More than a decade ago Oceanside Christian Fellowship terminated “Bill,” one of our paid pastors. Bill’s poor use of time and his lack of productivity had generated not a little frustration among others at the church, who were carrying more than their weight in their respective areas of ministry.
A move to a new facility, which called for sacrifice and a servant’s attitude on everyone’s part, sharply accentuated the latent resentment that had been building among the staff. We knew that something was seriously wrong when another staff person—one of our most productive and effective ministers—began to explore the secular job market outside the church.
I was part-time at the church and had little first-hand exposure to the dysfunction in the office, though I do recall being quite annoyed when Bill showed up late, week after week, to our Wednesday elder meetings.
The elders had made an attempt to address the issue along the way but, frankly, we did not take the initiative we should have earlier, so that the situation had deteriorated unnecessarily by the time we set up a meeting with Bill and the rest of the pastor-elders.
For several hours we went back and forth with Bill. There was next to no ownership on his part. Here were six of Bill’s fellow elders raising serious concerns about his work as a pastor and church employee. He responded by rationalizing his behavior and telling us that we had it wrong on every count.
Bill pretty much determined his own future at OCF when he maintained, “I take a long time to make a decision, but when I do decide, I am almost always right.”
A series of follow-up meetings led to Bill’s termination. The atmosphere around the office changed dramatically for the better.
I had said some very pointed things to Bill in the course of that initial meeting. All of my statements were objectively true. In the heat of the discussion, however, I did not share my convictions in a loving way.
After Bill left the room, as we sat around planning our next steps, several of my fellow pastor-elders told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had been hurtful in my comments. They insisted that I owed Bill an apology. The rebuke was hard to hear. It caught me completely off guard.
Our natural tendency in a situation like this is to retreat into a defensive posture. I was tempted to rebuff the critique and to go back over the things I had said in the meeting, one by one, demonstrating that each point I made was true. After all, it didn’t seem like the two remaining elders had a problem with how I handled myself.
What kept me from defending my behavior, however, was the relationship I had with the men who challenged me about the tone of my comments that day.
As OCF’s pastor-elders, we meet every week, early on Wednesday morning, to pray for one another, for our families, and for the people in our church. We have been doing so for years.
I know these men well enough to trust them with my life. They know me, too. They appreciate my strengths. And they are quite aware of my weaknesses. I recognized that these guys would only rebuke me with my best interests—and the best interests of the church—in view.
So we set up a meeting, and I humbly apologized to Bill for the hurtful manner in which I had framed my words. I assured Bill that I stood by the content of what I had said. But I told him that I deeply regretted the way in which I communicated it to him. I asked Bill for his forgiveness, and he graciously responded in turn.
That Would Never Happen In My Church
A year or so later, one of my Korean students at Talbot School of Theology, Jonathan, came to interview me during office hours. Jonathan had received an assignment in another course that required him to interact with several pastors about their approach to ministry.
One question on the survey asked, What does a leader need in order to be successful? I replied that a pastor needs (among other things) three kinds of relationships to succeed long-term in local church ministry: (1) mentors to guide him, (2) peers to serve alongside him, and (3) younger disciples to raise up as future leaders.
Jonathan and I proceeded to discuss each of these relationships. He was particularly intrigued by category #2, since Korean pastors generally lack peer relationships in their congregations. To illustrate the importance of a community of leaders, I told Jonathan the story about the hard experience I went through during the painful process of Bill’s termination (above).
Jonathan’s response was revealing. When I finished sharing how I had been rebuked by my fellow-elders, and how I, in turn, apologized to Bill, Jonathan immediately asserted, “That would never happen in a Korean church.”
It is not hard to see why. Pastors in traditional Asian congregations do not have the kind of peer relationships that characterize OCF’s board of pastor-elders. The pronounced social hierarchy and relational expectations of an honor culture guarantee that no one would ever rebuke the behavior of a preaching pastor in the presence of other men in the church.
Nor would a Korean pastor entertain the prospect of “losing face” by apologizing to another person in the congregation for the way that he had handled himself in a meeting. The social context of ministry in traditional Asian culture simply does not allow for such a scenario.
The result, of course, is that a pastor in a Korean church like Jonathan’s has much more latitude, behavior-wise, than any Christian ever ought to have. Here, I suggest, the cultural values and social codes of a traditional honor culture have decidedly compromised the relational contours of the Gospel.
Things are hardly different, however, in many of our corporate style Anglo churches in America. In my experience it is a rare event for a senior pastor to get called on the carpet for anything short of blatant sexual immorality or, perhaps, an equally serious moral compromise, such as embezzlement of church funds.
Hurtful treatment of associate staff? Subtle manipulation of the truth in the service of slick and effective ministry? Sadly, in numbers of congregations that’s just the price of doing business. As long as the pews are full of people, and the offering basket is full of money, the pastor is doing just fine, thank you.
The Social Context Of Ministry
These stories underscore the importance of leadership structures and organization in our churches. The socio-cultural context of ministry has tremendous ramifications for the ways in which leaders leverage their power and authority in the local church.
It is a simple fact that some ways of doing church encourage the healthy exercise of ministerial authority. Others do not.
Many instances of authority abuse in our churches can be traced directly to systemic cultural values—and resulting social contexts—which obstruct, rather than facilitate, healthy, other-centered leadership. This is true whether that abuse is enabled by a group’s traditional honor values, or by an American business culture that treats a senior pastor like the CEO of a large corporation.
All of the above strongly commends the team approach to local church ministry, with its ability to provide some healthy checks-and-balances for the exercise of authority among our pastoral leaders.
The temptation for God’s people to adopt secular leadership values and practices is hardly new. In one of his most memorable teachings, Jesus pointedly contrasted (a) the way authority was exercised in the surrounding culture with (b) the servant approach to leadership that he expected of his followers:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42–43).
We live in a much different world than Jesus and the early Christians. But the threat of cultural accommodation remains the same. What kind of structure today will be most conducive to Jesus’ vision for servant leadership among his followers?
A secular business model, with a single CEO-type leader at the top?
A traditional honor culture’s unassailable social hierarchy?
Or the New Testament’s plurality approach, with a team of pastors sharing authority with one another?
The answer, I think, is obvious.
Being rebuked by my fellow-pastors for my behavior at that meeting years ago was not a pleasant experience. But it was a necessary one.
Your OCF pastor-elders will tell you that we treasure the accountability that the plurality approach naturally provides, as we share the ministry together. I certainly do. It is one of the greatest benefits that team leadership gives us at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.
NOTE: Much of the above was adapted from Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel, 2007).