Have you ever been in a situation where someone had a leadership position over you, but you felt like you actually influenced them with guidance and instruction to a greater measure than they influenced you?
Have you ever been in that same situation and felt like your influence was simply and consistently rejected?
Have you ever been in a leadership position over someone else and observed that the other person was hesitant to contribute their influence to you?
Have you been in that same situation and felt like the expectation from others was that you’d handle things and make decisions when you really desired it to be a collaborative effort?
If you’ve been in any of these situations, didn’t it feel awkward, unnatural and frustrating?
That’s because you weren’t designed for it. These feelings were the result of the tiered relationship structure you were a part of. In that structure, control is locked into a person based on the relative tier they’ve been given or they take.
Unfortunately, most church organizational structures are based on this.
In other relationships, control may be given or taken for other reasons, like – I’m a male and you’re a female, I’m smarter and you’re dumber, I’m talented and you’re not as talented, I have these credentials and you don’t, I’m more mature and you’re less mature, I’m richer and you’re poorer, I’m this race and you’re that race, etc. etc. etc.
It’s all about partnership
The story the Bible tells from the very beginning communicates that humans weren’t designed for that. They were designed to be partners with God and other humans to accomplish His purpose.
The idea of partnership is a key thread that’s woven throughout the entire Bible story and is foundational to a healthy of understanding of church administration.
Relationships, families, communities, nations and the world get unhealthy when this idea of partnership isn’t held front and center. The result is organizational models that enable unhealthy, selfish and destructive behavior.
From Genesis 1, the Bible’s consistent revelation through its authors to us is that humans were designed to be a diverse collection of partners acting like One Person – being a physical representation that displays God’s character and rules His good world by His sustaining Life. The Bible starts and ends that way.
As the story unfolds, we learn along the way that what we’re accustomed to in the tiered relationship structures we’re a part of in our world (government, business, education, etc.) finds its roots in breaking partnership. Those structures are built upon different reasons for some to have more or all control, and others to have less or none.
The model is a Body
But there’s another relationship structure based on God’s design for partnership that opens up the vision and hope in the Bible story of oneness with and in Christ. The book of Ephesians describes it like the parts of the human body working together…
From Him the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (4:16)
Here, I’m going to explain church leadership structure as taught by biblical authors using a visual representation of God’s design for partnership.
As we look at this together, remember that the word leadership is typically incorrectly associated with tiered relationships. If you think about it this way, you will struggle.
A better way to think about leadership is simply as influence. Without a structure that locks control into relationship tiers, that’s all the concept of leadership really is.
How influence is supposed to flow through the Body
We start with Christ as the Center and Source of all human relationships. He is represented by a center circle.
The outer circles represent people. The size and thickness of the circles represents their stature in Christ, which is according to the collective perspective of the others, not themselves.
The light blue lines connecting the outer circles to the Inner Circle represent the influence Christ is having in each person’s life. Their thickness represents the measure of His influence.
The green arrows pointing from one circle to another represent the influence Christ is having through each person to the other. Their thickness also represents the measure of that influence.
If the people “hold the circle,” meaning they resist the temptation to establish a tiered relationship structure that breaks partnership, they will allow Christ to lead them collectively through all the members together.
As Ephesians 4 puts it (paraphrased)…
There is one Spirit that we should all draw from together in unity as He works Christ’s Mind and Love through each person uniquely for the building up of everyone together in Him.
This is the influence (i.e. “leadership”) of Christ through His whole Body in self-sacrificial Love and mutual submission…the exact nature Christ influenced with when He was in His first body (Phil 2:5-7).
This relationship structure is foundational to the Life of a healthy church. In fact, if Christ is the foundation of the church (practically, not just in words), it’s the only relationship structure it will take on.
But there’s also another type of influence INSIDE OF (not “over”) His whole Body. In fact, this type of influence is subject to the Body while at the same time being an equal part of it. (Note: Any Bible translation that uses the words “over” or “rule” to refer to this type of leadership will not be helpful to your understanding it.)
This is equipping leadership and is represented by the green inner circle. Those that display this 2nd type of influence have grown in stature to where they display Christ’s wisdom and character consistently throughout all the circumstances life presents. They have shown themselves to be seasoned examples of servants and slaves of Christ the Head and Body.
They are connected to the green inner circle by dark green lines in the image above, but they never leave the outer circle. They function as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
One more reminder…just because it’s so important to keep front and center in your mind to understand the biblical message…God’s design for relationships is all about partnership. This design applies to the interaction between body influence and equipping influence as well. It’s a partnership, and they have different roles.
Submit to one another
Just like equippers voluntarily submit to the Body, the Body voluntarily submits to the equippers. A mutually submissive partnership, just like the design for a Christ-centered marriage (Ephesians 5). Different, but equal. Diversity in unity.
In fact, Paul says this right before talking about how relationships were designed to work in Ephesians 5:21…
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That statement is not dependent on any role, influence or function a particular person has in the Body.
Every instance of the equipping influence of Christ within the Body is described with words that mean to GUIDE, TEACH and CARE. The equipper’s role in the co-equal partnership within the Body is to reveal more of Christ as they display Him in loving proclamation, teaching and counseling through their particular abilities.
DISCERN, DECIDE and DO
The role of the Body (of which equippers are a co-equal partner) is to DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO. They are to DISCERN how Christ is leading them, DECIDE how to move forward together, and DO what is decided. This is shown in the very meaning of the word church (ekklesia in Greek) – “an assembly of the called-out ones.”
DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO is not the role of equippers alone, and you don’t see them taking control of this in the early churches. When it comes to DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO, they are a co-equal Body member that is influencing according to the stature of Christ they’ve attained with the whole Body together, just like every other body part.
Just like a healthy human body, a healthy Body of Christ coordinates itself in unity with every part to DISCERN, DECIDE and DO as the Head directs it. If this wasn’t the case, the body would be perpetually injured as different parts were constantly attempting to go different directions.
When partnership is broken
This is one of the more common ways partnership between the parts of the Body gets broken. Equippers are not to take control of DISCERN, DECIDE and DO. If and when they do, a tiered relationship structure has now been created. They are usually well-intentioned, but haven’t been very well-equipped themselves.
In churches that do this, I’ve noticed these kinds of results…
- Identity loss. Body members don’t understand who they really are as co-equal partners and fail to contribute equally. You’re left with the priesthood of some believers instead of the priesthood of ALL believers.
- Lack of buy-in. Body members aren’t motivated. People that don’t contribute to DISCERN and DECIDE typically don’t DO.
- Wisdom is limited. DISCERN and DECIDE contain more error, less creativity and less effectiveness.
- Equippers over-contribute. The Body doesn’t buy-in, so a few do more of the work…the exact opposite of what Ephesians 4 said should occur in the partnership.
- Equippers get puffed up. Because they’re doing most of the work, they think more highly of themselves than they ought, which is likely what led to breaking the partnership in the first place.
- Lack of unity. Unity isn’t about the outcome of DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO. It’s about the relational process.
To close this post (and the whole Servants and Slaves series), here are some insightful quotes about church leadership structure from Episodes 15 and 19 of the Insurgence podcast where Frank Viola (ReImagining Church) and John Nugent (Endangered Gospel) talk at length about this issue.
“In the Kingdom of God, you have different giftings and measures of spiritual growth. But in terms of function, ministry and equality, everyone is at the same level.” (Frank Viola)
“When all believers together influence (lead) one another in their different and unique ways and with their different and unique perspectives, the world sees that God is among them (I Cor. 14).” (Frank Viola)
“If the Whole Body isn’t leading together in their own gifting and in one accord, the equippers haven’t equipped properly.” (John Nugent)
“Having some in the church who are leaders (influencers) and some who are not is not of the Kingdom.” (John Nugent)
“The kind of leadership you have shapes a certain kind of Body. Power is going to function throughout the Body in a way that is consistent with the leadership structure.” (John Nugent)
“You can’t give leadership a worldly kind of power to make sure the church doesn’t exert a worldly kind of power in their life together.” (John Nugent)
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.
I’m in a situation with unhealthy leadership, I find myself focusing on the unhealthiness and even being pulled into unhealthy practices just to try to influence a more health approach.
I can find a lot of solid information (as the type provided hear) on how to I identify unhealthy (and healthy) practices, but little resources on how to approach unhealthy practices. Is prayer the only arrow in the quiver?
Great and practical question Wade.
The approach I’ve found to be most appropriate in the midst of unhealthy leadership situations is to express concerns gently and lovingly, suggest exploring the topic together with quality resources and then see what the reaction is.
If you learn and make progress together and you sense a reciprocal respect and humility to learn and grow together, go down that path. If there’s resistance and combativeness and any attitude that the others are superior, more mature, hold authority and won’t submit to what’s outlined in this post (and in resources like the book I reference), gently and lovingly remove yourself from those relationships as quietly and with as little damage as possible.
I dive a little deeper into this subject in the post To To Leave Or Not To Leave…A Church? That Is The Question.
Ultimately, godly mutually submissive relationships is what it means for Christ to be the foundation of a church. This is what everything else must be laid upon.
Pastor Peter G. Gweh
Thanks so much for your contribution of building God’s kingdom.
May God continue to empower to help the body of Christ.
Your’s in Christ.
Thank you for this. I am actually considering leaving my church of 14 years over this issue.
I belong to a micro-church that is pastored by a very well educated man of God who has over 25 years of dedicated ministry experience. My Pastor is very adept at helping people navigate through most crisis situations. He is also very skilled at exposition of biblical text. His sermons are well-structured and grounded in biblical truths. He avails himself to civic projects and charitable efforts. He has been there for me and my family during some difficult situations in my life. He has encouraged me to pursue my career goals and I have seen God’s blessings in this area of my life. Although, we can never be 100% certain what anyone does behind closed doors, as far as I know, he and his family live a life that honors Christ.
Unfortunately, as good as he is, I am concerned that he is not handling church administration properly.
He continuously makes major decisions regarding the ministry without the involvement of the members or the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees is comprised of my pastor, his wife, another lay member and myself. Yet, we do not function as a Board should. The other lay member and myself have zero involvement in any of the church administration. We are not kept informed of the financial status of the organization. We are only told about issues after our Pastor has already made his decision and carried out his plans. For example, the church was under the threat of foreclosure if a balloon payment was not made. For reasons that are unknown to the congregation, our Pastor chose not to inform the Board of this . Instead he took money from his retirement to pay off the balloon note. While this may have seemed like a noble thing to do, it was not proper. The Board is responsible for the administrative affairs of the church and we had a right to know this information before the decision was made. The congregation was not pleased with how this was handled, but we chose to overlook it because of our dedication to him and the ministry.
Another example, is that our Pastor rents property out to other churches and vendors without vetting it through the Board. We have no involvement in determine if these renters align themselves with the beliefs of the church. We have no involvement in determining the rental rate, we have never seen a lease agreement, we don’t know even know how much money our Pastor makes in rental fees. There no transparency or accountability regarding the administrative affairs of the church.
I have spoken to my Pastor gently and humbly about this before, but unfortunately his actions shows that he does not take my concerns seriously. To worsen matter, because my church is not part of denomination there is no one to whom I can escalate my concerns to. Overall, I feel that my Pastor has major trust issues and does not believe in the gifts, callings or abilities of his members when it comes to the ministry. This is proven in the fact that he has not made any effort to train and appoint any Elders, Deacons, Teachers etc. In fact, he continues to teach Adult Sunday School despite the fact that there are four capable teachers in the membership.
As I mentioned before, I have tried to be long suffering, taking my concerns to God in prayer and meeting with my Pastor to discuss these issues in a very humble way. Unfortunately, as much as I want to make the relationship work, I think it is apparent that my Pastor will not submit to any authority or hold himself accountable for said matters. In my opinion you can effectively shepherd a congregation if you are operating in this manner. All aspects of your life and ministry must align themselves with the word of God – clearly this is not the case at my church. The church was not designed for Pastors to be the sole administrators, we must have a checks and balances process in place.
As much as it hurts my heart, I think it is time for me to move on. I have resigned my position on the Board and considering resigning my lay membership from the church as well. The hurt and pain of this situation really troubles me on a daily basis. I wish my Pastor understood that we are not a threat and have no desire usurp his leadership. We want to HELP him ! – but he keeps pushing me away and leaving us out. There are gifts and callings that are sitting dormant not not being developed/ discipled.
I will admit that as of recent, I have grown cold and distant towards him because of this. I know it is wrong to react from emotion and this is something that I need to repent of. I admit and confess this. My heart is just so broken because I want nothing more than for this church to grow, thrive, and become all that God wants it to be.
Do you think that I am out of line ?
Have I misinterpreted scripture ?
Is there something I should do differently ?
I am open to feedback!
Unfortunately, the situation you speak of is quite common. Character is not foundationally seen in what a person does, but in how they make you feel. Jesus showed the disciples that it was mainly in their attitude and posture toward other humans through their actions. Here’s a series of posts called Servants and Slaves that I would suggest reading through. The golden question I would ask is “does this person make you feel more or less important than himself through his actions?”
From your description, it sounds like what you’re a part of is more built on this one man’s gifts, talents, personality and administration than anything else. As you have rightly pointed out, that is not the vision the New Testament gives for church life.
If every effort has been made to correct him (healthy leaders receive correction) and he has not received it, then your decision to move on is warranted.
A word of encouragement as you go through this transition – this experience is going to increase your discernment of who to partner with in spiritual community 100-fold. Don’t look to do life together primarily based on gifts, talents and abilities, but on character and a desperation for the Lord.