The greatest cause for failure in ministry is failure in leadership. In fact, of the top ten reasons for forced terminations among Southern Baptist pastors, the top five relate directly to leadership. The number one reason, “control issues,” is cited nearly twice as often as any other factor. Sexual infidelity and financial dishonesty rank much lower—filling the ninth and tenth spots.
Make no mistake, leading a church is hard. Many who could be successful owning a business or working as an executive often fail in ministry. Multiple factors contribute to the difficulty, but a church is hard to lead mainly because a church is unlike any other organization. It is sui generis—utterly unique. Consider this: in secular business, an owner, CEO, or manager demands action from his employees, because he or she pays their salaries. Subordinates are financially dependent on the leader. In the church, the system reverses. Pastors and other ministers demand action from members, often exhorting them to do what they resist doing, but the members pay their salaries. Church leaders are financially dependent on the members! In churches that maintain a congregational church order, this “upside down” organizational motif expresses itself fully in that the locus of authority—the final say—is not vested in the pastor, elders, staff, or deacons, but in the will of the congregation itself—in the membership.
Don’t loathe these dynamics and don’t assume the church has been organized wrongly. The fact that the church isn’t like worldly organizations keeps the church from functioning like worldly organizations, and that’s good. Leadership in worldly organizations is often driven by a paradigm of power, personality, and popularity—“according to the flesh,” Paul might say (Rom 8:5). Exert that kind of influence in the church, though, and you’ll go down quickly, because the church is designed to prevent intimidating, marginalizing forms of leadership.
Yet, to avoid the appearance of “lording it over” the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5), pastors often default to a sneakier—and perhaps more sinister—leadership style, namely, that of superior character. Aristotle identified three “artistic proofs”—three modes of persuasion: logos (logic or argument), pathos (emotion/passion), and ethos (character). He did not, though, place all three on equal footing. Ethos, he claimed, is “almost . . . the most potent of all the means to persuasion.” In other words, the best way for a speaker to influence an audience is to convince them that he is a good person.
Aristotle’s character paradigm, however, creates as much a quagmire for the pastor as the power paradigm, because the very message he preaches indicts him as a sinner, preventing him from elevating his own character! The Apostle Paul felt—even embraced—this tension, calling himself the “foremost” among sinners (1 Tim 1:15) while urging people to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). He did this because he sought to lead not by elevating his own ethos (or his own logos or pathos for that matter) but by magnifying the logos of the cross.
“I . . . did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in much fear and trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom . . .” (1 Cor 2:1-4).
The logos of the cross guided Paul’s ethos and pathos. In other words, the cross shaped everything about Paul, not merely the content of his preaching. Paul’s message was about the cross and it was presented according to the cross. In the shape of the cross, he led people to the cross.
Leadership looks like a cross. Being “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20) means we must die to fleshly patterns of influence. Whether driven by selfish power or guided by elevated character, these methods are rooted in pride. Leading in the shape of the cross means surrendering one’s character to divine scrutiny (1 Cor 4:3-5), readily speaking of one’s weaknesses (2 Cor 12:7-10), and constantly turning attention away from oneself to God’s power and grace (2 Cor 4:5-7). Viewed “according to the flesh,” such self-effacement might appear to destroy influence. In the scheme of the gospel, though, shifting the focus away from leader and to the cross actually compounds the persuasive force of the message, because the message itself determines the motives and methods of the leader. After all, no one can read the gospels or Paul’s letters honestly and conclude that Jesus or Paul was passive, weak-kneed, or of little import.
So, how might the cross shape the way a pastor leads a congregation?
Cross-shaped leadership fights the right battle. Paul was willing to go the mat over the one true gospel (Gal 1), but was surprisingly flexible over secondary issues (1 Cor 9), even refusing to fight unnecessarily. Leading in the shape of the cross means directing effort toward the message of the cross and refusing to be sidetracked by nonessentials. A pastor will always be tempted to exert his influence to satisfy his own preferences in secondary matters of style or structure, when the demand of his office is to focus fully on the substance of his work—the gospel.
Cross-shaped leadership fights the right way. Jesus demanded (Matt 20:26-28) and demonstrated (Phil 2) humble, obedient service to God and others, and Paul endorsed nothing less, insisting that he and his associates did not wage “war according to the flesh” (2 Cor 10:3). The gospel provides not only the content of our preaching, but also the method of our leading. We lead as we live, as crucified men—dead to ourselves and dead to the world—only to have life by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20).
Leading in the shape of the cross won’t solve every leadership problem—it’s no panacea for the difficulty of pastoral work. Nothing shaped like a cross—a brutal instrument of lethal torture—is easy or comfortable. Yet, we need to confess that some of the “control issues” in churches are our issues—problems we impose on our ministries by following faulty patterns of leadership. Let’s not make our work harder than it already is. Spurn the fleshly tendencies toward power and pride to lead in the shape of the cross.
For a fuller, scholarly discussion of cross-shaped persuasion, see Andre Resner, Jr., Preacher and Cross: Person and Message in Theology and Rhetoric.
I promised my wife I would write this blog. It is for her and mothers like her, who give all they have to their children only to be told by a cacophony of voices that they should do better. May their critics be silenced, their children bless them, and their husbands defend them. If we don’t, no one will.
There are some Christian radio talk shows I stopped listening to long ago. They are the ones dedicated to a number of topics, but their bread and butter topic is parental advice. Week by week they roll out a star studded cast of guests who share clinical, experiential, and anecdotal expertise on what parents should and should not do. Mothers are frequently the target audience. I have no doubt that what they do is helpful to some degree. But I believe their efforts sometimes only create unrealistic expectations and place unbearable loads on the backs of the very ones they aim to help. Nothing is more irritating or unrealistic than to hear the ultra-soft spoken mother who has the Sinai-like tablets of motherhood that she wants to “share” with others (‘smash’ or ‘smother’ is more accurate).
In true law-sounding fashion, they are full of “thou shall not” statements. The law-thumping critics of mothers may not explicitly express them in the same way I do here, but this is more or less their message. This is a small sampling of things I’ve heard pushed on moms over the years. God forgive us, but here they are:
1. Mom, thou shall never raise your voice to your child. Show me a mother who never raises her voice to her child, and I’ll show you a child who doesn’t really care what mom says—no matter how sugary-sweet her voice may be!
2. Mom, thou shall never allow your child to watch more than 1 hour of television per day. If your TV is on for more than 1 hour in a 24 hour period, I hate to break it to you, but your child is watching—hearing—sensing more than 1 hour per day. And for those of you who have created a fence around this commandment such as “we don’t have a television,” I’m counting ipads, iphones, tablets, computers, etc. Some of the biggest law-thumping critics of mothers are those moms who don’t dare watch television but instead spend a ridiculous amount of time on the internet looking for sewing instructions on how to knit a cover for their child’s ipod. I have nothing against sewing, but you get my point.
3. Mom, thou shall never allow your child to eat anything except organic food. Really? I hate to burst your organic bubble, but unless your growing food in your backyard fertilized by your family’s own excrement, here’s a dirty little secret—it’s not organic. If you want to whip up a batch of organic French Fries, feel free. But please don’t criticize the mom who orders a large fry at Wendy’s and calls it a snack for her kids (besides they use ‘sea salt’ at Wendy’s now).
4. Mom, thou shall never send your young child to bed without a story. Here’s a non-fiction and true to life story for your youngsters. It’s entitled “Mom is exhausted. Good night.” I hear it’s a bestseller.
5. Mom, thou shall never allow your children to go out of the house without proper clothing and hygienic practices. So little Timmy has on a flannel shirt with his sweat pants and sandals. Does he have a job interview I don’t know about, or are you really auditioning for others through your child? I think they call that child labor, and it’s been illegal since FDR’s reforms in the late 1930’s.
6. Mom, thou shall dedicate one interrupted hour of time to each child each day. Nobody does this. I’m not even going to address it. It’s like looking for Bigfoot. Everyone says it exists, but there’s no real evidence.
7. Mom, thou shall only allow your children to listen to Christian music. The Crisler house has spent plenty of nights after dinner lip syncing the likes of Willie Nelson, Taylor Swift, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, and others that I’ll not mention to avoid answering emails from overly zealous pietistic parents. Does mom monitor it? Absolutely. Do our children have a thirst and hunger for inappropriate music? Nope. Because we’ve shown them first hand what is what when it comes to music. Besides, singing “Come back Lord Jesus and pick up John Wayne on the Way” by Willie Nelson is a blast. And a great opportunity to talk about biblical eschatology.
8. Mom, thou shall be an expert in the following areas: all curriculum from kindergarten to college preparatory classes; pre-teen and teenage relationships (and beyond); minor plumbing issues (and some major ones); cooking of all kinds; small carpentry projects (and some major ones); painting; sewing; decorating; taxes; insurance; etc., etc., etc., and etc. Is there any person on the planet who can do or know all these things? This person, this mother, simply does not exist.
9. Mom, thou shall receive no credit when things go well with your children but all the blame when things go wrong. Why is the child “special” or “remarkable” when he or she does well? Yet, when the child does poorly at anything, people point the finger at the mom? Teachers should give gold stars to moms. In fact, moms should get a small stipend from school districts for all the teaching they do in the home.
10. Mom, thou shall make sure your child behaves appropriately in public at all times. I’m talking to you judgmental cashier, and other patrons of stores, who cast an evil eye at the mom whose child throws a temper-tantrum at a time that is inconvenient for you. Please refrain from wagging your head or winning the prize for “most obvious statement” of the year by saying to the mom “He’ upset.” That’s like saying the “Sun is bright.” Moms don’t need that kind of judgment from you. How about something like “It will be okay” or “Hang in there” or, wait for it, “Can I help?”
These are just some of the commands that people lay down for moms. The law-thumping motherly experts come in all shapes, ages, and genders. Just between me and you moms, ignore every single one of them. Entrust yourself to the gracious Judge. To the mom who has entrusted herself and her children to the crucified and risen Jesus, your judgment as a mom is “well-done” good and faithful servant. Your defense as a mom is not your expertise or pretentious adherence to a set of rules placed on you by others. Your defense is found in the gospel. Rest in it like that baby once rested in your arms. I love my mom and the mother of my children.