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The Rare Bird: Pastoral Leadership AND Authority in Baptist Congregations - Part Two

Charles Revis, Executive Minister ABCNW

In part one of this article I advocated for the “rare bird”, that combination of strong pastoral leadership and authority, which is foundational for congregational health and vitality. I ended part one recognizing there are common objections to pastoral authority, especially in the context of a Baptist congregation. Here are some examples: Is it biblical to give so much authority to the pastor? Doesn’t this reduce the authority of the congregation? Doesn’t authority lead to abuse, and therefore needs to be held in check?

I’ll take the last question first, and work backwards from there. No doubt we can all present stories of clergy abuse of authority. As we’ve raised the value of pastoral leadership in our Region we’ve had to caution a certain few pastors, “We are not encouraging pastoral dictatorships. You need to dial it back some.” Yet, such abuse, whether real or imagined, is no reason to desist from advocating for pastoral leadership. Establishing clear lines of accountability help to hold the line against such abuse. Honestly, abuse of authority is more rare than the opposite problem: a passive, hands-off abdication of leadership by pastors working within entrenched systems. Authority doesn’t automatically translate into abuse.

Since we are Baptists, what about the congregation’s authority? Is it reduced, even dissipated, when the pastor is given authority? Indeed, as Baptists we affirm that the local congregation will chart its own course, not from directives handed down from some hierarchy, but from it’s own unique sense of the Spirit’s direction. However, the locus of authority being lodged in the congregation doesn’t cancel out the need for leadership within the faith community. In fact, a good leader will clarify and give voice to the inchoate mission, originating from Christ Jesus and present within the congregation. Congregations assign authority to the minister, along with their elected officers, to lead. At the same time the congregation may rescind the pastor’s authority if his or her leadership is proven ineffective. All to say, that when a pastor exercises authority he isn’t negating the congregation’s authority. There shouldn’t be a limit to who may exercise authority. That is, it doesn’t have to be an either/or deal. Both congregational and pastoral authority can and should operate in a collaborative manner in a healthy church. Wisdom dictates that the congregation entrust the pastor with practical daily authority, otherwise the day-by-day expediency of church operations will grind to a halt.

We see this collaborative exercise of authority at work in the Scriptures. An excellent example is found in Acts 6. Here, the Apostles respond to complaints that the Greek widows were missing out on “the meals on wheels” widows ministry of the early church. They asked the church to consider “whom we may put in charge of this task” (NASB v.3c). This plan of action “found approval with the whole congregation, and they chose Stephan (and, six others)” (NASB v.4).

Note that the Apostles respond to the concern by initiating an action plan. The congregation agreed and then selected seven who would administer the feeding ministry. These seven were then encharged with the task. That is, they were given authority to expedite the ministry as they saw fit. This seems to be a reasonable pattern for how leadership and congregation work together and share authority. The exercise of authority by leadership is expected, and it’s neither the exclusive province of the pastor or the congregation.

Whenever, we talk about exercising authority, I believe it is important that we temper our assumptions regarding authority with Jesus’ instructions and counter balancing example. Jesus asserted that, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matt 28:18)  I take this to mean that any exercise of authority in the church is derivative. Ultimately it comes from Christ, who is the head of the church. The appropriate use of authority is subsumed under the authority of Jesus and should reflect how He used it. The employment of authority should also be in service to Jesus’ mission of redeeming the world.

Furthermore, Jesus turned authority and leadership upside down by saying that his disciples will not be like the “Gentiles who lord it over them.” Instead, the greatest among the disciples will be like one who serves. (Luke 22:25-26) Pastoral leadership exercised well serves first the mission of Jesus and others, not one’s self.

We may also note that the Apostle Paul eschews the abuse of authority. The often misinterpreted Ephesians 2:12 commands certain women in Ephesus to stop exercising “abusive authority”. The Greek word is authentein, and only appears here in the N.T.  It is linked in Greek literature to murder. In another text, 2 Corinthians 13:10, Paul expresses his hope that the Corinthians will heed his instructions so that he may avoid employing his authority harshly. In the same passage he clarifies that it is the Lord who gave this authority. It is to be used for building up the Corinthians, not tearing them down. This appropriate use of authority mirrors the numerous times that Paul urges a lifestyle of gentleness and humility among leaders (Phil 4:5, etc.)

Yet, in other passages it is clear that Paul expects leaders to exercise authority, whether they are surrogate apostles such as Timothy and Titus, or, whether they are elders in the church. To Timothy, Paul urges, “Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.” (1 Timothy 4:11,12) These admonitions call for the employment of self-confidence in combination with a certain level of assertiveness. Paul also urges Timothy to overcome his tendency to be timid. Instead he is to be a man of power, love, self-discipline and strength (2 Timothy 1:7, 2:1). Similarly, Titus is to “straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town” as he works with the church on Crete.

Paul asserts that elders, among whom the pastor would be the directional elder, are expected to “direct the affairs of the church well” (1 Timothy 5:17).  In fact, he says those who primarily teach and preach should receive “double honor” from the congregation. Some commentaries believe that Paul is saying, “Compensate these at twice the going rate.” Now, that would be a high form of pastoral appreciation! Pastors and teachers are gifts to the church who are tasked with equipping the church for works of service (Ephesians 4:11-12). The author of Hebrews admonishes believers to honor the authority of their leaders by obeying and submitting to them (Hebrews 13:17). The text goes on to say that this should be done willingly with joy so that the task of the leader doesn’t turn into a grievous burden. These examples, and more, demonstrate that it is appropriate for leaders to exercise authority, and to do so for the church’s edification, not their own.

I will close this with my favorite example of N.T. authoritative leadership. In Romans 16:1-2 Paul introduces Phoebe to the Roman believers. She is no ordinary woman. First, she is a “deacon”, perhaps a “minister”, of the church in Cenchrea. Most translations undersell her office with the tepid translation, “servant.” I dare say, that if she were a he, the translations would be stronger. Paul reveals that “she has been a great help to many people, including me.” Most likely, her help has been as a financial patronness for Paul and others. The Greek word here is quite specific in that it ordinarily references wealthy benefactors. Some commentators theorize that Phoebe is the leader of the band bringing Paul’s letter to the Romans. Perhaps this is why Paul takes such pains to introduce her.

The telling thing for me is Paul’s somewhat understated instructions, “I ask you…to give her any help that she may need from you.” (v. 2) That is, if she makes a request, honor it. Taken as a whole, Paul’s introduction of Phoebe to the Roman believers is intended to underscore her authority as the leader of this important apostolic expedition. In effect Paul says, “Receive Phoebe in the Lord. Respect her. She has helped so many including me. Now, she needs your help. She comes to you with a mission. Attend to her requests and do your best to fulfill them.” Note what Paul doesn’t say, “I commend to you, Phoebe. Now, form several committees, debate her requests and do your best to put her off.” Instead, the thrust of Paul’s admonition is quite the opposite. Phoebe has come with specific purposes in mind as a leader of an important mission. She is in charge, so Paul urges responsive to her leadership on behalf of the Christians in Rome.

Phoebe. What a great picture of a rare Christ-like minister, a leader with authority. The Kingdom needs pastors who lead with authority, the authority grounded in Christ’s mission and servant-heart. We need churches that honor and respect pastoral leaders. We need congregations and pastors working together, and in harmony, pressing ahead into mission for the advance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When this happens, the church will flourish. This is a rare bird worth pursuing!

The Rare Bird: Pastoral Leadership AND Authority in Baptist Congregations - Part One

Charles Revis, Executive Minister ABCNW

I’m not a birder. I know little about the pursuit. But, I do enjoy catching glimpses of colorful songbirds. I think I picked this up from my grandfather who birded as a casual hobby. I remember off hand comments he would make about a certain cardinal, maybe it was a Baltimore oriole, showing up around his house because the weather had turned warm. I do know that part of the excitement of birding is spotting rare species.

There is a rare bird in the ministry. It’s the pastor who ably combines leadership AND authority, executes ministry well, without a heavy hand, and with loads of grace and love that emanate from Jesus Christ. This article is about the importance of creating this rare bird. (Yes, it is created!)

First, let me start by stating a conviction I hold in regard to pastoral authority. It’s based on personal experience, observation and Scripture. Here’s my conviction: When the pastor of a local church is given both the responsibility and the authority to lead, and leads skillfully, there is a better than average chance the church will flourish.

I can state the conviction in another way: A key to a vibrant congregation is a pastor who is competent in exercising visionary leadership with gentle authority. Certainly, skilled leadership is not the only factor that makes for a healthy church. But it’s the primary common denominator in a growing church regardless of its size, culture or ministry context. The inverse of my conviction is also true: The absence of effective leadership results in a struggling congregation.

All too many American Baptist Churches fail to comprehend the strategic importance of this conviction. Many will give lip service to it. They will say they value the pastor as a leader. But, when it comes down to it, it’s often a hollow affirmation. Even if the pastor has the drive and the skill-set to lead, the church’s structure, culture and certain dominant individuals may work to counter a pastor’s leadership.

Consider how structure blocks a pastor’s leadership efforts. Many traditional church structures have redundant layers of management. The typical form of this is the multi-committee governance system common among ABC churches. In this system, initiatives and decisions must first pass through a gauntlet of committee approvals. In government we call this red tape. In church we call it “getting permission.” For the pastor who dares to lead, having to shepherd every decision through such a maze is ultimately defeating.

Another structural obstacle to pastoral leadership is the failure of the congregation to assign authority to the pastor. It’s a common assumption and expectation that the pastor should lead. That is, he or she is given the responsibility to get things done, but the authority to actually make decisions and take initiatives is withheld. The pastor must gain approval from a group or individual before taking action. This is like sending a boxer into the ring with his main weapon, his right hand, tied behind his back. Or, imagine how ludicrous it would be for the manager of a local Walgreens to have to call up a local oversight committee for permission each time she hires a new employee.

Responding to the fact that some structures stymie pastoral leadership, a significant number of churches in the ABC of the Northwest have changed their governance system. The more effective systems wed leadership responsibility with authority, giving both to the pastor. The most common form of such a structure is a single-board system. In our Region we encourage churches to use a modified version of John Carver’s accountable governance system. With this system the board governs through policies and budgetary guidelines established in collaboration with the pastor. Once these parameters are set the pastor is given freedom to play the entire field, as long as he or she stays within the boundaries. Certainly, it is advisable for the pastor to seek the wisdom of the board’s counsel in making major decisions, but it’s not required.

But, even if the structure is fixed, a more powerful obstacle to pastoral authority may be the church’s culture. If the culture is change-resistant, tradition-bound and self-serving then it will be impossible for the pastor to lead. In too many dying ABC churches the culture has calcified into traditions that perpetuate a form of ministry that was designed for 1961. Changes that would help the congregation engage our post-modern world are robustly resisted. Expectations, ingrained through years of tradition, insist that the pastor attend primarily to the needs of the members as their personal chaplain. Such tradition bound cultures turn pastoral leaders into paid hirelings, curators of religious museums. (The alternative is the pastor as cultural exegete, mission architect, visionary prophet and chief equipper of the body for ministry.)

Yet another undermining factor to pastoral leadership is the church controller or boss. This is the person who, over time, has become the dominant church patriarch, or matriarch. I was once told by such an individual, “You know, pastors come and go in churches, but our family will always be here.” The not-so-subtle threat in that declaration sent chills up my spine. Often these folks start out with good intentions. That is, they want to protect the church from harm. They may have held the church together during a period of conflict. Or, they were the major financial contributor during lean years. Having taken on the role of church protector they devolve over time into the church dictator. Such people have a difficult time allowing the pastor to lead, because they assume that role for themselves. They will undermine the pastor through underground resistance, or they may overtly block the pastor through power plays. Controllers pull the rug out from underneath pastoral leadership and authority.

What should be done so that the pastor is affirmed in leadership with authority? The answer to this question goes far beyond the scope of this article. However, one important step is for the congregation as a whole to elevate its value of pastoral leadership. That is, the role of pastor-leader must be esteemed and protected. Furthermore, shifting the church culture so that the congregation behaves as a learning, adaptive community that readily adopts new approaches to ministry is another critical step. Not only can the church learn to address these three obstacles that inhibit pastoral authority, it can reorganize itself in such a way that the pastor is given permission to lead with authority while being held accountable to reasonable boundary principles.

But…but…I can hear the push back, even at this distance! I’m quite aware of the objections. I encounter them all too often in churches. Here’s a sampling: But, is it Baptistic? Where does that leave the congregation’s authority? And, what about the pastor who abuses authority, doesn’t this open the floodgates to misuse of authority? What does the Bible say about pastoral authority? Well, the answers to these questions will be the subject of the second half of this article. Look for it next week!

Discussion Questions (for use with the leadership board and/or church staff):

1. Does your church wed responsibility and authority together so that the pastor can actually lead? Or, does it separate the two, or withhold one? Assess your church’s expectations and support for pastoral leadership.

2. What boundaries are in place that the pastor, or any other leader, must not transgress in the exercise of leadership in your congregation? Are they clear? Are they reasonable? Does the congregation understand them?

3. Which is more likely to block pastoral leadership in your church? Structure, culture or personalities? Discuss how these roadblocks might be reduced or eliminated in your congregation’s setting.

The Rare Bird - Part Two