Leading a large church: assumption #1

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a lengthy quote from Lyle Schaller’s book The Very Large Church. I wrote that leading a large church is quite different from leading a small or medium sized church. A large church (or large-church pastor) isn’t better or more faithful or more obedient or more blessed by God than medium-size or small-size churches. It’s just different. They require a different style of leadership. They requires different organizational / leadership development / staffing systems, among other things. Again, not better, just different.

Most seminaries don’t provide a lot of training in organizational leadership. They train future pastors to be preachers, shepherds, counselors, theologians, and priests, not leaders of large organizations. So I’ve mostly had to train myself over the past fifteen years. I read books and blogs and papers on leadership every year. I attend conferences and seminars to deepen my understanding and sharpen my skills. I regularly meet with persons who have been or are excellent leaders in the marketplace. And I’ve learned through many trials and errors. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way! And I still don’t have it all figured out. There are many more mistakes to be made, I’m sure. But God has been abundantly graceful, as have the four congregations I’ve been privileged to serve.

So here I am, the senior pastor of a “very large” church, according to Schaller’s definitions. I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, but I am confident that my God will give me what I need, when I need it. One of the things given to me at the right time was Schaller’s book. It has been immensely helpful to me in understanding the unique animal that he calls a very large church.

In one of the chapters, Schaller listed eight assumptions by which most very large congregations operate. As I blog over the next few weeks, I’m going to address these assumptions one-by-one, share my thoughts, and invite you into the discussion so I can keep learning and growing as a pastor.

Assumption #1: Leaders are called to lead.

Large churches, very large churches, and mega-churches operate under the assumption that leaders are called to lead. They are not called to do all the ministry themselves. They are not called to make everyone happy. (Impossible task, anyway.) They are not apologetic for it. Most of them are not called to manage the organization. (That’s what the church staff is for.) They are called to lead the church to fulfill her mission. In our case, the mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Assumption #1 makes some people feel uncomfortable. They believe that since democracy is the best form of government for a country, it must also be the best form of government for a church. So when a smaller group of persons who have been called to lead fulfill their calling, when they make ministry or organizational decisions to further the mission of the church, there are usually some people who aren’t happy about it, because it’s not what they wanted or because they feel like they didn’t have enough voice in the matter.

For some people, assumption #1 angers them, quite honestly. This is particularly true of those persons who used to be part of a smaller congregation where most decisions are made by the entire congregation. “Who are they to make that decision?” they think or say aloud. “They’re supposed to represent me!” Of course, the assumption behind this thinking is that people in church leadership are supposed to be responsive to the desires and whims of the congregation. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t. Depends upon the desires and whims! Church leaders are supposed to be responsive to God first and foremost. It’s His Church. The Bride of Christ. A good, healthy, biblical leader knows that sometimes you are responsive to the desires of the congregation, and sometimes you have to lead the congregation into good, healthy, biblical desires. The key question is always “What does God want for our church?” not “What does the congregation want?” or “What will keep everybody happy?” or even “What do I want?”

Being called to lead certainly isn’t permission for running a dictatorship. Keeping people happy isn’t a bad thing! Nor is it wise for church leaders to ignore or disregard the voices in the congregation. There’s a huge difference between positional leadership and earned leadership. One of John Maxwell’s maxims is, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” Definitely true in churches. However, in the process of influencing and earning the right to lead, a leader cannot abdicate his/her responsibilities to lead. It’s a tension that must be worked through over and over again. Definitely not easy.

Large churches assume that leaders are called to lead. What does this mean to you? How do you feel about this assumption? I think how a person feels about this assumption says a lot about their previous church experiences. What do you think?

Steve Ezra

Comments 2

  1. Good morning Steve.
    This is a very interesting write up. I hope many of our members read it and understand the difference in our church today versus what it was 15-20 years ago. Leadership with integrity is essential. For the past 21/2 years that is what you have provided for St. James. It took me a while to understand the change because I was one of those that joined St. James 22 years ago. However, after working closely with you I can definitely see that your Leadership was necessary to lead us into the future.

    Keep up the great work you are doing for the Kingdom and for St. James. Al

  2. You are absolutely correct: integrity is essential. But I would also add humility and seeking wise counsel. Humility is essential because no one has all the answers or always makes the right decisions. A person with integrity and humility will always seek wise counsel. Collective wisdom is almost always more trustworthy, as long as it comes from other persons with integrity and humility. Note that Schaller writes “leaders” as plural!

    Proverbs 12:15 says, “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others,” and Proverbs 19:20 says, “Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life.” Wise words!

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