The Secret of the Roman Arch in Pastoral Leadership
Image: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock

A few years ago my wife and I traveled to the Holy Land with several pastors from the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. We were graciously treated as special guests of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. In addition to visiting the traditional pilgrimage sites, we were given access to a few places off the grid. One of the most amazing places we visited was Caesarea Maritima, Herod’s seaside resort on the Mediterranean. Prominent on the landscape is the magnificent Roman Aqueduct which dates back roughly to the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Its purpose was to carry fresh water several miles along the road from Mount Carmel to Caesarea Maritima. It was thrilling to walk beside this ancient man-made waterway that has withstood the harsh assaults of time, nature, and humankind. Later, our group went to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park near the Temple Mount. Robinson’s Arch was built to help pedestrians cross over a paved road near the Temple Mount.

In one of his most famous Jerusalem discourses, Jesus points to the Temple saying, “Not one of these stones will be left standing” (Mat. 24:2; Mark 13:2). Indeed, his prophecy was realized with the sacking of Jerusalem by General Titus in 70 A.D. In a final act of hubris, the Roman Emperor Domitian erected the Arch of Titus in Rome to commemorate their victory over Israel. Today, Herod’s Temple with all its former glories is little more than heaps of stone. Yet, Robinson’s Arch remains nearly intact. Although these structures were built for entirely different reasons and with different materials, they share the same basic structural component ‑the Roman arch. While I felt mournful for the destruction of the Holy City, I could not help but marvel at the genius of Roman engineering. I began to ask myself this question: What is the secret of the arch?

In a typical building, supporting walls and bridges are constructed of two perpendicular columns connected on top by a horizontal beam called a “lintel.” Since all physical loads are vertical, the burden of weight rests squarely on the lintel. Long before the Romans, ancient architects learned that they could strengthen their structures by replacing the horizontal beam with one that is an upwardly curving beam, or arch. The benefit of this design is that “loads induce both bending and direct compressive stress” (“Arch,” Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia, pp. 316-317). In other words, the job of load-bearing in an arch is shared both horizontally and vertically. This results in one of the strongest architectural structural devices known to the ancient world. I suddenly began to realize that the Roman arch is the ideal illustration for a sound organization. Let me explain.

In many of our churches, the pastor is the top person of the organization. This is analogous to the lintel structure. The pastor sets the vision and the congregation supports whatever programming that contributes toward their common goals. If there are any successes, the pastor is lauded for providing great leadership. This can be very satisfying to pastors who thrive on serial victories. Conversely, when troubles arise, the bulk of the weight rests on the pastor’s shoulders. Most pastors weather these storms successfully, but even the strongest pastor can be tested by such burdens. Sadly, we see some pastors burning out and leaving the ministry. In extreme cases, inability to cope can manifest as some form of psychological or moral failure. We have all witnessed many congregations crumble in divisions and eventual dissolutions.

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Christianity Today
The Secret of the Roman Arch in Pastoral Leadership