John 10:11-18 (NIV2011)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Leaders Know Their Sheep
Knowing those whom we lead is not just being in touch with them and their issues and needs; it is being in close enough touch that we really know them. When they believe that they are thus known and considered, they are willing followers and not disgruntled ones. Being a good shepherd begins with sacrifice. Jesus described it in the most graphic terms possible, as laying down our lives for those whom we lead. Here are some challenging words for all disciples, but they should apply most directly to leaders: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Valuing others above self on a 24/7 basis is quite the challenge, but it is at the heart of a Jesus’ style leadership.
Getting in Touch and Staying in Touch
You can effectively lead only those whom you know and know reasonably well. The larger the group being led, the bigger the challenge of really knowing them. While you may not be able to know them well enough to have a personal relationship with each person, you must find ways to know enough about them as a group to meet their needs. This calls for being aware of the various types of folks in the larger group and developing ways to get their consistent input. For example, the needs of single moms, divorced persons, senior citizens, persons who have lost their mates, young single persons, married persons of all ages in all stages of life, etc. are all quite different. Then add in the differences in racial and ethnic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, financial backgrounds, to name but a few, and the amount of diversity in a ministry is almost staggering to contemplate. Yet, in imitation of Jesus, leaders must know their sheep.
A good starting place is in the makeup of a leadership group. Enough variation should be a planned part of such a group to insure that much input comes organically. In addition to that hopeful composition, other groups should be selected for regular meetings with leaders at reasonably spaced intervals. Although many different groups could be suggested here, at our current time, two are absolutely essential: a racial diversity group and a younger generations group. If you are lacking either of these, I would advise you to develop such groups post haste. We are at a crisis point in most churches within these two categories of our membership, whether we realize it or not.
Recognizing the need for open dialogue on the racial front, I started writing a blog some years back (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). My home church was also taking steps to meet this need, a history of which can be found on my blogsite or my teaching website under the title, “DFW Church Cultural Connection History.” In our family of churches (the ICOC) in the United States, we have been blessed with an overall Diversity Group (of which I was a part for several years) designed to promote similar groups at the congregational level. We now call these groups by the term “SCUAD” (Social, Cultural, Unity and Diversity Team).
Early during the pandemic, we conducted a very well attended Zoom meeting for church leaders, explaining the need for such teams in each congregation and offering direction for establishing them. Michael Burns, a proficient writer and lecturer on racial issues, has a link to sources on his website (michaelburnsteachingministry.com) for starting such groups. His books and other materials are listed and linked on his website. Michael also has a podcast series entitled, “All Things to All People,” listed on the Resources page of Disciples Today (disciplestoday.org). His materials have been invaluable to me and to thousands of others.
Feeling that so many resources on racial issues were available and that those resources were provided by authors better equipped to address the issues than I, I resigned my position on the ICOC SCUAD last year (2020). I have also slowed down considerably in adding my own articles to my blogsite for the same reasons. As I heard of more and more congregations establishing their own SCUADs, I felt as though my earlier attempts had been helpful and now others were contributing more than I possibly could. I think all of that reasoning was sound and my diminishing involvement was likewise reasonable.
How Much Better Are We Doing?
However, I do need to add a footnote on this subject aimed at what is or is not taking place in some of our churches. I was talking recently to someone about the diversity group arrangement and explaining how encouraged I was that so many congregations had organized these groups. The person to whom I was talking said that their congregation was the only one who had established a SCUAD in their entire geographic family of churches. I was more than shocked; I was dismayed. The need has been publicized so much that it was almost hard to believe what he said. I’ve no way of checking up on the accuracy of his statement, but he is a well-informed brother and had to be pretty accurate in what he said.
Why would a church with a racially diverse membership not see the need to develop such a group? I just don’t get it. With all that is going on in our society at present, how could a leader not get on board quickly to help his church negotiate these troubled times spiritually, for both our members of color who are facing the challenges most directly and our White members who, as fellow members of their spiritual family, have the opportunity and responsibility to help bear their burdens. We cannot share the burdens of others until and unless we know what they actually are. We need to be helping one another in multiple ways in the racial realm.
One thing I have heard offered by White church leaders as an excuse for not addressing racial issues is that such issues are simply political and political issues have no place in the church. I do understand that all issues can be and are being politicized. Many can’t even discuss the issues surrounding the pandemic without devolving into political discussions, be they about the wearing of masks or getting vaccinations. I recently touched on that issue in a sermon, and somewhat humorously noted that I had seen a tee shirt with a universal inscription on it that anyone in the audience could wear right now. It went something like this: “Ignorance can be educated; Crazy can be medicated; but there is no cure for Stupid!” Anyone could wear it because whoever doesn’t agree with us on pandemic issues are the stupid ones, right? Good grief, Charlie Brown!
The racial issues are much more significant than the pandemic issues in the church, trust me. I will not discuss and argue about the latter. My wife and I have some differences in this realm. She can believe and practice what she believes and I can do the same. Our differences are not an issue to either of us. The racial issues are a big deal, however. We need to be able to discuss these and find solutions within the church. I know that attempts to converse about them can digress into politically loaded areas but they don’t have to. We can discuss real issues without getting hung up on the BLM organization or CRT (Critical Race Theory). We are in the world but we are not of the world and do not behave as the world. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we must seriously attempt to meet the challenges faced by each other, together as a spiritual family.
Losing Our Youth in Droves?
I continue hearing this alarming phrase from older and younger people alike: “Our youth are leaving the church in droves.” Are we? I’m not sure how many constitutes a drove, but I know that we are losing a lot of young people. All churches are right now. Articles about losing the Millennial group started being written a long time ago, and we are way past just losing that age group now – way past. When anyone addresses the “Millennial problem” now, they date themselves. I have written some about this serious situation already and intend to write more.
The reason most give for this dilemma is a failure of churches to adapt and change to meet the needs of younger generations. That is a big part of the reason, for sure. But there is another side of that coin too. Many younger ones are so focused on what they need that they pay little attention to what the older ones may need. Plus, they are so influenced by their own generation and social media approaches that their way of seeking solutions is simply unspiritual, and thus ineffective. As I say, I will write more about the generation gap later.
What I do know is that unless church leaders find a way to connect in meaningful ways with the younger generations, we are going to be in dire straits soon and probably are already in most churches. In my home ministry region, we are just now developing an input group from our youth. Interestingly, just like our older folks, the younger ones have diverse views from their peers too. Many of them don’t yet realize how diverse in thinking they are because they tend, as all humans do, to congregate with others of like mind. Birds of a feather flock together. That’s why input has to come from all types of people, to take the wide variations of ideas and preferences into consideration. Just knowing that others don’t see things the way you do helps avoid divisions if handled spiritually.
Let me illustrate that point. We once moved into a congregation who was experiencing a firestorm, one burning nearly out of control. Knowing human nature regarding diversity of thought, my beginning point was gathering the members in small groups of six to ten at a time for discussions. I put a signup sheet on the wall with specific time slots noted and asked everyone to sign up for a convenient time that would fit their schedule. As we started meeting, to say tension was in the air would be a big understatement. I asked people to begin by expressing their viewpoints of why they thought the church was in a bad place and so disunified.
As they listened to one another, some of the listeners literally had their mouths drop open. They assumed that everyone felt just as they did, which was far from the truth. Why did they think that? They were birds of a feather who had been flocking together with those who shared their viewpoints. That’s what humans do, regardless of age. We need to hear from our youth and they from us, to be sure, but they need to hear from one another too. It will provide a balance that they won’t otherwise get and the same is true of us older ones who must hear more divergent opinions about how to “do” church.
But don’t miss the bottom line: wisely select a group of representative youth and start meeting with them immediately if not sooner. And you need to do the same with a racially diverse group, and from there, move into well planned diversity training discussions of your broader membership. Read the articles and take advantage of the resources I have mentioned already about that particular need.
Deeper Issues: Team Leadership and Beyond
In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned the book, “Golden Rule Leadership.” Probably the most novel idea in that book was regarding team leadership in the church rather than the one-man-at-the-top leadership style as most had practiced it (some still do). In my later book, “Dynamic Leadership,” I spent some time trying to help us distinguish between the concept of team leadership and that of simply having a leadership team. The former is a much broader principle out of which the latter comes, but just having a leadership team doesn’t fully satisfy what team leadership involves. That said, Wyndham and I were trying to move us leaders off the idea of one man at the top of a military modeled leadership dynamic. We were at that point (nearly two decades ago) just trying to help leaders replace a faulty concept with a better one.
I was somewhat amazed at how deeply attached some were (still are?) to the one-man-at-the-top idea, in whose hands most leadership decisions were made, or for sure, finalized. On a related topic, I am currently amazed at how many male leaders (and males in general) believe that family leadership should function basically the same way, with the husband making or finalizing all family decisions. That is illogical and wrong on so many levels that I won’t go further into it now. Later, Gator, on that one. I will say that the one-man, top-down church leadership concept may well grow out of a faulty family leadership concept. I do believe that the physical family leadership dynamics and the spiritual family leadership dynamics are very closely related in multiple ways. If you accept the wrong view of individual family leadership teamwork and decision making, it is not difficult to see why some insist on the same model for church leadership.
Here’s an important question. Have you ever carefully thought about how the one-man leader and decision maker idea could possibly have become so entrenched in our thinking at one time? Aside from the likely connection to how family leadership and decision making is erroneously viewed, something much deeper had to be involved. The only logical way it could have happened is in thinking that a designated leader (appointed in some way) had a direct pipeline through the Holy Spirit to access God’s will. That viewpoint was not absent, I can promise you. It was a terribly faulty viewpoint, but it was the only one which ultimately could logically account for the idea that the thinking of one man was better than the combination of more minds thinking together. I cannot escape the logical necessity of that being the foundation of the view. Can you? And many applied it all the way down to the discipler/disciple relationship. In retrospect, it was idiocy.
Broader Issues: Unity in Diversity?
Much of what I have written in my last several articles could fall under this heading. Within all congregations we have diversity of so many different types. Yet, we are family. Every physical family has diversity within it and usually, as a result, some dysfunction. But we are still family and we figure out how to get along most of the time and love each other all of the time. The church is God’s spiritual family, and he says much more about how to live together in his family than in our individual families. Why is that? I would hazard a guess it is because of the much broader diversity within the larger group. But yes, unity in diversity is possible if we are intent on pleasing God in our congregations.
One of my bigger concerns is unity on a broader scale, where the diversity is also broader. I refer, of course, to our entire family of churches worldwide, and on a smaller scale, to our geographic families of churches. Our being categorized as families of churches is aimed at promoting unity, effectiveness and progress. I am sure that these goals are being aided through being grouped together in geographic families of churches. But I do have concerns about how much diversity we can handle on the broader scale and still maintain unity.
For example, I have friends who lead churches and yet feel as though they are on the outside looking in. They have actually been told something to that effect by other leaders. I’m not sure of all the issues involved, but I am aware of some of them. I have spoken by Zoom in these churches and/or to their leaders. I will continue to do so. I can handle their diversities of opinion. I share much in common with those diversities of thinking, actually, regarding the specifics involved. I would perhaps have approached those differently than my friends did (or not), but in the end of the day, I am not willing to make the approaches themselves or the specifics matters of division. I do not believe that the ones of which I am aware are salvation issues. They are issues that may well raise the blood pressures of other leaders, but then I do some of that myself – sometimes unknowingly and sometimes on purpose. I can handle the disagreements because they fall into the realm of opinion matters (Romans 14). My wife and I don’t agree about everything. No two humans do, nor do groups.
I will probably write more about unity in diversity between congregations in the future. I don’t see it as a widespread problem yet, but I did spend my youth and early adulthood in a family of churches that divided over more issues than you can imagine. Thus I know where this can end up and we don’t want to go there, rest assured. An old Restoration adage was a good one, but history showed it was an exceedingly hard one to apply. It goes, “In matters of faith, unity; in matter of opinion, liberty; and in all things, charity (love).” The problem is in differentiating between what belongs in category one and what belongs in category two.
Given that the Restoration Movement of churches, out of which our group came, used a patternistic method of biblical interpretation, the problem was compounded. Matters of interpreting Scripture is another topic for another day, but it is at the heart of some of our current differences just mentioned. We need help with this one because it is a problem that we definitely have and yet most don’t realize that we have it. More later on that one too. In the meantime, let’s just work on the topics I addressed in my last three articles. You might want to reread the other two as well to get the backdrop that prompted all three. Thanks for reading (and thanks for your patience with an old guy who rambles a bit too much these days)! I love you!