4 Ways Church Leadership is Getting it WRONG

I fear several marketplace strategies we’ve adopted undermine the core of Jesus’ model.

church leadership

I have always been fascinated with leadership as well as church leadership. I read leadership blogs, buy leadership books and watch leadership videos. I love the leadership concepts the church has leveraged over the past 30 years for Kingdom effectiveness. Lately, however, I have been struggling with the disconnect I see between some of the leadership models in the church and the leadership model Jesus presented. This struggle was brought to the forefront by Simon Sinak’s latest TED Talk. (I highly recommend watching the 12 minute talk at the end of this post). What struck me was that Sinak seems to better define biblical leadership than many pastors, including myself. To quote Jesus’ brother James out of context, “These things ought not be.”

In response to a disagreement among his followers over who should be on his Executive Team, Jesus sums the model of leadership Sinek proposes this way:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28 ESV (Emphasis mine)

Every pastor preaches this models of servant leadership, but I fear several marketplace strategies we’ve adopted undermine the core of Jesus’ model. Here are four ways the church is getting leadership wrong:

1. Allowing the urgency of the mission to dictate leadership culture

This one sounds something like this

We can’t let the needs of individual leaders override the importance of the mission; rescuing people from the gates of hell. We are in a war and every war has casualties.”

I have a friend who pastors a church which is reaching large numbers of unchurched young adults. He is extremely focused on the mission and he refuses to let anything or anyone stand in the way. A mutual friend recently witnessed this pastor come apart on a couple of leaders who did not follow the prescribed protocol in their area of ministry. If these leaders don’t bring their  performance up to standard they will be fired. In the pastor’s mind the urgency of the mission overrides the needs of the individual.

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I can’t argue with my friend’s results (more on that in the number 2 below), but I’m not sure his leadership style lines up with Jesus’ model. No one has ever had a mission as important as Jesus, but even when his disciples messed up Jesus valued the individual over the urgency of the mission. Jesus didn’t even fire Judas.

2. Using growth as justification for culture

We’ve become so enamored with results in the church world that success can trump everything else. I’ve heard myself say, “Their church is growing so fast they must be doing something right.”

The reality is unhealthy leadership exists as much in growing churches as it does in flatlined churches, but sometimes growth masks underlying mistakes. Jesus never promised his model of leadership would grow a local church. Attendance shouldn’t mean we get a pass on sacrificial love for our staff and volunteers.

3. Seeing staff (and volunteer) churn as healthy

Many churches have bought into some aspect of top grading made famous by Jack Welch when he ran General Electric. The basic idea is that you only want “A players” on your team. To achieve this goal an organization regularly grades the staff; the A players are rewarded while the B and C players are weeded out. Some churches regularly force out 10-30% of their staff to continually upgrade their leadership. While other churches might not be quite so pragmatic, the idea of consistently weeding out under performers is almost universal.

The logic and results of this approach are hard to argue with. The challenge is this isn’t how Jesus’ led. He didn’t force Peter to resign because he just didn’t get it. He didn’t suggest to Thomas that he might want to look around for another rabbi since he didn’t seem to buy into Jesus’ vision. If Jesus utilized top grading he would certainly have let Bartholomew and Thaddaeus go for under performance. 

4. Replacing rather than developing staff

When youth group attendance stops growing its time to get a new youth pastor. When a ministry struggles its time to replace the volunteer with a staff member. When the children’s director struggles managing multiple campuses its time to find a higher capacity leader.

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Simon Sinek shares the story of Next Jump, a company that has a “no fire policy” From their website,

We don’t hire employees, we adopt family members. We don’t fire at Next Jump, we coach.

Charlie Kim, Next Jump’s CEO, says no one would lay off an under-performing family members, why would a company? 

Sure, that works at a secular company, but could a church that follows the teachings of Jesus operate that way? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be fun to try?

Where do we go from here?

My point isn’t that “they” are doing it wrong, my fear is that I am doing it wrong. I have read so many leadership books and studied so many successful models that I wonder if I have unintentionally moved away from Jesus’ model. Jesus was very clear,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.

What churches do a great job of demonstrating Jesus’ model of leadership?

Geoff Surratt
Geoff Surratt, having served Saddleback Church as Pastor of Church Planting and Seacoast Church as Executive Pastor, is now the Director of Exponential. (www.exponential.com) He also works with churches on strategy, structure and vision as a free agent church encourager and catalyst. He has over twenty-nine years of ministry experience in the local church and is the author of several books including The Multisite Church Revolution and 10 Stupid Things that Keep Churches from Growing.
  • jimtheyouthguy .

    I was having a similar conversation with a young man who is “under the radar” in China as an English teacher, though very much on mission to teach Christ. The conversation began as most of ours do, “So, what’s God teaching you?” His reply, “Serving my wife and children.”
    We talked about selfish acts, and self-centered motivations we both demonstrate in our lives and how easy it is to move back into “self” mode. The conversation wound around the concept of manhood and providing leadership in the home and I suggested the same Matt 20 passage as the model. We talked about how manhood is often presented in the church with a variety of mixed messages that often leads to confusion and misapplication of Eph 5 and Col 3. Which ultimately led to a discussion of church leadership (yes, a long way around to the subject, but context really does matter).
    In addition to Matt 20 as the model, I suggested James 3:13-18 as a criteria to gauge “biblical leadership”. Especially vs 17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. (Jas 3:17 NAS77)”. Oh,how rarely to I see gentleness! What I see often is jealousy, selfish ambition and arrogance.
    Of the points above, we only spoke of 3 and 4 specifically:
    “Healthy churn” is almost a mantra built into the church growth movement. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “The ones you start with are not the ones who will take you over the 150 hump. Don’t get too attached to your first 20 – they won’t be around when you are at 200”. We tend to look at the job as one of “seeking and saving that which was lost”, however, we miss the rest of the Shepherd metaphor. The shepherd defends, feeds and protects the flock. There is no illustration where a sheep is allowed to wander off or, worse yet, is driven away.
    Developing staff is virtually unheard of. We buy talent from outside or search out the “A” talent within, but we don’t have time to move people from “Cs” to “Bs” to “As”. That just takes too much time. Gotta keep movin’. We forget that the job is not to find leaders to but to disciple people to forgive, pray, love, confess, resolve conflict, serve sacrificially, give generously, look out not only for their own interest but also the interest of others, etc.
    We talked quite awhile about the “body” metaphor of Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12. In light of these, the leadership practices you mention above just don’t make sense.
    But, my opinion in this really doesn’t matter . . .
    I am an un/self-educated bi-vocational (part-time) pastor of 21 years (15 years with youth and 6 as “senior” (only) pastor. I have only served 2 churches (17 with the current church). After many “problems”, I became the last pastor standing and after the sale of our property, I saw our congregations decline from 115 to 25 over 4 years. To be honest, the only ones I have left would not be “A graded”. In fact, they are mostly those who would have been passed over or weeded out in the first round. There is absolutely nothing about our little family of Faith that you would write a book about or hold up as an example.
    But these are the folks my Father has trusted me to care for – and I will. I will continue to work out what it means to be a slave of all and I will judge my own leadership asking, “Am I ‘first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy’.
    Who am I to judge another man’s servant, especially when he is the servant of God. However, as for me, I will continue to work out my own leadership in fear and trembling as there is only one Shepherd, one Father, one Lord.
    And I am not Him.

  • RaeAnne Hsu

    Why do our churches look like businesses? Jesus showed his righteous anger once, that’s referenced in scripture. Don’t think he wouldn’t be angry about this. When mission and success matter more than people’s hearts, we know we are way off base. The church is to be a family! It is sad that we have to be reminded of this by a corporate business. The church needs a major rehaul when it comes to structure and vision. Invite Jesus in, His way is better and He will show us how to love well!!