It’s a beautiful Sunday morning here in Virginia, but I’m stuck with a lingering cold and sore throat. That gives me a good excuse to skip church and my ministry commitments later this afternoon in the local jail.
So what to do? I just let my ADD dog out and he’s happily occupied digging a new hole in my otherwise nice green yard, there’s some good coffee brewing (I’m partial to Gold Coast from Starbucks – two level scoops per 14 oz.), the light of a crisp blue March sky is streaming through my sun room windows, my favorite worship music is playing in the background on my iPod, and I’m relaxing in my over-sized Lazy Boy recliner thinking on the things of God.
I guess that makes this as good a time as any to bang out some thoughts on effective New Testament leadership.
Some of my prior posts on the challenges that my generation’s pastors are facing as a new generation emerges have provoked a common response by several of my pastoral friends. Essentially, they protest that their role is not to “lead” the church in the sense of being the grand coordinator who tells everyone what to do.
Although this is true, it sets up a false dichotomy. Too often, concerns regarding overbearing leadership are little more than excuses for passivity and disengagement by tired leaders. The choice is not overbearing leaders verses passive, disengaged leaders. Rather, the choice is between New Testament leadership verses everything else.
Over the years I’ve done lots of ministry to help develop and strengthen leaders in our churches, as well as Christian leaders in other arenas. I’ve frequently taught at conferences both outside America and in the U.S. for pastors, elders and other church leaders, and those in ministry often attend my college classes as they seek academic credentials. I’ve had the privilege of coming beside men who have fallen and other men who were burned out. And I often find myself encouraging those who are still trying to figure out what to do as they assume new leadership positions in our churches.
Most of my life has been devoted to leading and helping to bring forth leadership in one form or another.
In those roles, I’ve often seen pastors who, after a life of effective ministry, reach a stage in life where they unconsciously settle into complacency and allow a cocoon of settled contentment and security to envelope them. This often comes as they get older, or maybe are having health issues, and just don’t have the energy they once did. If they are not careful, they then become reactive and heavy handed with anything or anyone who may rock the boat and disrupt their privileged position of settled disengagement. As a result, talented potential leaders and ministries begin to leave their churches and stagnation sets in. It’s tragic how common this pattern is, as I see it repeated time and again in our churches.
Declining energy in a leader due to age, burnout or deteriorating health is a natural part of life — things happen and there is no shame in that. This does not necessarily become a problem for the church, however, unless the leadership structure as a whole also has drifted into disengagement and complacency, or otherwise fails to facilitate others who are emerging with the energy and capacity to become engaged — under their wise guidance — in the life of the church, its ministries and its members.
It is wrong for the old, honored lions among us to simply slink away quietly, or for us to demand that they do so. Rather, they need to be honest about their stage in life and realize that they have a great role to play in mentoring and bringing forth new leaders. If you’re one of those old lions, let the young lions do the heavy lifting and give way for them to lead, but under your watchful encouragement and guidance!
We honor our old lions as we make a way for them to transition into this vital new role, even though the transition at first may be difficult and painful for them. Initially, they struggle with pride and not wanting to acknowledge their need to slow down and release others to pick up the slack.
It would be naive to say that the condition of our leaders should have no bearing on the vitality of our churches. I don’t know why, but I’ve seen time and again that God seldom will leapfrog a church, or even emerging new leaders, over the declining fathers of a local congregation. If those fathers do not see this reality and adjust to it, then they will end up killing the very thing they birthed!
Those aging fathers hopefully took the time to raise up and empower mature “sons” to assume the mantels of leadership under their seasoned advice — but this is unfortunately all too rare. As a result, they often react to their declining capacity for engagement and energetic vision by becoming burned-out bottlenecks who struggle to protect their ego while falling into a morass of accumulated ministry-related hurts and emotional scars.
Often, those aging leaders will excuse their fatigue by coming up with rationales for their growing passivity. The most common is to say they don’t want to be domineering and controlling. But that ignores the fact that the New Testament mandates other options.
In the New Testament, there are lots of good passages on church leadership. Essentially, Paul says in Ephesians 4 that the central mission for pastors and teachers (which I believe refers to elders, who are tasked by God to jointly rule and lead local congregations) — as well as other ministries — is to equip God’s people for works of service under their unique gifts. Those works of service can be in the church or outside the church — after all, Jesus proclaimed His Lordship and authority over all of heaven and earth in the Great Commission. Thus, there is no sphere of human endeavor that falls outside his purview, and he bestows on us gifts sufficient to achieve his purposes in all arenas of life.
That, then, is the gold standard for evaluating whether pastor/teacher/elders are fulfilling their roles: Are they engaged and effectively equipping the men and women under their care to fulfill and use the gifts God has bestowed upon them? I don’t mean are they simply allowing others to function in their callings. Rather, are they continually and actively equipping people in the ongoing, never-ending process of refining their calling and sharpening their gifts?
At minimum, if an aging or otherwise indisposed leader or group of leaders are not mentoring a new generation of leaders, then they have become a bottleneck and the church will never exceed their declining capacity to minister. It then becomes a race to see who dies first: the church or its father(s)?
Equipping the saints for works of service is much, much more than a Sunday service. It’s more than the Sunday sermon, or the Sunday worship, or the Sunday prayers. It is a total engagement in the lives of the people God has entrusted to your care. It is mentoring, laughing, crying, grieving, supporting, challenging, hugging, kicking butts when needed, and generally raising up mature believers who then can fulfill their individual callings — whether it be in the church or in some other field of human activity.
This takes energy. It takes hands-on engagement. It takes capacity and the ability to deal with messy lives and messed up people who are being transformed under your tender, guiding, but firm care. It means that you have the stamina to go after lambs who wander astray and restore them to the flock. It means you look for and lead your flock to green pastures, know when to let them rest, and know how to lead them to cool waters when they become thirsty. It also means that you are willing to discipline or ward off those who threaten the flock, despite your growing desire for peace at all costs. It means, most of all, that you put the individual people under your care ahead of your own needs (while not neglecting those things that uniquely renew your own soul – not only for yourself, but because that’s also what’s best for your people), while also protecting the flock as a whole.
Effective leadership is not controlling or coordinating some regimented “vision” that’s imposed on your church. Nor is it the false alternative of comfortable passivity. As leaders, our primary vision must be to facilitate God’s vision in the lives of those He has entrusted to our care. It is engagement, renewal, energy and passion. If you’ve lost those, then take a “time out” as you re-evaluate where you are in the normal stages of life, put away the pride of what you once were, and decide if you can adjust to how God can use you in new ways. There is honor in this, and it advances God’s Kingdom. But at minimum, it demands that you not become a bottleneck in His Kingdom.
For those suffering under declining leaders who won’t adjust (which is a growing phenomena given that many now in ministry became Christians as young adults in the 1970s), you need to have the courage to respectfully challenge and come beside those men, while still honoring them. Ideally, approach them in private and ask that they be a mentor to you if you feel God stirring in you a passion for the church and for leadership. If that doesn’t work, or you are not looking to emerge into leadership, try approaching them again in private and never with the goal of embarrassing or shaming them. Share your concerns and encourage them to begin identifying and mentoring potential new leaders who can help carry the load, while maybe asking if they can delegate to you some of the other tasks and commitments that exasperate their fatigue.
Often, they will have already heard from several people about growing concerns over their diminished energy and engagement, and have refused to hear those concerns because of pride. God in his mercy will typically give them several opportunities to hear from Him through others. It is then up to them to decide whether to hear you and adapt. Hopefully they will, or else you will need to make some hard personal decisions. Understand, however, that they likely are tired, frustrated and hurting – even though they will resist admitting to such – and will usually react out of pride. But what you are offering them is compassion, honor and fulfillment as they hopefully see the need to make the transition towards raising up and mentoring new leaders who can then begin doing the heavy lifting under their gentle advice.
It is a very, very hard thing for a man to admit he’s no longer a mighty lion. I’ve faced that in my own life as I deal with the degenerative effects of an autoimmune condition that started slowing me down several years ago, but I have found great fulfillment in now mentoring others. God, however, had to literally almost kill me with an unrelated pulmonary embolism before I could see the beauty and grace in slowing down and finding new ways to serve Him. The hardest thing for me was to admit my limitations and step down from some of my more demanding and prestigious positions and commitments, even though they had become part of my core identity and self esteem. God then gave me a new heart with new motivations, and he became my source of esteem. It was hard, but as I look back now on that difficult passage, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I can’t offer you any magic formulas for how do deal with your own aging lions, but for the good of the weary fathers among you, and for the good of the church and those in it, you need to respectfully bring them to a place where they can see the need to become mentors who facilitate new leadership. Otherwise, they will become a hindrance as they hold onto the vestiges of office and power while lacking the corresponding capacity to actually lead.
There is no dishonor in being a mentor to emerging leaders, and to let others come forth under your wise counsel (as opposed to controlling micro-management, but that’s another blog!). In fact, I find it is one of the most fulfilling roles an aging lion can assume!
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