This issue keeps coming up for me. There seems to be a deluge of articles and personal stories about church leaders who are not living up the standard that Jesus set for church leaders. And I don’t just mean they sin. Of course they sin. I’m referring to the systemic departure from the leadership model that Jesus commanded. I’ve already written here and here about my take on how leaders need to walk in transparency and humility and about how we should be fellow sojourners. But what do you do if you are in a situation where the leaders over you do not seem to take this approach?
There has been the recent controversy and subsequent apology of Mark Driscoll. There has been the attacks on Steve Furtick over his house, huge spontaneous baptisms, and a coloring page from his church’s Sunday School classes (shown here –>). And this doesn’t even touch on the numerous crimes of embezzling and sexual abuse that have been perpetrated on faithful church members by their pastors and leaders. Almost down to the last one, these stories revolve around men who have insulated themselves from accountability and who look/act like the leaders Jesus warns about in the Gospels. In Matthew 25 he says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I’ve experienced first hand what it is like to serve under a man who held a tight grip on his authority and led by force of personality rather than by grace and openness. For these men, transparency is the scariest possible route to take as a leader.
I want to be careful not to judge any of the men mentioned above. I don’t know what it is like to lead a church with thousands of people and be responsible for millions of dollars at the church’s disposal. I don’t know how I would handle the pressure or the temptations those scenarios bring. I’ll leave for another day the question of whether anyone should face those pressures or temptations. I can also see some very good things that have come from these men and their churches. I certainly am not implying that God cannot work through the good that is present, nor am I suggesting that he can’t work in spite of the bad that is present. I am the happy result of a church that fell prey to this type of leader. But the ends never justify the means. And we would be irresponsible to avoid calling the behavior of insulated and secretive leadership wrong and dangerous to the the leaders, to the church, and to the Gospel.
So what do you do if you leaders act this way?
- Fight the urge to leave right away. This is hard. Our first instinct may be to bolt. In the end, this may be what you have to do but it can never be the first step. Here are a few ideas why you should stay a bit longer. You might be a person who can influence the church for positive change. And not only you, but other like-minded members can have a great influence if only they will work together and fight for the health of their church. If all the people who see the problems leave, there is little hope for change. Additionally, God put you there and maybe there is something he wants you to learn. Again, you may have to leave in the end, but what lessons do you bypass and cheat yourself out of if you aren’t willing to try to see change first?
- Go directly to the leaders. This is scary. Jesus is clear that if someone is in sin, the first step is to go to them directly. You never know what may happen, or who the Holy Spirit has been priming to respond in repentance. This is the best possible outcome. You may want to take some time to write out exactly what your concerns are so you don’t end up forgetting, or having a hard time putting it into words, or (worse) falling into anger and basically ensuring that your message will fall on deaf ears. It may also help to have a clear understanding of what you think should be done and how you can help facilitate the change. What you should not do is begin talking to others and try to raise a coalition of sorts. At least not yet. That time may come later, but it would be a mistake and sinful to engage others before you engage your leaders. If you need to process it with someone, do it with someone you trust who is not a part of the church and is removed enough to give sound advice and won’t start talking to people.
- Engage others without gossiping. This is crucial. The first step is to take one other person with you. Then, if the offending party does not repent, it is time to take it to the church. This step may be necessary, but it is fraught with challenges and may result in major conflict within the church. Remember, conflict is not inherently bad. What is bad is when people allow the conflict to draw them into sinful and hurtful behavior. When you talk to others, it would probably be best to feel out what they think about how things at the church are going before you share all that you are feeling. What you don’t want to do is introduce people into this controversy unnecessarily. If you find someone else or even a few people who feel the same way, try to address the leadership again. Do this as humbly as possible. The key is to model the type of engagement that you’re asking from them. If necessary, this may finally result in a church-wide meeting over the issue and could challenge the cohesiveness of the church. Just be very sure that the challenge is coming from sinful behavior on someone else’s part and not on yours. By this I mean make sure you are doing all you can to handle the conflict with integrity and in the proper manner. If you do this, the rest is up to others and, ultimately, God.
- Be prepared to leave. This is sad. Sometimes there are leaders who are entrenched in unhealthy ways of thinking and leading. Sometimes these men (it’s almost always men, but there are exception) are unwilling to repent and unwilling to listen to the reproach of their church members. And sometimes there will not be enough consensus or a strong enough will among the church members to remove them. If this is the case, it may be time to leave. But leave for the right reasons. Leave only if you know that staying would prolong division or create challenges for the church moving forward. Leave only if you know that staying would be detrimental to your spirit, or to the spirit of your family members. Leave without bitterness. Leave without a desire for revenge (so don’t start talking to everybody who will listen). Leave in prayer. Leave in peace. There is no point in leaving if you take anger and resentment with you. That allows the leadership to continue to hurt you. Let it go, trust God, and move on.
In the end, each situation is different. These are only general guidelines. Still, if you are feeling uncomfortable with the manner in which your church leaders are leading the congregation, it is worth talking to them. Maybe you’re missing something. Maybe there are other circumstances that you are unaware of that require a level of secrecy around specific events. Be willing to be corrected. Also be willing to stand for your convictions. The only way for churches to be healthy is for members to be willing to hold their leaders accountable. Without this, there can never be a system of health in your church.