The greatest cause for failure in ministry is failure in leadership. In fact, of the top ten reasons for forced terminations among Southern Baptist pastors, the top five relate directly to leadership. The number one reason — “control issues" — is cited nearly twice as often as any other factor. Sexual infidelity and financial dishonesty rank much lower—filling the ninth and tenth spots.
Make no mistake, leading a church is hard. Many who could be successful owning a business or working as an executive often fail in ministry. Many factors contribute to the difficulty, but a church is hard to lead mainly because a church is unlike any other organization. It is sui generis—utterly unique. Consider this: in secular business, an owner, CEO, or manager demands action from his employees, because he or she pays their salaries. Subordinates are financially dependent on the leader.
In the church, the system reverses. Pastors and other ministers demand action from members, often exhorting them to do what they resist doing, but the members pay their salaries. Church leaders are financially dependent on the members! In churches that maintain a congregational church order, this “upside down” organizational motif expresses itself fully in that the locus of authority—the final say—is not vested in the pastor, elders, staff, or deacons, but in the will of the congregation itself—in the membership.
Don’t loathe these dynamics and don’t assume the church has been organized wrongly. The fact that the church isn’t like worldly organizations keeps the church from functioning like worldly organizations, and that’s good. Leadership in worldly organizations is often driven by a paradigm of power, personality, and popularity—“according to the flesh,” Paul might say (Rom 8:5). Exert that kind of influence in the church, though, and you’ll go down quickly, because the church is designed to prevent intimidating, marginalizing forms of leadership.
Yet, to avoid the appearance of “lording it over” the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5), pastors often default to a sneakier—and perhaps more sinister—leadership style, namely, that of superior character. Aristotle identified three “artistic proofs”—three modes of persuasion: logos (logic or argument), pathos (emotion/passion), and ethos (character). He did not, though, place all three on equal footing. Ethos, he claimed, is “almost . . . the most potent of all the means to persuasion.” In other words, the best way for a speaker to influence an audience is to convince them that he is a good person.
However, Aristotle’s character paradigm creates as much a quagmire for the pastor as the power paradigm, because the very message he preaches indicts him as a sinner. The Apostle Paul felt—even embraced—this tension, calling himself the “foremost” among sinners (1 Tim 1:15) while urging people to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). He did this because he sought to lead not by elevating his own ethos (or his own logos or pathos for that matter) but by magnifying the logos of the cross.
I . . . did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in much fear and trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom . . .” (1 Cor 2:1-4).
For Paul, the logos of the cross guided his ethos and pathos. In other words, the cross shaped everything about Paul, not merely the content of his preaching. Paul’s message was about the cross and it was presented according to the cross. In the shape of the cross, he led people to the cross.
Leadership looks like a cross. Being “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20) means we must die to fleshly patterns of influence. Whether driven by selfish power or guided by elevated character, these methods have pride at their root. Leading in the shape of the cross means surrendering one’s character to divine scrutiny (1 Cor 4:3-5), readily speaking of one’s weaknesses (2 Cor 12:7-10), and constantly turning attention away from oneself to God’s power and grace (2 Cor 4:5-7).
Viewed “according to the flesh,” such self-effacement might appear to destroy influence. In the scheme of the gospel, though, shifting the focus away from leader and to the cross actually compounds the persuasive force of the message, because the message itself determines the motives and methods of the leader. After all, no one can read the gospels or Paul’s letters honestly and conclude that Jesus or Paul was passive, weak-kneed, or of little import.
So, how might the cross shape the way a pastor leads a congregation?
1. Cross-shaped leadership fights the right battle.
Paul was willing to go the mat over the one true gospel (Gal 1), but was surprisingly flexible over secondary issues (1 Cor 9), even refusing to fight unnecessarily. Leading in the shape of the cross means directing effort toward the message of the cross and refusing to be sidetracked by nonessentials. A pastor will always be tempted to exert his influence to satisfy his own preferences in secondary matters of style or structure, when the demand of his office is to focus fully on the substance of his work—the gospel.
2. Cross-shaped leadership fights the right way.
Jesus demanded (Matt 20:26-28) and demonstrated (Phil 2) humble, obedient service to God and others, and Paul endorsed nothing less, insisting that he and his associates did not wage “war according to the flesh” (2 Cor 10:3). The gospel provides not only the content of our preaching, but also the method of our leading. We lead as we live, as crucified men—dead to ourselves and dead to the world—only to have life by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20).
If “control issues” plague Christian leaders more than anything else, perhaps it’s time we confess that these issues are our issues. They might dissipate if only we spurn our fleshly patterns to lead in the shape of the cross.