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 missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.

 

 

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?