world), conferences, and seminars on “leadership” in church circles over the past decade or more than on any other subject. Yet, as Jeff points out so succinctly below, “we’re still where we were 10 years ago.” There has to be a better term, a better way of speaking about what it is that makes some churches and pastors able to make the tough decisions and take the necessary steps to move the church forward.

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