Church and Leadership:
The Fluidity of Pastoral Influence
by Ed Vasicek
Pastoral leadership within a church is far from an exact science; it can be approached from many, many angles. No angle is complete, but most of them contribute toward a deeper understanding of what should be--or what actually IS--within local congregations.
Churches vary in their structures, but in most congregations, members look to their pastor for leadership (in theory), but this does not always mean that a pastor is the most influential leader (in practice).
In the typical evangelical church (small or medium in size), the pastor shares his leadership role in a variety of ways. But his influence typically changes over time (which is why long tenure is important). Let's analyze how leadership is shared and how influence changes in typical situations.
The typical definition of leadership sounds something like "influence, initiative, and setting direction." Books on leadership often view the pastor as a sanctified CEO, the one responsible for whatever happens within a congregation. Small and medium churches do not necessarily embrace this modern concept of a pastor, and it is questionable as to whether they should. In some congregations, the pastor is blamed for what goes wrong, but the Lord or others are given credit for what goes right. The idea that God might want a church event to flop is ruled out a priori, and some congregations do not recognize the importance of sharing encouragement and praise for hard work; God will keep people humble--we do not need to help Him!).
Perhaps a more Biblical understanding is that a pastor is one of several elders. He is an elder who leads well and works hard at preaching and teaching; he is therefore worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17). This double honor implies financial support (1 Timothy 5:18), but also implies a double portion of influence, which is a consequence of being held in honor. Nonetheless, such an elder's influence needs limits (which is why major decisions should be made by the board); he is expected to work in harmony with the other elders as a team player.
So how does one translate these concepts into modern practice, especially considering that many churches do not even have officers labeled as "elders?" Most smaller (and even many medium-sized churches) are actually controlled by influential families, even if these family members do not sit on the board. The board may be the visible decision-making body, but without support of the key families, even a board resolution will flop. It is better to work with this reality than to try to thwart it (unless we are talking about a matter of obedience to clear Scripture). So how can a pastor aim for positive influence (what should be) while serving in the current situation (what is)?
One way to understand the modern role between the pastor and his church leaders (whether that leadership is the official board or key families) is to view two separate functions of leadership: expertise and authority.
Here is a typical case study. A pastoral candidate becomes the pastor of Community Church. He has served one other congregation for three years and has graduated from a respected Bible college or seminary. He is immediately given some respect because he has a level of expertise (education and theological experience). He must then prove his expertise in practical ways, demonstrating that he can preach well, conduct funerals and weddings in a reasonable way, model the Christian life, minister to the sick, and prove he is strong when it comes to people skills (practical expertise). As the congregation gets to see him in action, he builds rapport. His respect as an expert grows.
Authority is a very different issue. Since life deals us many wild cards, we gravitate toward authorities that are established and long-term. In some congregations, pastoral tenures are short. Therefore, reason leads many to lean upon long-term authority, not pastors (who might be here today and gone tomorrow). You might go to the new doctor for medicine, but you want mom to cook the chicken soup and rub the ointment on your chest!
This division of authority between pastor and board (or key families) is a double-edged sword.
On the positive side, sharing of leadership keeps pastors from gaining too much authority and being unchecked: "absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton). Most of us have seen ministries led by benevolent dictators. We may have seen some led by not-so-benevolent dictators!
Additionally, this sharing of leadership helps develop lay leaders and provide for church continuity. Too strong a pastor can make for weak lay leadership. If lay leaders are engaged in active ministry, shared leadership is ideal. But woe to the pastor who is under the thumb of armchair critics who are AWOL when it comes to actually serving in the church! When idle leaders view their task as assigning work for the pastor, it might be time to look elsewhere.
But if preventing pastoral corruption (through too much authority) is the positive edge of the sword, the negative edge is just as sharp: the accommodation of firmly entrenched, control-freak laymen who view the pastor as their hired hand (and slave). Such control freaks may even seek to micromanage a pastor's ministerial, personal and family life (school choices, clothing styles, leisure time, sermon topics etc.). This is particularly a problem in small rural congregations (or people who were raised in such churches).
As a pastor builds relationships and gets a few years under his belt, he begins to gain more authority. Every crisis he survives means more respect. This can take two directions.
In unhealthy churches (where control-freak families are entrenched), leaders may become critical of the pastor (and seek his removal) if they fear he is gaining too much influence (because that means less influence for them). This explains why some churches are noted for repeated firings (or frequent pastoral turnover). They may suggest the pastor become part-time or dump more and more responsibilities upon him, thus motivating him to look elsewhere. A criticism campaign, unfortunately, is a tried and true method for shedding pastors.
In healthy churches, the opposite occurs: the pastor's influence grows; the leaders gain more respect for the pastor as each year passes. The relationship between board and pastor resembles a happy marriage. Differences are worked out with compromise and calm discussion. The pastor finds his "groove," and the church begins coming to life.
As his influence grows, another danger lurks: the pastor can be tempted to surround himself by "yes" men and refuse to share leadership decisions. Rather than "double honor," his opinion counts more than the sum total of the entire board (or key families)! This is where the pastor is confronted with a fork in the road: he can either choose to remember his theology or he can trash it all and bank on expediency. If he chooses the former, he begins to conceal his opinions about issues out of his domain; he recognizes that his opinions carry more weight than they should (they are no longer merely opinions). He must determine to continue being a team player and accept not always getting his way.
Church life is best (1) when a pastor has earned respect because of his expertise, (2) when he has more influence than any one individual but not so much that his decisions become law, and (3) when the church board (not the pastor alone) is the final word in extra-Scriptural matters.
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA