Leadership In Crisis?

After a hectic Fall semester—full load at Talbot and preaching new material every Sunday—I am sort of enjoying some down time now between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I say ‘sort of’ because, as my wife will tell you, I don’t do real well with down time—especially when I don’t have a large writing project looming on the horizon. I get a bit grumpy and self-absorbed. The break has given me an opportunity, however, to reflect upon a rather disturbing phenomenon that surfaced on several occasions during the semester: the abuse of power and authority by pastors and others in local church leadership.

Dysfunctional leadership is hardly new, of course, but this semester alone I had four students take the initiative to make appointments with me to discuss their recent experiences along these lines. The stories broke my heart. And they made me angry. One young man was basically ‘run out of town on a rail’ by his senior pastor. Apparently he was becoming a bit too influenced by what he was learning at Biola, and he was not teaching the denomination’s ‘party line.’ He served as a successful and much-loved college pastor in a denomination that ascribes to a ‘great man theory,’ whereby everyone is expected to listen to the sermons of the denomination’s founder and preach or teach accordingly. Now I have no problem with a church or denomination preserving its distinctives where community teaching and culture are concerned. Perhaps it was time for the college pastor to move on. It was not the fact that this young man was terminated but, rather, the underhanded, manipulative manner in which it was done that troubled me. Well, God is in the business of turning garbage into glory and, as it turns out, this particular young man is becoming better—instead of bitter—from the experience. But it sure didn’t look that way back in August, when he was so hurt that he was about ready to ditch both his plans for future ministry and his faith in God.

I won’t depress you with the other stories of power abuse I heard this semester, but I would like to hear your thoughts. I can see why our Foucaudian friends are so skeptical of all agendas championed by persons in position of authority. Little wonder that some of our ’emerging’ brothers and sisters want to dump local church leadership entirely. That, of course, is not  a biblical option. But what is? The source of the crisis in leadership is relatively transparent. Increasingly, we are not raising emotionally healthy human beings in our homes , and we are not training relationally healthy leaders in our churches. So a scenario repeats itself whereby (a) we run across an emotionally needy  young man who deeply loves Jesus and who demonstrates a little ‘leadership charisma’ in our church community, (b) we send him off to seminary to get a little theology, Hebrew, and Greek, and then (c) we turn him loose to shepherd God’s people. The results are predictable.

Talbot School of Theology makes a noble attempt to address this systemic problem through Intentional Character Development courses that are required of each student. The courses do a pretty good job of identifying potential problems, but fixing them is another story entirely. No seminary program can give a person a childhood he or she did not have. Neither can the church. But I can’t help but think that our churches can do more to address the issue than we are presently doing. Any thoughts? Are there some structures, programs, church cultural values that we can adopt to raise up healthy, relationally functional leaders for our churches and our mission fields? What are we presently doing that might serve to undermine or obstruct such a goal? I’d love to hear you weigh in on this.

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