When Christian Leadership Goes Wrong

This post is a reflection on part of a series we are running at Cafechurch Melbourne called No-One Talks About It. It is comprised of six excellent questions raised by (ex?) Hillsong Worship Pastor Marty Sampson.

“Every human community will disappoint us, regardless of how well-intentioned or inclusive.”  Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

I think Nadia has the key here. Human community is inherently problematic because, when you get down to it, people are sinful. This is true of church as much as anywhere else. This is at least as true, if not more so, in church leadership. There is a temptation to see the leader as “God’s anointed”, like a sort of successor to the Kings of Israel, or somehow standing in the role of Christ. Given that, it is salutary to remember how ambivalent Scriptures are about the role of Kings. When God tells Samuel to give the people what they want, you get a sense of a rather heavy heart. (see 1 Samuel 8:1-8.) And, just as God feared, Saul went off the rails.

But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to treat you differently when you’re the leader. I have noticed, in the 13 years I’ve been in the pastoring game, how differently people treat you, even when your church has as flat a structure as Cafechurch, where there’s around a dozen of us, spending most of our time in discussion (and eating.) But even there, there is a sort of feeling, going on under the surface, that you somehow represent God, in spite of your best efforts to dispel the idea.  

I can’t imagine what it must be like standing up in front of hundreds or thousands of people every week. All that expectation! All that need and longing! It must be incredibly hard to keep your balance, to stay grounded. The slide from “this is important work I am engaged in” to “I am important” is probably slow, but definitely dangerous. And especially so in situations where the pastor is felt to have special access to God – in either the Pentecostal sense of a direct connection and anointing, or the more Catholic sense of being special by virtue of one’s role in the Eucharist.

Which isn’t to say that therefore there should be no leadership. If there aren’t clear structures, leadership will implicitly evolve – but it won’t be accountable, above board, sane. It can be a gift – a way in which God brings new things to life, or uses existing things for God’s purposes. But it’s exactly because it’s potentially so good that it has the potential to be so bad. The Ancients had a tag for this – the corruption of the good is the worst (corruptio optimi pessima for fellow geeks.)

A cursory glance at the ways in which leadership can go wrong suggests to me that the more the pastor / minister / priest is treated as being God’s anointed, as being ontologically different – different in their very nature – to everyone else, the more things can go off the rails in a million different ways.

The thing is, the idea of the shaman / priest / holy man bringing God to the situation goes very deep in our culture, and in our shared social imaginary. It seems to be very, very easy to fall into it.

Insofar as there is a solution (and given what we said about sin previously, it’s only going to be partial, broken, incomplete – like us) it is to be practicing the leadership shown by Jesus. Towel around the waist, serving. And, theologically, always remembering that the minister is not  Jesus. There is only one anointed one: only one Christ.

Or, as my favourite summary of the Gospel says: There is a messiah: it isn’t you.

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