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.


Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

Denomination Church Logo

If you think you’re busy, you should talk to Emily Heitzman. She’s been serving as the youth pastor for… wait for it… THREE lutheran congregations in the Chicago area. Emily was one of the first people I thought of for this series because she did an amazing job of explaining what she appreciated about the ELCA to an outsider such as myself since she is originally from the UMC and then ordained in the PC USA. I hope you didn’t get too cozy with the Anglican Church from our last post…


I’m a Presbyterian (USA) pastor who serves three ELCA congregations. Though I’ve only been in the ELCA for three years, there is so much that I love about it!


The Work of the People

While ELCA congregations vary is worship musical style, most are highly liturgical. The definition of “liturgy” is “the work of the people,” and this is exactly what you will experience in worship at an ELCA congregation.

The ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.” We use our minds, hearts, mouths, ears, hands, and feet to experience God’s love and grace and share God’s love and grace to our neighbors. When God created us, we were made in God’s image and therefore our whole selves – including our bodies – were made good and are loved by God. For this reason, worship requires the full body and all the senses. We sit to prepare ourselves for what is to come. We stand (as we are able) when the Gospel is read as a sign of respect. We might kneel out of humility during confession and use ancient prayer gestures with our hands. We may bow toward the cross as a reminder of Jesus’ humble acts.

As Christ offers us peace, we pass that peace of Christ to one another through handshakes or hugs. We might process with the cross as a sign that Jesus is constantly journeying with us and leading us. We may walk toward the altar to receive the bread and wine in response to Jesus’ invitation to come to his Table. And we may trace the sign of the cross over our upper bodies as a reminder and sign of our baptism. As a reminder that Jesus died and rose from the dead for us so that we might live.

As a reminder of who we are and whose we are.

Worship is not a place for us to just observe and consume – like when we attend a concert. It is a place where we fully participate as members of the body of Christ so that we might be formed and nourished by our loving God. And every ancient practice we partake in connects us with the Church universal… with Christians throughout all times, traditions, and places.

If you worship with the ELCA, you will likely spend some time in silence. We live in a busy and noisy world. Yet, God calls out to us: “Be still and know that I am God.” God not only calls out to us through words and music, but God also calls out to us and meets us in the silence. We need to be still sometimes. And making space for silence on Sundays helps shape us for how we are to make space for God during the rest of the week.

Most ELCA congregations follow the liturgical calendar (church calendar) and use the Revised Common Lectionary (set readings for each Sunday that covers almost the entire Bible in three years), which connect us with the larger universal Church and enable us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and relive his life and ministry every year.

In ELCA congregations, the Word is proclaimed in numerous forms and is not just the work of the pastor. God calls each of us to use our gifts to proclaim the Word both in the Church and in the world. In most congregations, the Holy Communion is celebrated every Sunday. We believe that both the Word and Sacraments are a means of grace. Through them, God’s presence is made known and God touches us, forms us, and nourishes us so that we might have the strength to go out into the world to share God’s love with others.

Confessing the creeds (Nicene or Apostle’s) every week is an important means for connecting us to the universal Church and shaping us in our theology in ways we don’t always recognize. During youth group discussions, my youth continue to amaze me when they explain important parts of our Christian theology that they know because they confess the creeds every week. The repetition of communion liturgy – which is often chanted – also shapes us in important ways. Just a few months ago, I saw a facebook post from another Lutheran pastor. He wrote: “This week I got a note from a family who heard their young one (age 4) singing Frozen songs, and then breaking into our communion liturgy.” This is the wonderful thing about liturgy: it provides God’s children – both young and old – with words to express praise to God through the every day joys in life… like Disney songs!


Living Out Our Baptisms

In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptismal covenant. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. We are in God’s story and we are called to recognize that others are in God’s story, as well.

We are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together on Sunday, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.

Through us, God is at work in the world: “God’s work, our hands.”

As someone who is new to the ELCA, the more I have been a part of it, the more I’ve grown to love it. There is a place for newbies, myself included. And there is a place for you, as well. So, if you are searching for a new church home, check it out! I think you might grow to love it!


About Today’s Guest Blogger

unnamedRev. Emily Heitzman is a graduate from a United Methodist seminary and an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor who serves as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households for three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago. Prior to her current call, she has served in Evangelical Covenant, Congregational, and American Baptist churches… Her colleagues call her an ecumenical bricolage. Emily loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan, and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog at


About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.


5 Signs You Don’t Have an Abusive, Megalomaniacal Pastor

A Christian Survival Guide

A few years ago I was meeting with my pastor, and friend, to talk about communication because our church had almost shut down. Things needed to change… fast. He’d been the teaching pastor while the “Lead” pastor ran things into the ground. My friend’s honesty and focus in the middle of the crisis were refreshing.

Several ongoing church events/ministries were struggling to continue, and he took a very frank, people-focused approach:

“If we have enough people willing to make them happen, that’s great. If not, we’ll put those things on hold to make sure we can do a few things well. Right now we need to focus on communicating better and helping everyone navigate this season of transition.”

In case you aren’t familiar with how churches can work sometimes…

  • He didn’t fall for the temptation of putting ministries above people.
  • He didn’t focus on how it would make him look to have a ministry end.
  • He also focused on the particular season of the people in our church: a lot of people were hurting, and he knew that he needed to focus on helping them.

You don’t have to look too far these days to see what a terrible pastor looks like. Perhaps you’ve been under the authority of a terrible pastor for so long that you’ve forgotten what a good one looks like.

While I’ve had a few crazy pastors over the years, I’ve been blessed with quite a few good pastors and teams of pastors, men and women, young and old, who modeled all that is good about pastoral ministry. Having chosen to not go into full time ministry myself because I felt like I didn’t have the right skill set for it, I have taken note over the years about what makes a good pastor:


  1. Your Pastor Has Accountability

Congregational churches typically have a mishmash of elders and congregational accountability that is manifested through votes. Other churches function with a hierarchy of elders and/or bishops who provide oversight and accountability.

Both models (and their many variations) have strengths and weaknesses. The key is that pastors shouldn’t be able to stack the deck in their favor. They need people who can speak with bracing honesty into their lives for their own health and for the health of their congregations. If a pastor has overstepped his/her authority at any point, members of the congregation need a reliable place to go to share their concerns.


  1. Your Pastor Delegates Responsibility

The best pastors I’ve worked with over the years gave away their power by empowering others and letting fellow pastors or lay leaders make important decisions or lead critical groups or ministries. Pastors who try to control too much inevitably burn out.

Interestingly enough, Jesus delegated a ton to his disciples before they even understood what kind of Messiah he would be—if some believed he was the Messiah at all. His disciples were empowered to baptize, cast out demons, preach, and heal.

Narcissistic pastors will be the most defensive and possibly abusive since they will try to protect their positions and public perception about them by concentrating as much power as possible.


  1. Your Pastor Communicates

I grew up in a church where the pastors effectively used the bulletin, website, and church events to communicate. They moved intentionally slow in order to keep everyone on the same page.

I don’t think communication is the same thing as building consensus, although it can help build consensus. Communication should at the very least inform members about a process or expected change so that they aren’t surprised by a dramatic change on Sunday morning.

Part of belonging to a community is communicating in order to keep everyone in the loop. Taking an analogy from a family, it’s a pretty terrible idea to spring a move to another city or even a nearby house on the kids without telling them that you’re looking at houses or considering buying a new house, etc. The kids don’t get to decide where you’re going to live, but they should know about the process before you tell them to start loading the moving van.


  1. Your Pastor Leads Relationally, Not Positionally

The best pastors I’ve seen over the years lead through lunches, breakfasts, and coffee meet ups. They host meals where leaders and groups gather together for discussions. They listen and share what they’re thinking.

They get things done, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time to launch a new small group or ministry, especially if the people involved are new. They need time to build up a relationship.

I’ve read stories about pastors who demand obedience because of their positions that are allegedly based on biblical authority. These pastors are the bullies who make demands as authorities rather than asking for help as members of the same church family who are guided by the same Spirit.


  1. Your Pastor Is Not Key to Your Church’s Success or “Brand”

If people talk about your church, are they talking about the kinds of things your church does or do they inevitably talk about your pastor? While some pastors are naturally more interesting and popular than others because of their preaching style, I’d be worried about attending a church where the pastor is the main highlight rather than the actual ministries of the church.

There are lots of bad reasons to attend a church, and a rock star pastor is among the worst because it’s not sustainable and could breed a really unhealthy atmosphere that is more centered around entertainment and making fans rather than community outreach and making disciples.


What are some other marks of a good pastor?


Read more about the ways bad churches happen to good people in my new book:

A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth.