On one occasion at a Minister’s Association meeting an Anglican colleague took me aside while we were enjoying a cuppa before the meeting proper began. He asked whether he could “pick my brain”. A strange expression! Were brains up for grabs and he wanted to choose mine? Or was my brain that hard to crack that he needed a pick? We really ought to come up with a different expression for those moments when we want to benefit from someone else’s wisdom. But I digress. He proceeded to spell out some complex church matter that was troubling him and that he didn’t know how to resolve. I don’t remember the details but I do recall his question: “John, how would you solve a problem like that?” I said to him, “I don’t have to. I just take an issue like that to my Session (Church Council) and we solve that problem together as a leadership team of the church.”
My colleague was envious of something that most Reformed and Presbyterian folk take for granted. In fact, my Anglican colleague lamented that all he could do was ask his bishop for advice but at the end of the day the buck stopped with him. To the best of my knowledge most Anglican churches don’t have elders – at least not in the way we understand them. They do have Church Wardens but those generally function more like our Committee of Management people.
I was reflecting on that recently when I heard of yet another pastor who wanted to run his church like a CEO – or perhaps more like a business entrepreneur. He came with his own agenda and he tried to implement that agenda with only minimal involvement by his elders and deacons. Not surprisingly he became a casualty… another statistic. But, sadly, the damage was done. When he left he took some of the members with him – and those that didn’t go with him had do the hard yards of working through a time of self-examination to understand what had gone wrong in their church. During my forty years of ministry that has happened with monotonous regularity.
Power struggles are not good. But in the church they are particularly ugly. Of course it works both ways. There are domineering elders who cannot countenance the idea that they are not in control. Some of these men have made life miserable for their pastors. That has undoubtedly contributed further to the statistics of casualties in the ministry.
I don’t want to minimise the difficulties. It’s painful for a pastor who wants to see a congregation blossom and reach out to their community with the good news of Jesus – only to be blocked time and again by an entrenched and influential elder who kills off any new program before it even gets off the ground. I understand why Pastors sometimes just go ahead and do something apart from Session. Their motto is: it’s easier to apologise afterwards than gain approval to do it in the first place.
But the reverse is also true. It’s painful for an elder who knows the congregation well and who has a real heart for its wellbeing – only to see a new pastor come in and blow the church apart because he’s got his own agenda that is creating a huge rift in the church. Years of harmonious kingdom labour are suddenly under threat. I understand why elders sometimes put a pastor they intend to call through an inquisition. They are reluctant have yet another disaster on their hands.
It’s important that Session really is a team – not just in name but in practice. One young “intern” who worked with me for a time displayed some characteristics of not being a team player. I warned him that he needed to be accountable. His response was: “Sure, I’ll tell our elders what I’m doing!” That’s not quite what I meant by accountability. Being part of a team needs more than elders being told by the pastor what he is doing. Teamwork is working together in such a way that we take everyone along for the journey. It means coming to God-honouring decisions together and together solving the kind of problems that my Anglican friend was struggling with.
The Biblical model of a team of leaders is a great protection against the abuses in leadership that come because of The Fall. And when it works well it’s a great vehicle for promoting the Kingdom of Christ.