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Unintended Consequences of “Strategic Church Leadership”

Unintended Consequences of Church Leadership

For those of us old enough to remember church in the 1980s, it was essentially the 1950s trying to hold on for dear life:

  • Pews
  • Choirs
  • Stained glass
  • No theatrical lighting
  • The “sound system” was something probably purchased and wired from the local (and now extinct) Radio Shack. 

The changing times and the clinging to the past led to a movement or shift. 

1980s church
1980s Church in a Nutshell (Source: Pinterest)

In the 80s, there was a movement towards “excellence” in the Church to create an “experience” where someone could encounter Jesus. This push for excellence came from one too many examples of the proverbial “special song” sung in church by a well-meaning, but frightfully off key person week after week from a cassette cued from the back like a really bizarre Jesus karaoke night.  Anyone that went to church in the 80s knows EXACTLY what I’m talking about. 

I remember a man that would sing almost every week at my church when I was in high school, and I kid you not… he sounded just like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.  Can you hear that in your head?  Yeah.  That’s how he sounded.  Oh… and to drive this home even more – this was in Kansas. You can’t make this stuff up. 

Church Excellence in a Nutshell

So there was a push towards making things more professional: Singers on stage were to be people that could actually sing on key and have a stage presence. They had to look and sound the part.  Production, lighting, visuals…  all of these things were added to create an “experience.”

Yet with all good or well-meaning intention comes unintended consequences. 

In time, one could argue that church in many places had became theater.  Services became a show.  And this mindset still exists in the church in many places today.  I literally had someone tell me once “If we really want to see this church grow, we need to work on getting our production better, our audio better, and our lighting better.” 

But after the push for excellence came another movement, and this movement is the one we are currently enduring as the church today: a focus on strategic leadership. 

Strategic Church Leadership

And this one, just like the push for excellence, came from a good place, with good intentions, and from great need. How many of us have had pastors that could break down chapter and verse, read from the Greek, and explain Calvinism, but they couldn’t lead their church to embrace a vision, accomplish a goal, or thrive? 

That leadership vacuum created the need for better leaders in the church. 

Do a quick search on church-related conferences available today and you will most likely see an emphasis on leadership in many forms. 

Church Leadership Conferences In a Nutshell

And again… there is nothing inherently wrong with that.  Who doesn’t want great leaders around them to lead and inspire?  But like the movement before, there have been unintended consequences: 

Somewhere… quietly… the focus shifted from making disciples to achieving goals.

Somewhere along the way – staff members and church attenders alike began to be seen as replaceable and expendable resources in a soul-crushing “church machine” made of unsustainable systems fueled by the rally cry that it is all “for the lost.”

Strategic Church Leadership Porn

Maybe re-read that line.  Does that resonate with you?  With over 25 years of serving in the church, I can tell you it does with me.  Listen:  You can fabricate an experience.  You can create hype moments.  You can even generate “energy.”  But you know what you can’t fake?  Disciples. 

And guess what people are looking for?  Honesty.  

I think we need to remember something very important at this point:  At Pentecost the followers of Jesus went from a faithful group of 120 people to a church of 3,000 in an instant.  The Church began without branding, a cool logo, t-shirts, banners, meticulous worship planning, comfy seats, a great sound system, a hip young and cool worship team wearing the latest fashion, or advertising on social media.  Instead, the Church began with disciples that were obedient to be available when the Spirit struck the match.  

Heart > Hype

Honesty > Hip

Holy Spirit > What We Thinks Grows The Church 

When we as church leaders forget these things, we fall prey to the grind of church work – a grind that leaves a trail of bodies behind:  People leave the ministry, the church, or the faith altogether because the church they see in the New Testament is not the church they experienced.

When the end justifies the means eventually the truth is revealed, and we are now seeing the consequences of this shift in the Church.  How many mega-church super pastors have we seen that have left behind them a long line of people that no longer serve in the church due to their toxic leadership’s narcissism?  Or a lack of trust?  Or a lack of what Simon Sinek calls a “Circle of Safety?”  Not to mention toxic leadership that “leads” without accountability as has been uniquely highlighted with a recent podcast. 

Fueled by a consumeristic mindset by church attendees (those that actually still go) – all of this has created a death spiral for some churches.  Why?  Because this way of “doing church” isn’t reproducing disciples; it’s only adding attendees.  

What I am trying to say in all of this (and very carefully) is not that excellence is bad or that leadership is bad, but rather that in our attempt for change we cannot abandon our first love for the sake of results.  It’s when “results” become a substitute for the gospel or discipleship that the damage is done. 

Jesus never asked us to seek after results. Jesus commanded us to love and care for people. 

A person may be a brilliant strategist, but if they do not love people as Jesus did or live their life in humility, they run the risk of not being a leader or a pastor in the eyes of eternity.  Sure, they may have that title – but we know from Jesus that the greatest in the Kingdom of God are the servants.  If someone claims to be a follower of Jesus and they’re a narcissist leader, that person is a double agent for the kingdom of darkness. Their shadow mission has replaced THE Mission. Such a person is causing irreparable damage to churches, families, individuals, and the reputation and name of Jesus.  

If I could challenge all of us on requiring a new standard for leadership in churches above and beyond getting results, it would be this:  LOVING WELL. 

Leaders: Does your team know you love them?  Do they know they can trust you?  Do they know you have their back?  DO THEY KNOW YOU LOVE THEM? 

If you’re not loving people well, you’re not following Jesus well. 

Follow well.

Love well.

Only then you can lead well. 

I write this article feeling two key tensions: 

1. I’m challenging church leaders to not be narcissists while writing a post that says “listen to what I have to say.”  One might ask, “Who are you to say anything at all?  Why listen to you?”  I get that.

2. Narcissists won’t read this article anyway, unless of course they think this article is about them.  Regardless of me not having a national platform or known beyond my immediate sphere, I still believe someone should at least start this conversation. 

And this article is not an indictment on the Church or Leadership Conferences. This is rather a call to repentance – especially for those of us in “leadership” in a local church.  We (the Church) need to remember when we choose leaders like Israel chose King Saul based on appearances it historically NEVER ends well.  I secretly wish the next movement in the Church will be a movement towards making disciples that are fully devoted to Jesus and living out the Christian faith as Jesus taught.  You know what the unintended consequences would be?  Only God knows, and I can’t wait to find out. 

Ok, so maybe you agree something needs to change.  Now what? 

Here are 4 next steps to consider: 

1. If you are about to add to your team, consider asking more questions in the hiring process than you normally would about how they have cared for their teams in the past.  Find the one that will help you build a better culture. 

2. Ask Jesus for guidance on how to better care for the team you currently have. 

3.  Consider finding two or three people you can pour more time and energy in to help them grow in their walk with Jesus. 

4. Talk more about followership, and less about leadership.

Let’s love God, love people, make disciples, and see what happens!

Article Written for Stuff Christians Know by David Cowan

David Cowan is the Executive Pastor of Programming and Communication at The Refinery Christian Church in Goodyear, Arizona.  He’s a three-time church planter, father of two, and married to his high school sweetheart.  You can most likely find him in a Disney Park snapping pics for his Disney Instagram account: @DizCartel

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  1. Spot on! I work in upper-level ministry and I see the tension described here. I use the word tension because we do need good leaders. But even more, we need leaders who are dedicated to making disciples of Jesus more than disciples of their brand.
    Thank you for writing & posting.

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