As we come out of COVID (again), I am struck by the leadership burden that many church leaders are feeling.
I am meeting with senior pastors who are suffering from anxiety and panic attacks due to the overwhelming pressure, complexity and differing opinions regarding change. Why is the weight of change being carried by so few?
This is a question I have been wondering for some years now. Years ago, we learned that 75% approx. three quarters of our pastors were feeling burnout to some degree1.
Almost 10 years ago I left leadership in industry to support church leaders. I was confronted by a leadership model I had never rarely seen before – the ‘superleader’ – a model where the leader is the person who leads everything.
Don’t get me wrong, as a leader in business I was responsible for the business. I was responsible for everything but there was no way I was expected to be involved in everything. If I was, I would have been burned out by the age of 40. As I took on my first Managing Director role, I had to learn to entrust leadership of the major operations to Operational Directors. That was an enormous (and challenging) learning curve for me, but it was an essential transition if I was to oversee the organisation.
There seems to be a rigid dichotomy between the paid pastor who does the ministry and the church members who fund the ministry. We ask for ‘superleaders’, and when the ministry grows, we ask for generous people to fund more ‘superleaders’. This model of leadership is reinforced in church culture – by both lay and clergy. In fact, in the last ten years of coaching and consulting pastors, this has been a source of great wrestling.
I’m sure it is a major factor in minister burnout. Grant Bickerton’s wonderful work on burnout in Australian ministers demonstrates that the step change is a loss of spiritual resources (read personal devotion), but the step away from spiritual resources seems to be caused by busyness. Where does it come from?
I don’t see any evidence for the ‘superleader’ in the scriptures.
I read that:
- God has equipped his church with a full body of people with different gifts
- Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…
I see the example of Moses (Exodus 18) having to learn not to do all the work himself and the apostles finding others to do the important work of serving the widows (Acts 6). In Both cases the leaders:
- needed clarity of the task they were most responsible for;
- selected trustworthy people to delegate the tasks to;
- and remained responsible for the oversite of the overall ministry.
Let me encourage you to listen to the scriptures on church leadership and not to decades of culture. Christ never called church leaders to be the person who does everything in the gathering. James writes provides important insight on God’s wisdom when he writes:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17 ESV)
The best leadership gurus of the world have done survey after survey of people across all industries and continents to find out what people (not just Christians) trust or follow in leaders. They could have just read the scriptures and they would get the same answer. People follow or trust leaders voluntarily / without coercion who are trustworthy2.
I am particularly drawn to the phrase “open to reason” (NIV uses the word “submissive”). I wished I had understood the meaning of this as I first struggled to lead a company. This was a key part of my leadership journey. When I first became the leader of the organisation, I had to learn to ‘submit’ to the operational leadership of those leading different parts of the organisation. I couldn’t tell them what to do. I couldn’t do their job for them. To lead, I had to learn to trust them to do their operational leadership role (even for those whose job I used to do). I had to equip them into their leadership role and had to be ‘open to their reason’ as the operational experts they needed to be. My job as the head was to bring the leaders of the organisation together to make a whole.
Surely this is how church leadership is meant to function. The leader is meant to be competent. But not superhuman.
They seek to point to Christ by His Word, in His Spirit. Keen to imitate Christ in character and love. Indeed, a leader intends for their teaching and work to equip the church to serve in ministry together in unity, that the church might be built up, that more might come to know Christ as Lord – that he might be glorified.
I’m confident that this is a better way to lead, dripping in Scriptural precedent. I am very aware that it is a difficult transition in leadership, yet am confident it is worth it. The team at the Centre for Ministry Development (CMD) are happy to support church leaders through the transition.
Personally, this is what I have devoted the next part of my life to – supporting church leaders. Why? That they might lead the church better, for longer, and ultimately that Christ might be glorified.
1 Burnout in Church Leaders, Peter Kaldor and Rod Bullpitt, 2001, NCLS Research
2(For example see The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, James Kouzes & Barry Posner Jossey-Bass, 2012)