A year after my friend accepted a call to pastor a Church, he called me and said, “I think I might have one or two men on the Church board who are actually qualified to be elders.”
For the next several years, the effectiveness and progress of this Church was hindered. My friend had to work with the existing leaders until their terms expired and he could smoothly transition to new leaders. He learned the hard way that working with unqualified leaders can make ministry especially difficult.
Working with qualified leaders does not make ministry easy, but it’s far less burdensome and much more joyful to share the work with likeminded co-workers. As Jethro told Moses when he advocated shared leadership, “It makes your load lighter because they will share it with you” (Exodus 18:22).
I am convinced that two of the primary challenges behind pastoral burnout are the lack of qualified leaders to share the work and the presence of unqualified leaders on Church boards. Many pastors are leading alone and many others are struggling to lead with unqualified co-leaders.
A leadership crisis
Many Churches face a leadership crisis that parallels conditions in the Church of Corinth. The apostle Paul asked the Church a question that exposed a sad leadership crisis. “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (I Corinthians 6:5).
The fact that Church members were having disputes is not surprising. Jesus anticipated this in his teaching (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15-17). The means by which they were settling their disputes was the real issue.
“When one of you has a dispute with another believer, how dare you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter instead of taking it to other believers” (6:1, NLT).
In his dismay, the apostle used a little spiritual sarcasm to provoke conviction. He wrote:
“… if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you (vv. 4-5).
Paul wasn’t lowering the bar for leadership. He wasn’t saying that anyone in the Church is qualified to handle these matters. He was simply emphasizing the need for internal resolution of disputes among believers.
A low view of the Church
As with most issues in the Church at Corinth, their behavior in this case was supported by a low view of the Church . They treated the gathering of believers like any other social gathering. Early in his letter, the apostle asked them a question that went to the heart of their low view of the Church. He also attached a sober warning to the question.
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (I Corinthians 3:16-17).
Along with a leadership crisis, there was a significant identity crisis in this Church. These two crises are at the root of all of the problems in the Church at Corinth and behind most problems in Churches today. When addressing problems in any Church, leaders should consider the possibility of an inadequate or even sinful understanding of the sacred identity of God’s assembled people. In Corinth, it surfaced in several key areas:
- personality conflicts (chapter 3)
- permissive immorality (chapter 5)
- selfish classism (chapter 11)
- divisive individualism (chapters 12-14)
As one might expect, behind these and other problems were doctrinal errors and an overall anti-authoritarian spirit (as they distanced themselves from the spiritual leadership of the apostle Paul). But all of this was exacerbated by an internal leadership crisis. Consider again the potency of this question:
“Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (I Corinthians 6:5).
On a positive note
In the providence of God, the troubles at Corinth resulted in some of the most important apostolic teaching on the nature and function of the Church. Consider some of the images for the Church that provide his context for correction and instruction:
- The Church as God’s field, building and temple: (3)
- The Church as an unleavened lump of dough (5)
- The Church as a spiritual court (6)
- The Church as a body (10-14)
Although all of the issues the apostle addressed do not find exact parallel today, each of the images offers profoundly deep insight into our identity and function as God’s assembled people.
My current interest is the Church as a spiritual court.
The apostle clearly indicated that the internal life of the Church must include wise leaders involved in dispute settling. After all, he asked them,
“Don’t you realize that someday we believers will judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide even these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disputes in this life” (6:2-3, NLT).
Disputes are inevitable. But the Church must have wise leaders fulfilling judicial roles in resolving conflicts. Another glaring example of the absence of such leadership in Corinth is a bizarre case of a man living in an ongoing sexual relationship with his stepmother (chapter 5). You might think that the apostle would aim his “big guns” at this member living in open immorality. Instead, the apostle rebukes the Church for the way they’ve responded. They were proud of their acceptance of this man as a member in good standing. And, in this case, their disregard for godly standards distinguished them from the world in the wrong direction.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.” (5:1-2).
The apostle demanded a change in the attitude of the Church followed by decisive action:
“And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?” (5:2)
It’s not enough to grieve over “sin” in the Church. They must understand that unchecked, unrepentant sin in a local Church is infectious to the entire group. “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” (5:6). With one indicting question after another, the apostle leveled impugning charges against this Church. He wraps up the matter in chapter 5 with a final question and clear directive:
“Are you not to judge those inside? Expel the wicked person from among you!” (5:12-13).
The point he made about judging those inside the Church is what leads to the concern in chapter 6 about failing to act as judges over internal disputes. But the failure is deeply related to their leadership crisis. When a Church lacks wise leaders, matters that should be dealt with are often left unaddressed and the whole church suffers. In this case, the believers simply took their issues to secular courts for resolution.
Wise leaders needed
We should not pass quickly over the emphasis on needing “wise” leadership. I fear that many pastors today find themselves overwhelmed with issues in the Church because they lack wise leaders to share the work. Should they train leaders? Yes. But this takes significant time and devotion. As a result, many pastors find themselves working with leaders who are not known for their wisdom. In my interactions with pastors, I continuously hear of how difficult ministry is because of the unqualified leaders on their Church boards. Constitutions and By-laws often require a minimal quorum and term limits for governing boards. And often the procedures for selecting leaders do not respect the emphasis on qualifications found in Titus 1 and I Timothy 3.
It’s clearly best to share the work of ministry. Plurality of leadership is God’s design for the Church. One man can only effectively oversee a small number of people. This was the lesson Jethro taught Moses. We learn in Exodus 18 that “Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people and they stood around him from morning till evening.” But Jethro asked him, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
Pragmatically, Moses explained the situation:
“… the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.” Jethro wisely warned Moses, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.”
What should Moses do? The people need leadership. Jethro came up with a plan. “… select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.” This is shared leadership.
But don’t miss the emphasis on qualified leadership. Moses must choose capable and trustworthy men. They must have a reputation for integrity and be known as men who fear God. Sadly, these men are not in great supply today. Male leadership problems are pervasive to both our culture and to the Church. But imagine what would have happened if Moses decided to fudge on the qualifications. What if he said of certain individuals, “He seems like a God-fearing man.” “I think he’ll be an honest leader.” “He runs a good business so I guess he’ll be a good leader in the Church.” Seems like and I guess should never be the basis for leadership appointment in Christ’s Church!
Perhaps the only thing worse for a pastor than an inadequate number of leaders is working with unqualified leadership. Jethro’s idea is wise and one could argue that it’s the plan advocated for NT Church leadership. It also looks good as a nameless flow chart. But when you have to start putting names in the slots, it’s a different story.
I understand that there are no perfect people to appoint as leaders. I also realize that our expectations must be realistic. I often tell our leadership team that we know leaders struggle. We face temptations, become discouraged and fight against sinful pride. As James wrote, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). The important part is how one responds to these things and works through them. What is the primary pattern in a person’s life. Is he mature and secure? Of course, he must be grounded in sound teaching and be able to apply the truth to himself and others. I think you should spend at least a year studying through the qualifications for leadership found in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (see: Calling to Ministry and Leadership training).
I also know what it’s like to work with unqualified men. If a man is self-serving and fears man more than God, his leadership will lack wisdom and hurt others. If he is interested in dishonest gain, he will not be true to the leadership team or the Church. He will serve his own interests. He will seek his own following and divide people from any higher structure of leadership. If he lacks wisdom, he will apply the wrong solutions to problems.
What about seminaries?
I’d like to be able to say that our ministry training institutions are preparing the kinds of leaders we need. I simply do not have a great deal of confidence in the seminary as the place for this kind of training. I am not suggesting it doesn’t happen anywhere. And I believe there are institutions committed to this task. Yet so often these institutions are not focused or equipped enough to move the emphasis from academic to character development. Many of them will say that this is the job of the Church. But if they believe this, they should ask themselves if they require too much academic and institutional commitment for their students to prioritize involvement in the Church. You can be very certain that a one semester internship in a Church won’t cut it for those who hope to be a leader in a Church.
What about homes?
Another primary place for developing character is the home. But we face such a painful family crisis in most of our communities that a lot of Church ministry today is even more complicated. The pervasive absence of normal family nurture and discipline cannot be taken lightly. It probably affects the nature of ministry more than any other fact. Homes are often functioning at cross purposes in the kind of character development necessary for leadership. I am grateful that local Churches can help to fill this gap but it means that generally homes are not places of character development necessary to leadership. And the Church can never fully take the places of mothers and fathers.
Leadership training in the Church
All of this means that church leaders must find a way to train new leaders. But how are they to focus on this when faced with so many consuming obstacles? I suggested at the beginning how I am convinced that the absence of qualified leadership and the presence of unqualified leadership are two of the main contributors behind pastoral burnout.
We need a renewed discussion about how to train leaders. We don’t need more nameless flow charts! Early in my current ministry our growth became overwhelming. I prayed for God to send me more low-maintenance high-givers (and I didn’t mean financial givers). I needed people to share the spiritual oversight. God graciously answered this prayer. We then became active in leadership training.
As exciting as numerical growth may be, it’s also time-consuming. We have consistently tried to operate on the principle of staffing ahead of the growth. It has helped to do this but it has not always been easy. Furthermore, ministry is complicated due to the pervasive dysfunctional conditions of society.
Since we practice biblical eldership, we are guarded about allowing men to be elders until proven on many levels. Our team functions smoothly and we know that an immature, or worse, an antagonistic individual could hinder the leadership team. And disciplining a leader can be especially disruptive to the life of the Church. Currently we are discussing a two-tiered approach to leadership to provide an arena for testing potential new leaders.
If you want to play church or compromise the nature of the Church (as they were doing in Corinth), I don’t expect you to see much of the dilemma I am describing. And if you really don’t care about the local Church beyond your personal tenure, I also don’t expect you to understand the challenges. But if you honor Jesus words, “I will build my Church,” (Matthew 16), I believe you will be very serious about the matter of leadership.
Ten Questions for discussion:
- Have you experienced biblically faithful team leadership?
- Have you experienced the challenge of working with unqualified leaders?
- What are some of the important qualities necessary for being on a leadership team?
- What kinds of dangerous assumptions do people make about who is qualified to be in leadership?
- What abilities and qualities are necessary for settling disputes between believers?
- How much life experience should be prerequisite for a leadership position in the Church (on the elder team)?
- Is it wise to have too many younger leaders in the Church?
- How can we know if a potential leader is a capable and trustworthy man of integrity who fears God?
- What methods and materials do you use for leadership development?
- What general lessons have you learned about leadership development in the Church?