• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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….