Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On Leaving a Ministry

I haven't left a ministry I've held less than two years since I was fired from Central Church of Christ in Anita, Iowa. Anita was my second student ministry and first full-time ministry. The year I spent in full-time ministry in Anita wasn't that great and I was about to resign when the elders, realizing I was looking around, decided I needed to go so they would have time to get someone in town so they could drive school bus (and make a living) when school started in the fall. Parting was "not sweet sorrow".

God led us to Mankato, Kansas, where we fell in love with the people and they loved us in return. We made lifelong friends, some of whom are now with the Lord, during our three years in north central Kansas. After the first year, the Mankato church gladly shared me with the church in Superior, Nebraska, and I preached for both congregations every week. Mankato was, and still is, a very small county seat town but it was home to many wonderful people. The Catholic priest in Mankato became my best friend and we had some great times together bowling in league, buying cars, and sitting at Boogart's grocery drinking coffee and talking theology.

Over the years, I've had some interesting and challenging ministries. A year with Manhattan Christian College prepared me in many ways for teaching. Three and a half years in Great Bend, Kansas, beginning immediately after that church experienced a terrible three-way split. Working with that congregation challenged me beyond measure as I tried to apply God's Word in ways that would heal. God blessed the efforts with nearly 90 additions and the return of many who split off from the church. In time, however, the stress got to me and I had serious allergic reactions which the stress enhanced.

Earl Heal from the Orchard Mesa Christian Church in Grand Junction came to interview us for a ministry with them. We moved to Colorado in 1973 and remained their until 1985. After a few months on Orchard Mesa, Earl, who was Intermountain Bible College's Academic Dean, began moving me into the college. I taught Church History and other classes at IBC through its best years and some of its worst and stuck with it until the college closed in 1985.

With the help of Dr. James North, I was called to Westwood-Cheviot Church of Christ where I worked with Brad Walden and Fred Speckert. The church reached its highest attendance points (about 600) during Brad's ministry. But Delores (my wife) and I missed the west and I missed teaching, so after our son graduated from high school we accepted an invitation from First Church of Christ in Boise to follow Kenneth Beckman's 37 year ministry. I was also asked to teach the history classes at Boise Bible College.

After eight years in the church and the classroom, God fulfilled one of my lifelong ambitions -- to be minister with First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio. When I graduated from college back in the "stone age," Canton was the largest Christian Church in the world with a Bible School of more than 1,000. I always joked about being the minister there, but God let me become a minister there. During my time in Canton, Dr. North also gave me opportunity to teach graduate history classes in the graduate school of Cincinnati Christian University. Once the school called Dr. Cherok, they no longer needed me but kept me in their adjunct professor list for some time.

I arrived in Canton just as that great church was beginning its turnaround. During my nine years in Canton, attendances went from just over 800 to more than 2,200. It was exciting to be part of that church's turnaround, but everyone on staff at that time acknowledges it was God who did it. In fact, none of us had ever served in a congregation of more than 300 (or so) until that time, so it certainly wasn't because of our tremendous expertise.

As I neared my 60s, I began to think I should be "put out to pastor" (pasture). So many churches were calling younger men, I thought others might consider my useful days limited. It was a depressing thought, but one many my age wrestle with. I began to think I should consider other opportunities if they came along and one did from First Christian Church in Sun City. After jumping through all the hoops, I began a ministry with them in February 2003. I immediately discovered that working in a one-generational (senior) church was both draining and fulfilling. It was fulfilling because we fell in love with the people. It was draining because it hurts to watch people you've come to love and appreciate succumb to God's specific punishment for sin--death!

It was also draining because, as one might expect, so many were locked into mid-twentieth century thinking. The church's organizational structure is overly complicated requiring a law degree to understand it and fulfill every jot and tittle. Unfortunate events that transpired over a decade ago left indelible marks on the congregation creating an atmosphere of distruct and suspicion. One individual who had been a leader has an overbearing and bullying personality and is suspicious of anyone who thinks differently than he does. The stress and pressure of dealing with his outbursts, inappropriate congregational involvement in leadership issues, and other stressors were beginning to get to me.

Then, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Christ's Church of the Valley asking if I would be interested in a position with them. You could have knocked me over with a feather! CCV is a true mega-church with attendances of over 10,000 each weekend. They wanted me to work with their Senior Adult Ministry, their Christian Life Institute (or Training U), and lead Class 300, their session promoting service and involvement. After visiting with friends and others, I decided not to take the position. A week later, a "explosion" occurred at First Christian because the individual mentioned in the previous paragraph was not asked to serve in leadership in 2006. Charges were made against the present elders, accusations leveled against them, and my stress increased. I began to wonder if God was trying to tell me something. I e-mailed friends, including some at CCV, asking them to pray for me. CCV then came back and asked me to reconsider their invitation. After attending their Class 100, we determined that we might have something to offer them and we (Delores and I) accepted. I will begin a ministry with CCV January 1.

It was not an easy decision, believe me! We wrestled long and hard with the possibilities. If I felt too old for a congregation of 2,200, would I fit into a congregation of 10,000? Well, I decided that only God knows for sure! You can put out all the fleeces in the world, but you have to make decisions based on those and many other factors. In short, you consider all the options, look for the pros and cons, then step out on faith! Just as God didn't part the water of the Jordan River until the Hebrew priests stepped into the river, God won't bless until a believer puts his trust in God and steps out.


In the effort to be biblical churches, the Christian Churches have struggled to adopt a biblical yet effective leadership theology. Nothing hampers the effectiveness and growth of a congregation more than leadership failure. Leadership expert John Maxwell rightly points out that everything rises or falls on leadership.

Alexander Campbell, one of the early leaders in the Restoration Movement, looked through the lenses of early American culture and viewed leadership in much the same vein as national government. In Campbell’s mind, the eldership stood in relationship to a local congregation much as the Senate does to the nation. Campbell related the deacons to the House of Representatives. Like many Baptists of his day, Campbell referred to the evangelist as “the Bishop.” In Campbell’s mind, “the Bishop” could also be called the congregation’s “President” or “Presider.”

Many Christian Churches accepted Campbell’s view without question. When industrial corporations developed, the church again caved in to culture and developed church boards. These boards, acting much like “boards of directors” guided the corporation. Just as the “directors” answered to the stockholders, the church board answered to the congregation. The idea developed that just as the corporation board existed to show a profit for the stockholders, the church board existed to make sure the church provided appropriate services for its members.
Nothing could be farther from biblical truth. According to the New Testament, the church is the only organization in the world that exists for others. The church’s purpose is to reach the lost! Nothing more, nothing less! To accomplish that goal, the church’s leadership must equip its members for service (train), care for those who are hurt and “injure” (shepherd), and guide the church in fulfilling its purpose (oversee).

Another mistake Christian Churches often make is the view that elders are responsible only for a church’s spiritual welfare while the deacons (or trustees) are responsible for financial matters. The fact is, biblical elders are responsible for overseeing all facets of a church’s life and work. If you look at Acts 11:30, you’ll see that famine relief sent to the church in Jerusalem went to the elders for distribution. Therefore, the basic organizational chart for a church is not like this:

Elders Deacons
Spiritual Finances

But it is like this:

(All Aspects)
(Responsibilities delegated by Elders)

The elders, therefore, is to have general oversight of the church (see 1 Timothy 5:17 and Hebrews 13:17), not as lord and dictator, but nevertheless with authority borne of function. An elder is to lead, guide, rule, steer the flock, set the course, discipline, and see the church through difficult situations. Elders are also to refute false teaching. That’s why an elder is to be “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). No one should be selected as elder who is unable to explain and defend biblical teaching.

What about the deacons? A deacon, by definition, is a servant. The word deacon derives from a Greek term meaning “table waiter.” If we take the events of Acts 6 as an example of the work of deacons—and that is debatable—we note that the Apostles asked the congregation to select seven men “who [were] known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The Apostles turned the responsibility of determining a method and means of meeting the people’s needs to them (that’s delegation). Then they permitted them to see to it. While it is not explicitly stated, the fact that the Apostles delegated the responsibility to the seven implies the seven were accountable to the Apostles for fulfilling the task.

Neither the elder nor the deacon fills an “office.” The word “office” carries with it connotations the Bible does not teach. It is unfortunate that the King James Version of 1 Timothy 3:1 reads, “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” The word “office” is not in the text’s original language. Most newer translations have it right. The New International Version puts it, “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).

Elders and deacons fulfill leadership functions within a congregation. The elder fulfills a leadership function, the deacon fulfills a service function. Since these are functions (responsibilities) rather than offices, it is important to select by character traits (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) rather than other factors.

It is also important for the congregation to realize that elders are accountable to God for their work (see Hebrews 13:17 – they give an account to Christ). Too many individuals within congregations think these leaders should be accountable to them. While many individual members are well-intentioned, they often do not have the spiritual maturity or biblical understanding to recognize the difference between their preferences and biblical teaching. If their leaders are biblical knowledgeable and men of integrity, they are better suited to make decisions relating to the purpose, direction, and operation of the church.

It all boils down to a matter of trust. If the church selects spiritually qualified leaders—men of integrity, character, and spiritual depth—then trust them to do the right thing. Will they make mistakes? Yes they will. But if they are servants of Christ, they will not “lord it over you” but always do what they believe is in the best interests of the church. If you select men who are biblically ignorant and spiritually shallow, men who are not men of integrity or men with a servant’s heart, then you get what you deserve!

I know that’s a rough statement, but it is true. Churches do not take leadership selection seriously enough. Too many think you can push anyone into leadership. Poor choices in leadership have destroyed the effectiveness of all too many churches. Remember, everything rises or falls on leadership.