How Do You Steer a Church?
Imagine yourself at the rudder of a sailboat when a squall catches you in the middle of the lake. Gusts threaten to capsize the craft unless you can make it to shore.
Then picture yourself paddling a canoe through a stretch of rapids. If you don't position yourself properly in the current, you'll be smashed on the rocks.
The job is simple, right? In both cases, all you have to do is steer. But unless you're experienced, "just steering" is plenty of challenge, thank you. And even if you have experience in other kinds of boats, navigating this kind of vessel in these conditions is quite unlike your previous training. In other words, it's about like leading a church. One church will require different pastoral skills from another.
To investigate the mysteries of charting the course for a church, the editors of LEADERSHIP gathered five pastors who bring diverse styles to their diverse churches:
-Milton Cunningham is the pastor of Westbury Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, where he has been for sixteen years.
-Wayne Jacobsen pastors The Savior's Community in Visalia, California, a congregation he helped start eight years ago.
-Joe Rhodes is pastor of New Hope Church in San Diego, a congregation he planted seven years ago.
-Ray Stedman has, for thirty-eight years, pastored Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California.
-Mick Ukleja pastors Grace Church of Los Alamitos, California, a congregation formed by the 1987 merger of two churches.
Leadership: Does a church inevitably reflect the personality of its pastor?
Mick Ukleja: Usually, and that can be good or bad. It's bad if the pastor is not following the Lord. But most churches will reflect a certain style, a certain approach to ministry, that comes from the pastor.
Joe Rhodes: I would say it a bit differently. I don't think the church will take on my personality. But over time, I do think the church will reflect the heart of the pastor.
Ray Stedman: Our church's approach is not to recognize the pastor. We have pastors. Although I've been there the longest, I resist the title of senior pastor, partly because it has overtones of executive direction and control, which we reject. But it's true: we who operate as pastors have tremendous influence over those to whom we minister.
Milton Cunningham: A leader can't help but mold the nature of the group. But there's a danger in building an organization on the power of one individual. When a church is an extension of that pastor's personality and leadership, and that pastor resigns or relocates or dies, that congregation almost invariably dwindles. At the turn of the century, Talmadge, Spurgeon, and Moody all had huge congregations that were, in many ways, extensions of their personalities. Those types of congregations have real difficulty after the leader passes on.
Wayne Jacobsen: There are dangers even before the pastor leaves. We've all seen churches where attendance drops off significantly if people know the pastor is away on vacation. I've seen churches from my background, the charismatic tradition, in which you notice the people will all clap, sing, and pray just like the visible leader up front.
When you put one person up front, that style will inevitably be emulated by those watching. At our church, we want to reflect Jesus Christ as the Head of the church, and we feel the best way to do that is to allow people with different personalities, not just pastors, to share in leadership. That diffuses the personality factor and allows people to focus more on what Jesus wants them to be. We want to distribute the up-front visibility.
Leadership: If spreading the leadership around is such a good idea, why don't more churches do it?
Stedman: The leader's insecurity.
Ukleja: That's a bit of a generalization. There are many pastors who don't feel insecure who function as the primary leader. They don't play down their popularity. They use their position, their visibility, to draw people to Christ and to the church.
Stedman: Well, another reason one leader dominates is that it takes some training to put others in that position. There's a great deal of congregational pressure to stick with the person who does the job best, who seems the most relaxed and most capable. It takes a while before others arrive at that stage of acceptance.
Leadership: so people feel more comfortable knowing "who's in charge here"?
Stedman: It's part of human nature. But it's something to be resisted. In 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the church's tendency to follow a popular favorite, whether Paul, Peter, Apollos, or whomever. Paul labels that an outgrowth of carnality. He says he understands where it comes from, but it is also very dangerous because it fails to appreciate the diversity in the body of Christ. It keeps people divided into groups that usually become rivalries, and in general it's an inappropriate way of leading a congregation.
Jacobsen: In that context, the whole thing came down to personal preference. Our culture is certainly acclimated to preferences, too. I'm affected by them. Obviously I prefer certain people to lead our worship because of their style. I'd rather listen to other people teach because they're more interesting, addressing the subjects I'm concerned about.
While some of that is an expression of spiritual gifts, I think the strength of the body of Christ is in its diversity, not in its singularity of style.
We can give in to preferences, and sometimes the fastest growing churches have a leader that people gravitate to-that's part of the draw-but I'm not sure we find that as a biblical model for the church.
Ukleja: I think strong pastoral leadership can be misused, but so can the multiple-leader concept. I went to seminary with men who felt one way was more spiritual than another, and they literally destroyed churches with their co-pastorates, plurality of elders, or whatever. Carnality can rear its ugly head in any situation.
If we're talking about diversity within the body of Christ, I think there's room for different styles of leadership.
Cunningham: The effectiveness of any plan is dependent upon the integrity and spiritual commitment of the people involved. There's nothing sacred about any organizational plan.
The size and the location of the congregation have a lot to do with which approach you take. If you're in West Texas ranching country, the pastor is it-he has 51 percent of the voting stock on whatever the issue. When you move into the metropolitan areas, you're in a different culture. People are more comfortable with shared leadership, and staff members aren't necessarily seen as subservient.
Leadership: How would you describe your role as pastor in setting the direction of your churches?
Jacobsen: We don't "set direction." I see it more as "creating a climate"-a climate of personal growth, of ministry release. Direction comes from people saying they have a calling to start a food bank and minister to the homeless. Then, if we find ten or twelve others in our body who share that vision, we get them together and tell them to go for it.
We don't even consider a building project a direction issue. We consider it a climate issue. As elders, we take responsibility for what kind of climate we provide for people who come to grow in the Lord. Beyond that, we don't have a lot of direction as a church. We don't have any idea what we'll be doing in five years. It depends on what God raises up.
Leadership: Perhaps a better word for direction would be purpose or vision-what the church ought to be about.
Stedman: That touches the essential role of the pastor-to proclaim the scriptural pattern. Pastors teach others how to function. They teach elders how to be elders and teach people in the congregation how to have a ministry that touches other lives wherever they live. Pastors are proclaiming leadership principles all the time. That's how we make our primary impact.
Rhodes: One thing I'd add: even with the setup where the pastor is the primary leader, there should be accountability. Although I may through prayer and the Word and meditation say, "This is where I think God wants to lead us," we have a board, and I want to make sure I'm on track. They're the people who ensure I'm not just sitting in the ivory tower pointing some direction that may not be right.
Leadership: Ray, most people would look at you and say, "Whether Ray admits it or not, he's the leader at his church. People look to him for direction." Have you ever had a major decision go against you?
Stedman: Not long ago, we were looking for a music minister, and I had some strong opinions about what we needed. A couple came to us, and they were exactly what I was looking for. I presented this couple and endorsed them strongly, but our board voted not to call them.
They feared the candidate might be too much a musician. They wanted more of a people person. I thought we could work with him because he had what we wanted musically. They saw it differently.
I supported the board's right to do that. At the meeting, I said I was committed to consensus leadership on this, and if the board decided no, then we wouldn't go in that direction.
Ukleja: You probably still could have gotten your way. You could have pulled a power play and made this an issue of your leadership. I've seen some pastors do that. But you were saying this is minuscule and knew when to ease off. That's not weakness; that's being a good leader.
We did the same thing when we first merged our two churches. We wanted to pick a name, and the name the staff and I were sold on was voted down. Well, there are two ways to react to that: you can be offended and fight until you get your way, or you can sit back and laugh about it. We laughed.
It was the right thing to do. It proved to the people that the stationery wasn't already printed, that they really do have a voice in the direction around here; we're all in this thing together.
Jacobsen: I'll give you an example not so minuscule-from yesterday. For six months, my co-pastor and I have talked and prayed about planting a new congregation. We agreed it would enhance what we'd like to see happen both numerically and relationally.
Yesterday, we made that specific proposal to our elders, and after a two-hour meeting, the group concluded, "We're open to it as a future possibility, but we feel it would deplete our resources at this point to try to make two of one." They didn't want to risk harming what God is doing among us.
That's not a minuscule issue to me.
But for me, the key factor in this is trust. When I have six other people sitting there, who I know are spending solid time with the Lord and have deep compassion for what God wants to do in the body, I don't go away saying, "I didn't get my way, and now the church is going the wrong direction." I take it as the leading of the Lord.
Leadership: You all have been very kind dealing with this subject. (Laughter) We've heard three stories about times when a decision didn't go your way, and you were diplomatic. "God has spoken, and I can accept that." Some people might even believe you-who knows? (Laughter)
What's your real response when a decision doesn't go your way? Do you honestly say, to use an NFL phrase, "Upon further review . . ." and reverse your call? Wayne, are you changing your mind about planting a new congregation because the elders voted you down?
Jacobsen: Well, their thoughts were that this is something we will do-someday. The decision yesterday was a matter of timing. So I'm not giving up. I expect to move this direction at a future point.
I go back to Philippians 2, which we use a lot, where Paul exhorts the body to be of one mind-"If there is any fellowship of the Spirit, any comfort from his love, any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being of one mind."
If we're not of one mind as a group, we don't just go with a majority. We've had occasions where we've been split 7-1 and we've gone with the seven, only later to find out that the one was right. Yesterday it was 6-2, so we'll wait awhile. But everyone realizes, "This isn't over yet, because we're not together yet, and until we're together, we've still got seeking to do."
We don't consider any decision complete until all eight are in agreement.
Leadership: How do you decide whether resistance means it's time to back off and leave the issue alone (such as Mick's name preference), or whether this resistance is something you need to work through (such as Wayne's new congregation)?
Cunningham: In our congregation, eight or ten people know the pulse of the church. They represent different groups within the membership. If I were going to present an issue, before it ever came up publicly, I would want to talk individually with those people. I wouldn't ask them then to tell me what they think; I'd ask them to pray about it and get back with me.
And when they'd come back with their reactions, I'd listen. Often I can sense they're not ready to swallow it yet. I'm not going to put the church or even a committee in a position so they feel it's them against me. There are ways to test the temperature of the water long before you ever get in.
Many times pastors find themselves in trouble because they surprised the group they're working with. The group feels they're asked to make a decision on something they haven't thought about, and they feel pressure, so they resist. And then the pastor feels rejected because "they didn't follow my leadership." But that's not the case at all. It was a case of not preparing the soil. All of us do better when we're not surprised.
Stedman: My degree of commitment to a cause is directly related to the degree I see the issue encouraged in Scripture. If the Bible enjoins us to do something, I'll keep pushing until something happens. I don't try to overwhelm people, but to persuade them.
Leadership: For example . . .
Stedman: I'll go back to our beginning years, because we've laid so much scriptural groundwork through the following years that we're pretty much agreed on those things now. But in the beginning, some of our leaders felt we needed more altar calls.
I never did appreciate them. I didn't want to move in that direction. Some of the elders felt we were not being faithful to the Scriptures if we didn't give an invitation at the end of every message.
I refused. Not harshly. I simply dragged my heels until I could lay some groundwork. By the time we'd discussed it thoroughly and examined the Scriptures on it, they at least were willing to try a different direction.
But if it's a matter of a cultural issue, or economic issue, or as Milton points out, if people simply are not ready, I don't press very hard.
Ukleja: With resistance, we have to ask the question why. Is resistance because of a biblically based concept; or at least a misconceived biblical concept? Or is the resistance simply because they're not used to the idea?
In the first instance, you can lay out the biblical framework. In the second, you let the idea slowly gain acceptance.
Leadership: Let's look at your role in creating the climate of your church, specifically through preaching. How does your preaching affect the climate?
Cunningham: I'm a people person. I spend time with people and see what their needs are. I also work with community leaders on our side of the city and hear them talk about the principal needs of our city.
I present these to our people. Identifying needs that our church should be attentive to is an important function of preaching. It sets a climate.
Ukleja: Preaching is not the place for training. You need to get people into smaller groups for that. But preaching is where you sow ideas and philosophy.
For example, one big area I emphasize in preaching is getting out of the pew and into the community. The Word is replete with that concept. So I describe "rabbit hole Christianity"-where some Christians dart from rabbit hole to rabbit hole, and their goal for the week is to get from Sunday to Sunday without encountering a non-Christian. I try to show from the Bible how that's contrary to God's intention. We're not into separation through isolation, but separation through distinction.
And then, in our smaller groups, we try to implement that in all kinds of creative ways-from soccer clinics for neighborhood kids to seminars for business people.
Leadership: Joe, as a church planter, what did you try to accomplish with your preaching in the early years?
Rhodes: Seven years ago, I must admit, climate didn't occur to me. Initially I was just trying to teach the Word in a way that was practical.
Since then the climate issue has become important. For example, if we're going to go a certain direction, the first thing I want to do is establish a theological basis and a "Why are we going to do this?" framework.
Leadership: What are some of the nonpreaching ways you as pastors help set the climate?
Rhodes: By our involvements. For me, it's important to be involved in personal evangelism and a personal prayer life. I can stand and say these things are important, but, especially in a smaller church where people know you well, it's got to be backed up by a demonstration in my life.
Jacobsen: I agree. It's like the old saying: "What you do shouts so loud, I can't hear what you're saying."
Another way we set the climate is what we expect in terms of people's time. At our church, we talk about "ministry release," and yet if we were providing programs at the church three or four nights a week and expecting people to be involved, we'd be effectively discounting the encouragement we're giving them to touch the world.
So the way we set the program, how many nights we use, and the kinds of things we expect our committed people to be involved in-all speak loudly about our priorities.
Leadership: Another issue of climate control: Where do you fall on the continuum between initiating and responding? Is your role as pastor one of initiating ministry ideas or waiting to encourage ideas that percolate up from church members?
Cunningham: Unless you want a dictatorial leadership role, you've got to foster an atmosphere of openness, and that means responding to ideas. At the same time, because of our involvement in the community and in the lives of people, pastors cannot help but be the initiators.
I wound up spearheading much of our emphasis on youth, for instance. This was a personal burden of mine. I knew the problems of alcoholism and drugs, and I'd heard the "Just Say No" approach. But I also knew kids needed to say yes to something solid. So I began mentioning it in sermons and talking about the needs in casual conversations. Then the questions started coming: "What are we going to do?" "What do you want me to do?" "How can I get involved?"
So in a way, I was the initiator. But people had to respond voluntarily before anything could happen.
On the other hand, I've been a responder, too. Some folks came to me saying they felt the Lord wanted them to go through the training to work with young people who are having problems with chemical dependency. My response was basically, "Go to it!" And they did. I shared with the church that this is how God is leading in their lives, and we've prayed for them.
Leadership: How much control do you bring to this whole process when you are responding?
Jacobsen: My philosophy is that any idea is fair game; let's talk about it. We'll ask: Is it biblical? Is the timing correct? Those kinds of questions.
Leadership: How do you handle the ideas that would commit the church to a major investment of funds or volunteers?
Jacobsen: For the most part, we try not to make these ideas church ministries-at least not at first. We want to be supportive of them, but we work not to take ownership of them.
Say, for instance, a couple of church members want to feed the poor in our area. We release them to invest their time where their vision is. But we don't want to force the church to decide if feeding the poor is a greater priority than having a special Christmas outreach that will draw the community.
Rather than prioritizing things ourselves, we trust the Holy Spirit to put the priority in people's hearts. We say, "If you can find others in the body who share that vision, get together and decide what you need and how you want to do it. If you need money, submit a request to the board, and we'll see how we can help you get it."
Our approach is, "If that's your vision, then you do it and we'll help you." But don't say, "This is my vision for the church to do." We don't feel that's being fair to the church. Not everybody here will have the same calling, but we hope that, as the Holy Spirit works through the whole body, the right things will carry the right priority.
Leadership: What role have you played in the major decisions that affect the character of the church?
Cunningham: We had a painful situation five years ago when a group within our church came under the influence of the "health/wealth gospel." They began teaching that if you have faith in God, you'll never be sick; if you take medicine, you don't have faith; and that our church wasn't teaching the whole counsel of God, because we didn't teach that medicine was wrong.
It became divisive. I met with our deacons, and they said, "This is tearing us apart." They asked me what I'd like to do.
I said, "If it meets with your approval, I'd like to state publicly that those holding that position will no longer hold places of responsibility in the teaching ministry of our church." The deacons agreed, I made the statement the next Sunday, and we lost a couple of hundred people.
There are times when you have to bite the bullet. I made sure the statement was a representative statement of the deacons-not just my statement. But I had to take a stand, and it definitely affected the direction of our church. Healing has come slowly. Looking back, I still feel it was the right decision.
Rhodes: I think the pastor's role often is to maintain the right spirit in the midst of decision making. I had a seminary professor who said, "You have to do two things to be effective: love God and love people."
I've hung on to that. In leading people, I recognize the direction we go is important, but it's equally important to love each other in the process.
Jacobsen: When we were discussing some of the issues we've had trouble agreeing on, one of our elders said, "What the Lord wants is not for us to be right about the decision as much as he wants us to be right in our relationship with each other."
Cunningham: That's true. The only way we can ever be like Jesus Christ is in our relationship to the people we find around us.
Leadership: The last issue: How much platform and organizational visibility does a pastor need to be effective? Is being visible something you consciously do, or consciously refrain from doing?
Rhodes: People often perceive that if the pastor doesn't personally endorse something, it's not really important. If I don't highlight an upcoming program, for instance, people feel that it's not going to succeed because I'm not backing it.
I lead more of the worship service than I'd like to. I certainly believe in a pastor giving leadership, particularly in the critical areas, but also I want to communicate to our people that I don't run the show and that the Holy Spirit can lead through any one of them. By me doing everything from the invocation to the announcements to the sermon, I'm modeling possibly something different from that. That concerns me.
Leadership: Some church analysts would say people need a visible leader to identify with-that it's hard to develop a sense of belonging in a group without a visible leader. Have you found that true?
Jacobsen: I'd say it's true from a carnal perspective-without being judgmental, of course. (Laughter)
I think it recognizes certain cultural realities. But we've got to be true to what God has called us to be. We're not going to allow one personality to predominate at The Savior's Community. We're going to put a variety of people up front. I'll be up front only half the time during the year, and other people at other times. Many Sundays I do nothing but sit and participate with everybody else.
Cunningham: The issue of gifts fits in here. Some people open their mouths in front of a group only to change feet. They shouldn't be on the platform, but they do other things remarkably well.
Stedman: Leadership is a shifting thing, according to the gift, according to the circumstance. It's folly to decide one person always will be the leader. One person is the leader when those gifts are needed. When they're not needed, someone else is the leader. It's a constantly shifting process.
Cunningham: Being a visible leader doesn't put you in conflict with the principles of the New Testament church. I am a Christian because I saw the gospel incarnate in a life. Being visible is necessary.
Jacobsen: Let me clarify. It's not carnal to exercise leadership. The reference to carnality was to people who can't identify with the life of Christ unless a particular person is in front. To resist that tendency, we pluralize the leadership, but that's not leaderlessness.
Leadership: To wrap up, give us a candid assessment of what you've done for your church. What has been your greatest contribution as a leader?
Ukleja: I'd say building bridges to the community and getting people to see that church is more than just coming together; it's getting them in touch with those we're trying to reach.
Cunningham: I think mine would be in the area of missions focus. Over the years we've bought property for and started ten churches in Brazil and five in Mexico. We've started four mission churches in Houston, and we have three different language congregations as part of our church now. And I also feel good about the fact that our church is as integrated as it is.
Rhodes: What I hear people say back to me is that people are important. I stress unity and accepting each other, loving each other. If there are walls, let's overcome them. I want our church to be a people who care about people.
Jacobsen: I've worked hardest at getting people turned on to personal discipleship and not to see their participation in structures of the church as equal to their personal obedience to Christ. I hope people know our church exists to do nothing except to equip people to know God personally and to share that relationship with others.
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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