Leadership Structures as If We Believed What We Preach

Christianity Today magazine recently published a troubling article about a group of churches in the United States associated with Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California.

What was troubling was that an old, old pattern among evangelical leaders has emerged yet again. Entrepreneurial, charismatic leaders, such as Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith, strike out on their own in innovations that result in considerable blessing to many. Calvary Chapel was the home, most famously, of many of the “Jesus music” rock bands of the 70s and 80s and was a key centre for the “Jesus People.”

But such freewheeling personalities are prone to want to do it all themselves and to keep doing it themselves. And they typically fail to realize that the “go it alone” approach that made sense in the “pioneering” phase can devolve into sheer dictatorial egomania in the “settler” phase.

Such leaders have two positive options. They can do what Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago did: recognize his own limitations and ask the church to appoint leaders who could come alongside him and help the church grow in ways he could not. (Whatever else you might say about Brother Hybels, this is a remarkable move that deserves more recognition–and emulation.)

Or they can leave the church in the hands of others and go start something else, as entrepreneurs love to do.

But what they mustn’t do, and what Chuck Smith and others look like they’ve been doing, is retain leadership in ways that grossly overemphasize the importance of the “guy up front” and fail to take into account not only the limitations of any leader but also the likelihood of sin in such a situation. Lord Acton’s dictum applies here, too: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power absolutely.”

One of the oddities of so much American evangelicalism, in fact, is its simultaneous commitment to this ecclesiastical culture of populism–of personally-impressive leaders who appeal directly to the populace, without necessarily any legitimation or oversight by any standing institution–and to American political institutions.

American evangelicals typically lionize the entrepreneurial spiritual leader who boldly leads an institution by force of character, vision, and talent: a Billy Graham, a James Dobson, a Pat Robertson, a Charles Colson, or a T. D. Jakes. A new generation is on the scene now, building emerging (or is that “emergent”?) enterprises (or is that “empires”?) of their own.

These same Christians, however, typically also revere the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet these latter documents articulate a vision of leadership that is profoundly at odds with the paradigm of the single, popular leader wielding great personal command and responsible only to his followers.

For the Founding Fathers—despite their general lack of Christian orthodoxy—shared a strong expectation of sin among the powerful and feared above all the concentration of power that would enable tyranny. They therefore built the distinctive American system of checks and balances with this expectation and fear in mind.

Yet many evangelical leaders head organizations with precious few such curbs on their authority. And scandal after scandal thereby results, to the ever-renewed shock–shock!–of evangelical constituents whose dark theology of sin is simply not put to work in a prophylactic way in their own organizations.

Such structures open the way to financial misbehaviour, as I have warned here. And it enables all kinds of other self-indulgences.

We need to have leadership structures that make both sociological sense–what worked to get an organization off the ground is not likely what is needed to keep it flying—and spiritual sense–too much authority for too long is bad for anyone’s spirit, no matter how godly.

“Wise as serpents, innocent as doves”–that’s how we should be about leadership structures. Alas, in perpetuating these Big Man Shows, we’re as wise as doves and as innocent as serpents….

11 Responses to “Leadership Structures as If We Believed What We Preach”

  1. J


    Could you elaborate on your parenthetical comments re. emerging/emergent(?) enterprises/empires(?) please? Are you suggesting there’s something to be critiqued in the emergent movement? If so, what are you hinting at? (I suspect you’re being playful, actually, but I’m wondering if I’m missing something here. Some clarification would be much appreciated…)

  2. Glenn Keeler

    To begin with, you are right to warn of the repeated failing of pioneer leaders to establish accountability structures.

    However I have two quibbles with your post.

    First, somehow there is a sharp turn in your logic when you refer to the US declaration of independence and constitution. Regardless of any particular leader’s support for these documents, they can hardly be touchstones for church leadership. So if we want to have leadership structures as if we believed what we preach, perhaps we should look to the New Testament for those structures. There we might find principles such as plural leadership with a variety of giftings, collective seeking of God’s wisdom and direction, and so on.

    Second, Acton was wrong. Power does not corrupt. Power reveals the corruption that already exists. We have had many spectacular cases of leaders brought down by some public sin. The reason this brings them down, however, is the pretense that somehow they were not sinners. The world delights in outing hypocrites.

    But it is important to note that the “saint” caught “sinning” paradigm is a lie; we are all corrupt sinners. Wise leaders recognize this and gathers others around themselves who are aware of the leader’s (and their own) corruption, and hold him or her to account. This level of personal accountability is the beginning point for structural accountability in the church.

  3. Fred Harrell

    I think the structure needed is the “accountable leadership” model found in John Kaiser’s “Winning on Purpose”. I think it’s a must read for any church leader. It both recognizes the need for strong leadership by the pastor, while incorporating a solid structure of accountability.

    Read “Winning on Purpose” by John Kaiser.


  4. John Stackhouse

    Brother Glenn, of course I’m not suggesting that church leadership be decided by secular political documents. And I’m a Canadian, so I’m not particularly beholden to American documents anyhow!

    What I meant was to point out the irony that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, among others–nobody’s idea of pillars of orthodoxy–had a more robust, and accurate, idea of sin than do many evangelicals today. At least, that’s how it appears when one looks at the leadership arrangements they have constructed.

    And I think Acton was right: power TENDS to corrupt (which is what he actually said). It gives us greater scope to give in to our dark sides–which, as you rightly observe, are indeed ours in the first place.

    Brother J asks me to say more about my references to emergent empires. I’ll simply say this, for now. I’m still studying the emergent movement–or “conversation,” as many of them prefer this phenomenon to be labelled–and what I have learned so far is that generalizations are dangerous. So I certainly don’t mean to tar the whole group with this brush.

    I have observed at least a few emergent leaders, however, who seem utterly enamored of the “Big Man as Sole Leader” paradigm, and are building institutions on this basis. Indeed, some are commending it publicly to others as the best way to grow a church, saying that the most important factor is to “Get the right man.”

    Of course good leadership is important. But megalomaniacal, “accountable only to God–and peers I personally select” leadership is a recipe for trouble. Indeed, I fear for the disaster that I think is entirely predictable on this basis.

    I’ll leave it at that for now.

  5. Jim

    Prof. John,

    I’m someone who loves Calvary Chapel and is extremely grateful to Chuck Smith for his dedication, but I can absolutely appreciate your perspective. As much as I admire and am blessed by what Chuck in the power of Christ has accomplished, I worry about the state in which he will leave the church leadership when he steps down or is called home. Even now I feel concern that he has problems following through with difficult decisions and difficult actions that need to be taken. Please pray that men of God will be called and put in place to set up the sort of accountability and leadership structure that will be welcoming to the Holy Spirit as He seeks to abide and work in our midst.


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