A Vision of Healthy Pastoral Leadership

A reckoning is underway in the Evangelical church, particularly in the ranks of high profile church leaders and pastors. News headlines have been flooded with stories of scandal that have exposed of all sorts of evil including abuse, adultery, oppression, hypocrisy, and addiction.

These shameful revelations have renewed distrust in the church for some, disillusioned others and generally dishonored the name of Jesus. While no one is in a place to cast stones of judgment, there is significant evidence that unhealthy ministry paradigms and leadership philosophies create environments that perpetuate the demise and fall of countless pastors and ministry leaders.

It is my sincere hope that the moral and spiritual crisis the modern Evangelical church is facing will lead to a revival of humility, faithfulness to Jesus and bold resistance to the seductive mistresses corrupting our Christian witness, namely – money, power, sex and success.

For this to take place, we must reimagine ministry leadership. We need to hit the “reset” button on what we think pastoring, leadership, disciple-making and success look like. It’s time to lay down the best-selling “How to” ministry books and conference talks and reboot our leadership operating systems.

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What comes to mind when you imagine church leadership? What shaped your understating of ministry? These are important questions to wrestle with on our way to a healthy vision of pastoral leadership. If you are like me, it is easy to recall significantly formative moments and voices that shaped who I am and how I think. For many of these moments and influences, I am eternally grateful. Yet, at the same time, there is one more question that we must contemplate: “What should shape our understanding and philosophy of leadership and ministry?” Even a holy calling can be corrupted if it’s foundation is unholy. To begin reimagining pastoral leadership, consider these words from by a pastor mentored by Jesus:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:2-4)

Two Visions of Pastoral Leadership

One vision of pastoral leadership leads to the flourishing and good of God’s sheep. Another vision of pastoral leadership leads to the flourishing and good of the pastor’s flock. Ironically, these two distinct visions can look similar from the outside, but one is a vision inspired by the Way of Jesus, the other is a vision inspired by selfish ambition.

Because these two visions of pastoral leadership can appear to be one in the same on the outside, it is helpful to contrast the differences between the two so we can diagnose healthy leadership versus unhealthy leadership.

Healthy Pastoral Leadership for the good of God’s sheep. Unhealthy Pastoral Leadership for the good of the pastor’s flock.
Emphasizes faithfulness. Emphasizes outcomes.
Prioritizes the health of the church body. Prioritizes the health of the church brand.
Celebrates the gifts of many. Celebrates the gifts on one or a few.
Invites people into a vision that will help them flourish. Drives the sheep into a vision that will help reach the organization’s objectives.
Motivates by building trust and modeling the way. Motivates by fear, guilt, control and rewards.
Makes the people look good. Makes the pastor look good.
Most important qualification: Character. Most important qualification: Competency.
Focuses on the why (motivations). Focuses on the what (the intended outcomes).
Makes him/herself replaceable. Makes him/herself irreplaceable.
Responds to critique with humility and openness. Responds to critique with anxiety and defensiveness.

Pastors are humans. As such we’re more influenced by the culture of our age more than we realize. In the world around us, celebrity, success, and status are the measure of significance. Consciously or unconsciously, even pastors can be lured into the belief that our value and worth is determined by the measure of our success, power and influence. Yet, according to Jesus, our crown of glory that never fades is realized by leading through an alternative, counter-cultural surrender.

Do we desire success? Of course. But, we surrender that longing to the sovereign purpose of the Chief Shepherd. Do we want to be productive? Absolutely. But, we surrender our understanding of productivity to the Father in Heaven who patiently works and draws people in mysterious and oftentimes slow ways. Do we want to grow in our competency and skill? Yes. But, like John the Baptist our heart must cry, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Luke’s Gospel describes when Jesus sent out 72 of His followers and gives them supernatural power over the demonic realm. When these disciples returned they were thrilled with what they were able to accomplish, reporting to Jesus, “…Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17)

What a great report, right? Yet, Jesus gently rebukes them.

“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The 72 were excited about their power, success and results, but not Jesus. Jesus wasn’t impressed with a report about the power of the disciples. Jesus was interested in a report about the people who were set free. The difference may seem small to us, but it is significant in the Kingdom of God.

Let us take heart.

Rejoice not in your church’s weekend attendance. Rejoice that your name is written in Heaven!
Rejoice not in your social media platform. Rejoice that you are a child of God!
Rejoice not in your power/success/accomplishments. Rejoice in the people Jesus has made free!


Looking for more help in reimagining Pastoral Leadership in the light of what Jesus has called you to be? Consider these helpful resources:

From Weakness to Strength by Scott Sauls

The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus by Zack Eswine

The Burden Is Light: Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success by Jon Tyson

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