Another issue I always asked about on my travels was church leadership – what forms of leadership they were used to and which forms seem to be most effective in South Asia.
Across Sri Lanka, North and South India, I got pretty much the same answer. The mainline churches were characterised by weak and ineffective leadership – usually bound by tradition, no growth, ruled by committees. India, especially, is still a very religious country. Therefore, while most Indians would call themselves Hindu (rather than Christians) they would still see religion as central to everyday life. Marriage is a classic example. Very few people would consider a secular wedding. Religion is still perceived as the gatekeeper for social institutions like marriage. Hence I frequently heard Christians say that the main big plus that keeps the mainstream denominations going is that they are officially recognised by the state for things like weddings and funerals.
So, overall, the traditional churches are seen as existing to maintain the tradition. They present the institution that is to be preserved. Many Pastors view their role as preserving this power and so are mostly interested in money and status. On the rare occasions when a gospel hearted Pastor seeks to motivate his church for evangelism he is usually squashed by powerful committees that want to keep the status quo.
This view leads many evangelicals to attend two churches. They go to an independent church to grow as disciples but they keep their membership at the traditional church in which they grew up for weddings, funerals, schooling etc.
In contrast the independent churches are mostly growing. They tend to be Pentecostal in style with very strong leadership. The Pastor is not hampered by lots of committees but is given freedom to cast vision and give a clear direction.
It is not all good news though. Along with the strong leadership often comes overbearing authoritarian leadership (due to lack of accountability) and frequent church splits.
In the UK I don’t think that the contrast is quite as stark but the issues are the same. Therefore, while it will not look the same in the UK, we do need to think through these issues. As a generalisation Christians from the global south (e.g. India, Africa, South America – where the church is growing rapidly) are more used to strong church leadership. They are not accustomed to democracy in church, rather they expect their church leaders to make decisions and then get on with it. Consultation, yes; but democratic consensus, no.
Now, that does not mean that British churches must change their structures entirely to adapt to the expectations of 1st generation immigrants. In reality we need to come up with structures that are appropriate for our multi-cultural British context. Nevertheless, these trends still apply; and, interestingly, social changes in Britain are having a similar impact here. As we get busier and busier so white Brits too no longer expect to be involved in the minutiae of church decisions. I notice a trend that those under 50 don’t have the spare mental capacity to engage with the day-to-day running of the church. Therefore the 21st century church will need to give their leaders less bureaucracy and more delegated authority. (Mind you, with ever increasing red-tape coming out of Whitehall there will still be plenty of bureaucracy to deal with, it is just that we must stop this from clogging up our pastoral ministry.)
Christians have argued for centuries over how best to translate the Greek word ‘episkope’ in 1 Timothy 3 – Roman Catholics and Anglicans would render it ‘Bishop’ whereas Baptists would prefer ‘overseer’. Overseer gives the more literal meaning of the word but, of course, the debate is whether Paul is using it to describe a specific role of oversight or just an overseer in general. Likewise, was this overseer overseeing a church or lots of churches? Does it matter?
In short, I don’t think the NT gives us a clearly defined blueprint for church leadership for all time. Context will probably shape appropriate forms. However, there are Biblical principles that we should bear in mind. Passages like 1 Peter 5: 1-4 seem to use the three NT terms of ‘elders’, ‘overseers’, and ‘pastors’ interchangeably. Likewise Acts 20 seems to describe plural leadership within the early church. I’m not so bothered exactly what you call them but healthy, growing churches need strong leadership, yet leadership that is transparently accountable.
Spending time in Sri Lanka and India has helped me to see this more clearly. With time, mainline churches tend to fossilise. Institutionalisation happens when committees etc. are set up whose main aim is maintaining the organisation. Baptist churches must be careful to make sure that Deacons’ meetings and Church Members’ Meetings don’t exist solely as the brakes for the Pastor/Staff team’s leadership.
Equally when the Pastor is perceived to be the sole leader, Baptist churches can fail in keeping him accountable. Then meetings become mere rubber-stamping exercises. Instead we need structures where leaders are encouraged to lead but that authority is not localised in one person. Ideally both paid-staff and volunteers need to share the leadership – for various reasons: 1. It breaks down the ‘them & us’ of the staff team. 2. It earths leadership within the local church community – staff come and go, but many church members see several Pastors out.
Therefore churches need Leadership Teams – i.e. A group of equal leaders. Decisions need to be made collectively but the group should consist of leaders and not those who view themselves as primarily representing the needs of the church. As the word ‘overseer’ implies, these leaders have the main focus of pastoral oversight of the church.
Now, let’s face it, this is raising the bar of church leadership. It would mean having a team of ‘pastors’, most of whom are ‘just’ normal church members. Clearly it is unrealistic to expect volunteers to take on most of the role of a Pastor – I doubt if it was ever possible but now we are all too busy. However, I’m not talking about the job so much as the responsibility. Although such a role would inevitably demand time, this is not about doing lots of things within the church but about giving a lead; taking responsibility for decisions.
Again and again I was told (especially in India) that leadership is the desperate need of the church. There is a saying in Tamil, “So as the king …”, which means that leaders set the tone and character of those whom they lead. If this applies to the UK too then we must be focussing on this as a church. Even more important than systems is a culture of godly leadership. We need to know what NT leadership looks like and we must actively raise up and train leaders within RLBC. And then we should reform our structures so that they intentionally facilitate that kind of leadership.