Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert…He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
-1 Timothy 3:2-7 (NIV)
If character is competence for a church leader, then those who aspire to be church leaders should be developing character. Education is good, Bible knowledge is important, but the essential qualifications for those who want to lead in the kingdom of God all revolve around character formed by the Holy Spirit.
I know some folks think that no one should aspire to being a shepherd, elder, or pastor, that to want that position is self-aggrandizement. Paul didn’t seem to think that way. What happens to the church if the only ones leading her are the reluctant, the resistant, and the renumerated? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
I think there’s a leadership crisis in the church, and it seems to come from a couple of directions. On the one hand, there isn’t a surplus of people in most churches who aspire to leadership. I don’t have statistics for that, except for the demonstrable decline of ordained leaders (pastors, ministers, priests, and so forth) in most denominations. But the sense I get is that there is a corresponding decline of people who want to be lay leaders — non-ordained leaders like elders, deacons, and so forth — in most churches. Simply put, many believers, perhaps most, aspire to leadership in corporations, in politics, in civic and social organizations, but don’t see themselves as one day taking on leadership responsibilities in their churches.
To some degree, maybe this is the inevitable result of an ultra-mobile, ultra-transient society in which people come and go from most churches with regularity. Maybe the outcome of changing churches every few years is that we don’t have the time to invest ourselves in the life of the church, get to know and love the people there, be shaped by influential leaders in that church, be and then grow into our own places of leadership. Surely this has an impact, but I think there’s more to it than that.
Ultimately, to be an elder or shepherd or overseer, to lead a ministry, to teach a class, requires a commitment. In marketplace terms, it requires that we sort of give up the role of consumer and take on the role of producer. And we like the role of consumer. We like to be shoppers, because we’re free to evaluate the religious goods and services on display, to compare them with other churches, and to decide if maybe we want to shop somewhere else. That’s a comfortable role for most of us, one we’re used to living in. We like that producers have to compete for our loyalty. That places us in a position of strength.
What’s harder is to go from shopping to managing the store. Leadership in the church calls us to commit to a local community of faith, to bring our best to the place where we are, to sacrifice ourselves in service to those who we would lead. It’s hard, and it’s thankless, and sometimes it’s not even very satisfying personally. It demands that we stop looking at the church primarily with a view toward the spiritual experience that it provides us, and instead with a view toward how we can best serve the people who make it up. In some ways, it’s analogous to the shift that happens in most of us when we become parents for the first time: the focus is off ourselves, and on this child that needs us. (Maybe that’s why Paul sometimes thought of himself as a “father” to the churches he served.)
But the blame for this leadership crisis in the church can also be placed on its current generation of leaders.
Church leaders, by and large, tend to be a conservative group. We want to stick with what we know until we’re sure something better has come along. So we stick with the same schedule we’ve had for decades, even if that schedule isn’t working for most of the church anymore. We keep the same style and form of worship, the same songs, the same order, even when a change might serve us better. Conservatism among church leaders can be a good thing — except when it isn’t. And it’s tricky sometimes to know the difference.
Here’s how conservatism, though, can contribute to a leadership crisis. For one thing, the people church leaders usually want to appoint to leadership positions are the people who they think best exemplify their own conservative spirit. Who shows up at the worship services? Who teaches the classes? Who serves in the existing ministries? In short, who are the people who will best ensure that we keep doing the same things in the same ways for another generation?
That might sound right. But it serves to eliminate those who have the character that the Bible wants in church leaders, but who for whatever reason haven’t been well-served by the status quo. It denies dissenting voices a place of leadership, when those dissenting voices are important to hear.
Again: for church leaders, character is competence.
That’s why, for instance, that I don't think the text that says an elder should be “faithful to his wife,” eliminates an unmarried man from consideration. Or that the statement about children eliminates someone who has no children. Those aren’t requirements of status. In the church, competence comes not from status, but from character. The kind of person who leads in the church should be the kind who is faithful to his wife, if he has one, or who would be faithful to his wife, if he had one. This view keeps us from excluding as leaders people of character who, by accident or intention, have never started families.
To address the crisis of leadership that exists in the church as a whole, we have to start addressing the failings from both directions: failure of the church in developing an aspiration to lead, and failure of current leaders to create a culture in which character is intentionally developed and people are encouraged and supported in growing into leadership roles.