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The Secret of the Roman Arch in Pastoral Leadership

The advantages that come from including lay people in the pastoral ministry should give us pause.
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.

Now, let’s take a retrospective Biblical view of leadership. Remember what happened when Moses was being overwhelmed? Jethro, his father-in-law, suggested a system of middle managers to handle the minor problems (Exodus 18:24). Now let us fast-forward to post-exilic Jerusalem. After Nehemiah rebuilt the city, Ezra stood to read from the Book of Moses in front of his congregation of thousands. But before he presided, he wisely flanked himself with several representatives of the people. As an added safeguard against being misinterpreted, he employed a team of Levites to explain his message (Nehemiah 8). Do you see a pattern here? Both Moses and Ezra utilized lay members to strengthen their ministry by sharing the load. In contemporary times, we can use the arch principle in much the same way. Lay people are invited to become part of the pastoral leadership. The upward sweep of the “arch” represents lay leadership sharing responsibility for the translation and implementation of organizational vision to a viable reality. They share in successes as well as failures.

The next point is vital to the success of this model. The central piece that links both sides at the top is called the “keystone.” Unlike the other parts of the arch continuum, this is not square. It is an inverted trapezoid, a four-sided figure with one short side at the bottom. On its own, it is a bit clunky. However, when properly mounted in the arch, it is transformed into a powerful locking mechanism. This is the secret of the arch. Now, let’s apply the “arch principle” to leadership. The pastor is the keystone which unifies the organization while the laity sweeps up to provide support for the pastor. The lay leadership shares the normative vertical weight of ministry and safeguards against the unexpected horizontal environmental attacks. Both sides of the column down to the base do their part to maintain stability and continuity of vision and mission. There are no guarantees that churches using the “arch principle” will never fail. However, the advantages that come from including lay people in the pastoral ministry should give us pause. What kind of organizational structure best represents your church? Is your pastor bearing the heaviest burden of ministry? Or do your lay people share in the load? Remember the secret of the arch.

Daniel F. Flores is an ordained United Methodist minister and elder, who was appointed to educational ministry at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. He frequently teaches theological courses for pastoral leaders in the Caribbean and the Americas.

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The Secret of the Roman Arch in Pastoral Leadership