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Last week I published an article on my teaching website entitled, “Is Your Religion Focused on Christ or the Church?” My bottom-line point was that if it is focused primarily on the church, becoming disillusioned, discouraged and critical is difficult to avoid. If it is focused on Christ and imitating him, you will have grace toward the church and its leaders and can serve as a constructive critic rather than a negative one. I didn’t advise saying nothing, to simply grin-and-bear wrong practices, although some took it that way. My main emphasis evidently left that impression with them.

On this past Sunday, I preached a sermon with the same title, although the content was not exactly the same. You can watch and/or listen to it on the DFW Northeast Facebook page or on You Tube if you want. I received some critiques on both the article and the sermon which were very beneficial to me. They were basically of two types: concerns about what was included and concerns about what wasn’t included. Regarding the former, I did revise a paragraph in the article. What I said and the tone it carried were not good and it needed changing. Some of the rest of it was edgy, but I still think it was appropriate for the intended purpose.

Regarding the latter, the critiques were about not saying more about faulty leadership, the church atmosphere created by it and the individuals hurt by it. Those giving the critiques agreed that no matter what happens, we still need to go the way of the cross in how we respond to being mistreated or encountering practices which we believe violate biblical principles. On the other hand, facing such treatment or atmospheres without becoming sinfully critical is understandably very challenging. I understand. I’m in that boat with you. Hence this article (and at least one more) in dealing with some of the specific concerns about faulty church leadership and what it creates. I use the term “faulty” because it can apply to ineffective leadership as well as sinful leadership and everything in-between.

Leadership Style

Being able to identify worldly leadership can be a challenging task. We are introduced to leaders from birth – our parents. As we grow up, we see leaders of all types in roles of all types, and we develop views of leadership based on what we have seen and experienced. Thus, our view of leaders can produce very positive feelings or very negative ones. But whatever our views of leadership are when we come into the kingdom of God, those views are so deeply embedded that we can read what Jesus said about spiritual leadership and totally miss his meaning. Our worldly views are a part of our DNA and will remain so unless we get a lot of help to see what the New Testament is teaching about the topic.

When Wyndham Shaw and I wrote “Golden Rule Leadership” back in the early part of this century, we were trying to provide that help. Simply put, if we lead like we want to be led, that alone will enhance our leadership greatly. When we wrote the book, some leaders had children who were reaching high school or college ages and they now had ministry leaders with significant influence in their lives. Hence, I worded the Golden Rule of leadership in a slightly different way, namely, to lead others like you want your own children to be led. Trust me, some leaders who themselves had led campus students very forcefully at one time were now much more sensitized to how their own children were being led.

One thing Wyndham and I learned was that some leaders don’t do well with being critiqued. In our earlier days, many of the leaders with the most influence had pretty obvious pride problems. Tom Jones has said that the book he co-authored about pride and humility, “The Prideful Soul’s Guide to Humility,” was not read by a good number of leaders because buying the book would be an admission that they had the problem! He wished he had chosen a different title. I think he was right – about them and the resultant book readership.

I wrote the Introduction to Golden Rule, and the final part of it carried this heading: Warning! I went on to say this: “The greatest danger in reading this book is to assume that you really already understand the principles being discussed and are currently putting them into practice. This is especially true for our most experienced leaders. We do not see ourselves as we are; we do not see ourselves as others see us. Our strong tendency is to think more highly of ourselves as leaders than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). Wow! That definitely set off some leaders, at which point I just smiled and said “Bingo!” Keeping pride in check is an ongoing challenge for all those who lead.

The Roots of the Problem

One root is what I have already said about our experiences in the world and the definition of leadership thus produced in our minds. It takes a lot of work (and time) to eradicate the worldly thinking in this and other areas with which we enter the kingdom. Another root of the problem in our movement was the military mindset in our singular leader in our early days as a family of churches and the military style he used and trained other leaders to use. In my later (and longer) book on church leadership, “Dynamic Leadership,” I address this part of our root system in detail. It led to a trail of woe, although in the short term, this leadership style can produce some pretty amazing results. They just cannot be sustained. Plus, people get hurt.

The prevailing leadership style of our early days hurt almost everyone in some way at some time. It was hard to avoid harshness with the military model as a foundation. I am hearing currently that some leaders are returning to these roots and again leading with a controlling style that includes harshness. This unspiritual quality sometimes shows itself in significant displays of anger, in spite of biblical warnings against “fits of rage” in the catalogue of sins in Galatians 5, as well as in other biblical passages. This is not just faulty leadership; it is sinful leadership.

I think all of us, leaders and non-leaders alike, are tempted with anger now more than ever, simply because of the pandemic atmosphere tensions under which we are living. The old illustration about a man having a really bad day at the office coming home to kick his dog and yell at his family finds many applications in our current hurting world. I have had my challenges with that, although it is usually not directed toward fellow disciples. But then I am not in a leadership role now at my age, so the temptation is lessened – not removed. Whatever our circumstances, failure to maintain self-control is not an option.

An Important Disclaimer

If I could put my finger on the biggest mistake we made in our early days regarding leadership style, it would probably be how we defined and employed what we call “discipling.” Let me begin with this disclaimer. I believe in discipling in the ways the New Testament describes it, as the exercise of our “one another,” “each other” responsibilities toward one another. Believing that my former fellowship of churches didn’t come close to obeying the teachings about our relationships with fellow disciples, this concept was the most influential in bringing me into my current family of churches back in 1985. I wrote a long book entitled, “Discipling,” back in the 1990’s, which was condensed into “The Power of Discipling” later. I believe that our movement is suffering greatly because of the virtual disappearance of discipling among most of our membership. The prevailing idea seems to be, “If you need discipling help, just go ask someone for it.”

That is not discipling; it is counseling, which also has its place. But discipling carries the idea of having at least one purposeful spiritual friend with whom you meet regularly with the specific aim of helping one another become more like Jesus – in character and in mission. Having the heart of Jesus will lead to having the actions of Jesus, including his goal of seeking and saving the lost. My early favorite definition of discipling came from an idea stated in one book, that discipling was God’s plan to help us deal with sin at the temptation level before it came in to damage our lives, sometimes terribly. Our early problems with discipling came from adopting a worldly approach to it just like we did with leadership in general. The devil was in the details of application, not in the biblical concept itself.

The Fork in the Road

When I first met this movement, it was in the campus ministry stage. That ministry was the engine, and it was wildly effective in converting campus kids in the first couple of decades, and in some places, much longer. Every new convert received spiritual help and training from having a “Prayer Partner.” That term suggested a mutuality of helping each other and praying together. When I first inquired what a meeting of prayer partners was like, the answer I received was that they talked about how they were doing spiritually, good and bad, and made plans to improve. Then they wrapped it up by praying about those things. That sounded great to me. I was all in. I knew I needed all the help I could get to be spiritual and to grow spiritually to be more like Christ. I’ve not outgrown that need, nor has anyone else.

But then came the fork in the road – of soldiering up! The term “prayer partner” was replaced with “discipling partner” or “discipleship partner.” More significantly, the approach was changed as well. While the terminology change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the change in approach was. Enter the requirement of “one over another,” indicating that in every case, one of the partners was now in a position of authority over the other in all things spiritual. This led to more abuses than I can address here, but the biggest was the authority model brought into the arrangement. It was now a full-blown military model, applied to every leader and every member. You had a discipler who discipled you, which meant in far too many cases they were the boss of the relationship. The list of abuses under this heading is a painfully long one.

Human beings are in general obsessed with power, position, authority and control. That is why wars are fought. That is why politics has invaded almost every aspect of American society right now. Who has the power and control? How can we get it and how can we keep it? Need I say that this approach is just about 180 degrees opposite what Jesus said in his most famous comments about true leadership? The context was when his twelve disciples, the apostles, were arguing about which of them would be the greatest. It was obvious that their view of leadership was totally worldly. Even pretty much living with Jesus hadn’t eradicated it, for false concepts in this area are so hard to dig out and discard. Here’s what Jesus said to them.

Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV2011)
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Okay, So What’s the Intended Application?

Good question, right? As I’ve already said, some leaders appear to be returning to their roots and going heavy on the authority and control issues, complete with harshness and sometimes anger. But I think they are in the minority. My bigger issue with a majority of older leaders within their congregational leadership role is that they are not leading the charge to change the world. They are too comfortable to really lead a radical charge in carrying out the Great Commission and evangelizing the world. But this type can also be harsh if someone tries to pry them out of their comfort zones. Some are describing one form of harshness as “boomerang discipling,” meaning that instead of humbly hearing critiques, even well delivered ones, they turn it back on the person delivering it (or trying to). Leader, just how approachable are you? Don’t trust your own answer – ask around.

The one ministry that still uses more of an old leadership style is campus ministry, in my opinion. The situations I hear about give me that opinion. And by the way, when I am offering critiques, I am not saying that every leader is guilty of the sins I describe. That has never been the case. When Wyndham and I wrote our early book, we didn’t believe that all of our leaders had the problems we described. I don’t believe that everyone has the problems I addressed most recently in writing and in a sermon. But enough problems exist among us to motivate me to address them.

Campus Ministry Challenges on Both Sides

Those leading campus ministry are trained, at least partially, by older leaders who themselves led campus ministries in their younger years. It was often during those years that the military model was most popular and during those years, the model was often amazingly effective. But to repeat an important point, this model has a short shelf life. In time, if not changed it will implode or at the least become much less effective. When the young campus trainees hear about the results their trainer had in his or her youth, they want to see the same results in their ministry (who wouldn’t) and assume that using the same approaches will get the same result. When it doesn’t, they can feel like failures. Michael Burns addressed this well in one of his books.

The shocker is that they don’t seem to realize that it has been decades since those leaders had those results and their present ministry results are not nearly the same. Times have changed; society has changed; results have changed. Approaches need to change too, but often don’t. Traditions are hard to abandon, especially if they worked well at one time. We are slow to adapt and figure out new ways to be effective. We are in a post-Christian culture, especially in the thinking of our younger generations. The churches they have seen are not just out of step with society in ways they shouldn’t be. Their version of Christianity is a polluted one. American Christianity is in general a far cry from what I read about in the Bible, politicized almost beyond recognition. No wonder younger generations are turned off by it. I am too.

Back to the Story

Yes, old style leadership is found in our campus ministries probably more than in any other ministry. Some of the reason is the training received which promotes it. But it is a double-edged challenge that has to be understood by youth and leaders alike. Leaders have to understand that every individual they work with is different and in need of having those differences taken into account in leading them. They also have to understand the differences in those raised in a strong church culture by their parents and those who didn’t experience the same blessings (and sometimes curses). When youth from church families are treated exactly the same as those coming into the church without the same spiritual training and values, it is challenging for the church kids. I have often spoke of age-appropriate leadership. If you treat fifteen year old kids like you treated them when they were five, rebellion is likely coming. But background appropriate leadership is a related need.

The ones with different backgrounds often need more by way of guidelines to protect them against themselves. This is nothing new. I remember one of our well-known leaders describing how the dating guidelines back in his campus ministry days came about in the first place. We are talking about the 1970s here, when the sexual revolution was breaking out everywhere. He said that after conversion, without guidelines for relating to the opposite sex, he ended up having sex with a sister in the church. He took responsibility for the origin of what came to be accepted guidelines, and too often, rules.

It is essential that we have guidelines in relational areas for young people (and sometimes, older ones as well). But when they become rules, we have problems. What’s the difference? Guidelines are explained well and often and applied with individuals in mind. All don’t need exactly the same guidelines. Many times the young people with strong spiritual backgrounds don’t have the same challenges that others do. But, I would say this to you if you think you are in this category. It is really hard to have varying guidelines in campus ministry, because less mature kids have a difficult time understanding why they are treated differently when the guidelines are not applied uniformly.

I have been in a number of situations in the church where I was expected to do the same things as new Christians. Understanding the challenges just described, I just went along gladly with the expectations. I didn’t want to be seen as an exception to what others were being taught to do and not do. I may not have needed the same teaching, but they needed my example of submitting to what was requested of us. As a somewhat older guy when I came into this movement, I understood the importance of my example in this regard.

I would appeal to our younger church background folks to try hard to appreciate this principle and not allow yourself to be too critical of group guidelines, even when many in the group have different backgrounds, needs and challenges than you. I understand your feelings, but I also understand the challenges of leaders trying to work with young folks who are still trying to figure out life. And please don’t think you have figured it all out yet either. Life is a lot more complex than you imagine right now. Being open minded and flexible in the process of continuing to mature will protect you from yourself too. (smile…)

One Request of Older Leaders and One for All Leaders

One of my biggest concerns for the leadership of our movement is that a disproportionate number of leaders with the most influence in developing directions for the future are old (okay, older if that helps you). I’ve nothing against old people, since I am about to turn 79. I understand how our movement leadership developed as it did during this century. We lost a generation when we had a serious challenge in the early 2000s. Financial contributions decreased considerably, and understandably, the younger ones were laid off first. Changing careers was much easier for them and we needed our more experienced leaders to help us maneuver through the crises.

When we did reach more stable ground, we were able to start hiring young people again, but their opportunities in supported ministry were mostly limited to working with youth. I describe this situation in an article entitled, “My Hope is in Our Youth.” You can read it on my website. Bottom line, we didn’t made opportunities for the younger set of leaders to have much of a voice in determining directions for our movement’s future. We still haven’t. The same older set are leading in the same older ways, and innovation isn’t highly visible, to put it more gently than I did in the article just mentioned. Please read it. This issue needs serious attention immediately, if not sooner! Our youth have voices that must be heard.

Speaking of reading, I would strongly suggest that all leaders (and many others) read “Dynamic Leadership,” even if you have read it before. The very first chapter about the difference between offices and titles, and roles and relationships – through the lens of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 23 is so fundamental. We need truly spiritual leadership and this calls for spiritual leaders. One of my dearest and most respected elder friends, now deceased, gave my book the highest compliment I ever received on it. He said that he would never recommend a second book on church leadership until my Dynamic Leadership had been read first. I’ve never taken the words of that elder, Ron Brumley, lightly. I hope you won’t in this case.

Thanks for reading this article. Another to follow soon addressing additional leadership concerns. The Lord bless you and keep you!