The Church Needs Weak Leaders

When I read church leadership blogs, reference church leadership articles, or see the quotes and podcasts making the rounds on social media, I can’t help noticing how “strong leadership” is highly desirable for churches.

Strong leaders are organized, have a clear vision, listen well, and keep their teams moving forward.

Strong leaders equip others for ministry, train new leaders, and always prepare for whatever else is coming down the pike.

I mean, they also make time to pray and try to stay humble, but don’t forget they get alignment on their teams, properly onboard their staff, and make killer agendas for meetings. They know what they can’t do well and delegate to maximize their effectiveness.

A strong leader can initiate change, becoming the face of major initiatives. They communicate clearly, and they sometimes bear criticism, whether it’s fair or unfair.

If strong leaders are high capacity and successful, their flaws can be explained away as “quirks” or smaller matters that must be endured for the sake of the greater good. If a strong leader can reach more people for the Gospel, grow the church, and expand the ministry, then surely they can’t be held to account for some temper tantrums, power struggles, or making inappropriate remarks to their staff or congregation, right?

Leaders become icons for our ideal selves. They model what we want to become and lead us to where we want to go.

We want strength, purpose, direction, and influence. Sure, we would prefer that our leaders also remain humble and kind, but the more they deliver, the less urgent these virtues become in many church contexts.

It’s hard for us to imagine a leader proudly boasting of his/her weaknesses today as Paul did (2 Corinthians 11:30, 12:9).

It’s hard for us to imagine leaders emptying themselves of their power and influence much like Jesus did when he came to earth.

It’s so easy to get leadership, influence, and power wrong. And even if church leaders can point us to chapter and verse proofs for certain offices in the church, the truth is that we have a wide range of high and low church leadership models that all claim to be based on the same Bible. Who is to say which is the best or most faithful to God’s intentions?

I’m not so sure that a particular model is going to save us. Perhaps we could take the models we already have and ask something very simple of our leaders and ourselves: weakness.

What if we let our leaders appear exactly as they are in their weakness and fragility?

What if leaders felt free to tell us exactly how weak they are without fear of repercussions?

My guess is that such a suggestion makes the anxiety of many pastors go up a few notches. Why is that? Why is weakness and vulnerability such a liability when Paul boasted of his weaknesses and Jesus emptied himself of his power and heavenly glory to stand among us?

The average Christian in a church probably needs to expect “less” out of a pastor, not more. I mean that in the sense that pastors and other ministry leaders experience the same temptations, desires, frailties, doubts, and frustrations as all of us. They aren’t on a special fast track to holiness.

Some pastors may have dedicated more time surrendering these weaknesses to God because of the weight of their offices, but each pastor starts where we are.

As a Christian writer who encourages others to pray, I face my fair share of struggles to maintain my daily spiritual practices. Each new school year in our household brings a new schedule and fresh challenges to fit silent contemplation, the Examen, praying the hours, and spiritual reading into each day.

Without daily silence my anxiety comes roaring back. Without the daily hours, I become self-reliant and self-focused. Sloth and the path of least resistance become appealing as I seek to check out from life rather than to remain engaged with God, my family, and my responsibilities.

It doesn’t take a lot to send me off course, and the urgency of my writing about prayer comes out of the deep need I have for these practices. My weakness prompts me to write as I do, not my strength.

If anything, I often feel like a little cork bobbing around in a stormy sea, and my only hope is in God’s intervention to speak, “Peace, be still!” over my life. I can’t get myself back on track. I can only turn to God’s mercy.

I have a choice each day to surrender to God rather than to devote myself to the pursuit of my own comfort or my own entertainment. The more I’m focused on my weaknesses, the more likely I am to depend on God’s help.

Our tendency to focus on a leader’s strong organizational and interpersonal strengths can make it easy to overlook what those strengths may be hiding. Those weaknesses will come out to the light one way or another, and the sooner we face them in light of God’s mercy, the “stronger” we will be in the Spirit.

 

What If Christians Need Empowerment More Than Oversight

I’m an author and blogger from an unapologetically low church, Protestant background. I currently attend an Episcopal Church where I value our leadership while I continue to heed the insights of the pastors and family members who have invested in me. I see authority as much more of a Holy Spirit driven patchwork than those from a traditional high church background.

There remains an ongoing debate in many Christian blogging and writing circles about the place of accountability for bloggers and authors. Those from a higher church background are concerned about the possibility of error being pushed from more or less unaccountable bloggers in a theological wild west.

For instance, Jen Hatmaker’s support for LGBT relationships has received significant scrutiny. The merits of accountability aside, many noted that such scrutiny has hardly been applied to the many, many men who have built massive parachurch platforms while advocating for dubious if not outright heretical and/or violent theology. Even men who supposedly answer to elder boards or denominations have gone clear off the rails, with Robert Jeffress clearly leading the pack of unhinged conservative pastors where being “under authority” hasn’t done a bit of good.

I personally value accountability, although I maintain a low church view of it that surely won’t wash for my high church friends. I’m OK with their ire in this regard, but I also think we can move toward something better together.

I have long thought that the answer for the theological wild west of evangelicalism is better empowerment and teaching for the rank and file evangelicals. Back in 2007, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek megachurch lamented his own failure to teach his people better discernment and study. They had become too dependent on their leaders to spoon feed them theology and spirituality, and I frankly believe that too many churches are more than happy with the control that this arrangement affords them. Hybels’ assessment was spot on, and it’s worth our consideration today.

The answer to the evangelical wild west isn’t a stronger sheriff who keeps people from following dangerous outlaws or from joining unruly mobs. Rather, we need better information and more empowerment for the average Christian. We need to help people spot the counterfeits themselves and to evaluate their theology and spirituality better.

Someone once wrote about Christians as a kind of “priesthood of all believers.” There is a holy calling and responsibility on all of us. We all have our role to play in seeking the truth, living out of the authentic guidance of the Holy Spirit, and encouraging others to join us because they see the fruit of God in our lives.

I would much rather spend my time helping my fellow Christians examine the fruit of certain ministries and public teachers than to place restrictions on these ministries or to try to shut them down through external authorities. When these writers and teachers do step out of line, we can surely hold their publishers accountable, but the more effective long term strategy has more to do with what we teach and live than who we regulate under authority structures.

We have the God-given power to embody the goodness of the Holy Spirit. We have the wisdom of the Spirit to see the good fruit or bad fruit of others. Leaders can help us in this regard, but I hardly see the benefit of a system where leaders give their authorization to certain blogs and not to others.

Leaders can empower their people to spot a counterfeit and to help their congregations make decisions accordingly. This strikes me as truer to the spirit of the scriptures than a more hierarchical authority structure. Again, I’m biased here, and I am happy to agree to disagree.

Rather than setting boundaries around our theology and spirituality, I see leaders as the people who are guiding us toward Christ at the center. They should be the people who model the genuine love of the Father, the generosity of the son, and the wisdom of the Spirit to the point that boundaries become more of an afterthought. When we see the fruit of God’s presence in their lives, all other paths into error will become more of an afterthought.

I Would Rather Be an Atheist Than Attend the Village Church

truth

UPDATE: The Village Church has apologized and reconciled with Karen Hinkley, admitting wrongdoing and pledging to review all policies related to this situation.

 

When I compared the people who rejected Jesus with the people who accepted Jesus for a recent book project, there is one stark difference between the two.

Those who rejected Jesus had systems of religious practices and theological constructs to rely on and defend. When Jesus came to fulfill the law, impart the Spirit, and offer access to God outside of religious authorities, they saw him as a threat.

Those who accepted Jesus were generally the sinful outsiders who had little to no previous connection with God. They had been rejected by the religious institutions and the leaders who controlled the insiders and outsiders. They didn’t rely on laws or rules to get in with God. They were no doubt living in sin, but they also didn’t have a false sense of connection with God. They were ready to receive God’s genuine freedom, not a man-made counterfeit based on proof-texting and laws.

I’ve been following a recent series of events involving a missionary named Karen Hinkley affiliated with The Village Church in Dallas, a congregation that is led by Matt Chandler. Chandler, it should be noted, leads the Acts 29 Network, a church planting network that had long been affiliated with well-documented spiritual abuser Mark Driscoll until Driscoll’s misdeeds became too much of a liability.

I’ll offer a brief summary of the situation involving the Village Church. Karen (now Hinkley) and Jordan Root were serving as missionaries, Jordan confessed to viewing child pornography (and later admitted to abusing young girls when he was underage), Jordan also has a long history of being in situations with young, vulnerable children, Karen opted to annul the marriage and leave Jordan, the Village Church disagreed with Karen and placed her under church discipline, Jordan is allegedly a member in good standing because he “repented” despite his history of lying, Karen is under church discipline, and The Village Church has denied her request to terminate membership.

Karen has pleaded with The Village Church to be more forthcoming about the details surrounding her husband and has asked them to work diligently to uncover any inappropriate contact he may have had with children as proof of his repentance.

Rather than apologize for the creepy, cult-like “denial” to Karen’s letter terminate her membership, The Village Church dug in further and sent a rather terrifying self-justifying letter in which the church leaders described Karen as a covenant member who must abide by the counsel of her church leadership and work to restore her marriage. The biblical proof-texting in this letter is unfeeling and almost robotic. Any sense of empathy or common humanity evaporates so long as Bible verses can be piled up.

It’s as if Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you proof text one another: just as I have proof texted you, you also are to proof text another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you proof text one another.” John 13:34-45, New Village Church Translation.

The Village Church has an allegedly air-tight, biblical rationale for everything, and that is their biggest problem. They can justify unreasonable expectations about exercising control in the lives of their so-called “covenant members” because they honestly believe they have the Bible behind them. They see themselves as the direct messengers of God who have correctly discerned the authoritative Word of God, and any disagreement with the “God-appointed” elders is a direct offense against God. How else can you explain such a heavy-handed, laborious response to Karen Hinkley when all they had to do was say, “Good bye”?

I would much rather start out at square one as an atheist or unrepentant sinner than place myself under the spiritual abuse, distortion of scripture, and controlling leadership of The Village Church. Honestly, such a closed, tightly regulated system will eventually fail many people eventually any way, so you may as well start out with a blank slate spiritually.

You won’t see your need for a savior if you’re constantly looking at the ways that the Bible makes you right.

While in seminary and in the years following, I have continually been challenged by the words of Jesus about this error: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40, ESV).

It’s not that The Village Church can’t preach the Gospel or hasn’t led people to salvation. It’s that the Village Church ties on burdens that people cannot bear and distorts or obscures the message of the Gospel with man-made laws. The Village Church leadership has a clean cup on the outside with shining scripture verses, but they distort a filthy inside that is rooted in over-reaching leadership and a lack of emphasis on love for the sake of being as “biblical” as possible. They have strained so hard at the gnats of “biblical leadership” and “biblical eldership” that they have overlooked the more basic commands to love one another.

I have been in conservative churches where these unhealthy dynamics have lead to spiritual abuse, judgment, severed relationships, and division. There is no doubt that people who are new to the Gospel without such a background are far better prepared to receive the Gospel. I’ve personally detoxed from negative church experiences for years and watched many friends do the same.

For every time I hear someone point to the “souls saved” by The Village Church or the Acts 29 Network, I’ll point them to the many friends I know who have either left the faith or struggled mightily for years to find peace with God after being exposed to such toxic theology and leadership.

I know that such a provocative post title must be difficult to read for people affiliated with The Village Church or who have benefitted from the work of Matt Chandler. I don’t write such words lightly. It’s my sincere hope that a post like this helps us have frank conversations about what healthy and unhealthy churches look like.

Most importantly, it’s my hope and prayer that the Village Church leadership rethinks the way it overreaches into the lives of covenant members. If they persist in their ways, I fear that they’ll be receiving a lot more requests to terminate covenant membership. Will they continue to deny the right of covenant members who disagree with them to leave?