CPAS's `Church Leadership' magazine, issue 49, published in Autumn 2002

Leading on a building site

A building site is a busy place. Dynamic, exciting and possibly a wee bit hazardous. Tidy? Probably not. Dr Pamela Evans dons her hard hat and goes on-site to ponder local-church leadership that’s prepared to go beyond the ‘comfort zone’.

Every building site needs a plan. Also beneficial are a vision of the final construction and a schedule listing the tasks to be completed along the way. Our local church communities should see themselves as construction sites – but with a difference. For a start, we are constructing a non-standard type of dwelling place. And we need to be built up ourselves as we go along: unfinished masterpieces being edified by other unfinished creations, sharing together in building the body of Christ.

Smooth running

On a bad day, church life can feel rather like erecting one of those flat-pack wardrobes when half the screws are missing – and the instructions are for a chest of drawers. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that ‘once we get organized, everything will be OK’. This is fantasy land. Even on a good day, we set ourselves up for frustrations, anxiety and, possibly, breakdown if we kid ourselves that good administration coupled with concerted effort will guarantee smooth running. It won’t.

Week in, week out, the development of spiritual life and growth in any thriving church community requires the interaction of many complex dynamics, any of which may develop unforeseen features. It’s possible to gear the organization towards efficiency but, taken to excess, this will gear it away from pastoral and relational concerns – and from good ‘building practice’.

At the extreme, giving priority to smooth efficiency can stifle spiritual growth. For example, a minister may prefer to do everything personally, rather than sharing leadership roles with lay members. This ensures reliability and a sense of control – and all are spared the negative consequences of inexperienced people learning to use their spiritual gifts and God-given talents by trial and error. But this approach also rules out positive consequences. A culture in which only those with well-honed skills and a proven track record are able to contribute will foster ‘spectatorism’ and spiritual inertia in any congregation.

Polishing the scaffolding

Rather than being evidence of a strong gift for leadership, a controlling style may in fact be a sign of insecurity or fragile self-worth. Control is often accompanied by perfectionism, which may masquerade as a worthy commitment to honouring the Lord with the best there is. But perfectionism is a form of idolatry: it neither honours God nor serves his purposes.

Instead of welcoming other members of the body of Christ to share in the building work, perfectionism erects high fences while control pins up large ‘Do not touch’ notices. People who could be building are instructed to polish the scaffolding, or brew the tea for the few labourers and the many onlookers.

Jesus gave a strong lead, but was never controlling or perfectionist. He showed his disciples how to do things and then sent them out in pairs to the neighbouring towns and villages to have a go. When they came back, he listened to their tales of how it had gone. He gave gentle correction when their enthusiasm was in danger of overtaking their wisdom, and continued to give them responsibility (Luke 10:17-20). Was this process trouble-free?

Deliberate building

‘Building up’ is one of the recurring themes in St Paul’s letters. He emphasizes the sense of intention:

set out to build – don’t merely hope that it will happen automatically. Paul marks ‘building up’ as one of the uses of his God-given authority (2 Corinthians 13:10). He teaches that leaders are equipped by God for the task of preparing people for ministry. The body of Christ can then be built up, with every member involved in the building process (Ephesians 4:12,16).

‘Building up’ doesn’t mean loading people with responsibility beyond their capabilities and waiting for them to fail. It does mean working with the expectation that the Lord has a part for each one to play. If all we can see is someone’s difficult personality or emotional fragility, we’ll need to ask God to reveal to us how he sees him or her. What gift or gifts is he giving them so that they can be built up as they share in building the body of Christ? Encouragement is a good building tool. Paul clearly valued this ministry highly, and repeatedly commended it to his brothers and sisters in Christ. Although Paul is generally known for his doctrinal teaching, much of what he wrote was about mutual edification, encouragement, urging one another on, serving, teaching, admonishing one another – and so on. Did all of this tick over like clockwork in the early church? I doubt it. Otherwise, why did Paul devote so much space to it?

Servant leadership

Do you like life to be tidy? I certainly do. But most of the time it isn’t, especially in pastoral ministry and other areas in which growth is higher up the agenda than maintenance. In fact, is it actually possible to run a tidy building site? Structures can facilitate purposeful building. However, it’s good to check now and then that they – and our leadership style – are serving the vision, not limiting it.

If we’re following Jesus’ lead, we should be building up not just those who are being helpful and making valued contributions, but also those who have a tendency to let us down just when we need them most. In the upper room on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus continued to affirm the eleven disciples’ calling even though he knew they were about to desert him.

Jesus held alongside his knowledge of Simon Peter’s frailty, an awareness of his capacity for strengthening others and establishing them on strong foundations (Luke 22:32). After Peter’s denials, the risen Christ met him on the shore with breakfast and recommissioned him. Are we, for the sake of the longer-term good, prepared to build up those whose most memorable characteristic is their unreliability?

Theologian Gilbert Bilezikian, one of the founders of the Willow Creek Community Church, comments:

‘The highest attainment achievable by leaders is to reproduce their expertise in ‘ordinary’ people and to turn them into leaders. This is also the best expression of servanthood: leaders who train others to excel beyond them… Servant leadership is to empower others to become greater than oneself’
(Community 101, Zondervan 1997).

The last sentence sounds to me like a good starting point for a job description for leaders on God’s building sites. And with this approach, I doubt if life will ever be very tidy.