“Nothing surprises me anymore but I’m still astonished at just how opposite of Jesus is the leadership of some pastors.”
That was my response and the comment I left on a post in a private Facebook group that linked to the story of yet another church implosion. Another church in which top-down authoritarian and abusive leadership has resulted in a disaster that has become an all too familiar occurrence among Christianity in America.
In this case, the story was about Grace Chapel Church in Tennesee but, as I already alluded to and as you likely know, there are many other examples. Recently, Christianity Today has produced The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcasts series which explores how the Mars Hill Bible Church, planted and led by Pastor Mark Driscoll, eventually collapsed amid conflict stemming from authoritarian and abusive leadership. It’s worth your time to listen to the podcasts because we need to hear these stories and the truth revealed in them no matter appalling.
There are many other similar church stories like these that could be mentioned, some of which are discussed in a book by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer wrote a book called A Church Called Tov (2020). The authors are more concerned with identifying the problems and offering a solution out of this leadership morass that is confronting much of Christianity in America. If you have not read their book yet, I highly recommend you do so.
So it seems there is a big problem with leadership among Christianity in America that will only continue causing harm if not addressed. We have to ask questions about our leadership and address the root causes of toxic leadership. Here are just a few issues that come to mind…
- What is the philosophy of Christian leadership?
- What is/should be the organizational structure of the church?
- How is leadership authority exercised? Who makes the decisions and how are these decisions made? How is conflict managed?
- What protocols are in place to ensure transparency and integrity when accusations of abuse and other matters involving illegal, immoral, and/or unethical activity?
- What is spiritual/pastoral guidance? What does discipleship look like? What is the difference between influence vs. manipulation?
- How are leaders, including the “pastor,” accountable to others, and who has the authority to hold each leader accountable?
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but these questions do get at what I believe are some of the underlying problems. As mentioned earlier, it astonishes me just how opposite of Jesus is the leadership practice of some pastors. So much of what passes for Christianity in America seems to have forgotten that to be a Christian means following Jesus. As McKnight and Barringer put it, “Our allegiance to Jesus Christ establishes our identity, tells us how we are to live, points us in the direction we should go, and fills us with memories and hopes” (A Church Called Tov, p. 216). So it should also be for those who serve as leaders within a church or any Christian organization.
As we think more deeply about Christian leadership, let’s ponder this teaching from Jesus found in Luke 22:24-27…
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
Jesus should be the point of departure for how we conceive of Christian leadership and Jesus came among us as a servant — even to the point of death on the cross. So let us follow Jesus and lead as servants. Rather than subscribing to the utilitarian ways we so often see in American society, let us lead with character. Yes, as I so often pray for, we need courage, conviction, and wisdom to lead effectively but we must also pass the duck test. If the way we lead looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and acts like Jesus, then we are on the right path but when it doesn’t, we need to repent.
People are watching, especially those in our churches, and they are not fooled. If we want them to follow Jesus, then our first duty as leaders is to follow Jesus ourselves. May the Spirit give us to courage, conviction, and wisdom to follow King Jesus!
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.