I’ve given up trying to manage my church. I’d love to be able to manage things—we all love to feel stable and certain. But I’m choosing something harder and better.
I’ve tried the management approach. It required a lot of future prediction. I would begin a season of the church with a period of discernment and decision-making. Then I would set everything in stone so I could just cruise. Maybe a little trouble-shooting was required along the way, but I didn’t feel much need to check in with God each day. Why bother? I already had my plan.
This approach was handy for crafting sermon series, shaping church vision, and leading staff. The moment when I finally came up with a polished, tidy plan for something important felt great. And so did the measurable success achieved by the plan—and more importantly, the planner. Of course, that was only if my plan succeeded.
Few things make me more anxious than church finances. And as the pastor of a university congregation whose finances are rarely stable or predictable, I have many opportunities to feel financial anxiety. Because of this, budget reports often make me feel like a failure. Surely by now I should have figured out a way to stabilize weekly offerings, even with a transient congregation. Every year when it comes time to shape the next year’s budget, the current budget is rarely where I would like it to be. And every year I’m tempted to confront our problems by first making plans: calling megachurches to ask if they’ll partner with us, finding new ways to communicate our urgent need to every congregant, and many other action-oriented ideas.
This approach seemed to work at times, but it always fell flat when I had to deal with mess or mystery. And in ministry—where nearly every situation includes both messy humans and a mysterious God—that’s most of the job.
My management left little room for dynamics I couldn’t fix or control. The mysteries of God, the culture, and my community became hindrances to my plans. And the management approach showed further limitations when I was faced with the mysteries of my own human mind and heart. The tactics I used to fix the budget always revealed themselves for what they were: anxious efforts to feel confident and look strong without reference to the Provider. So I started wondering, What should I do when I can’t understand the needs of a whole congregation? Or when I can’t see the future to make long-term plans? Or when I make a seamless strategy and it falls to pieces in execution? Or when my perfect solution to everyone’s problems shows itself to be what it is: one person’s efforts to appear in control?
As I considered these questions, a deeper problem with my management approach to church leadership became apparent: the congregation’s confidence was in me. I had enjoyed that confidence while it lasted—it was a comfortable kind of idolatry. But I had failed to do my job of modeling how to follow God. How could I teach them something I hadn’t been doing?
Striking the Rock
I wonder how Moses felt when God appeared to him in the burning bush. God promised his presence and cast a vision for his people’s future, but he didn’t unpack how they were supposed to get from Egypt to the Promised Land. If I had been in Moses’ shoes (which in this story, are graciously made available), I would have said, “If you want me to cast this vision to your people, I’m going to need a detailed map and an itinerary.” Instead God offered his presence. As long as God was with them, he would provide directions as needed.
The Book of Exodus is one long story of God directing Moses to do small, strange things:
Moses, stretch your hand over the sea, and I’ll part it.
Moses, throw this piece of wood in the water, and I’ll make it sweet.
Moses, strike this rock with your staff, and I’ll provide water.
Moses, raise your arm, and I’ll allow the people to overcome in battle.
It made the people crazy. No wonder they wanted to stone Moses! In Egypt they were managed. Sure, it was slavery, but at least it was well organized and they knew what was expected of them. Now Moses was leading them into the wilderness with promises of a homeland but no apparent plan.
Our leadership philosophy reveals a lot about our theology. We have plenty to learn from the leadership philosophies of the business world, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they’re not built on the belief that a higher power is at work. A key difference between the management approach to which I’d grown accustomed and scriptural leadership is how we understand our responsibility. If we think it’s all up to us, of course we’ll take on the responsibility to initiate every plan. If we believe we’re solely responsible for the success or failure of our church, of course we’ll feel the need to manage systems and people. That approach makes sense if there is no God.
On the other hand, if we truly believe there is a force at work beyond our ourselves that established the church centuries ago and still loves, resources, and directs it, our responsibility becomes different. We still play an important role, but instead of a management role our task is to pay attention to God’s direction and to say “yes” to him, even when his prompts, like those he gave Moses, seem small and strange.
Now, when it comes time to plan our annual budget, even when the current budget isn’t looking so great, I’ve learned to remind my elders, my staff, and myself that God calls us into partnership. We can’t just sit around and assume it’s all up to God, but we also can’t take all of the responsibility upon ourselves. Our job is to “hit the rock”—to do the small, sometimes ridiculous things God calls us to do and then to trust him to do the big, impossible things beyond our power and understanding.
A Model Follower
In the same way God invited Moses into partnership, he invites pastors. And the invitation rarely comes with a detailed itinerary. Instead he says, “I see you, and I have something for you.” Then he asks, “Will you go from here to there with me?” We can trust in his love of our congregations and in his broader mission for the church. And as we discern how that mission is expressed on this day, in this place, with these people, we’re drawn into conversation with him.
This leadership philosophy performs two vital functions: It relieves the pressure leaders feel to be God, and it teaches folks in our congregations how to follow God. If the Israelites had asked Moses for an itinerary, they would have been out of luck. He wasn’t given one by God, so how could he share it with them? Of course, out of fear of looking incompetent, he could have made one up to explain the vague, seemingly inconsistent directions he received from God. Perhaps that’s why, when the people needed water again and God told Moses to draw water from a rock by speaking to it, Moses repeated the previously successful strategy of striking the rock (Num. 20:11).
Let’s learn from Moses’ mistake and invite people into the adventure with us. We can smile with recognition when uncertainty makes them drag their feet. We can share the ways we feel that same confusion and hesitation. And we can proclaim what’s certain—that God sees us where we are and calls us into something huge—even if we’re reassuring ourselves as we reassure them.
In this new leadership paradigm, our role becomes modeling how to pay attention. Our work becomes actively welcoming people’s perspectives. Our calling becomes helping them step with faith into God’s calling.
While leadership may always be a lonely place as we discern God’s call, we need the help of our staffs and congregations to watch for every clue from God together. How might it shape our congregations if, when we feel the instinct to jump into action, we instead initiate a movement of prayer? A time of discernment? As we learn to follow God in this humbling partnership, we will invite others into the same thing. It’s harder, slower, and messier than management, but much better.
Done this way, my leadership doesn’t just solve problems for the church—it actually helps form the church. Instead of fixing budget problems myself, I have an opportunity to invite a whole congregation into prayer, patience, and trust. Instead of searching for a top-down solution that puts unhealthy pressure on me and protects everyone else from discomfort, I have an opportunity to invite them into the things that stretch me. And if these difficult moments force me to trust God and grow my faith, how can I deny them the same opportunity?
Our Daily Manna
Here’s where I need to remember the manna part of the Exodus story. God’s provision of food in the wilderness was just as strange as the directions he gave Moses. Why did he require them to take only enough food for one day? I bet you can guess.
Just as God’s daily provision of manna required his people to rely on him for food, his daily provision of resources, ideas, and solutions forces me to come back to him every morning as I faithfully steward his church. It’s humbling to keep needing him. It would be easier to ask for a to-do list at the beginning of every year. I’m more like the Israelites than I know, longing for a familiar routine and the transactional economy of slavery: “I perform a function; you let me live.”
But I’m discovering that God wants to provide a better kind of certainty, a more beautiful clarity. What I thought I wanted—a quick solution—keeps me from seeking the Lord’s formation of me and my congregation. I’m learning to trust his daily call to pay attention to his Spirit at work in the world.
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.