Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.
Usually when I ask a question on social media, I expect a decent number of responses. Church leaders and members are typically gracious to me and share their opinions readily.
But when I asked a question about the reputation of their churches in the community, I was inundated with responses. Many wanted to share the good and the bad. Perhaps the most intriguing facet of the study was the three distinct groups in which the responses fell.
The question was simple: “What is your church known for in its community?”
Within a few minutes of my post, many responses came forth. After I read and added all of them, I saw three patterns emerge.
About one-half of the churches are known for ministries that require the community to come to the church itself. Great preaching. Incredible worship services. A friendly church. Great events at the church. How our members care for one another. You get the picture. These are all great responses, but they require the community to come to the church. If community members do not set foot on the church’s campus, they will never know about the ministries of the church. For the majority of the churches, the idea of community ministry is “you come to us.”
About one-fourth of the churches cited great ministries in and to the community. Partnering with schools in the community. Serving the community with food and clothes. Medical and dental ministries. Ministries to families, parents, and children in the community. The list goes on and on. It was exciting to read how many churches demonstrate their love for their community by actually going into the community.
About one-fourth of the churches said they were known for negative reasons. Preacher-eater churches. Congregational fights and splits. Legalism. Unfriendliness. One church leader said his church was known for two murders that occurred a few years apart on the church site. Ouch.
The social media poll did encourage me in many ways. Many of our churches are doing an incredible job connecting with and ministering to the communities in which they are located. And though I am certainly glad to see many church members excited about what is taking place on their church campuses, I fear many members think that community ministry means, “Y’all come to us, and we will minister to you.”
Of course, I am concerned, but not necessarily surprised, about the negative perceptions of some churches in the community. I pray those churches will begin to make a positive impact in the locations where they serve.
What is your church known for in the community? What are your members actually doing in the community and for the community? Let me hear from you.
Over eight years ago I read Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster by Paul Ingrassia. The book is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the “Big Three” automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Only Ford avoided the ultimate fall of bankruptcy.
I wrote a blog post on the book, much of which is repeated here. It is an amazing reminder of both the pressures and temptations of leadership
My initial desire was to learn from the lessons of the automobile industry, both the good and the bad. Though most of the book does focus on the enormous missteps of many in the automobile industry, it is fair to give credit where credit is due. For example, in 2006, Bill Ford, holding the multiple titles of Chairman, President, and CEO of Ford, understood that his leadership was not getting the job done. So he, in essence, fired himself as President and CEO and brought new leadership to Ford. That move likely was the decisive moment that led the company to avoid bankruptcy. “I have a lot of myself invested in this company,” Ford explained, “but not my ego.”
Unfortunately, Bill Ford’s actions were the exception and not the rule. Those in management of the Big Three and those in leadership of the union at times demonstrated such lack of leadership that we, in hindsight, wonder how leaders can head down such destructive paths.
The Essence of It All
James B. Stewart’s words on the front jacket of the book, tell the essence of the story well: “A fascinating look at how ego and hubris destroyed an industry . . .” Indeed, of all the leadership lessons learned, the most pervasive and persuasive in the book is that hubris is the downfall of leaders and, thus, their organizations.
I was thus intrigued to follow the lives and leadership paths of these leaders in the book. I quickly saw some clear patterns of leadership infected with hubris.
The Signs of Hubris
My list is not exhaustive, but I do believe it is telling. In each of the corporate leaders’ and union leaders’ lives, the following patterns began to emerge. In them you can see the signs of hubris for any leader.
Leaders with hubris see others as inferior. The rest of the world does not get it. Others are just not as smart. As a result, these leaders do not listen well because others really don’t have anything worthy to say. Leaders with hubris thus lack patience with others. They definitely cannot see their own faults.
Leaders with hubris are slow to see deteriorating conditions in the organizations they lead. The CEO of General Motors declared in a 2007 letter to shareholders: “Our entire team rose up to meet the collective challenges we face.” The letter was written as the two-year losses for GM totaled over $12 billion. Leaders with hubris cannot see conditions getting worse, because they cannot believe such conditions could take place under their leadership.
Leaders with hubris are quick-tempered. Some of the stories of the tempers of union leaders and the leaders of the Big Three are almost unbelievable. Their condescending and demeaning treatment of others reflects their own aggrandized view of themselves. If anyone disagreed with them or got in their way, the self-righteous anger of the leader exploded.
Leaders with hubris expect to be served. The CEOs of the Big Three didn’t get it. They showed up at congressional hearings for bailout money in private corporate jets. Union leaders’ threats of strikes against the car companies garnered the workers such out-of-the-norm benefits that the very existence of the companies they worked for were jeopardized. In both cases, everyone was looking out for themselves, seeking to be served rather than seeking to serve.
Leaders with hubris don’t know when to step down. No person is indispensable to an organization. No leader is indispensable to an organization. We often more quickly recognize our call to a place rather than our call away from a place. Leaders with hubris try to hang on too long.
Looking in the Mirror
As I read the book and as I wrote this post, my mind captured images of past and current leaders whom I thought fit the bill perfectly of leaders with hubris. Then the thought hit me. Leaders with hubris never think they are or will be leaders with hubris. It sure is easy to talk about others who are self-serving egotists. But it is incredibly difficult to accept that I can go down that very same path.
Most of us are familiar with Proverbs 16:18: “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall” (CSB). But the following verse is not cited as often: “Better to be a lowly spirit with the humble than to divide the plunder with the proud” (Proverbs 16:19).
I must look in the mirror more often and see my own sinfulness and propensity toward hubris. It’s easy to read a book about other leaders who became filled with self and led with hubris. But I must realize even more poignantly that except for the grace of God I too will go down that path.
If you are the pastor I met in Richmond, Virginia recently, thank you.
Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for your faithfulness. And thank you for your wise words about pastors and struggles: “It is good to know I am not alone.” Your words were meaningful. Your words were powerful.
You were speaking about the thousands of church leaders at Church Answers. You were speaking about the number one benefit you get from being in this safe community. You see the vulnerability, the lack of pretense, and the acknowledgments of struggles among other pastors and church leaders. It is a constant and encouraging reminder you are not alone.
I want to share those same words with the community who reads this blog post. I want you to know you are not alone. Ministry can be tough. Ministry can be frustrating. Ministry can even be depressing. But ministry in the local church can also be one of the greatest joys you’ve ever known.
Allow me to give you three reminders. It is my prayer these three brief points will be a source of encouragement and hope for you. It is my prayer they will be used by God to encourage you to keep pressing on. I simply call them the three accidents that did not happen at your church.
Your church address is not an accident. God placed your church where it is for a reason. You might be dealing with deferred maintenance issues in your building. You might be wishing your facility was up to 1980 standards. You might long for a faster-growing demographic. You might desire a more visible location. But God put you at your church address for very specific reasons. Celebrate your location. Celebrate your place in the world God has called you to minister.
Your community is not an accident. Perhaps there was a day when the community surrounding your church looked more like the people in your church. Perhaps the community was much younger than it is today. Perhaps the community members eagerly attended your church in the past, but not today. Keep in mind, the community where God has your church located today is not an accident. He put the people there, and he wants your church to embrace them, love them, and reach them. Don’t bemoan your community. Celebrate your community.
Your calling is not an accident. God called you to salvation. God called you to ministry. And God called you to the church where you are serving. God does not have accidents. Your calling is not an accident. He has you at your church for specific and powerful reasons. Love the church you have now instead of the church you wish was there. You have been called to them. It is an incredible opportunity. It is an incredible ministry.
You are not alone in your ministry challenges. Thousands upon thousands of church leaders experience the same challenges every day and every week.
Even more, you are not alone because God is with you. Your church address is not an accident. Your community is not an accident. And your calling is not an accident. God is in it all. God is the power of it all.
Celebrate these realities. You were called to this specific church in this specific community at this specific time.
Church bylaws are a necessity, both from a legal and an organizational perspective. They provide the framework from which the organization exists and operates.
So, hear me well. I not advocating the elimination, eradication, or minimization of church bylaws.
But I am suggesting church bylaws are often used in ways that hurt churches. Indeed, some churches use bylaws well beyond their original intent. Let me briefly touch on six common problems with them.
Some bylaw provisions are reactions to issues that should have been addressed outside of the bylaws. Let me give you a real-life example, one that I heard from a member of our Church Answers community. The students in the church were meeting in the worship center on Wednesday evenings. One student brought a soda into the worship center and spilled it. Within one month, the church had a new bylaw provision: Thou shalt not bring drinks in the worship center (Okay, I made up that verbiage). Wouldn’t it have been better for someone simply to ask the students not to bring the drinks to the worship center? Sometimes bylaws are used to attempt to idiot proof anything that can go wrong.
Bylaws are sometimes used as a weapon. Here is another true example. The treasurer did not like the executive pastor. He constantly tried to derail his leadership and ministry. The treasurer’s most used weapon was a provision in the bylaws that required a two-thirds congregational vote for “major administrative decisions.” The problem is that no one knew the definition of “major,” but the treasurer used the wording to hinder the work of the executive pastor.
Bylaws can become obstacles instead of order. When bylaws are used properly, they bring legal and organizational order to churches. For that reason, they are vital and helpful. Too often, though, bylaws become obstacles for churches to move forward. In more than one church the bylaws are used more than the Bible to make decisions. They become the metaphorical “tail wagging the dog.”
Bylaws can become means for control and consolidation of power. As I consulted churches over the past three decades, I have been fascinated with the history of specific church bylaw provisions. It is not uncommon to learn that bylaws were used by certain power groups in the church to gain or consolidate control. In one church, the bylaws required every undefined major decision to go through a church council. That provision was added fifteen years earlier when the chairman of the church council tried to usurp authority from the church staff. Today, that former chairman is no longer at the church, and the church council is not a functioning group. But the bylaw provision remains.
Bylaws can be a distraction from the main thing. Here is another consultation example from my past. The pastor of the church asked me to attend the monthly business meeting. He also asked me to listen for the word “bylaws” in the meeting. There were no further instructions. Within five minutes, two church members referred to the bylaws as reasons for inaction. By the time the 70-minute meeting was over, the bylaws had been referenced twelve times. There was no mention of evangelism, discipleship, the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, or any other biblical mandates.
Bylaws can be sources of division. This last point is obvious in light of the previous points. In many churches, you can read the bylaws to learn stories of church fights, church splits, factions, and power plays. We were asked in a church consultation to interview departing church members to learn why so many were leaving the church. While the overall issue was infighting and division, one woman specifically referenced the bylaws: “I had to leave the church; it was not good for my spiritual health. There is so much division in the church, and every division becomes a bylaw battle. I think the church should change its name to The Church of the Bylaws.”
Good church bylaws provide structure, organization, and legal protection.
Bad and overused church bylaws can be divisive, distracting, and even disastrous.
I wish I had objective data on the length of time between pastors. I can say anecdotally the time is much longer than it used to be. A whole lot longer.
To be clear, I know we cannot presume on the call of God. I get that. But, all things considered, more and more churches are struggling because they are going longer periods of time without a pastor. Attendance often declines. Budget giving often declines. Morale often declines.
So why are search committees and appointment processes (I will refer to all search entities as search committees for simplicity) taking so much longer? I see six clear reasons.
There are no longer ready-made networks to provide a steady supply of pastors for churches. Denominations and other networks could provide a list of names in the past, many of whom could fit most churches in that network. Today, churches are different more than uniform. Communities are more diverse. The “denominationally-groomed-and-ready” pastor just does not exist today.
Search committees are often poorly equipped to find pastors. They typically do not know the right places to go and the right people to ask. They don’t have time to devote to seeking applicants and culling through resumes. Most don’t know the profile of a best qualified applicant.
Search committees often still use old paradigms. Advertise in denominational or network publications. Wait for a flood of resumes to arrive with mostly unqualified candidates. Go to a candidate’s church to hear a sermon. Go through resumes one by one in an excruciatingly slow and painful process. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Many search committees don’t use a search firm. I’ve heard all the reasons not to do so. Some think it costs too much. But most churches save a lot of money and time using a search firm. For example, during prolonged interim periods church giving usually declines—which can lead to financial struggles. Other churches think the search firm chooses the pastors for them. No, the search firm finds qualified candidates for the church to choose (Full disclosure: Vanderbloemen Search Group (Vanderbloemen.com) is a sponsor of Rainer on Leadership podcast. They are incredible!)
Search committees often represent a cross section of the church rather than the most qualified members. I understand the sentiment to have every group in the church represented. Unfortunately, such representation is not often commensurate with qualification. And an unqualified search committee is most often a slow search committee.
Some search committees and churches don’t think it is spiritual to find a new pastor too quickly. In most cases, a church should be able to get a new pastor in six months or less. God is really able to work that punctually. There is nothing inherently spiritual about taking a year or two years or more finding a new pastor. In fact, in many cases it is really bad stewardship to take that long.
Many churches are simply taking too long to find a new pastor.
As a consequence, many congregations are struggling without a leader to guide them.
Comparing your church to another church can be one of the worst things you do as a church leader.
To be clear, I am not referring to learning from other churches. We can always learn from our peers and our sister congregations.
But comparison for the sake of comparison is bad. Let me share a few thoughts about this issue to expand upon the concern.
We should focus on what God is blessing in our churches. Do you remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8? “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy – dwell on these things.” We are not dwelling on the things of God when we compare our church to others. We are dwelling on what we don’t have. The Word of God mandates to focus on the blessings God gives us, including the blessings of our congregation.
Comparisons only make matters worse. There is little good that can come from comparing our church to others. When we do so, we are taking one of two postures. The first is one of jealousy; we wish we had what someone else has. The second posture is one of ingratitude, which leads to my next point.
Our continuous disposition should be one of joy. Just a few verses preceding the text in Philippians 4:8 I noted above is a double command to rejoice. Indeed, it is a command to be in a constant mode of joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). We should take great joy in the calling God has given us right now. He has you in the exact place He wants you to serve. Rejoice instead of comparing.
Comparisons give us a short-term perspective. When we compare, we long for something we do not have. Our focus shifts to a place and a calling that is not for us. As a consequence we often desire to be somewhere else. We develop a short-term perspective for our current calling. Our congregations need leaders who are willing to serve for the long haul. The green grass of the other church is often brown once we get there.
We are not showing love for the bride when we compare. Marriages begin to deteriorate when a husband or wife compares his or her spouse to someone else. “If only my spouse was like that person,” we may think. Such thoughts show dishonor to our spouse. The church is the bride of Christ. We are not showing love or honor to His bride when we compare her to others.
Learn from other churches. It is always healthy to be in a learning disposition.
But don’t compare your church with others in a negative sense. Nothing good can from it.
Rejoice in your present calling. Such an attitude will transform your leadership and, as a consequence, transform the church to which God has called you.
“I resign from the church in my mind about ten times a year. Every time it has been on a Monday.”
It’s a direct quote from a pastor at the Church Answers’ forum. And I’ve heard similar quotes many times.
So why are Mondays so difficult for pastors? Why do they have thoughts of resignation on this day more than others? I’ve heard five reasons consistently.
Sunday is both emotionally energizing and draining. If that sounds like an emotional roller coaster, it is. There are many facets of Sunday ministry that are emotionally charged, but the sermon is the main reason. Pastors prepare with intensity and they preach with intensity. It is typically the highlight of a pastor’s week, but it is usually the most exhausting as well.
Someone made a negative comment before or after the sermon. Some of the most vulnerable moments for a pastor are right before or after the sermon. The pastor is intensely focused before the sermon and typically worn out after it. When a church member selects one of those times to make a snarky comment, it usually carries over to the next day.
There were a lot of meetings on Sunday. It makes sense. You already have a good number of the members available to meet. It helps them with their schedules. But it adds to an already exhausting day for pastors. When they wake up on Monday, they often feel like they played in a football game on Sunday.
Pastors feel like they neglected their families on Sunday. In reality, they often do. They have little time for spouses and children on such a busy day. The following Monday can feel like a hangover of regret.
They had a business meeting on Sunday night. Sunday evenings are the most common time for church business meetings. And church business meetings can get ugly. I spoke to one pastor whose church had a raucous business meeting until 10 pm on a Sunday evening. And he had after-business-meeting meetings until midnight. He was not in a very good mood on Monday morning.
Pastors, if you are ready to resign on Monday mornings, you are not alone. Don’t think you are an aberration or not in tune with the will of God. But give it a couple of days. Today’s sense of foreboding gloom will likely yield to a better disposition in just a few days.
And church members, pray for your pastors. Do everything you can to protect them and encourage them. Their Mondays can be a lot better if they know you care.
Many people have this naïve view that a pastor just has to preach and love people.
Not so. Pastors certainly have to give a priority to preaching and ministry to others, but the pastor’s week is filled with unexpected and multifaceted demands.
Many times pastors need to lead the church in a new endeavor, something that gets the members out of their comfort zone. And sometimes it gets pastors out of their comfort zone.
Relocation. A new ministry. A second campus. New staff and changing staff positions. Purchase of property.
These are but a few examples of leadership challenges some pastors have not seen before. These challenges not only require basic leadership skills, they require leadership skills in often-untested areas.
Change leadership. Financial risk-taking. Breaking of routines. New paradigms.
When pastors face these new challenges, it is not unusual for some to get cold feet. They decide the pain is not worth the potential gain. They get cold feet and settle for the status quo. Why? Here are seven of the most common reasons.
The critics. Major change often engenders major criticisms. Too many leaders will stick with the status quo until their churches are on the path to death. They just want to avoid the critics. Remember, the vote to go to the Promised Land lost 10 to 2. They naysayers yielded to the critics, the whiners, and comfort-seekers.
The energy drainers. These are the people ready to vote no before they hear the motion. They always have a better idea. They want to tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. And they will wear the pastors out . . . if the pastors let them.
Lack of knowledge. Pastors are often placed in positions of leadership and relatively large budgets with no preparation. It’s hard to lead a challenging project if you can’t read a financial statement. And while pastors can find more seasoned laypersons to help them, the pastors’ lack of knowledge can be a showstopper.
Prayerlessness. With God all things are possible. But if pastors have gotten too busy for God, they are too busy to lead forward. Frankly, pastors should have cold feet if they have not prayed about their own leadership and the endeavor they are about to lead.
Short-term view. Pastors who don’t plan to hang around long can have cold feet about leading projects that may have a longer view. I have advised many pastors not to move forward on a major endeavor unless they plan to see it through. So cold feet in this case is probably the right temperature.
Inadequate staff and lay leadership. I get this one. I spoke with a pastor this week who expressed concerned about the leadership around him. He was not sure he would have the right team for a major and visionary endeavor. I urged him to look behind his present team and see if God would raise up some other leaders in the church.
Faith-as-idea. It really sounds exciting to take steps of faith . . . until it’s actually time to take those steps. To continue the Promised Land metaphor from point number one, leaders get to the edge of the Promised Land and freeze in their tracks when they see the challenges (see Numbers 13). Any step of faith will have its challenges. The question is: Is your faith bigger than your fears?
We need an army of church leaders who are bold and courageous. We need the spirit of Joshua 1 instead of Numbers 1. I pray for our pastors. I pray they will truly be the courageous people God has called them to be.
We really need to move forward to our Promised Land.
The church member may have meant well, but her words stung the new pastor. After all, he had been at the church for only three months, and he had already heard that sentiment expressed more than a dozen times.
He knew he would be living in the shadow of a legend. He just had no idea how big that shadow would be.
There are several succession situations for pastors that are often more difficult than others, I know. I hear about them almost every day. Here are five of the most common:
The long-term pastor. If a previous pastor has been at the church ten or more years, you can be assured the current pastor will hear many comparisons. Every pastor brings a new culture to the church. It often takes church members a few years to adjust.
The church-splitting pastor. This pastor left mad. Perhaps the pastor was fired or left angry about something that happened in the church. Instead of finding another church in another community, the pastor decides to start a church in the same community. Church members follow the pastor. When the new pastor arrives, he often has to deal with hurting and angry members. Some of the members will actually have family splits over choosing churches. It’s not a fun situation to lead.
The moral failure pastor. When there is pastoral moral failure, church members are hurt. Some are angry. Many of the congregants don’t know if they can trust a pastor again. The new pastor walks into a very difficult situation. He now has to pay for the sins of his predecessor.
The omnipresent pastor. This pastor seemed like he visited every member every month. He was in homes. He attended all events. He visited the hospital fifteen times a day. He counseled people every day. He went to funerals and weddings he did not officiate. He was the superman pastor. Except that his family suffered greatly. Except that the church suffered because he would never let go. He just enjoyed the attention too much. And now the remaining members want to know why the new pastor is not visiting them in their homes nine days a week.
The oratorical pastor. The previous pastor could preach with seemingly unmatched excellence. His sermons were legendary. He had more downloads to his podcasts than the current pastor has hairs on his head. Comparisons are frequent and not flattering for the new guy. And downloads are lower by 97 percent.
Does this situation sound familiar to some of you pastors?
Remember, your identity is in Christ.
Be comfortable in how God made and wired you.
You have nothing to prove in the comparison game.
This season of dealing with the past will fade into new opportunities that will cause members to look to the future with excitement and anticipation.
We leaders often enjoy the affirmation and adulation of others as we express our ideas, provide direction, and set future courses.
And we sometimes enjoy it so much that we only want people to agree with us and affirm us, even if we are wrong.
It’s called echo chamber leadership. Properly defined, it’s an environment in which leaders encourage and encounter only beliefs or opinions that match their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas and pushback are not considered.
For certain, it’s very dangerous. And Christian leaders are not invulnerable to it, far from it. Indeed the evangelical celebrity culture exacerbates the problem.
What are some key issues that help us leaders not fall into the echo chamber leadership trap? Here are six considerations:
It is the leader’s responsibility to avoid the echo chamber. We can’t lay the blame on the shoulders of those who may be under our leadership. Leaders may have firing or some other type of punitive authority over them. Leaders must take the necessary steps, not the leader’s followers.
Sycophants are extremely dangerous. They take the echo chamber to its extreme to let leaders know how wonderful they are. They gush over them, fawn over them, and seek to please them unendingly. Leaders can really enjoy such adulation and attention. They can make the leader seem the paragon of perfection. Such pride is a forerunner to a fall.
Leaders must seek out people who care enough about them to speak truth to them. A few years ago, Brad Waggoner, the number two leader at LifeWay, said some things to me that really ticked me off. I let him know I was not happy. His response: “I care more about you than the consequences of telling you. Go on and fire me.” Such friends are priceless, especially if they work for you. By the way Brad was right and I was wrong.
Social media and blogs can drive leadership to the echo chamber. Because any critic, naysayer, or nutcase can have a voice in the digital world, leaders can be tempted to withdraw to the seeming comfort and affirmation of the echo chamber. But the echo chamber is actually more dangerous than exposure to the critics and the crazies.
The leader’s response to contrary opinions and criticisms will send a message to the watching world. I was in the room when someone suggested a contrary opinion to the leader. He blew up like an implosion with 1,000 sticks of dynamite. We got the message. Don’t say a word unless we agree with him and can affirm him.
Moral failure is common among leaders who dwell in echo chambers. These leaders are convinced they are God’s gifts to humanity. They are the smartest person in the room. After all, everyone has told them so. They cannot fail. They will not be tempted. Then they are tempted and they fall. And they usually fall hard.
Nathan is one of my heroes of Scripture. He had the courage to speak truth and confront King David (2 Samuel 12). The consequences could have been dire and deadly. But Nathan loved David too much not to speak truth to him.
I am thankful for those who have Nathan-like courage. And, at least in this case, I am thankful for leaders who respond like David.
The echo chamber is a siren song. It leads to failure, destruction, and even death.
None of us leaders are exempt. Stay strong in the Lord.