LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It is a privilege to lead the people of God, but the privilege of being a leader of God’s people never transforms the people into the leader’s “property.”
Godly leadership results in humble stewardship, not prideful ownership. Church leaders are not called to stand above a conglomeration of individuals as if the purpose of these people is to fulfill our vision. God calls us to serve as shepherds in the midst of a flock wholly devoted to His purposes.
And yet, the notion that the people are our property remains a persistent temptation.
Some expressions of this delusion are obvious. There’s the dictatorial pastor who is angered when people don’t measure up to his expectations or the bullying elder who silences dissent by abusing the gift of church discipline. A leader may rack up charges on the church’s credit card that don’t clearly contribute to the purposes of the church.
This delusion also may manifest itself in more subtle ways.
Sometimes, it is revealed through our complaining and impatience when the church doesn’t immediately applaud our best-laid plans. In other cases, it’s seen when a church is used as a pastor’s platform to promote his own personal brand for the purpose of gaining multiplied popularity in social media. It’s treating a small congregation or an associate ministry role as a passing inconvenience until a more prominent position becomes available.
It’s any action or attitude that treats the church as a tool to be manipulated for our benefit instead of as a holy communion in which we share a sacred stewardship.
When a pastor treats the people as his platform, it is an act of treasonous theft, stealing for himself that which Christ our great high priest has purchased at the cost of His own blood.
Nor is the leader the “property” of the church.
“Let me tell you something, Dr. T.,” the deacon leaned over the lunch table to make certain I didn’t miss a word he had to say. “If your wife ever has to call me about this again, I will personally take over your calendar so that you’re home when you need to be.” More than a decade in retrospect, I realize this threat from a deacon who loved me probably saved my ministry.
I had served four years as this church’s associate pastor when the senior pastor left to lead a church plant. A few months later, the congregation asked me to take his place. But there was a problem: I wasn’t letting go of the roles I’d had as associate pastor, even after calling an additional staff member. So, in addition to leading the staff and preparing multiple messages each week, I was still overseeing monthly trainings for Sunday School teachers, attending every youth and children’s ministry committee meeting, playing guitar in the youth worship band, and helping with the logistics for three upcoming mission trips.
The result was that my wife was spending far too many evenings at home alone with our first daughter.
My wife tried to talk to me about releasing some of my responsibilities, but I didn’t see the problem that she was seeing. So Rayann called a faithful deacon named Mark and described what was happening in our household. And that’s how I ended up being interrogated over lunch about why I was spending so many evenings enmeshed in church meetings instead of heading home.
That afternoon, I began the process of delegating and reassigning a long list of responsibilities, but it was more of a struggle than I thought it would be.
After an hour or so of wrestling with the list, I came to a painful recognition: I was living under the delusion that the church could not accomplish these tasks without my direct involvement. One result of this delusion was that I was living as if I belonged to the people and programs of the church instead of living first and foremost as an adopted child of God.
In some ways, the notion of living this way seemed noble and sacrificial. But according to the apostle Paul, our integrity as leaders in the church is grounded in our habits of leadership in our homes (1 Timothy 3:4-5). A pastor who neglects his family and acts as if he is the church’s property isn’t demonstrating sacrificial love for the church. What he’s revealing is his own unwillingness to develop and deploy the people of God for the work of God (Eph. 4:12).
Whenever we neglect the unseen aspects of ministry, we eventually find ourselves unable to engage in the visible practices of ministry in the power of Christ. And when churches treat their leaders as the congregation’s indispensable property, the people of the church miss opportunities to use the gifts that the Spirit has given them.
So what’s the answer to this struggle?
The pastor must learn to see his central identity not as a property of God’s people or even as a leader of God’s people but, first and foremost, as a child of God and a follower of God’s Son. The pastor is the church’s servant but the church is never the pastor’s master. Leaders and laity alike are not the property of each other; together, they are the devoted property of God and God alone.