Charles Revis, Executive Minister ABCNW

I’m not a birder. I know little about the pursuit. But, I do enjoy catching glimpses of colorful songbirds. I think I picked this up from my grandfather who birded as a casual hobby. I remember off hand comments he would make about a certain cardinal, maybe it was a Baltimore oriole, showing up around his house because the weather had turned warm. I do know that part of the excitement of birding is spotting rare species.

There is a rare bird in the ministry. It’s the pastor who ably combines leadership AND authority, executes ministry well, without a heavy hand, and with loads of grace and love that emanate from Jesus Christ. This article is about the importance of creating this rare bird. (Yes, it is created!)

First, let me start by stating a conviction I hold in regard to pastoral authority. It’s based on personal experience, observation and Scripture. Here’s my conviction: When the pastor of a local church is given both the responsibility and the authority to lead, and leads skillfully, there is a better than average chance the church will flourish.

I can state the conviction in another way: A key to a vibrant congregation is a pastor who is competent in exercising visionary leadership with gentle authority. Certainly, skilled leadership is not the only factor that makes for a healthy church. But it’s the primary common denominator in a growing church regardless of its size, culture or ministry context. The inverse of my conviction is also true: The absence of effective leadership results in a struggling congregation.

All too many American Baptist Churches fail to comprehend the strategic importance of this conviction. Many will give lip service to it. They will say they value the pastor as a leader. But, when it comes down to it, it’s often a hollow affirmation. Even if the pastor has the drive and the skill-set to lead, the church’s structure, culture and certain dominant individuals may work to counter a pastor’s leadership.

Consider how structure blocks a pastor’s leadership efforts. Many traditional church structures have redundant layers of management. The typical form of this is the multi-committee governance system common among ABC churches. In this system, initiatives and decisions must first pass through a gauntlet of committee approvals. In government we call this red tape. In church we call it “getting permission.” For the pastor who dares to lead, having to shepherd every decision through such a maze is ultimately defeating.

Another structural obstacle to pastoral leadership is the failure of the congregation to assign authority to the pastor. It’s a common assumption and expectation that the pastor should lead. That is, he or she is given the responsibility to get things done, but the authority to actually make decisions and take initiatives is withheld. The pastor must gain approval from a group or individual before taking action. This is like sending a boxer into the ring with his main weapon, his right hand, tied behind his back. Or, imagine how ludicrous it would be for the manager of a local Walgreens to have to call up a local oversight committee for permission each time she hires a new employee.

Responding to the fact that some structures stymie pastoral leadership, a significant number of churches in the ABC of the Northwest have changed their governance system. The more effective systems wed leadership responsibility with authority, giving both to the pastor. The most common form of such a structure is a single-board system. In our Region we encourage churches to use a modified version of John Carver’s accountable governance system. With this system the board governs through policies and budgetary guidelines established in collaboration with the pastor. Once these parameters are set the pastor is given freedom to play the entire field, as long as he or she stays within the boundaries. Certainly, it is advisable for the pastor to seek the wisdom of the board’s counsel in making major decisions, but it’s not required.

But, even if the structure is fixed, a more powerful obstacle to pastoral authority may be the church’s culture. If the culture is change-resistant, tradition-bound and self-serving then it will be impossible for the pastor to lead. In too many dying ABC churches the culture has calcified into traditions that perpetuate a form of ministry that was designed for 1961. Changes that would help the congregation engage our post-modern world are robustly resisted. Expectations, ingrained through years of tradition, insist that the pastor attend primarily to the needs of the members as their personal chaplain. Such tradition bound cultures turn pastoral leaders into paid hirelings, curators of religious museums. (The alternative is the pastor as cultural exegete, mission architect, visionary prophet and chief equipper of the body for ministry.)

Yet another undermining factor to pastoral leadership is the church controller or boss. This is the person who, over time, has become the dominant church patriarch, or matriarch. I was once told by such an individual, “You know, pastors come and go in churches, but our family will always be here.” The not-so-subtle threat in that declaration sent chills up my spine. Often these folks start out with good intentions. That is, they want to protect the church from harm. They may have held the church together during a period of conflict. Or, they were the major financial contributor during lean years. Having taken on the role of church protector they devolve over time into the church dictator. Such people have a difficult time allowing the pastor to lead, because they assume that role for themselves. They will undermine the pastor through underground resistance, or they may overtly block the pastor through power plays. Controllers pull the rug out from underneath pastoral leadership and authority.

What should be done so that the pastor is affirmed in leadership with authority? The answer to this question goes far beyond the scope of this article. However, one important step is for the congregation as a whole to elevate its value of pastoral leadership. That is, the role of pastor-leader must be esteemed and protected. Furthermore, shifting the church culture so that the congregation behaves as a learning, adaptive community that readily adopts new approaches to ministry is another critical step. Not only can the church learn to address these three obstacles that inhibit pastoral authority, it can reorganize itself in such a way that the pastor is given permission to lead with authority while being held accountable to reasonable boundary principles.

But…but…I can hear the push back, even at this distance! I’m quite aware of the objections. I encounter them all too often in churches. Here’s a sampling: But, is it Baptistic? Where does that leave the congregation’s authority? And, what about the pastor who abuses authority, doesn’t this open the floodgates to misuse of authority? What does the Bible say about pastoral authority? Well, the answers to these questions will be the subject of the second half of this article. Look for it next week!

Discussion Questions (for use with the leadership board and/or church staff):

1. Does your church wed responsibility and authority together so that the pastor can actually lead? Or, does it separate the two, or withhold one? Assess your church’s expectations and support for pastoral leadership.

2. What boundaries are in place that the pastor, or any other leader, must not transgress in the exercise of leadership in your congregation? Are they clear? Are they reasonable? Does the congregation understand them?

3. Which is more likely to block pastoral leadership in your church? Structure, culture or personalities? Discuss how these roadblocks might be reduced or eliminated in your congregation’s setting.

The Rare Bird - Part Two