Leadership Lessons: Wrong DNA

Churches drift, if we are not vigilant, into a subtly wrong DNA. They start to behave as if they exist for the comfort of believers rather than to make disciples of Jesus in their area and all around the world. Their activities start to orient exclusively around providing for the faithful rather than reaching the lost.

When the DNA goes wrong, subsequently (to push the analogy a bit too far!) individual genes also start to mutate. For example, knowing that we should be a community of grace in which people grow up in Christ transmutes into being a set of pleasant meetings to attend. Faithfulness to God stops being about living in repentance and faith and participating in his Great Commission and starts instead to be about attending the meetings. Or, in another set of circumstances, growing in maturity ceases to be about growing in love that abounds in knowledge and about having Christ formed in us and starts to be about knowing a lot. Preaching the word (a la 2 Timothy 4) ceases to be about proclaiming the good news to non-Christians outside the church and starts to be about teaching the Bible to Christians in the church. I could go on.

But the main point I want to make here is that whenever we see leadership difficulties - or the difficulties of an individual leader - in a church there is a high likelihood that they can be traced back to ecclesiological errors - that is, to wrong DNA.

For example: if the leaders are struggling with being permanently over stretched, the chances are that the understanding of church is of a few religious professionals providing for everyone else, rather than it being a community of disciples all actively witnessing together. It comes down to a wrong understanding of what a church is.

Another example: if the leaders feel that they and their families are frequently not fed spiritually in the community that they themselves have responsibility for feeding the chances are that the understanding of the relationship between leader and church is "professional" or "employee" or some unbiblical sacred/secular divide.

Another example: if the leader feels they regularly have to make invidious choices of responding to the demands of church in a way that is detrimental to their family and marriage, the chances are that the church understands itself as a set of meetings that happen because the leader attends everything. They are the caretaker who makes everything happen for everyone else.

I met a number of struggling leaders last week. In many cases the situations they described to me boiled down to feeling they had to meet expectations they felt were unfulfillable. In most cases those expectations only existed because of a wrong understanding of church by either the leader, the church or both. However in a significant percentage of the cases the leader felt the wrong expectations were unchallengeable without causing so much extra pressure that they might not be able to cope with it. In other words, it feels easier to put up with those (extreme, unsustainable) unbiblical pressures and a wrong underlying ecclesiology than to try to address them and change the church's self-understanding. This is a recipe for long term pastoral distress and years of drained, fruitless grinding out of bad ministry.

What should you do in a situation like this? If, humanly speaking, there seems no chance of getting a church to embrace a biblical self-understanding, sooner or later it will spiritually damage those leading it. Because it has ceased, biblically speaking, to be a church in a proper understanding of the word. If leaders stay they need to do it in full knowledge that is the case, with appropriate helps to deal with the unbiblical expectations and attendant pressures.

But should leaders ever choose to leave? Not easily, but sometimes. After establishing a reasonable timescale within which, with prayerfulness and teaching on being a biblical church, a church refuses to embrace a biblical understanding of itself, leaders should not feel obligated to stay. The place will probably die a slow death anyway, and take the leaders down with it.

Leaders will be tempted to put sticking plasters over issues of unacceptable leadership pressures and just put up with them. This is no solution to deep rooted ecclesiologal errors. It doesn't make the better. When what is needed is surgery, sticking plasters only serve to mask the problem rather than cure it.