Why pastors get fired; the myth of leadership

Over the past few years I have heard the same story from several different churches; a talented and popular pastor steps down under pressure from the church elders. Usually the pastor has been at the church for many years, sometimes he is the one who planted the church. The church grew under his leadership and to the average attender the church is healthy. There is no moral lapse, no money missing, no hint of scandal. Why did the elders force the pastor out? In each case the staff and leaders are worn down from the leadership style of the pastor. They are fearful, wounded and burned out. After months, or even years, of attempts to bring organizational health the elders finally decide there has to be a change. They ask, and then require, that the pastor step aside. How does this happen?

I believe it often comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of healthy leadership; the pastor confuses leadership with control, he operates through authority which flows from his position. He believes his role is to hire people who will execute his vision for the church. Staff members who execute the vision are promoted, staff members who do not execute the vision are punished or fired. The measuring stick for health is results, and for many years a talented pastor can get results. Eventually, however, the body count of discarded staff and wounded leaders becomes a price too high and the pastor finds himself on the outside looking in.

Confusing leadership with control is something we learn from a very young age.

“Why? Because I’m your mother!”

“Do what the teacher says.”

“When I say ‘Jump’ your only question is, ‘How high?’”

“The boss makes those decisions.”

We come to believe the higher we climb the more leadership (i.e. control) we can exert. We dream of the day we can call the shots, we can make the decisions, we can set the course because we are now in charge.

There are many situations where control is necessary. When my three-year old granddaughter decides riding her scooter in the street is her highest priority her mother uses her authority to curb Maggie’s enthusiasm. This, however, isn’t leadership. It is tight control for a specific situation. Leadership is something very different.

Subconsciously I held this erroneous view of leadership for a long time. Although I read everything John Maxwell wrote, as well as dozens of other leadership books, deep down I believed that to lead I needed authority. I could only exercise the skills I’d learned if I had the right position from which to lead. As I moved up the positional ladder I exerted control through authority. I thought I was leading, but all I was really doing was treating people like three-year olds. Inside I longed for more authority, a higher position, so I could exercise more leadership. I understand how this blind spot about leadership becomes destructive.

Over the past few years I’ve finally come to understand that leadership, the kind of leadership Jesus demonstrated, is influence that flows from relationship. Growing as a leader isn’t about exerting more control from a higher position, growing as a leader is experiencing more influence through deeper relationships. As a leader matures control and authority fade. People follow not because they are have to, they follow because they know their leader loves them, listens to them and wants to see them become the fully developed person God created them to be. They follow because they know the primary goal of their leader is to serve.

After three years leading a group of 12 men Jesus had a choice; he could exert his authority as God to force these followers to execute his vision, or he could get down on his knees and wash their feet:

“Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.”  John 13:3-5 (NLT)

As pastors (and spouses, parents, managers and coaches) we live as though Jesus’ model of leadership doesn’t apply to us. We control, we dictate and we require rather than serve. Outwardly we agree that leadership is influence flowing from relationship but internally we believe leadership is control flowing from authority. That is why followers are fearful, wounded and bitter and elders ask successful pastors to step away from the church they love.

What are the implications of Jesus model of leadership? Here are a few ides on applying relational leadership to our everyday situation:

  • A org chart doesn’t make a leader
  • You don’t need more authority to lead at a higher level
  • If you want to grow as a leader invest in relationships
  • The ultimate test of a leader’s heart is how well he serves his followers
  • Growth doesn’t always equal health; nothing grows faster than weeds

What about you, do you lean more toward leadership from position or leadership from relationship?


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ARC and the God of small beginnings

I am in Terminal A at DFW headed to the Association of Related Churches (ARC) All Access Conference at Celebration Church in Jacksonville. I have been to most of ARC's conferences over the past 13 years including the first one. There were 20 to 30 of us gathered in a dingy Sunday School room in a sketchy part of Atlanta. Billy Hornsby, who had recently joined the staff where I worked at Seacoast Church, invited his son-in-law Chris and a distant relative (I think everyone from Louisiana is related in some way) Rick to tell us about the churches they would be planting at Easter. Two or three other friends of Billy talked about their experiences with church planting, Billy's brother Scott talked about hog dogs (don't ask) and my brother Greg cast a vision to plant churches all over the world. There were no cool videos, no awesome lights and no worship band; just a handful of guys with a desire to connect as friends and plant churches. At the end we shook hands, got back in our van and drove back to Charleston.

The conference I will attend tonight will bear almost no resemblance to that little gathering in Atlanta. Chris Hodges planted Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama and now it is one of the largest churches in the country. Rick Bezet opened New Life Church in Conway, Arkansas the same Sunday and this weekend thousands of people will gather at New Life's seven locations and lives will be impacted around the world. Hundreds of church planters have since followed their lead planting churches in every corner of America. Well-known churches like Lifechurch.tv, Gateway Church Dallas and Christ Fellowship West Palm Beach consider themselves “ARC Churches”. Tonight, as Billy Hornsby watches from his throneside seat in Heaven, several thousand leaders will gather to worship together, laugh together and commit together to continue to plant hundreds of churches every year. Today the ARC is one of the largest, most influential church planting networks in the country.

I am proud of what my brother and his friends have accomplished, but more than that I am awed by what the God of small beginnings is doing. Every move of God starts quietly; the nation of Israel began with a conversation outside of Abraham's tent, the exodus of God's people began with a lonely, rejected shepherd talking to a bush, the New Testament church was birthed from eleven frightened men hiding behind a locked door in Jerusalem. Throughout history God begins with small groups rather than massive crowds.

You may be in one of those small groups and not even realize it. No one at that first ARC Conference foresaw what has happened over the past few years. Your men's group may be the foundation of a massive outreach effort. The church plant you lead or attend may be just the tip of an iceberg God is beginnign to reveal. The ministry God has birthed in your heart may grow into a Kingdom rattling force for God. Regardless of what you see today, don't despise a small beginning, God is the God of small beginnings.


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Noah and the flood of “Christian” movies

Sherry and I saw the movie “Noah” over the weekend. My quick review is that is entertaining and thought-provoking; it reminded me of how J.R.R. Tolkien would have handled Genesis. Someone described Noah as Lord of the Rings meets Braveheart, I think that’s fairly accurate. The writers do take seemingly unnecessary liberties with the story (i.e. two out of three of Noah’s sons didn’t have wives), and it is oppressively dark, but it was a great discussion starter and sent us scrambling for our Bibles to refresh our understanding of the story. That places Noah ahead of almost every “Christian” movie I’ve seen.

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing and speechifying around Noah, which I think is unfortunate. It is just a movie, it isn’t a new version of the Bible. Here is what I know to be true:

  • The biblical story of Noah has remained unchanged for thousands of years. It is readily available to anyone who wants to read the original. The Bible won’t be updated to reflect writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s version.
  • Every artist interprets the Bible through their own lens. Da Vinci set the Last Supper in 15th century Italy and moved all the disciples to the same side of the table. Michelangelo decided God should touch Adam’s finger rather than breath into his nostrils when he painted the Sistine Chapel. Mark Burnett thought it would be fun to bring Mary Magdalene along on the boat in his Son of God movie. Art is always about interpretation.
  • The story of the flood is one of the most difficult passages of the Bible. Sons of God having sex with the daughters of men, fitting thousands of animals onto a boat and then feeding them for over a year, people living to be hundreds of years old; these are not easy topics. Aronofsky gets a little credit for taking a swing at such a challenging story.
  • I get tired of being told I should see some movies because they are “Christian” and I shouldn’t see other movies because they are not. I prefer to see movies that are good rather than movies that are bad. Noah falls in the pretty good category, many “Christian” movies fall in the pretty bad category.
  • My main source of spiritual guidance is the Bible. I don’t go to movies for spiritual guidance. I think a movie like Noah is interesting because it gives one man’s interpretation of what a biblical story could be about, but its just that; one man’s interpretation. It doesn’t diminish nor build my faith. At best a movie is entertaining and thought-provoking, at worst it is boring and mind numbing.

So that’s my take on Noah, Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven is for Real and Spiderman 2. They are each entertainment and should be judged on their own merits, not on how Christian they are. Those that look worth a couple of hours of my time I’ll see, those that look cheesy I’ll skip. Feel free to do the same.

And one more thing, shouldn’t Spiderman 2 be called Spiderman 2 2?


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Dare Greatly: Encouragement for Monday morning pastors

Monday mornings are challenging for pastors. Maybe the sermon tanked yesterday, attendance was down, or a key leader quit. Or it may have been a great Sunday, but now another weekend looms only six days away. The hardest part is the flood of criticism, both internal and external, a pastor feels on Monday morning. Many pastors say they want to quit every Monday morning, sadly about 1500 actually do quit every month.

As I think about and pray for all my pastor friends this Monday morning I’m reminded of this amazing quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Here are a couple of takeaways:

  • The critic doesn’t count. Regardless if the critic is an elder, a volunteer or the little voice in your head if he isn’t in the arena he doesn’t count. Sure, we all need to get better, but only those engaged in the battle have a voice in the outcome.
  • Being in the arena means being knocked down, getting dirty, making mistakes. If you aren’t making mistakes, striking out, coming short you’re not in the game. The only clean jerseys at the final whistle are worn by players on the bench. “…there is no effort without error and shortcoming”
  • You may succeed or you may fail, but the biggest loss is to sit in the stands.

Regardless of how your weekend went or how you feel this morning, my prayer for you is the final line of Roosevelt’s quote; if you fail, fail daring greatly. Don’t give in to the critics, don’t let discouragement or fear drive your decisions.

What do you believe? What do you feel in your heart? What decision would you make if you weren’t afraid to fail? Don’t let the fear of striking out, fear of criticism, fear of failure keep you from swinging for the fences.

If the Apostle Paul were in your office right now he’d tell you to ask and imagine and see what happens:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Eph 3:20, 21)

If you are a pastor, a church planter, a leader in your church don’t let fear, discouragement or fatigue drive you from the game on Monday. Get up, dust yourself off and get back into the arena.

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Worshipping a puny god

As part of my morning quiet time I’ve been reading through the book of Job. (Not an easy read) If you haven’t read it in a while (or ever) here’s a quick plot summary (SPOILER ALERT):

Job is a rich guy who loves God.
Satan, with God’s permission, destroys everything Job loves to see if he will lose faith.
Job’s wife says, “Curse God and die.”
Job’s friends tell him its all his fault.
Job says, “No way, I’m a good guy” and demands an explanation from God.

This goes on for awhile, and then in Job 38 God finally answers Job:

Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:
“Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words?
Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.

God continues for several chapters challenging Job with rhetorical questions along the line of “if you’re so smart tell me about the world you’ve created.” Sarcasm drips from every line. As God thunders his response I wonder if Job has these lyrics running through his mind:

Words could never say the way He says my name, He calls me lovely
No one ever sees the way He looks at me, He sees me holy
You would not believe the way He touches me, He burns right through me
And I could not forget every word He said, He always knew me

God’s response to Job is neither harsh nor cruel, God’s response to Job is a reminder we do not serve a puny God. Job’s demand for answers reduces God to a human level, a slightly more powerful version of himself. God is awesome on a scale we cannot comprehend; all human endeavor from creation to now comprehends a fraction of one corner of God’s endless universe. Demanding God explain his ways is like my three-year old granddaughter demanding Einstein teach her his theory of relativity; it is ludicrous on every level.

While God is patient and kind and understanding when I struggle to comprehend the broken world I live in, he does not owe me an explanation. I’m often reminded of J. Vernon McGee’s quote:

Its God’s universe and he does things his way. You may have a better way, but you don’t have a universe.

God hears my prayer and he loves me. He does not shrink back from my doubts or even anger,  a quick scan of the Psalms proves that point. If I comprehend at all who God is, , however, my ultimate response is awestruck worship. Not worship for what God does for me or how he makes me feel; I am thankful for those things, but if that is my focus then I am worshipping me, not the almighty God.

I am concerned as pastors, in our desire to make God relatable, we reduce him to a puny god. We emphasize his love, his grace and his mercy without also emphasizing his sovereignty, omniscience, and power. We present a god who is understandable and reasonable, a god who meets all our needs and answers all our questions. We avoid a God who loved Jacob and hated Esau, a God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart and a God who ordered an entire nation destroyed. These are very difficult things to explain, I can’t begin to comprehend a God like that. But it points to a God that is larger than life, a God who stands outside the bounds of human time and experience. A God who could destroy this universe in an instant and create another with just a word, but instead comes as a helpless baby to die for our sins and save our world.

That is the God our people need to know.

That is a God worthy of our worship.

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