A well-crafted book title captures the imagination, stimulates curiosity, and invites us to fill the gap between what we think it means and what the author really has to say. Recently I saw the title, "Five Temptations of CEO’s" at the bookstore. I didn’t pick up the book, but the title prompted me to think about my own calling as a church leader, and the temptations that take us off path.
So here’s a quick attempt at Five Temptations of Pastoral Leadership, a listing of the most likely seductions, distractions, and stumbling blocks to congregational leadership. (These apply also to lay leadership in the church)
1. Thinking too highly of oneself. We see the first disciples succumb to this, jockeying for the favored positions, misunderstanding the roles of served and server. Paul warned us explicitly, "Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think." This temptation displays itself in ministry when we try to control everything, when we can’t let go or leave gracefully, when we act as if no worthwhile ministry took place before we arrived or after we left a congregation, when we insist on our own ways, and when we think we must be present to shape every possible meeting, ministry, and outcome. A particular pastor or lay leader contributes to the bene esse of the church but no one constitutes the esse (to use categories of classical ecclesiology). That is, a pastor or lay person may be important for the well-being of the church but no one person is essential to the church. The presence of Christ is the only essential for the church to be the church. That’s a hard truth for many of us. The entire universe simply does not revolve around us.
2. Abandoning the spiritual life and neglecting personal needs. This involves becoming so engrossed with the task of preaching that we forget to worship, so possessed by the notion of teaching scripture that we fail to listen for God’s word, so occupied by the care of others that we forget how to receive love, so immersed in the work of the church that we forget how to rest in Christ, so anxious about public prayers that we neglect our own spiritual utterance. The continuing development of the interior life, the personal nurturing of our relationship with God and with others, the active making space for God in our lives, and the time to reflect, absorb, and prepare are critical to spiritual health and fruitful leadership. Without our continual learning to give and receive love (think family, friends, colleagues, community, enemies) we can scarcely expect to be able to teach others the way of Christ.
3. Playing it too safe. Effective and fruitful ministry involves responsible mission-driven risk, a willingness to try bold new approaches, and the ability to handle the stress of sometimes disappointing people. No new idea, no ministry initiative, and no budding outreach progresses without exhibiting a certain audacity, a willingness to risk success and where that takes us, or failure and what that teaches us. Jesus’ ministry was radical, passionate, intentional, risk-taking, and extravagant, and pastors and leaders who play it too safe have been seduced by the spirit of intransigence, comfort, or timidity rather than led by the spirit of boldness and the new creation.
4. Trying to go it alone. Pastors who practice ministry as a solitary affair think that they can do all this without the laity, without the cooperation of other staff, without colleagues, and without mentors or teachers or encouragers. Proverbs says, "In an abundance of counselors, there is safety." Jesus sent the disciples out “two by two” for a reason. We have not been authorized by the church for ministry through ordination and licensing to go do it all ourselves. We’ve been authorized by the church to lead congregations and to mobilize people toward the greatest task ever entrusted to humankind, the expansion of God’s kingdom on earth and the proclamation of God’s word. The job’s bigger than you and me, and we can’t do it alone. "Going it alone" is neither the goal nor the strategy, and we burn ourselves out and diminish our effectiveness for the mission of Christ by thinking it all rests with us and by believing that all the burdens and failures are ours alone to bear and that all victories and successes are ours alone to claim.
5. Losing focus of the mission and neglecting fruitfulness. A thousand good things to be done can distract from what is most essential, and the unmet needs within most congregations easily keep us focused internally and upon meeting the expectations of those already present. No members complain when the preaching is good, the pastoral care well-done, and the administrative machinery runs smoothly. But unreached and neglected people outside the church who need to receive the good news of Christ cannot complain and their voices are never heard. Someone has to keep pushing the church out of itself and into the community. Someone has to attend to the mission, and to keep the needs of those who are not present and have no voice freshly in focus. God has placed our churches where they are to reach the people around us, the mission field full of children, seniors, families, singles, professionals, workers, the widowed, the divorced, the broken, the unemployed, the self-absorbed, the comfortably retired , the hopelessly addicted, the up and coming, and the down and out.
As for neglecting fruitfulness, pastors and leaders can easily justify decline, loss, and the diminishing of ministry. We blame the lay people, the economy, the demographics, the lack of support, low salaries, the appointment process, our predecessors, the apportionments, dysfunctional leaders, bad musicians, poor locations, rundown facilities, etc. We can highlight our good efforts, hard work, long hours, and the many other things we pour into ministry. We can shun the idolatry of growth with great self-righteousness, or we can err in the other extreme by oversimplifying and making ministry merely a numbers game, offering a ministry that is thin, shallow, and mechanical. But in the end, we dare not allow ourselves to be seduced away from a pivotal focus on fruitfulness.
What is the fundamental difference we are making in the lives of people? Are we changing lives for Christ, and are these changed people changing the world? We cannot avoid the question of fruitfulness, and it is a temptation to do so. Scripture says, "Each tree is known by its fruit" and "Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." All excuses aside, are we offering our utmost and highest and are we touching lives within and beyond our communities of faith? Faithful and fruitful ministry requires our willingness to ask this of ourselves and of our churches.
So, what would be the chapter titles if you were to write a book, Five Temptations of Pastoral Leadership, or Five Temptations of Lay Leadership? What have I left out that ranks high up for you?
Yours in Christ,