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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6 Responses to “Why pastors get fired; the myth of leadership”

  1. Brad Mullins April 17, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    Around four years ago my wife and I were hired to work as teachers in a Christian school. This school was connected to a church in San Jose Costa Rica. We made all of the arrangements and had to leave Costa Rica for a short time and return to El Salvador in order to obtain proper working papers etc…
    While we were back in my wife’s home town of San Salvador staying with family and organizing our plans, the administrator of the school called us and told us that they had hired someone else and that our services would not be needed. There was very little explanation as to why or what had brought this kind of decision on so we had no choice really our lives at that point were in Costa Rica so we returned to San Jose straight away, I being the kind of guy that will almost never take no for an answer had to get to the bottom of this. This was a fairly small school and a medium size church for San Jose. When we returned to San Jose I called the lady who had hired us and asked what was happening and to explain herself. She refused to do so and refused to offer any kind of excuse or explanation. I told her that I thought it would be proper to pay us for our 18 hour one way bust tickets to El Salvador and to reimburse us for government fees that we were out She became very hostile and refused to communicate with us.
    So I contacted the pastor. He was of no help to us at all in the beginning, he used every excuse in the book to not help us in hopes that we would just go away. I did not go away. Every penny that we spent for these people was super important to us. I had to teach this pastor that the buck stopped with him. Not his board, not some deacon or elder, not some old lady that wears a beautiful Easter bonnet, not the school principal not anybody but him. God had called him to do that job and to do it to the best of his ability and I put that mans feet to the fire!
    I grew up in a pastor’s home and lived with a pastor for 25 years. My dad was a highly successful pastor for 47 plus years. He was a shepherd, a naturally born shepherd but he was also a called administrator of God and the buck stopped with my dad. He was the CEO, he was the man. He always listened to good people and he always had good people around him to help in the decision making process but his flock, his congregation , his board always respected him as the CEO because he set that precedence. This is what strong pastors do, this is what caring pastors do, and this is what successful pastors do. This pastor in San Jose was so afraid to rock the boat that he couldn’t even do what was morally right in this case. After several “come to Jesus meetings” this man finally realized that my wife and I had been victimized by this school principal. He made sure we were paid for our expenses and very soon thereafter the principal retired! This poor beat down pastor couldn’t come to grips with the fact that he was “the man” that God had chosen to lead that flock and that the buck stopped with him. He lacked such confidence to believe in himself and his own abilities and that’s what was so sad. Somewhere along the line he was led to believe that his role as pastor was to preach on Sunday! How sad for him.

  2. Brad Mullins April 18, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Uuuuh John Q, you must have not read my comment or you have taken it way out of context. What a foolish retort….It wasn’t about “showing him” it was about helping a poor beat down pastor that had lost all control of what went on under his leadership and under his own nose. Now if you have ever lived in Central America then you know how little people make here in terms of wages. Those jobs that we were going to accept would have paid us $650 per month. I have 10 years of experience teaching and I am educated in my field, my wife has a Masters degree in Education and speaks 3 languages. In other words we wanted to give back, we were basically donating our time.

    Your comments make it sound as if i was trying to “one Up” a pàstor, not at all. I did not criticize your story. I agree with some of your thoughts. The buck stops with the pastor plain and simple, whether 6,000 on Sunday or 30! When the buck stops stoppin with the pastor, he is done!

    • Brad Mullins April 18, 2014 at 9:44 am #

      BTW, I am a lifetime Broncos fan! I am 43 and lived in Denver when I was 7 and 8…the Broncos stuck! We have that in common my friend, so not all is lost!
      God Bless…

      • Geoff Surratt April 18, 2014 at 9:54 am #

        Hey Brad,
        I think you have me confused with John Q who wrote the snarky comment. His comment has been deleted.

        • Brad Mullins April 18, 2014 at 11:54 am #

          Geoff, your right! I was confused and I am sorry. I read your bio and I know that you live in Denver! I think I have that right!! Go Broncos, Go Peyton…


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