To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
-1 Peter 5:1-4 (NIV)
I didn’t become a Pastor until about two years ago. I’ve been a minister, though, a lot longer than that.
That’s because in Churches of Christ, the paid staff person who preaches on Sundays, or prays with hospital patients, or leads youth activities, or what have you, isn’t called Pastor. At least, not by virtue of their position in the church. Pastor, in our churches, is another word for the word we usually use: elder. And it’s these elders, or pastors, who are the leaders in our churches. There are always at least two of them, if there are any. They work closely with any ministers and church staff. But they are the “top level”, so to speak, of leadership in Churches of Christ.
Folks from other Christian groups would refer to the elders in our churches as lay leaders. That means they don’t necessarily have formal education or ordination. They lead by acclamation, rather than by appointment to a position. They tend to be older, long-time members of the church they serve, long-time Christians, who by virtue of walking with the Lord over the years know something about spiritual leadership. They are chosen, usually, on the basis of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, texts that describe the character needed for such leaders.
There’s no question that I’m biased, but I like the leadership structure of Churches of Christ. When we need leaders, our first impulse isn’t necessarily to hire someone from outside. It’s to find someone from inside who has the character necessary to “shepherd the flock.”
There’s pretty clearly a leadership crisis in the church. Most churches don’t have a lot of people who aspire to leadership. People are busy with their jobs, their families, their friends, their hobbies, and they just don’t see themselves in leadership positions in their churches. We move often too, and so sometimes we aren’t in one place long enough to grow into a place of leadership.
I think, though, in a lot of cases the explanation for this crisis comes down to the way we see the church.
When we need to acquire something in our world, we go shopping. That seems so obvious as to not require comment, but keep in mind that many of us are only 4 or 5 generations removed (at most) from people who largely produced what they needed themselves. The idea of shopping — for food, clothes, whatever — has not always been the norm.
But we go shopping. We look for price, selection, shopping experience, parking, store location: we have all sorts of criteria running through our minds. And ultimately, we do business with the producers that check the right boxes in our heads. What we never do is think about who opens the store, orders the inventory, pays the bills, or organizes the stockroom. We’re not supposed to know about that. We’re shoppers.
So let me get to where I’m going. We tend to see church in the same way. Most of us shop for a church. When we’re moving to a new place, or visiting, or when our current church doesn’t meet our needs in some way, we go shopping. We all do it. Shopping is what we know. And churches reinforce this mindset by marketing themselves to us.
To see ourselves in a leadership role in a church requires a perspective shift. It requires that we give up the role of consumer and start thinking about how to manage the store. Leadership in the church calls us to 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.
Which brings us back to the metaphor of shepherds. Shepherds care for sheep. They watch out for them. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep makes shepherding sound difficult, strenuous, nerve-wracking. It’s the kind of job that gets you dirty and covered with wool and the stuff that comes out of sheep, that exhausts you, that requires you to fight and serve.
A shepherd can build himself a throne out in the middle of the pasture if he wants to, the better to rule the sheep, but the sheep won’t pay any attention. Sheep won’t be ruled, but they can be led. So in the church, leadership is about minding the way you walk, knowing that others are following you. We don’t drive God’s people. We don’t manipulate them or batter them or command them. We walk as Jesus wants us to walk, knowing that if the church trusts us they’ll follow.
To aspire to leadership in a church — and the church desperately needs people who will aspire to leadership — is to recognize that the church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the Chief Shepherd, and the glory of leading in his church doesn't come from recognition or affirmation or comfort or honor or security. It doesn’t come from getting our way. It doesn’t come from being catered to. It’s a glory that will never fade away that we’re working for, and it will be given by the One to whom the church really does belong when he returns.
So, wherever you are, start thinking about managing the store. Begin to see the church not so much as the place to get you spiritual tank filled, but as a place where you can serve the Lord by serving his people. Start thinking about where you can lead now, and what you need to develop as a leader. Talk to the pastors or elders at your church, and ask them to mentor you and help you to grow into leadership.
The leadership crisis in the church won’t be solved by ordaining more ministers or enrolling more seminary students. It will be solved only when people who have been saved by the Chief Shepherd decide to give themselves to save others.