Neutered Leadership

and why leadership transitions in large churches almost always fail.


Church leadership and the expectations of those of us in ministry are overwhelmingly complex.   Nothing is more exhilarating than preaching God’s Word and leading people to Christ, watching his power transform their lives and families.

Yet according to leadership guru Peter Drucker, leading a church, especially a large congregation, is one of the three most difficult jobs in America.  The other two are university president and hospital administrator.

The prez has to "lead" all those highly intelligent, tenured professors, as well as oversee a multimillion dollar campus, keep the alumni and contributors happy, and make sure the football team wins.  Most importantly, he or she must ensure that the students get a quality education. 

The hospital admin has to manage units of highly competent, fiercely independent physicians, while dealing with attorneys and insurance companies, not to mention the patients who complain about the food.

For the pastor, it’s a spicy blend of preaching and pastoral work.  Meetings with the deacons, elders or trustees.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, many of whom are short-tempered, consumer-driven Americans.  And if the church is large enough, paid staff whose immediate circle of friends takes sides with the staff person when there are disputes.

Several key issues led me to step away as lead pastor where I had served for twenty-five years.  Perhaps the principal reason what this:  our church was becoming less and less "pastor led." 

Church government

Before I tell you more about that story and what I mean by "pastor-led," let me provide a framework for this discussion by reviewing the three basic forms of church governance:  (1) congregational, where every member gets to vote on just about everything (many denominational churches); (2) board-led, by deacons, elders or trustees (many denominational churches and most often mega churches in their second generation of leadership);  (3) leader-led (many independent Pentecostal/charismatic churches, and virtually all mega churches, regardless of affiliation).  A variation of "leader-led" is top-down institutionalized churches like Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and United Methodist. 

Elements of each of these can found in the Bible, but as theologian and scholar Gordon Fee has noted, there is no exact form of church government spelled out in the New Testament.  If there were, we wouldn’t see so much diversity in the organizational structures of local churches.

I believe the lack of clarity in the New Testament in this matter allows for flexibility in the way local churches are structured. It suggests that church government can take the form that best suits its cultural and economic context.  In the United States, for example, local church government welcomes elements of American democratic values and corporate structures, even though they are not explicitly biblical.  In contrast, local church leadership and government in Latin America is less democratic and usually very family oriented.  In America, we’d call it nepotism.

The perfect church?

There is no perfect form of church government,but there are underlying realities every church must recognize.  First, the central issue is always a question about who runs the church.  Who has the final say:  the pastor, the board, or the congregation?  Or the Bishop?

Second, regardless of the primary form of government in a local church, many decisions must engage the pastor, the board (deacons, elders, trustees), and the people.  Somebody has to lead, but we are in this kingdom work together.

Third, the gift of leadership.  The traditional parish model of the local church does not generally embrace leadership as a high value.  Local churches with strong congregational or board government tend to be smaller, less progressive, and more focused on the traditions and practices of the past.  People become "churchified," and organizational structures take on a life of their own.

Leader-led churches, on the other hand, are usually more outwardly focused and look to the future.  Growing churches are pastor-leader led.

There’s an upside to smaller, board-led or congregational churches.  They are generally more organizationally and sociologically stable, they make few and careful changes, but they are less likely to reach new people and grow.  In contrast, leader-led growing churches embrace change and are willing to accept the inevitable upheaval of change.  As a pastor-leader I used to plead, "Change is not a four letter word!"

Progressive churches attract new people who contribute to the upheaval because they have different ways of doing life, they disrupt existing social connections, and they bring gifts and talents that challenge those already in staff and volunteer positions.  To put it simply, that new guy is a way better keyboard player than Deacon Harry’s wife.  This is why traditions often trump leadership decisions that may be in the best interest of the future of the church.

Board  and congregation-led forms of church government tend resist change and hang on to the status quo at the expense of church growth and influence. 

Pastors are expected to be safe people.  Leaders are unsafe.  They look at the big picture and make tough, often troubling decisions that cause discomfort, even hurt.  Leader-led congregations are committed to advancing the church at the expense of the status quo. 

For me, probably the most difficult element of pastoral ministry was the relentless tension between the present and the future, between what is and what should be, between the way we did it before and the way we should do it now, between the needs of church members and the messy challenges of reaching new people.

Pastor-led church

In the early years of our church, we made a formal commitment to pastor-led ministry.  We wrote a document that spelled out the responsibilities of the pastoral staff and the duties of the board.  It read something like this:

  • The pastor and staff initiate and implement the vision of the church.  The governing board review and approves. 
  • The pastor and staff prepare the annual budget.  The governing board reviews and approves."  

We were pastor-led, board accountable.

As our church aged, however, we became increasingly institutionalized, and it was correspondingly difficult for me and our staff to lead.  Our church lost momentum, too, and the attendance began to decline. We were drifting from the organizational simplicity and freedom that had allowed us to grow to an average weekend attendance of over 4500.  Furthermore, our bylaws evolved to reflect those changes.

Four years ago, when we invited Terry Crist to become my successor and the new senior pastor, he astutely noted the differences between our official church governance document (pastor-led, board-accountable) and those subtle changes in the by-laws.  He told our board graciously but firmly that, for him to become the new senior pastor, he expected the board to reaffirm our statement of church governance and to ensure that the bylaws accurately represented that statement.  Gratefully, our board understood his concern and complied.

Leadership is key to a vibrant, growing church.

Less understood:   Leadership is the key to successful transition from one gifted leader to another.

Why so many pastor-leader transitions fail

Recently, the pastor of one of the largest churches in our area said that, when he retires, it’s up to the board to figure out what to do next.  This is common thinking that leads to a startling record of mega church failure–and persistent inertia in smaller churches. 
I’ve been in ministry in the Phoenix area for nearly forty years.  I’ve seen dozens of great churches ride a tsunami of success only to fall into the dustbin of used-to-be-great.

Of the dozen most influential churches in our metro area in the 70s and 80s, only one has had a successful leadership transition.  Only one has continued to grow significantly in size, influence and impact.

Only one.

Central Christian, the only mega church to have executed a successful transition did one thing differently, something every one of the other mega churches failed to do: The successful senior pastor selected and affirmed his successor.

The leadership mantle was passed from one leader to another.  Although the board and congregation were involved in the process, the new senior pastor was recommended by the former senior pastor, and they shared leadership in an intentional a three year plan.

In every other case in Phoenix, transition was a failure.  I attribute this to a tipping point in governance, where a pastor-led church becomes a board-led church that hires the next pastor, not to lead, but to do the bidding of the board, which in turn is often determined by the demands of the members.

Church board members may be among the most godly, gifted people in the community, high capacity leaders in government, education, and the marketplace.  But boards don’t lead, can’t lead, and they neuter the leadership potency of the pastor to the extent they tell him what he can and cannot do.  Furthermore, when boards serve with high capacity pastor-leaders and there’s a pastoral change, boards will likely hire a lesser leader, if a leader at all.

The sad story of First Church

The board of a prominent mega church here in Arizona (let’s call it First Church) asked their highly effective, founding senior pastor to resign.  The church had grown rapidly, had a high-profile in the city, but like so many successful ministries, it was messy.  Boards don’t like messy organizations, so they let the pastor go.

In his place, they hired a wonderful godly man, but someone who was more pastoral, less assertive, less threatening.  After six or seven years, they fired him because he wasn’t leading the church.  They hired a low-capacity leader and fired him for being a low-capacity leader!  Sadly, this dear man’s fate was sealed the day they hired him.

Round three:  the board realized the church needed a real leader.  So they brought in a younger man with extraordinary communication and leadership skills.  The church leaped forward in attendance and offerings.  Scores of people gave their lives to Christ.

In his zeal for the amazing future he expected for First Church, the young pastor recognized he had to make fundamental changes.  He threw grenades.

Everyone in the old power structures knew they needed change, too, but people began to complain about his aggressive style.  They wanted a leader, right?  But not that kind of a leader.  It was mostly staff and other volunteers who disapproved of the new pastor.  Some of them had served since the tenure of the founding pastor. 

The board challenged the pastor to be more sensitive.  "Throw cherry bombs," they told him, "not grenades."

He humbly responded, realizing he should have been kinder, gentler, more pastoral.  He made every effort to moderate his style.  But the complaints continued to surface, and even though the congregation had doubled over a few years, the board decided to relieve the new pastor of his duties.  So many of the "old guard" had complained about his edgy style, yet the board was merciless in the way they released him from the church.  It was awful for the young pastor and his family.

At last, the board and staff felt more organizational peace, but families left First Church by the hundreds.  Not so many years later, the church is perhaps a third of its former size. 

The board took over

Here in Phoenix, the same pattern has characterized one pastor-leader transition failure after another, the same pattern emerges:  the board took over.  In the one and only example of transition success in our area, the founding pastor selected his successor.

Every indicator suggests that our church, City of Grace Mesa (formerly Word of Grace) will be the second story of successful pastoral transition in Phoenix. The place where I was pastor "isn’t just surviving. It’s thriving," to quote my successor Terry Crist.

What did we do?  Like Central Christian, we had a pastor-led, not a board-led transition.

When I decided to resign after twenty-five years as senior pastor, our board appointed a selection committee and gently asked me to excuse myself from the process.  I told them I couldn’t do that.  We were at a governance tipping point.  I made it clear that, although we needed a team-oriented process, I had to play a major role in the decision. 

We interviewed and assessed four excellent candidates.  To my shock and chagrin, our selection committee ranked them A-B-C-D.  I ranked them D-C-B-A.  Someone on the selection committee pleaded with tears, "We need a pastor!"  I replied, "We need a pastor-leader."

They thought that, because we were hurting, we needed a pastor, a chaplain.  But the only way a church stops hurting is to get out of itself and live for the community. I told our committee, "This church needs a new vision, and only someone who is especially gifted by God, with unusual leadership skills, will take this church to its next season of success."

The process was agonizing for everyone.  The committee.  The board.  Our staff.  Me!  But gratefully, instead of tipping into a board-led church, our board voted unanimously to invite Terry Crist, a young, multi-gifted pastor-leader, to be my successor.

Terry and I shared leadership and preaching in a short four month transition, during which I affirmed Terry’s calling and used my Sunday messages to disciple the church through a season of change.  I preached my last message the first weekend of January, 2008.  The following Wednesday we held a huge "passing of the mantle service," where I laid hands on Terry and released him to lead our church.

In three years, the church has turned around.  Many of the key influencers are gone, and the church is a different place.  Remarkably, though, we’ve had no splits, divisions, mass exodus, or even scuttlebutt!  Terry has made no missteps, and the church is growing again!  In the last three years, they’ve baptized several hundred people.

Theocracy is not autocracy

As I conclude this article, let me introduce a little-known biblical concept:  theocracy.  The church is just that, an organization led by the God we serve, and he does that primarily through people he chooses and calls to do his work.  Americans don’t like the term theocracy.  It sounds like autocracy, a place where one person rules without "checks and balances."

We protestant Americans are so obsessively democratic that we’ve devalued the institution of the church and the leaders God has called to serve his people.  No, I’m not calling for a resurrection of the divine right of kings. 

Somehow, though, we have to understand that the model of a good church is not American corporate structure.  I believe in good organizational structures in the local church!  A few years ago, our consultant, a consummate professional who had been a principal advisor in the merger of PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1998, told us we were the best organized non-profit he’d consulted.

Yet our success, the success of any church, is not in becoming an organizational masterpiece, but by being open and obedient to God.

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