Leading without Playing God

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My friend John called to tell me he was quitting church. He cited the usual litany of frustrations—needless conflict, boring worship, lack of deep relationships. Then he added one that surprised me: pastoral control.

I had known John’s pastor for years, and while he was not the most warm and fuzzy of clergy, neither was he heartless. In fact, he was well thought of around our conference as an entrepreneur of sorts, someone who could organize and strategize and “take a church to the next level,” as our superiors would have it.

John saw something subtle, but different. What the pastor played off as attention to detail, John viewed as a tendency to control. The pastor was gentle with his flock, but wanted only sheep. Those who initiated change or gave voice to conflicts were politely but firmly asked to step back in line for the greater good of the congregation.

For John, it finally became too much.

“Being called by God doesn’t mean that you are God,” he said, and then he paused. “Does it?”

In a word, no. And no matter how special we pastors and key lay leaders may feel, the reality is that we often don’t understand how it feels to sit on the congregation side of the chancel rail. We overestimate our own importance, while underestimating the creativity and know-how of our constituents.

Anyone who loves and leads the church knows how tempting it is to make it just so, as if we were overbearing parents who unwittingly ruined a child by trying to make her perfect. But good church leaders—like good parents—know when to let go. Here are a few checkpoint questions to help leaders guide the church without playing God.

1) Who is worship really about?

For most churches, worship is still the largest and most important weekly gathering. It’s also the event in which church staffs pour most of their energy. And where the pastor and worship leaders take center stage.

Therein lies the danger.

When we care so much about worship, it’s easy to try to micromanage. We want the music to resonate, the liturgy to flow seamlessly, the sermon to have a real impact. And we want people to acknowledge our successes to those ends.

But managing a service too carefully can actually work against us. When we do too much in an effort to create an appropriate response, we inhibit the congregation’s freedom to answer God. Worse yet, if we subtly encourage a certain response, we may cause confusion and guilt in those whose authentic reaction differs from our expectations.

How do we keep from making worship an exercise in our own egos? Acknowledgement of the danger may be a good step. Another is to consider the percentage of worship time taken directly by the pastor or any other single person. Anything over thirty percent is likely too much.

Another key step may be intentionally removing the sermon from its place of prominence in most Protestant worship services. Try building the service so that the response of the people—whether in prayer, song, Eucharist, or another act of worship—is the climax instead. 

2) What is at stake here?

The old leadership adage encourages us to pick our battles, but that’s often easier said than done. We church leaders are used to being listened to. We expect our opinions to carry more weight than the average pew sitter, at least within the confines of the church.

It’s not surprising, then, to feel the temptation to treat every point of conflict as something that is either won or lost. We may need to flex our muscle on one point, but earn some political capital by deferring on another. That’s just smart politics.

But it’s not really Christian leadership.

The good news Jesus preached to the poor was not about his wishes, but about his Father’s kingdom. It was about fairness and justice, not tactical maneuvers.

Good Christian leaders can assess a situation and know what’s at stake for everyone involved. They can treat each decision individually, apart from their own agendas. And many times, they have the discipline to be silent when the so-called “battle” really doesn’t matter.

3) Does it pass the Four-Way Test?

Speaking of fairness, I have a set of four questions I like to filter any decision through:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

I didn’t pick this particular gem up at any leadership conference. I learned it from Rotary International, a civic organization I joined for a time at the insistence of a church member. And since Rotary’s history has been so enriched by Christian leadership, I have no qualms about using their most basic liturgy in my work in the church.

The real gift of the Four-Way Test is that it helps a leader locate a decision outside of himself or herself. For church leaders, who internalize so much, it reminds us that the best decision is the one that is true, fair, and broadly beneficial—not necessarily the one that gives us our way.

4) Do we have perspective?

In the end, Christian leadership is really about perspective. As disciples, we try to understand the world from another person’s point of view. This is the wisdom of the Incarnation.

But we also try to view the world from God’s perspective, which can both break our hearts and shred our sense of balance. This is the wisdom of the Cross.

If we church leaders are to follow the example of Jesus, we may have good reason to be forceful and dynamic in our interaction. Jesus displayed a good deal of charisma, and he minced no words when it came to what it meant to be a disciple. But everything he said and did reflected a heart filled with compassion, a servant’s heart. His willing sacrifice reflected that most of all.

Jesus’ most scathing rebukes almost always involved the same group: religious leaders. Another John—the gospel writer—portrayed them as greedy, power hungry, scheming, and self-absorbed. Many modern commentators believe this is a caricature, a drawing that over-emphasizes a particular trait.

Maybe. But I wonder what kind of caricature might be drawn of us present-day church leaders? Are we blind guides as well, stumbling along in hopes that someone will follow us? Do we act as though the ends justify the means, when it comes to our wishes?

If so, it’s time to gain some perspective. We are called to serve God. Not to replace God.

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