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Last summer John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, delivered a stinging indictment on televangelists and the tax perks of churches and non-profit ministries. While the show admittedly targeted the tiny minority of over-the-top financially abusive ministries (does a pastor really need a six-million-dollar home…uh, parsonage?), none of us are immune to the cancer of entitlement. Oliver even launched a tax-legit, legal, though short-lived, church to show how easy it is to start a religion: Our Lady Of Perpetual Entitlement. Seriously.
I’ve long warned pastors and churchplanters of the subtle dangers of entitlement and its Three Horsemen: Money, Sex and Power. The slightest improprieties in any of them will topple a ministry. It’s just not smart to even mildly entertain them…or in the simplest terms: never touch the money, keep your office door open and make sure you’re accountable to a legitimate board (not your wife, son-in-law and someone you led to Christ last year).
The recent implosion of Mars Hill churches was apparently caused by indiscretions at the leadership level of power and money. When news broke about the Mars Hill Global Fund not totally being used for its intended purpose, though there was no direct link to senior pastor Mark Driscoll himself, the danger is pastors can get too busy traveling or promoting their latest book that they lose sight of the flock. Or in Jim Collins Good To Great language: when CEOs start showing up on talk shows, it’s all over for the organization.
Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, articulates the danger of creeping entitlement and how leaders can begin to feel arrogantly bulletproof in their decisions. In describing true leadership, he writes:
(Leaders) are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. . . . Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last. . . . The leaders of organizations who rise through the ranks not because they want it, but because the tribe keeps offering higher status out of gratitude for their willingness to sacrifice, are the true leaders worthy of our trust and loyalty. All leaders, even the good ones, can sometimes lose their way and become selfish and power hungry, however. . . . What makes a good leader is that they eschew the spotlight in favor of spending time and energy to do what they need to do to support and protect their people.”
I was never close enough to any of the parties involved to know what really went down at Mars Hill or to make any comment on its polity and accountability. But when Forbes.com calls your church “the Enron of American Churches”, you have a public relations problem of the first degree. And this has nothing to do with the size of churches; I’ve known very small ones with spiritually abusive leaders and a controlling culture with little transparency.
It simply has everything to do with leadership. Period.
None of us are immune to the cancer of entitlement. It creeps in after years of hard work, or when we’re tired or bordering on burnout, or when the grass that should be green on our side of the fence hasn’t been watered well. Or sometimes it’s simply the slime life throws at us that wears us down. Circumstances. Not taking care of our soul.
1. Do you have a healthy system of organizational and personal accountability and support?
2. How purposefully have you created and nurtured a servanthood-culture?
Come on. Be honest.
In our current political debates, a number of candidates are pressing the need for “experience” before unpacking your suitcases at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Frankly, I doubt if anyone is totally ready to handle the unique leadership challenges awaiting the most geopolitically powerful person in the world. But that’s a whole other topic…
Dr. Whitesel stresses that there’s a less painful approach to church leadership than “learning on the job”. He encourages pastors and leaders to take advantage of coaches: people who have studied and researched healthy churches as well as practitioners who have “been there, done it, and have the t-shirt.” Repeating leadership and management mistakes may be the result of simply not being aware of alternative ideas, strategies or potential potholes. Take the time to find someone outside of the organization who has experience with the very roadblocks you’re struggling with.
The old maxim, “Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is high,” doesn’t always have to be the case. Some difficulties can definitely be avoided by simply having a trusted guide.
The Bible doesn’t have a whole lot to say about leadership succession. The apostle Paul describes the selection and appointment of pastors, but the New Testament is curiously quiet about when pastors are succeeded.
In the Old Testament, Israeli kings would come and go by appointing their sons, or by a coup d’état, or death or military defeat. In the work of the tabernacle, the Levites did ministry from age twenty-five to fifty, at which time they were to retire from the work (though they could still assist). On the other hand, David ruled for forty years, which begs the question: what leadership context is tougher—government or church? Hmmm.
Like any leader, you want to be spending time thinking about the future of the organization you help lead. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write:
The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. . . . In fact, it’s this quality of focusing on the future that most differentiates people who are seen as leaders from those who are not . . . It’s something to which every leader needs to give more time and attention.”
In 2001 I was in Los Angeles for a conference and decided to visit the Crystal Cathedral, home of the largest glass building in the world. In the mid-1980’s at the height of their television ministry, I—like millions of other people—had seen the “Hour of Power” show.
As the service started, I was stunned by a few things: the sanctuary was less that half-filled with a sea of whitecaps: people in their senior years. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “This church isn’t going to survive the next few years.” You didn’t have to be prophetic to see that.
At one point in my pastoring Vineyard Cincinnati, I got concerned about the “graying” of the church. Our demographic stats were decent in terms of age brackets; you could even call us an intergenerational church. But it was clear that our largest demographic skewed older. And by the way, if you don’t periodically survey your church, you’re missing a golden opportunity to uncover the truth about who you really are; we typically did an all-church survey every two years. I’ll take facts over anecdotes any day of the week. (If you want a copy of the questions we used, let us know.). And it was easy to imagine what we would have been twenty-five years ago, when the average age of our leaders was mid-thirties.
And it wasn’t simply about dismissing aging Baby Boomers in our youth-obsessed culture. Everyone needs Jesus, no matter what age.
But we all know the reality: churches that don’t reach successive generations will eventually die. And because God didn’t put a time limit on our mission or call us to one generation of fruitfulness, we had to think hard about the future. I wanted to see Vineyard Cincinnati continue to advance the mission God has given us way beyond a single generation.
For years, of course, we had an emergency succession plan in place in case I got hit by a bus—and “key man” insurance in behalf of the Vineyard. But we had no real plan if the bus missed me. And so we began to think about how to identify the next senior pastor of the Vineyard. And frankly, for complex organizations, the how may be just as important as the who in terms of systemic health. The next year-and-a-half was spent developing that plan.
The Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, writing in the late 1800’s, penned a fascinating essay late in life:
People talk a great deal about the duties the young owe to the old, but I think it is far more important to consider the duties the old owe to the young. I do not of course say that the young owe us old people no duties, but at the age of seventy I have learned to see that the weight of preponderance is enormously on the other side, and that each generation owes to the succeeding one far more duty than the succeeding one owes to them. We brought the younger generation into the world, without consulting them, and we are bound therefore to sacrifice ourselves for their good. This is what the God who created us has done in the sacrifice of Christ, and I do not see that He could have done less. He has poured Himself out without stint for His children, and we must do the same for ours.”
Is your church, ministry or the organization you lead a one-generation effort?
One of our core values at Partnership Advisors is the idea of trust. Trust is a critical issue between the leader and the consultant. When I was pastoring and meeting with couples who were dealing with marriage issues, I knew we were not going to get to a healthier place if they didn’t trust me as a guide or counselor.
It’s the same with organizations. No consultant is worth their salt if they don’t take the time to listen and give leaders space to tell their unique story. You just can’t slap a template on a church or non-profit and say, “Do 1, 2 and 3 and life will be better.” It’s vitally important for the consultant to be a listener before they are the “expert”. Listening is absolutely critical in building trust.
As an aside, creating a “culture of trust” in any organization is essential work for leaders. Without it, the organization will be limited in its ability to imagine, create and then innovate.