A Biblical Style of Leadership
April 1, 1981
Gene Getz and Larry Richards are good friends who have sparked ideas off each other for more than a decade. Both men have taught in Christian colleges. When Gene was at Dallas Seminary in the early seventies, he used in his courses Larry's book, A New Face for the Church, a process that resulted in his own book, Sharpening the Focus of the Church.
But about eight years ago, the paths of these two men diverged. Gene's students kept challenging him to put his stimulating ideas into action. The small group he began blossomed into a home church, which has expanded into four congregations and eight branch churches. Through all that expansion, and now in his role as director of the Dallas Center for Church Renewal, Gene's ideas about how to run a church have modified as he has wrestled with the problems of growth.
Larry left his teaching position in the Wheaton Graduate School, and for the same eight years worked with churches of all types throughout the nation. He is the coordinator of the activities of the Dynamic Church Ministries team, and co-author of A Theology of Church Leadership (reviewed in LEADERSHIP, Volume 11 Number 1). In this book he states that authoritarian and managerial attitudes are not appropriate to leaders of the church.
Knowing Gene and Larry have come to a place of disagreement about certain points in Larry's book, we asked the men to dialogue with each other. Editors Terry Muck and Paul Robbins, with publisher Harold Myra, met with Gene and Larry at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. There were plenty of sharp disagreements between Gene and Larry, but seldom have we seen two people disagree so sharply yet still maintain an atmosphere of trusting camaraderie.
GENE GETZ: Larry, in my experience with growing churches, I've learned there have to be lines of authority when you have staff people. In your book you say elders (you include pastors as elders) shouldn't use authority to make decisions. I think what you suggest will work in small church settings where you have a few people and you can just meet together and let it flow; but as churches grow, this approach develops problems.
LARRY RICHARDS: I agree you need strong leadership in large churches, and I don't see this as contradictory to my position. Strong elders can be servant leaders and follow the other kinds of principles laid out in the book without using a command kind of authority.
GETZ: But I don't think you say that clearly, Larry. One of the observations I jotted down as I read the book was this: "The authors don't differentiate adequately between form and function, principles and patterns organism and organization." You say repeatedly that "the church is an organism-not an organization." But wherever you have function, you have form. The church is both an organism and an organization; you can't have one without the other.
RICHARDS: The order is of an organic type. People in the congregation must make their own decisions for the responsibilities God has given them. One of the illustrations I used was a group of women who felt a call to establish home Bible studies. Essentially, the women were responsible for making decisions about that ministry. On the other hand, when it comes to something that relates to the health or functioning of the congregation, such as discipling staff members, that's the responsibility of the elders.
GETZ: But you say elders don't have authority in the most important areas of ministry. To say elders are not responsible to manage ministries such as Bible. studies, Sunday schools, and youth groups opens the door for all kinds of organizational problems, vested interests, and jealousies.
RICHARDS: I'll admit there are dangers. Some people will take what they think is being said in the book and use it wrongly. When I wrote A New Face for the Church, I heard of one brother who read it and became very excited about it, and he decided the way to really change his church was to take all the pews out of rows and put them in a circle. So one Saturday night he went in and moved all the pews. When I saw him later he said, "You just cost me my church." Now, I hope readers exercise discernment about these ideas. You must build a strong leadership structure from within before you start altering the externals.
GETZ: It seems as though all you talk about in the book is altering the externals. In a large church that emphasis can be fatal. You've too narrowly defined what it means to manage and rule well. I think you push things to extremes too often in your statements. "The responsibility of elders is not to manage a church," you say. The Scriptures say that elders are to manage the church of God.
RICHARDS: I don't have any arguments with that, Gene. I think it's a matter of definition. I agree that the elders have tremendous authority.
GETZ: I don't hear you saying that.
RICHARDS: Oh, but I do. In fact, one of the ways in which the elders rule and build people is to teach with authority. However, that authority is primarily a right to influence, not a right to control.
GETZ: But you struggle to do away with decision-making responsibility. That leads to tremendous confusion.
RICHARDS: But there is no structure for establishing decision-making responsibility in the New Testament.
GETZ: Agreed, but the New Testament clearly emphasizes decision-making responsibility for elders. In your attempt to emphasize "body function" and "servant roles for elders" (all of which I agree with), you've over-reacted and are throwing the baby out with the bath water.
RICHARDS: No, I'm not.
GETZ: You've said the church is different from a
modern business, and I agree with that. But you don't stop there. You go on to make the church so unique that you eliminate any possibility of it functioning well. There are principles in the New Testament that can be applied to church structure. I believe the reason we don't have the structure itself in the New Testament is that structure and form are cultural. If we tried to copy New Testament church structure, we would lock ourselves into the cultural forms of the first century. Therefore, God has given us functions so we can develop forms that will be relevant to any given culture at any time.
You say that principles from the Old Testament, in which the people of God were associated with one another in the national or tribal institutions, hold no normative parallels for our understanding of the way the church functions.
GETZ: I would say that the patterns in the Old Testament, the forms, hold no normative parallels for the church. However, if you study the way the work was done, the functions, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is a very direct continuity and normative parallel. There are parallels in principles, but not in patterns.
RICHARDS: No, I disagree.
GETZ: You need to differentiate more fully between principle and pattern. Are you saying there is no principle in Nehemiah's life-even, for example, the way he built the walls-that is applicable to the modern church?
RICHARDS: But we're talking about the way the organization is structured and operates. Sure, you can find a great deal in Nehemiah's life that's very positive . . .
GETZ: No, I mean the way he conducted his work.
RICHARDS: He had wisdom in coming in and looking over the situation before acting. Many Christians can gain insight from this.
GETZ: You wouldn't say that's an organizational principle?
RICHARDS: I'm saying that's a wise thing for any person to do. It's not an organizational principle.
GETZ: Wouldn't you say the apostles used the same principle in Acts 6?
GETZ: Surely they evaluated the situation in much the same way. Let me give you another example when Moses selected men to lead Israel. He said, "Seek out faithful men, righteous men, qualified men." Now go to Acts 6 and it says, "Choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the spirit and wisdom." Go to I Timothy 3 where Paul tells Timothy to find qualified men to lead the church. Isn't the principle of choosing qualified individuals to lead in the Old Testament repeated in the New Testament?
RICHARDS: What I'm saying is that although leadership implies a supportive relationship that may provide wisdom, insight, and so on, there is a dramatic difference in the way churches are structured today from the way they were in the New Testament.
GETZ: I agree with that, Larry. It troubles me that historically we have not gone back to Scripture to test the ways in which leadership is exercised in the church. Because cultures change so dramatically, the testing must be a continuing process from age to age. So I always try to view what I'm working on as "in process." I don't ever want to see myself as presenting a definitive statement for the church on leadership.
RICHARDS: People will always operate to some extent on the basis of their own experience. You've been saying, "This is my experience, and this is what I've seen in other churches." What I say in the book carries no guarantee of success. I agree there are tremendous problems in working out the implications of servant leadership in a church.
GETZ: What you advocate regarding decision making would work very well in small house-church situations with very relaxed environments. The book reflects your own comfortableness with this kind of leadership style. You love it, you thrive on it, and you're good at it. But here's my experience with consensus, for an example.
When we first started our ministry in Dallas, we had seven or eight elders who met regularly. As a small group, we made decisions by consensus; it was a beautiful experience. (By the way, management specialists tells us if the group gets beyond seven or eight, you're going to have problems with this style.) As the group became larger (we now have nearly forty elders), we still achieved consensus. But later we found out certain people disagreed but were afraid to express their views and possibly bog everything down. They went along because they didn't want to break up the consensus. Finally, some of them spoke up and disagreed-and they had valid disagreements. But then we didn't have consensus, so we had no way to make decisions and move ahead. Then it dawned on some of us that we really were operating with a sloppy voting system. We were saying to the group, "Does anybody disagree?" We were taking a negative vote rather than both a negative and a positive vote. What we needed to do was give people the right to say "I agree" or "I disagree," take a vote, and then agree to disagree on certain significant issues.
I'm saying, Larry, that you can't say consensus is the only way that will work as an organization grows. Also, consensus doesn't take into account the relative maturity of those in the group, whether their perceptions are biased and prejudiced. They could be selfish or immature. Mature men will not use their authority to lord it over the people, but to serve the people.
RICHARDS: The negative type of control I'm talking about means making decisions for the people which they should make themselves.
GETZ: But if they're incapable of making good decisions for themselves . . .
RICHARDS: Then you're back to maturity. Maturity is a necessary condition for functioning or growing in responsibility.
GETZ: If all were of equal maturity and experience, I can see your system working-but they aren't.
RICHARDS: Most spiritual leaders, whether they're called elders or deacons or board members, perceive their task as meeting monthly to make decisions on how the church is going to operate. In the Scriptures, spiritual leaders have two primary tasks to which they're called. One of them is to build up the maturity of the body, and they must also be involved in people's everyday lives, constantly teaching.
GETZ: Agreed. But you know what's missing? It's the overarching management concept that takes in decision making, guidance, and authority. You narrow their functions down to a very limited kind of ministry.
RICHARDS: When a primary department has trouble with its Sunday school curriculum, I would like to see the elders get together with the Sunday school superintendent and hear what the needs are. At that point, elders can provide some insight, and in that context it's fine to share, "Well, here's a reason we selected this particular curriculum." Sit down with the people in that department and look through alternative curriculums and make suggestions that are supportive. By providing this kind of guidance, we are releasing, purposefully, more and more decisions to those who are actively participating in a ministry-and they're being supported by the leaders.
GETZ: Larry, that will work fine in a small group, but as the church grows, it has to take on elements of centralization (as much as I hate the word). It has to begin to practice centralized decision making to keep people from promoting vested interests. Let me give you an illustration.
In our church we have an emphasis on teaching, body life, sharing, and so forth-all emphases in your book. The other major ministry we have is to our children through our Learning Center. One Sunday some people shared the need for leadership in the Christian Service Brigade program. In fact a man stood up and did a great job pitching Brigade. Many people responded to his presentation. But this created a problem: we didn't have enough people to staff the Learning Center because they were switching their commitment to the Christian Service Brigade. The elders had to take control of that situation; we couldn't allow people in the body to "rob Peter to pay Paul" by taking personnel from established basic ministries. The same thing will happen, Larry, when you let people raise money for their own ministries. This is where I say your trust in people is unrealistic, because Christians will do that kind of thing, and they'll do it sincerely. That's where the elders can provide balance through proper management.
RICHARDS: What I hear you saying, Gene, is that problems emerge and they must be dealt with. I agree with you entirely.
GETZ: How would you recommend dealing with them?
RICHARDS: Well, having an elder say, "We simply cannot permit this to happen," isn't the only way. It can be done through policy or announcement also.
GETZ: But it's still exercising control.
RICHARDS: I do know what you're saying. For instance, in one congregation a young man came in who wanted to work with young people; he loved kids and was gifted, but he was relatively immature. Many of his ideas about working with kids were contrary to the church's. You need a procedure to deal with that kind of situation. But, not all those who get up and propose programs are immature, nor are all the programs devisive They solicit prayer and help a pattern of ministry to emerge. And it can work if this procedure is followed.
Typically the request is prayed for about three weeks in a row. Then others are asked if they feel the same burden. If they're feeling a similar burden, they're asked to meet and form a team relationship to pray about how to handle the need. They try to speak, not in terms of programs, but in terms of the needs of the people. And over the course of about a year and a half, leadership emerges to begin this new ministry.
GETZ: I think this procedure has worked and will work in a small church that is starting and growing.
RICHARDS: Larger churches, too.
GETZ: In larger churches elements of it can work. But during this process of a year and a half you can lose families, young people won't be ministered to, and the wrong people may come forward as leaders. Let's take your illustration further. Not only does this person emerge to lead the young people, but he wants to be full time, or he wants to be paid. So he makes his needs known and begins to raise money for his salary. Parents want to invest in his salary. What if there are no controls from the top? He's going to take money away from other ministries. Ultimately it will create confusion and bad feelings.
RICHARDS: What we're talking about are the processes established to build maturity. Now, let's say he jumped up and simply dropped his idea: "I'm going to start a Christian Service Brigade group next Sunday." At that point, it's appropriate for one of the elders or the pastor to say, "We appreciate your sharing this need, and the way we believe is the most successful in finding God's guidance for people in ministries is to follow this procedure. … "
GETZ: But that's management. That's control.
RICHARDS: You have to let me work within my own definitions. You also must remember that I said the eldership did have authority for the decisions made in the areas for which it was responsible. And one of those responsibilities is how the body functions. Now it would be just as wrong for the eldership not to establish a process for the functioning of the body and to guide people as it would for me to say to my eighth grade kid, "Well, if you don't like us sitting down and reading the Bible together, you don't have to do it."
GETZ: Let's take your illustration another step. Here's the same man, and after six months he bombs out or quits. You have a youth group without leadership. So we start all over again with the process. Friend, by that time your young people will be out the back door-with their parents.
RICHARDS: Okay, so I'll go back to saying that the process has to have safeguards, and reemphasize the necessity of having a team around a person with a continuous supportive relationship. It's tremendously important that all of our processes be designed to build maturity.
GETZ: My problem is, I think your book comes across as though this supportive system will work in a continuum where you have every level of maturity, when in fact, I think the things you advocate will work only if everybody is mature.
RICHARDS: There's no question that the Christian leader has to operate on the basis of a radical, supernaturalistic view-on the confidence that Paul talks about in I Corinthians: that since Christ is in the heart, the believer is a new creation. The problem is, Christian leaders have been disappointed so often by immaturity, by failures, and by the pettiness of Christians, that there's been a loss of confidence.They've become mistrusting of people who are still growing. Now, I know you open yourself up to risk, and you open yourself up to failure. But I don't see failure as a bad thing. It's part of growing.
GETZ: Larry, if we give the emphasis to supernaturalism in the church that you advocate in this book-prayer, faith, trust in the Lord, trust in the Spirit, trust in people-and balance that with proper management, then I think there's a proper biblical perspective. I just don't think your book has that balance. But let me raise another point: where does the pastor fit in all this?
RICHARDS: In our culture, the pastor has been forced into a role that's different from the New Testament role. I think it's very important for a pastor in a local congregation to concentrate on building a team of elders around him. He has to build the awareness in a local congregation that there is a group of leaders who speak in harmony-not simply the one individual leader. In that context I would see him theologically as one among equals; psychologically as the first among equals.
GETZ: And professionally as what?
RICHARDS: Professionally, as forced into a very uncomfortable situation by the expectations of people in the church.
GETZ: Larry, there has to be recognized leadership within the staff team. If you don't have it, you're going to have problems. You can be a servant and you can treat the others as equals, but the buck has to stop somewhere. If one person isn't authorized to take the final responsibility, chaos will result.
RICHARDS: But that doesn't have to be "institutionalized" on charts or anything else-it's already there. Spiritual authority is self-validating. People follow ultimately because they recognize that here is a person through whom God is speaking.
GETZ: I think the strongest point of your book, Larry, is when you tell pastors not to let people fixate on you, not to let them see you, the pastor, as a substitute for Christ as the head of the church. You have to work like crazy to keep that from happening. We've seen nine churches come into existence around Dallas in eight years; actually, we have four churches that meet in one building and we've helped start, directly and indirectly, eight branches. All of them owe their success to the strength of the Holy Spirit working through a strong group of elders; but there has also been a strong pastor/leader, the man in the pulpit, the one who sets the tone for the ministry. What upsets many people is the claim by some that certain successful churches don't have such a leader. I maintain they all do. He may be "laid back" in style, but he still leads. I think that's the reason for some reactions to your book, Larry.
RICHARDS: There are three legs to the pastoral leadership stool. One, you must recognize there's nothing wrong with being an influential person in the congregation. Two, the strong person needs to rein himself in, to live under the discipline of others. For instance, one of my strengths is also one of my weaknesses: I very quickly process material and come to a conclusion. But even if I'm right in my conclusions, this shortcuts the process for other people. I have to accept discipline from others. When we talk about a strong pastor, it's understood he desperately needs the discipline of processing things through the elders. Third, you must provide training experiences for other leaders. Leaders must invest time in bringing others along.
GETZ: I agree with that model, Larry, but the first and third legs are pure management. What you're really saying is that churches need to be managed, but certainly not the way modern businesses are managed .
RICHARDS: We need new models. Paul says no matter how much we know, our knowledge is always incomplete. So we haven't fully defined an alternative yet, but many of the processes are deduced from Scripture. In many places the church is functioning as an organism, but I admit we don't have too many really clear models. There's work to be done.
GETZ: I have a story I think illustrates beautifully the need for more careful management as the church grows. Alvin Toffler, in his latest book, Third Wave, speaks of the modern symphony orchestra being born in the passage from an aristocratic to a democratic culture in the eighteenth century. The small salons were replaced by larger and larger concert halls, which demanded greater volume-thus, more instruments and more players. At first the orchestra was. leaderless, or the leadership was casually passed around among the players. Later, the players were divided into departments, instrumental sections, each contributing to the overall output of the music, each coordinated from above by a manager, the conductor.
The orchestra calls for a great sense of concern for aesthetics, unity, harmony, beauty, and oneness; and in many respects reflects what should happen in the body of Christ: it, too, should produce a beautiful symphony. It also illustrates that when a church is relatively small, it can also be somewhat leaderless. But as a church grows, it must be divided into certain kinds of departments. There needs to be overall coordination through good management. But we must not lose the concept of total participation, of multiple leadership, of body function, of organism!
There is no way we can ignore the growth pattern. It's part of our culture. We cannot force the church into small units simply because we want to keep it small; we must see this as a reflection of our society. There are ways, however, to maintain smallness within largeness. We have to deal with that largeness without losing all of the things you're wanting, Larry, and what I want also.
RICHARDS: It's a beautiful illustration. I only have one comment: We probably will disagree on who is the conductor.
Copyright © 1981 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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