Healthy Church Leaders

Not long ago I had a young elder ask me to mentor him. This coincided with a devotional given to our staff by our pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, Sandy Willson. Thus, below are portions of a letter I wrote using Sandy’s outline for healthy church leaders.

First of all, thank you for wanting input, friendship, and mentoring. I find that most older guys like me have a growing sense of inadequacy that too often hinders us from this type of ministry because as you age you possess a more graphic picture of your own deceitful, idolatrous heart as well as your own inadequacy to serve the Lord and His people.

On the other side, with youth comes zeal but oftentimes not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). At least that was true in my case years ago. Sometimes younger folk really don’t want the input of their elders due to their own insecurity and pride. However, sometimes younger people are right not to want the counsel of older folks because at times older leaders can go into lock down mode when it comes to their cherished forms and preferences that can at times hinder the future effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry. You know the seven last words of the dying church: “We’ve never done it that way before!”

One of the best things you can do right now is to personally pursue becoming a healthy leader and helping others do the same. Here are eight characteristics of healthy leaders.

1.     Healthy church leaders serve joyfully in the grace of the gospel (Psalm 100:2; 2 Corinthians 1:24). Take time to reflect on each word in that sentence. As you grow older, it is easy to become cynical and lose hope in the power of the gospel to transform lives. As you know, sheep in the flock can make it extremely difficult to serve Christ and them joyfully. Repeatedly ask the Lord to show you how forgiven you are and you will be empowered to forgive others who hurt you. Continually remember how loved you are by your heavenly Father and you will be empowered to love others who are at times very unlovable. Recall how accepted you are in the beloved (Ephesians 1:7) and then you’ll experience grace to accept those brothers and sisters in Christ that are different than you.

2.    Healthy church leaders must account to biblical standards of doctrine and practice (1 Timothy 4:16). We must pay close attention to our hearts especially our idols. John Calvin did say that our hearts are “idol making factories” and that the minute we root out one idol another one comes to take its place. As a leader, you must hold yourself and your family to a higher standard. This causes many to shrink back. The Apostle Paul urges elders in Acts 20:28 to “take heed (keep watch) over yourselves and all the flock.” Well, this means that we need to commit ourselves to studying the Bible to acquaint ourselves with what those standards are.

Simply put, you cannot adequately care for others if you neglect the care of your own soul. You cannot shepherd the hearts of others unless you shepherd your own heart. This is true at church. It’s also true at home with your family. This is why one of the best things you can do is heed the counsel of George Muller. When he was seventy-six years old, he wrote,

“I saw more clearly than ever, that the first, great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God, and to meditation on it. . . . not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.”

We are constantly trying to find happiness in other things and people when ultimate, lasting, and true happiness is found only in Jesus. I have really tried to become more intentional about this first thing in the morning. That has meant no phone, no internet, no TV. The question that I keep coming back to in my reading of Scripture to help me with this is “What do I see in the text for which I can praise the Lord?

Another way that I have found to do this is to heed the advice of John Murray.  He challenged leaders to: “Meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day on some word of God connected with His promises to His church and then plead with Him for its fulfillment.” What would happen in our churches, if all of us leaders took the Lord seriously regarding his promises for his church and prayed diligently for their fulfillment. I never once have had an elder question my job performance as their pastor due to an anemic prayer life, but they should have since we are to give ourselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4).

3.    Healthy church leaders embrace the biblical mission of the church and the biblical ministry of church officers (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42-47; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). At the core, the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. What does this look like practically for folks like us? We ought to challenge dads and moms to serve as the primary disciplers of their kids. In general, we all struggle as consumer-oriented parents who at times feel like it is the church’s responsibility to make our kids spiritual and to give our kids a heart for the Lord. Secondly, how easy it is for us elders to show up for our monthly meetings without having taken time to shepherd families and provide spiritual encouragement and prayer for those entrusted to our care.

Leadership boards in churches often function more like executive, decision-making boards and refuse to get down and dirty in the trenches with people and their problems saying, “that’s what we’re paying the pastors to do.” Yes, pastors must do this, but they should also be equipping other leaders how to do this with them. All leaders are called to shepherd the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).

In order to do this well, you need to be in corporate worship. You also need to consistently involve yourself in a smaller subset of people either in Sunday School and/or a small group. The leadership in a local church is weakened when this is not the regular rhythm for all of her leaders. Certainly, there are occasions where we are “providentially hindered,” but these should be the rare exception and not frequent. Leaders must be ready and willing to prove themselves as examples by disciplining themselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). We are, myself included, so afraid of coming off sounding legalistic, that we abdicate calling for any type of discipline and sacrifice.

4.     Healthy church leaders establish biblical priorities. How difficult it is to discern the best from the good in how to invest our time, talents, and treasures both individually and corporately. I find that most Christian organizations and churches are very reactive. Why do we not take the time to seek the Lord together regarding what it is that the He wants us to do as a body of believers?

One prayer of the Apostle Paul’s that I pray regularly is found in Philippians 1:9-10… that the Lord would fill me with all knowledge and discernment to make the excellent choice. This is always the challenge of leadership: To discern the best from the good.

I have become convinced that it is imperative that church leaders gather in a retreat setting at least once a year to seek the Lord together in establishing and creating ownership for His priorities for the upcoming year. It is not only important to establish biblical priorities and goals, but also to create ownership. Rick Phillips, who is a pastor in Greenville, SC, states an important principle of leadership: “Unity always takes place within the context of personal relationships.” This is an interesting thought to reflect on! Disunity tends to happen when the personal relationships are missing or compromised.               

5.     Healthy church leaders actively participate and encourage others to do the same. One of my friends is fond of saying: “What I complain about reveals where I am in the midst of the spiritual battle. If I am complaining about stale chips and warm beer,” he says, “I am not on the front lines” in the battle for souls. When we are not actively involved, all of us tend to armchair quarterback and become critical of other leaders.

Leaders are proactive in not just diagnosing problems, but also in providing solutions. When leaders are incessantly negative and offer no solutions to problems, they should be confronted and admonished to mend their ways. This style of relating does not foster unity and encouragement. This will always be a challenge as long as we minister in a broken and fallen world. This penchant towards negativity and refusing to trust the Lord has caused more than one enterprise to tank. Remember the dreaded consequences to the spies’ bad report after spying out the Promised Land (Numbers 13:30-33, 14:21-24).

6.     Healthy church leaders trust each other.  Without trust, it’s nearly impossible to go forward in a healthy way. Work diligently to create an environment of trust. There is no other way to do this well than to spend time together with your team dreaming, planning, and praying. It is nearly impossible to trust one another if you are not absolutely sure that the other person is for you. Regularly encourage other ministry leaders, especially your church staff. Make sure that they know that you are for them especially when you are led of the Lord to confront them about one of their weaknesses or failings.

7.     Healthy church leaders  successfully address and resolve conflict. When slander, critical speech, and gossip are allowed to persist in a church, it undermines the gospel of peace and reconciliation that we proclaim. This grieves the Lord and hinders our effectiveness in ministry. Healthy leaders model for others how to resolve conflict. Urge other leaders who do not deal well with conflict not to become passive aggressive. Also, make sure that when your pastor has to wade into these murky waters that he does not go alone.

The arctic chill of loneliness will blow into your life as a leader especially when you have to speak truth to someone you love and they refuse to heed your counsel or when you have to take an unpopular stance on an important issue or ministry in your church. In the past, there have been dear folks who have held me in great contempt for unpopular decisions that had to be made. You cannot take this personally, but you must ask the Lord to search your heart for any self-serving motives that lurk within. At the end of the day, you must entrust these folks who disagree with you to the Lord and ask Him to extend mercy to them. You also must pray for the Lord to guard you from despair and cynicism. The gospel remains the power of God to save sinners. Oh for more grace to believe it and live in light of it.

8.     Lastly, healthy church leaders mentor emerging leaders. 2 Timothy 1 has much to teach us about how to prepare the next generation of leaders. The list below always is such a rebuke to me. However, it also encourages and challenges me to rise up again and get about the Lord’s business in this area with my own children as well as other men and women in the body of Christ.

Here are some of the directives of the Apostle Paul about how to equip and prepare the next generation of leaders.

  • Pray with them and for them because they will ultimately be your successor (2 Timothy 1:3).
  • Remind them of their noble tradition as well as their call to protect and proclaim the gospel of God (2 Timothy 1:4;8).
  • Assure them of your confidence in them (2 Timothy 1:5).
  • Train and inspire them by modeling what you want to reproduce in them (2 Timothy 1:8; 2:2; 4:6-8) .
  • Do not be aloof, unapproachable, and impatient with youth for these attitudes have no place in the church of Christ (2 Timothy 1:2;4).
  • Gently rebuke them when you observe in them a lack of moral courage (2 Timothy 1:7).  Only rebuke after a season of commendation (note vv. 3-6).
  • By personal example and exhortation galvanize the younger leader for the challenges that lie ahead (1:11-12).
  • Teach them to despise the perverse search for novel interpretations, raising objections and doubts for argument sake and debate (2 Timothy 1:13; 2:16; 4:2).  Rather, teach them that difficulties and questions must be handled with patience and clarity.

(This list is taken and adapted from E.M. Blaiklock’s helpful book, The Pastoral Epistles: A Study Guide. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1972.)

Okay. I’ve written you a small treatise on healthy leadership. I hope that maybe one or two of these things will be helpful and useful in your future ministry. Remember: Where God calls, He equips. Where God calls, He provides! And that is good news for those of us who are well acquainted with our own sense of inadequacy and frailty for such an awesome task of serving Christ and His church!

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