Church leadership sucks, and the Church does nothing about it. This is basically what Alex Willmott had to say yesterday. First of all I’ll be charitable and accept he’s got a point. And then I’ll go on to say why I think his point is the wrong one to make.
Where Alex gets it right is that churches frequently pay insufficient attention to the quality of church leadership and as a result, people lead church who shouldn’t. Churches don’t scrutinise their leadership, and if and when they do, those found to be failing are often given license to continue failing.
This happens for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Christians don’t like being critical, or, they are very selective in how they are critical. They don’t like to have a go at one of their own. When a church leader is not doing their job they dodge the difficult conversations and hope everything will sort itself out. It rarely does.
Secondly, there’s a culture in some parts of the church that idolises opposition and martyrdom. So if a church is shrinking, but the few who remain are staying faithful, the leader is able to convince themselves they are doing their job of preaching the gospel and the results are like the seeds in Jesus’ parable who fall on the rocky/shallow/weedy land – those who fall away aren’t really saved.
There is a false kindness in not telling the truth. While it might avoid conflict, not speaking the truth when a leader is failing lets them into a false sense of security and lets the church down. Church leaders need oversight that calls them to account and doesn’t applaud failure with a move to a new church to repeat the cycle.
And yes, there are times when we will be opposed, and people will stop coming to faithful churches in order to find a more palatable and less challenging alternative, but using that as a controlling narrative gives into an overarching story of failure, which is simply not Christian. Yes, Jesus was opposed. Yes, he was deserted. Yes, he was killed on a cross and died the suffering servant. But he rose again, death oh death where is your sting. And the seeds that fell on the good soil produced a good crop.
What Alex gets wrong – in my humble opinion – is that growth is the right thing to be measuring, or at least in the terms he uses. The Church isn’t a business, it doesn’t work like the profit lines on a balance sheet. I could get people through the doors of a church by offering free hotdogs or making a spectacle of myself. But the crowds would be there to stave off their hunger or feast on my humiliation, not to worship God. When we use metrics that are solely based on numbers, we can get growth but miss fruitfulness.
I firmly believe that a thriving church will see people come to know Jesus, but I don’t think that means a small church cannot be fruitful. When we try and measure things with our own criteria of success or failure, we buy into the idea that we know best what God wants.
The other thing he gets wrong is that he confuses Jesus’ job with ours. Jesus says to Peter when giving him a new name: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. Jesus builds the Church, not us – it’s his Church, not ours. Our command is to make disciples, and it’s that we should be working on, not trying to create the most impressive church, or the one that looks good to the world around us.
Finally, the way we think about church leadership is damaging in its vagueness. We bundle about seventeen different aspects of what it is to be a leader together and end up disappointed that a pastor isn’t a visionary, or a preacher isn’t a manager. This comes back to the need for closer attention to the roles and responsibilities of church leaders. Too often we focus on a single person, either because they are all there is or because they’re the charismatic figure the church is centred on. There is a call to lead churches, to shepherd believers and to teach the gospel, but it’s all of our responsibility to make disciples and having a go at the leader can sometimes be a way to get us off the hook.