The issue of leadership has become a hot topic in recent years. Leadership conferences and tools are now found in growing abundance. Nearly everyone agrees that leadership is a key component in healthy church growth, but once that single issue of consensus has been reached, little else seems to be agreed upon. What style of leadership is most effective? How do we recruit and train sufficient leaders for the church? Who can be in leadership? These are all essential and vital questions.
A little over sixteen years ago, I wrote a book entitled The Official Rule Book of the New Church Game. The title was intended to be a "tongue-in-cheek" effort to add a little humor to the discussion of a very serious topic. I regularly declared that "church is not a game." I am more convinced than ever that we cannot afford to play "church games." The ministry of the church has such eternal impact that we cannot afford to give less than our best.
In that book I used a childhood game — king of the mountain — to illustrate how we often resolve issues of leadership in the church. I loved the game because it was simple, the rules could be changed with little notice, and it gave me a splendid opportunity to get dirty.
The game began when someone climbed to the top of a high mound of dirt and declared himself to be king of the mountain. The other players attempted to dethrone him and take his place. One after the other, the participants would rush the hill and attempt to shove the current king aside. If the reigning king proved too strong for any one player to dethrone, the other players would develop a cooperative strategy to dethrone him. This process continued until everyone was thoroughly worn out, dirty to the bone, and usually a little angry because it was thought that someone didn't play fair.
It has been my sad observation that many churches play "king of the mountain" when it comes to leadership. A constant struggle takes place between pastor, deacons and/or elders, and other laypersons to determine who is king of the mountain. When someone appears to be gaining a clear advantage, coalitions are formed to dethrone the person standing atop the hill. In this real-world game, "ruling the mountain," provides little satisfaction because the struggle for leadership never ends. Both the playing field and the participants are reaping the effects of the battle, and the church and its mission have suffered. For the sake of the King and the Kingdom, we must stop this destructive game and look for a leadership model that is biblical and thus advances the Kingdom.
The Pattern of Acts
The book of Acts provides us with a front-row seat as we watch the early church develop a leadership structure. We can join Paul and Barnabas on their first church planting mission. After being stoned and left for dead in Iconium, the two missionaries continued on to Derbe (Acts 14:19-20). After evangelizing in Derbe, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. We shouldn't miss the note that they "made many disciples."
With considerable courage and firm resolve the missionaries returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, cities from which they had been brutally expelled. Their purpose was simple but critical — "strengthening the hearts of the disciples." The apostles told them to expect tribulation. This dose of reality therapy was accompanied by doctrinal instruction.
Yet, Paul and Barnabas knew that the ongoing health of these new communities was dependent on the establishment of a leadership structure that would provide stability for these new churches. Thus they appointed suitable members as elders who would continue to strengthen the believers through doctrinal instruction and personal encouragement. The use of the term "elder" in the book of Acts was likely based on the Jewish model of the synagogue and thus adopted by local churches which were predominately Jewish in make-up. At this early stage, the church was less concerned about titles than they were structure and function.
An Early Community Ministry Passage
One of the earliest passages in the Pauline letters that deals with structure for ministry is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14. We find here two primary themes. First, every member of the Body is responsible for ministry. Kingdom citizens are saved to serve the King and advance His Kingdom. Second, some among the membership are called to exercise leadership functions in the community. These are neither competitive nor contradictory ideas; they are complementary. God has ordained the leadership structure in the church for the mutual benefit of all the members and for the effective expansion of the Kingdom through the church.
I would suggest that you take out your Bible and read this passage in its context. You will notice that it begins with a focus on relationships. Now we ask you, brothers, to give recognition to those who labor among you in the Lord and admonish you and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (emphasis mine). It is possible that some tension existed between leaders and community members in Thessalonica. Paul had been forced to leave Thessalonica so quickly that it may not have been clear to everyone who the appointed leaders were. It is possible that several members were pulling in different directions. This may have caused some to despise the teaching of the prophets (5:20).
It is important that Paul first focuses on relationships. He instructs church members to "give recognition" and "appreciate" those who lead them in the Lord. He moves to a deeper level of relationship when he instructs them to "esteem them very highly in love." Little can be accomplished for the Kingdom when relationships between leaders and members are strained and fragile. Did you notice that the key issue behind this call for caring relationships is "their work?" When we deal with human emotions and personality conflicts in the church, we must remind ourselves of the significance of our mission. We serve the King, and the work which we accomplish together has eternal consequences.
How many times have you seen the work of the local church hindered because of tension between laity and leaders? All too often we secretly nurture suspicious attitudes that manifest themselves in an "us-them" mentality. "We've got to watch the preacher; he wants to change our church." Or conversely, "I'll never get these people to do anything; they are set in their ways." For the sake of the Kingdom, we need to remember we are all work for the same cause and the same King.
The Key Functions of Pastoral Leaders
Paul gives us an early glimpse at the three primary tasks given to those in leadership. The Greek text has three present participles governed by a single article which suggests that Paul was describing the work of one group of persons who performed three specific tasks.
Labor among. "Labor among" points first to the hard work of those engaged in pastoral leadership. I am the son of a pastor and a pastor, by calling, myself. I spend countless hours with pastors, and I can tell you that the work of pastoral ministry is hard work. I think it may be harder today than at any time in recent history. The demands upon the pastor are varied and constant. The pastor's work is never done, and he is always on call. It is not insignificant that when you read the Pastoral Epistles, Paul spoke to Timothy about both his spiritual and physical fitness.
The functional element involved in this phrase is pastoral care — the pastor serves "among" the members. Pastoral leadership emerges from the love relationship the pastor forges with the congregation. The word "among" is telling, indicating that pastoral care is by its very nature "up-close and personal." By laboring "among" the pastor is able to model and mentor the ministry which must be shared by all members.
Have charge over. The Greek word behind this English translation indicates that pastoral leaders must exercise oversight, leadership, and protection on behalf of the Lord for the congregation they hold in stewardship. Paul uses this same term three times in 1 Timothy to indicate that overseers and deacons must lead their own households (3:4, 5, 12). The obvious implication is that those who are called to lead the church must first demonstrate themselves as capable of leading at home. In 1 Timothy 5:17 the word is used again to describe those who serve as elders: The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that healthy growing churches entrust their pastors with the responsibility, authority, and freedom to oversee the mission of the church. However, being the "overseer" does not suggest that the pastor command in an authoritarian fashion. The phrase "those who lead you" is qualified by "in the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 5:12). Administrative leadership is a spiritual authority given by God and earned through service. The pastor is both leader and servant, which requires him to be both powerful and humble at the same time. Yet this is precisely the model provided by our Lord who stooped to wash feet and yet clearly led the disciples.
Pastoral leadership is not an issue of favored status but one of humble service. The concept of pastoral leadership does not negate the truth of the priesthood of believers, the giftedness of all members, nor the congregational structure of the church. The Bible clearly teaches shared ministry, but that is not the same as shared authority.
Instruction. The New Testament gives strong emphasis to the task of doctrinal instruction with the goal of making disciples. In the Acts narrative, we discover that the growth of the church created challenges for the leaders (apostles). The Spirit led the church to elect deacons so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and the preaching ministry (6:4). It was clear that God did not want the pastoral leaders to be so weighted down with daily ministry that they did not have sufficient time to pray, prepare, and preach.
In 1 Timothy 3:2, we are told that the overseer must be "an able teacher." In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul instructs the pastor/teacher to train the saints for the work of ministry. This passage demonstrates the vital link between teaching leaders and gifted members. The end result of this cooperative ministry will be unity (13), maturity (13), doctrinal stability (14), and the growth of the body in love (16). That should be the desire and goal of every church.