Leadership in the Church: The Rest of the Story

by James C. Dekker

(First appeared in the August 14, 2006 issue of the Christian Courier)

Limitations of Leadership

In this extended series of articles, we have explored character, competence, conviction and confluence as crucial traits for church leaders and leadership. These were articulated by the Christian Reformed Church’s Leadership Development Team in its stimulating paper “Leadership: A Working Definition.” All these traits are found to some degree not just in individual leaders, but--importantly for communities of saints--in a congregation’s collective leadership. If leadership, leaders and the remaining majority members of Christ’s body develop those Spirit-nourished traits, Christ’s Church will faithfully blossom and produce other leaders. Better still, individual leaders will not have to carry the worldly burden of being the hero, the role model whom all are expected to follow. Sadly the map of church history is littered with tragedies of heroic leaders who not only fell, but often took ministries down with them, always tarnishing Christ’s name, often abusing the spirits and lives of naively trusting followers.

Perplexingly, though, leaders who fall often possess in startlingly high degrees all four leadership traits. Maybe every leader ought to know and repeat daily Jeremiah’s warning about our deceitful human hearts in prayers of confession (17:9). Trouble is, no matter how much training or reading we do, no matter how many accountability groups or spiritual retreats we attend--sin, the devil and all his minions lie in ambush.

Thus a frightfully realistic, hence necessary corollary to all axioms of leadership is this: Church leaders WILL trip, stumble and fall. (You doubt? Check out Romans 3:23.) Not all will do irreparable damage to themselves or others as they fall; sometimes no one but God notices—so good we are at cover-ups. Regardless, the result is always disheartening, whether the fall is public or private, in congregations or denominations large or small.

Living with the Limits

We could quit right here with this hard-nosed warning and soldier bravely on, mourning losses, modestly celebrating victories, and praying withal for protection and forgiveness. But so doing would leave unredeemed that sad but true corollary that unbalances all church, congregational or personal scorecards. Thus this bad news warning must not be the final piece in the church leadership puzzle.

Here is the rest of the story of church leadership: Every leader’s fall—big or little—is a death of sorts, damaging churches, leaders, followers. Yet Christ’s death and resurrection can breathe new life into our earthly projects that, with blessing, grow into eternity. These two sentences fittingly form a cross--with human failure and Christ’s work respectively the horizontal and vertical pieces.

This cruciform framework provides the model for every Christian and church, never excusing failure, never supplanting the place of leadership traits, yet giving transcendent meaning and hope to all church leaders from youth workers to deacons and elders to pastors and administrative committees.

In earlier articles we’ve illustrated each leadership trait by tracing conflated episodes from several persons and congregations. Regrettably, we need no imagination to describe damaging failures that are so common as to be banal. All we have to do is tell the stories. As my wife’s cousin sardonically says of his frailties, “I learn from my mistakes; the next time I foul up quicker than before.” Leaders should take that to heart in whatever task we undertake—not to repeat, but with Christ’s and our own spiritual work to avoid or change dangerous patterns, establishing mechanisms of accountability and mutual discipline with colleagues and boards or councils.

Falls as Mini-Deaths

As recently as 25 years ago, marital problems among church leaders were unheard of. Yet by no means all pastors’ marriages or family lives were happy. In today’s candid, if not always healthy public life, suffering spouses and damaged children tell of desperate marriages held together for the sake of appearance, legalistic commitment and to avoid open trouble in the church. Yet these people bore years of unresolved violence, abuse, affairs and adulteries and more that few suspected and no one knew. All such histories record mini-deaths, the results of sin ignored or partially hidden. Such secret sin, unconfessed and unforgiven, surely harms congregations, but rarely in ways that we can measure. It is usually felt as a foggy vagueness hanging over a community. In order to avoid lasting dam

age leaders and congregations must and can develop mechanisms of spiritual and vocational restoration where possible, legal, and prudent. We must run the risks of restoration, yet also look for less risky futures for fallen leaders if restoration is not feasible.

Falling Hard and Publicly

In the late 1970s a pastor of a large mid-western congregation worked through a shameful, painful, but eventually blessed series of experiences revealing one fruit of Christ’s resurrection. Late one night the pastor was arrested after soliciting an undercover police officer for sex. The story played out on the front pages of the local newspaper over the next week. The council chair soon reported to the press that the popular pastor had confessed fully. In the light of his confession, the council decided to forgive the pastor and restore him to pulpit and pastoral duties after a month’s leave. Astonishingly, the congregation strongly supported this decision. Soon the classis and denomination supervising ordained ministry reversed the hasty decision. The newspaper reporter unleashed an ignorant public debate with all the depth of TV talk-sho

ws: the denomination was cruel, abused its power, lacked a forgiving spirit, and other slothful nonsense. What the reporter did not write or understand was that in their mutually agreed denominational covenant, classis and denomination fittingly overruled council and congregation. They prescribed a minimum six-month leave for the pastor and instituted steps for pastor, council and congregation to aim at full confession, forgiveness and potential–but not certain--restoration. Though not without tension and heightened emotions, the pastor, council and congregation agreed to the larger bodies’ wisdom.

After three months, during which the pastor and his wife engaged in individual and couple counseling, the denominational “pastor of pastors” met several times with the council. The pastor was invited midway through the process. Six months after the arrest and following several more meetings, pastor and council agreed it was too soon for restoration. Discussions and counseling had unearthed deeper related issues and similar past events needing more confession, more prayer, more deliberate actions before restoration could be considered.

Six months stretched to a year. All the while, ever more cordial, spiritually maturing meetings and counseling sessions took place to deal with years of hidden falls and mini-deaths. Finally, after that year’s rigorous spiritual discipline for pastor, council and congregation, the church held a sober, profoundly thankful worship service to restore the pastor within the congregation. He worked there five more years, then moved to another church for fifteen years of fruitful work, dying before retirement.

It could have turned out differently and badly. Had the pastor returned to work a month after his arrest, his confession would have been superficial, the council’s forgiveness premature and the congregation’s life spiritually shallow and relationally lazy. Resurrection would have been cheap and restoration short. Because of the demanding process that eventually all parties followed, however, for five more years they experienced more falls and deaths--and uncountable more resurrections than journalists ever understood or reported. 

However, not every case of personal resurrection can or should end in restoration.  In situations of abuse or predation, it is neither prudent nor, in many cases, legal to pursue vocational restoration. Not that anyone doubts the fact or the continuing power of Christ’s resurrection. Such fallen leaders can experience forgiveness, but should find other work that will bless them and God’s world in safer ways–and remove them from places of earlier temptation and failure. That does not deny a calling; it sets the calling within limits that can keep leaders from giving Christ and his church a bad name and from harming God’s flock.

In closing this series of essays, we need only say that no leader can work long or faithfully for Christ, no church can develop spiritual health, unless we all kneel together at the cross of the only One who did not fall, but did die so we can live from now into eternity. It took the work of Christ so we can work for Christ and His church.
 
• James C. Dekker, pastor of Covenant Christian Reformed Church in St. Catharines, Ontario, remembers that he never was able faithfully to practice personal devotions until he suffered his own mini-death and found hope from Christ’s resurrection through once-broken colleagues.