I was saddened to read last week that the elders of a prominent church had to ask their pastor to step down from leadership. This was due to “substantive allegations of pastoral misconduct” that arose and were confirmed. In addition to inappropriate meetings, conversations and phone calls with two women, the elders outlined in an open letter various other “deep sin patterns” that led to them making the heart-breaking decision to remove the pastor from office. These included “domineering over those in his charge” and “misuse of power / authority.”
I have no intention of passing judgement over the man in question. Not least because I’m all too aware of my own frailties and recognise that it is only God’s grace that keeps any Christian leader from falling into patterns of sinful behaviour. But reading of this tragic situation gave me cause to reflect on what qualities we ought to look for and expect from those entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of church leadership.
In view of the requirement for Christians to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17), it’s important to appoint to leadership roles only those who demonstrate godly character and appropriate gifting. Scripture sets out various essential qualities for those who teach and oversee God’s people. These include the character traits outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, as well as an ability to correctly handle the word of truth and to teach others (2 Timothy 2:15, 24).
Be shepherds of God’s flock
There are some qualities, however, that pastoral search committees appear to overlook sometimes, or perhaps fail to give sufficient weight to. The Apostle Peter describes the role of a church elder in terms of being a shepherd of God’s flock:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:1-5)
It’s noticeable that in making this exhortation, Peter adds weight to his words not only by drawing on his apostolic authority as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”, but also by appealing to these elders as “a fellow elder.” He writes as one who knows what it is to experience the Lord’s opposition to human pride and boasting and his words seem to reflect the humility of an under-shepherd tasked by the Lord Jesus to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
Peter outlines three essential qualities for a shepherd of God’s flock. Find these qualities in a church leader and you’ve likely found a leader who will naturally encourage submission from the majority of those entrusted to his care. Certainly the kind of person that I would freely and joyfully submit to will:
- Exercise oversight willingly, not grudgingly or under compulsion
There are all kinds of reasons why someone might exercise oversight grudgingly, or under compulsion. Lack of other suitably gifted candidates, for example, or because those in a church who do demonstrate the necessary character and gifting aren’t willing or available to take on the responsibility. Sometimes a person might be appointed to a leadership role ‘by popular demand’ because there’s a clamour for their services, even though the person in question has no sense of being called or equipped by God to serve in this way. Some leaders begin willingly, but then feel compelled to continue into old age in lieu of an obvious replacement to take on the leadership mantle.
But just as God loves a willing and cheerful giver of money (2 Corinthians 9:7), so he also loves a leader who cheerfully gives of his time and energy, instead of doing it reluctantly or under compulsion. For the Great Shepherd and Overseer of souls to entrust someone with the care of a flock of his precious sheep is an enormous privilege. One that should be undertaken with joy and gratitude. Those who lead under compulsion might well be able to conceal this wrong attitude for a while. Sooner or later, though, a grudging ‘must do’ attitude is likely to manifest itself in rather ungodly ways. Doing the bare minimum required, for example, or by very subtly making God’s people feel as if they owe their pastor or elder.
By contrast, the leader who exercises oversight willingly and cheerfully and demonstrates deep joy in serving and caring pastorally for others is a leader likely to stimulate joyful submission from the flock under his care.
- Serve eagerly, not for personal gain or self-promotion
People don’t usually go into Christian leadership for the money or the benefits. Those who do are more than likely to be sorely disappointed. The Bible does urge, of course, that “elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching. For scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). And there are plenty of churches, I’m sure, who would fail this ‘worthy of double honour’ test with the level of their pastor’s remuneration. But I’m aware of some other churches and ministries who pay their pastors and leaders eye-watering salaries comparable with top company executives.
A leader who is motivated by a desire for financial gain walks a very dangerous path, because “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). Indeed, in his second letter Peter warns about the danger of false teachers who “in their greed…will exploit you with false words” (2 Peter 2:3).
Financial gain is not the only potential snare, of course. Some in Christian leadership are driven by an insatiable thirst for self-promotion or by a need for constant affirmation. One of the deep sins which led to the pastor mentioned earlier being removed from office was “a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms.” In an age where all manner of self-publishing and self-promotion have been facilitated, at ultra-low or zero cost, on a plethora of online media platforms, it’s surely no surprise that some leaders are tempted to build their identity through such platforms. Indeed, which of us with a Twitter account doesn’t secretly delight to see our number of followers tick through another milestone, or take some pleasure in one of our posts being ‘liked’ or retweeted?
The kind of leaders that the church needs, though, are not those who are out to promote themselves or to make a name for themselves. Rather we desperately need those who are eager to serve, with a willingness to do so tirelessly in the relative obscurity of an unknown local church with little material reward.
- Set an example for people, instead of domineering over them
Most of us, I’m sure, have encountered Christian leaders who come across as strong-willed, arrogant and domineering. Some of us will likely have been hurt by such leadership in the past, whether expressed in heavy-shepherding, being publicly humiliated and slapped down or through spiritual manipulation and abuse of power.
Now there’s nothing wrong, of course, with leaders who have strong opinions, a persuasive personality and a resilient character. In many ways, strength of character is an essential requirement if a leader is to stay the course and serve a church with eagerness and willingness over the longer term. But those of us entrusted with the responsibility of shepherding God’s flock need to pray for God’s grace to “be completely humble and gentle” (Ephesians 4:2) instead of lording it over those under our care. Sadly, gentleness seems to be a neglected trait of many Christians – not least those in roles of leadership – and that despite it being the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
God’s people desperately need examples of godly Christian living and Christ-like character to follow, rather than severe and harsh instruction or being cajoled and manipulated into service, obedience or giving. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” Paul urges Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:1). What, then, is the leadership style of Christ that Paul imitates and urges others to follow too? Well, when James and John ask Jesus to give them the positions of greatest honour in his glory, this is how Jesus replies:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)
So here’s a great first question to ask any potential candidate for church leadership: ‘Are you willing to be slave of all?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then the person in question is definitely not ready to be a shepherd of God’s flock. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.