Remembering our place

In his introduction to “Who Runs the Church?” a new title from Zondervan, author Engle Cowan decries the small regard many theologians and church leaders give to the issue of church governance. This neglect, he says, is based on the notion that the Bible says little definitive about governance. This idea has resulted in little or no emphasis being placed on the subject during most seminary training. Cowan’s book and “Perspectives on Church Government” from Broadman and Holman have brought the discussion back to the forefront. I’m working through the two books now and we plan to explore the different models at work in Texas Southern Baptist churches in a future issue.

Reading on the subject naturally brought to mind the snares and excesses I’ve seen in churches that wrestle with leadership issues. There are naturally two parties in church governance: one is the recognized leadership whether employed, elected, appointed, or born to the position; the other is the congregation, which gives assent by voting and/or supporting and participating in the ministry. Both groups have crucial roles to play as they work together within the body of Christ.

Leaders exist to serve the best interests of the body. This is not always identical with the felt needs of the group or the personal vision of the leader. It is apparently difficult to negotiate this narrow path. Some leaders have become irrelevant as they seek to stay ahead of the whims of the majority. Equally amiss is the tendency to think that people are obligated to follow as the leader pursues an agenda that fulfills him.

Leaders must also know themselves. Those who seek to insulate themselves from accountability are like the man in James 1:23-24 who forgets his face after leaving the mirror. We are imperfect and subject to temptations. Unless we accept the counsel of others knowledgeable of our lives, we will fade and fall.

A leader who knows himself will work to avoid temptation. So much in prominence plays to our vanity. Good leaders have been ruined by loving flattery. We all need those people who say kind things to us whether we deserve it or not. It levels out those for whom we can do no right. But when we dwell on praise, we may start to believe we deserve it.

Leaders may also be tempted by a sense of self-importance. Our ministries are of little eternal value if we are their focus and power. A leader who sees himself as frail and dependent on his Creator will take comfort in the fact that his work will be significant beyond his ability to lead it. Others may find such a notion unwelcome.

The leader who cannot see the boundary between himself and his ministry may also come to see his own desires to be synonymous with the good of the ministry. This is more often seen in long-tenured leaders. He is trusted, comfortable, and more effective than in earlier days. His whole day and energy may be tied up in his ministry; so the line between private agendas and ministry-related ones is hard to judge. His friends, hobbies, mail, phone calls, evenings, and even vacations might arguably be called ministry-related. He may therefore see the resources of the ministry to be justly at his disposal.

A second danger of this same mindset is the urge to protect the ministry by shielding its trusted and effective leader from the consequences of his mistakes. In more than one notable case, church leaders conspired to conceal and ongoing extra-marital affair involving their leader, “for the sake of the ministry.” It seems extreme but it is only different in extent from the behavior of leaders who believe that they are the ministry.

Just as many of us are leaders in one context or another, we are also followers in other settings. That role also has responsibilities necessary for the health of a church or institutional ministry.

Followers must also be committed to the good of the larger body. It is common for church members or board members to see their role as catching their leaders in a mistake. That attitude is as self-serving as any vain thing a leader might fall into.

When Paul says love “hopes all things” in 1 Corinthians 13:7, I think the opposite of that is the cynicism that causes us to assume that our leaders are trying to pull something. That is usually not the case. Most errors are honestly made and do not require a harsh punitive reaction. When we hope good things of our leaders, we trust God to correct his own servant and his own ministry. If we are diligent (not paranoid) followers we are doing our part to maintain the purity of the ministry. Assuming the worst is seldom constructive.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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