Churches are limited by their leaders

As a leader, you must understand your enterprise will never outgrow you.

— Dave Ramsey

Pastors are leaders, right?

I have to put that question mark on there because I think there are people who would argue against that. Church people often get itchy when words and ideas used in business are spoken in the sanctuary.

But, let’s be honest. Pastor are leaders. We are called and appointed to lead congregations.

This may be obvious to you, but it is weighing on me these days. A few months into my first appointment in the United Methodist Church, I am aware of the truth of Ramsey’s quote. This church I serve was here long before me. It is doing many good things and has many good Christians trying to be better Christians, but its ability to rise above what it is and to do the things it needs to grow and fulfill its mission depends to a great extent on the kind of leadership I offer will it.

That does not mean I am “the boss.” Ramsey makes a great point that people who just try to throw power around are bosses not leaders. As leaders in the church, pastors rarely have that kind of raw power and if they did and used it, they would undermine their own leadership.

To reject bad leadership, though, is not to reject the need for leadership. And it is wrong of pastors to say “I don’t lead the church. Jesus does.” It is wrong because it is an escape from responsibility. Jesus took Peter aside and told him to feed his sheep. Of course, Jesus is the head of the church, but he appoints people to lead within it. I am one of those people.

So, I’m coming to terms with what it means to be a leader of a local church, not just a guy who can write a fairly good sermon, think deep thoughts about Wesleyan theology, and teach a good Bible study. I can do all those things. But what my church needs me to do is to become a leader, a Christian leader, a servant leader, but a leader.

I have few deep thoughts about this to share with you today, but as this blog has been a journal of my progress in faith and into the clergy, I am checking in to share this thought. Pray for your pastor, and pastors pray for each other. I’ll close with a second Ramsey quote that I will carry with me for some time.

Organizations are never limited by their opportunity; they are limited by their leader.

The lure of universalism

I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.

As you might imagine, that did not go over well.

If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”

Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”

There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.

And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.

Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?

With apologies to Wayne and Garth

I have been thinking about how to best pray for the United Methodist Church in this time of trouble an internal dissension.

In the days of the early Methodist movement, John Wesley often had to respond to those who wanted the Methodists to break off from the Church of England. Our movement began within the Church of England and Wesley intended to stay. The American revolution and Wesley’s death defeated his intentions, but during his life he never wavered from his argument that Methodists should remain in the Church of England and attend its worship and receive its sacraments even when the local parish priests were hostile to Methodists and Methodist doctrine.

In the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, Wesley replied to those who thought Methodists should become Dissenters from the Church of England, and thus separate from it. Some even said Methodists already were Dissenters in practice if not in name. Wesley would have none of such talk.

Although we call sinners to repentance in all places of God’s dominion: and although we frequently use extemporary prayer, and unite together in a religious society; yet we are not Dissenters in the only sense that our law acknowledges, namely, those who renounce the service of the Church. We do not, we dare not, separate from it. We are not Seceders, nor do we bear and resemblance to them. We set out upon quite opposite principles.

Here is how Wesley contrasted those who sought to break unity with the Church of England from Methodists, who sought to renew it.

The Seceders laid the very foundation of their work in judging and condemning others: We laid the foundation of our work in judging and condemning ourselves. They begin everywhere with showing their hearers how fallen the Church and Ministers are: We begin everywhere with showing our hearers how fallen they are themselves…. We will keep the good old way.

Our moment is much different from Wesley’s. This is not the 18th century. Our church is not the Church of England. The particulars of the two situations bear little resemblance, but I do wonder if some of the “good old way” is in order as we let bishops deliberate and commissions study and the General Conference act.

Even as I write this, I sense my own internal push back.

But “they” have done this terrible thing. But they will not stop until they get their way. But someone has to stop the evil being done by those people. If we do not stand firm, they will win.

I don’t deny any of those reactions as valid.

I just wonder, this morning, whether we have more room or more need for the “good old way” of judging and condemning ourselves. I am reminded of the communion liturgy I first encountered in hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes the following prayer of humble access:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I wonder how much time we spend in the midst of our church’s struggle reminding ourselves that we are not worthy, that God alone is worthy.