Church Leadership Gone Wild

“Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world.”

This verse is oft-used by church leaders to discourage worldly living — you know, the really bad stuff like playing the lottery and voting for Democrats. (I kid, I kid…kinda)

When I don’t hear this verse from church leaders is when the verse is being applied to, well…church leadership.

Is there any way that churches are more like the world than in the way they are led? Is this a problem? Are there not Scriptures that address this issue? Or should the passage singularly be used by clergy to point the finger at their flocks’ worldly living over their leadership methodology?

This is not a new dilemma, of course. Every era of church history reveals that church government looked an awful like the civil government surrounding it. This was true in the time of Constantine, up through the Middle Ages, in the Reformation Movement, and beyond.

As boatfuls of devout Puritans flocked to America to seek freedom from various thrones and authorities, and as the American experiment began after breaking free from England, the separation of Church and State became central to the way we did life. This left individual churches to decide how they wanted to be governed. What they came up with was a lot like the government around them — elections every couple years to select representatives who would represent the congregation in leadership meetings.

Yes, most churches in America (at least in the 1900s) looked a lot like representative democracies.

So on a process level, we’re pretty “of the world” when it comes to church governance. And we always have been. 

But we’re also squarely in the “worldly” camp on the practical level. In my experience, at least.

In my first full-time ministry, I had elders (you know, the elected representatives of the congregation) openly campaigning against other candidates. In the vacuum of a recently-departed senior pastor (who had been a strong, capable leader), things got pretty crazy. One group talked like it was time to “take the church back” from the other group. It sounded a lot like how one political party in American political life attempts to wrestle control back from the other every 2/4/8 years. I suffered through more than one five or six hour board meeting that I believe would rival the stubbornness of a Senate filibuster. Eventually, a mediator had to be brought in. It was ugly.

“Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world.”

Romans 12:1-2 would’ve sure come in handy then.

In my second full-time ministry, the senior pastor had all the control. It was the mid-2000s, and corporate leadership had informed much of that church’s structure. We had elders and deacons, but they didn’t have much day-to-day authority. The senior pastor did. The title “lead” pastor was in vogue. The board acted more like a corporate board — offering advice but not a lot of real oversight.

That particular leader was a part-time micromanager and a part-time absentee manager. He was a lot like the bosses I heard other people lament in their “real” jobs. When that leader asked me to be his right-hand guy, I shared with him a few of my concerns — concerns shared by the rest of the staff and many in the congregation. He rejected those concerns, resisted further conversations, and refused to take my critique to heart. In my next review, he labeled me divisive and insubordinate, and even asked me to sign a non-compete clause to prevent me from getting another ministry job in the area. He said when I disagreed with him out loud, that was by definition divisive.

“Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world.”

Romans 12:1-2 would’ve sure come in handy then, too.

Please don’t hear me saying you can’t be a strong leader. In my last stint on a church staff, I enjoyed working with a very strong leader — a strong personality with a driving style and plenty of confidence. But he also delegated responsibility, trusted people around him, hugged and loved people deeply, and wasn’t as concerned with looking polished and put together. Even though I don’t work there any more, my wife and I are still a part of that community.

So it’s not impossible. 

But I often hear regular church goers critique leadership, and I’ve been in the rooms where church leaders are dismissive about that critique. I have heard preachers say, from stage, that if people don’t respect their leadership, they should just go find another church.

In other words, if you don’t like the way we do business, take your business elsewhere.

“Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world.”

That’s what Paul says in Romans, and I agree.

I just think that the people preaching it shouldn’t stop at encouraging their flocks with Paul’s sentiment.

I think they might also need to take their own advice.