Why churches die: refusing pastoral leadership
This is the second of two articles I was asked to contribute to a series of seven articles about why some churches die. At the end of the article will be a link to this entry where you can also find the other articles in the series.
The joke landed well in a room of 300-plus denominational leaders and pastors. The laughter sparked numerous spontaneous testimonies and anecdotes – that apparently needed to be shared immediately. It took a minute to get the room back to the speaker.
What was the gut-busting and response-provoking bit of humor?
Answering that is difficult. There was no punchline, just a statement everyone had heard before and acknowledged as a joke.
The speaker had said, “It’s like the struggling church that says they want a new, young pastor with some new ideas.”
I have to admit I got caught up in the moment and laughed myself, probably to keep from crying at the numerous examples I could personally describe of being undermined, ignored or placated over the years.
The truth is, that statement should not be funny
One of the indicators of a dying church is that it fails to follow (or even reject) pastoral leadership.
I am not advocating blind obedience by a congregation or pushing for a pastoral offensive going unchecked. But here’s what needs to happen in a church struggling to follow its pastor: some biblical accountability and a little benefit of the doubt.
Let’s start with biblical accountability as we focus on Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Let’s keep this verse in the context of the whole counsel of Scripture, understanding this is not the only instruction on congregational responses to pastoral leadership. But it is a starting place.
When one is called to serve in the pastoral office, that person is to be “obeyed” (the first of two imperatives in this verse). If I work a little with the language, he is to be followed as he leads others.
A good church member will see a pastor as a God-appointed, -inspired and -led leader, attempting to discern the community and guide a church to spread the gospel where it is planted.
If you call him “pastor,” remember that you are the church, part of the body. The pastor is leading you!
And if you ignore, criticize, pledge to outlast or play the “I’ll just hide and watch this dumpster fire game,” you are out of line because you are out of sync with God’s Word.
Even if you don’t like or understand the direction he is taking, if it’s in line with God’s word, you still follow because of the second imperative in the passage: submit.
Yes, sometimes pastors appear to have “nontraditional” ideas or try to do something “we’ve never done before,” but perhaps the Holy Spirit is leading him. Look at God’s leadership in the Bible: build an ark, cross the Jordan, step out of the boat.
God calls leaders to things that will give Him the glory. That’s why no biblical narratives exist about keeping the facility nice or balancing the budget. God will lead your pastor to do God-sized things, and the congregation is to obey and submit.
But this verse is a two-way street, and the pastor is not off the hook. What he does must be for the good of the congregation’s souls – and he… will… be…held… accountable.
So this means the pastor must be living and leading in a way worthy of the congregation’s followship and submission. He must continually ask if this is how the Lord wants him to lead. No, seriously, he needs to ask that all the time. Every day.
Because it’s the Lord’s church we are stewarding, and we will be called to account for what we do.
A church member should want to obey the pastor even if it’s not easy – because the pastor has left no doubt that he loves the Lord and he loves them.
Finally, how about we give each other the benefit of the doubt? You may have been burned in the past, and you may naturally respond in a negative way, but God can change hearts – even yours.
As the writer of Hebrews tells us, there is no need for us to bicker, squabble and distrust because when we obey and submit to godly leaders, we “do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
A dying church has a lot of issues, to be sure. But one issue within your control costs nothing and makes a huge difference: Be good leaders and be good followers. Then hide and watch what only the Lord can do!