Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Cynicism, "Christian" Leadership Failure, and a Proposal

What are you most cynical about?

What group of people are you most cynical towards?

For me, that’s an easy question to answer: celebrity “Christian” leaders, and the less-popular Christian leaders who imitate them.

I understand that I need to work on this. I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth.

A primary source of discouragement in my faith is the behavior of “Christian” leaders period. From Willow Creek to the ongoing Catholic scandals to the “Court Evangelicals” and beyond there is a super-abundance of evidence that churches are hiring and supporting men (let’s call it what it is) whose character is not even up to snuff for our lowly cultural standards, much less the standards of Christ. 

All of this raises two questions for me:
One, what is it that churches are looking for in leaders that creates this problem?
Two, what should churches be looking for in leaders?

Much could be written in reply to these questions, but I’m just going to offer two brief opinions on them.

First, it seems churches are most concerned with hiring people who are “effective.” That is, they are people who can fill seats on Sunday morning and can get the church’s staff to competently run the supporting programs needed to keep the people in the seats happy (children’s ministry, parking, communication, etc.). What that means is that these leaders are, above all, highly skilled communicators. They can capture and hold the attention of an audience, and they can inspire a staff and volunteers to run solid supporting programs. So, it all boils down to hiring a communicator… that’s what they are looking for. 

Now, let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring great communicators. It’s a wonderful thing to have a communicator on a leadership team who can do the items listed above. BUT, being a great communicator SHOULD NOT be the reason someone is hired to lead a church or is put in any position of spiritual authority. When it is the primary reason you entrust leadership to someone, you get the situation that we have now… abuse, lies, cover-ups, fraud and all the rest.

So, what should we be looking for in leaders?

To answer that question, I am going to enlist the help of Douglas Campbell, a New Testament scholar who just wrote a helpful book entitled Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. While I do not agree with all of Campbell’s theological claims in the book, his discussion of how the mission of the church should dictate the selection of Christian leaders is spot on. Below is an excerpt that I believe gets at the heart of this issue. While it might seem tangential at first, keep reading! You have to understand the part about how people learn (in this case, to imitate Christ) before you can understand Campbell’s assertions regarding leadership selection.

“As Aristotle said some time ago, the goal of ethics is also the means. What he meant was that the goal of our activity—here, right living—is approached through right living. This seems obvious at first glance, but actually it isn’t. What he is claiming—along with most of the ancient moral tradition that Paul stood within, but not our modern traditions—is that ethics has to be learned, and, further, that it is best learned in community. Putting things succinctly, communality is learned communally… To teach people to relate lovingly, then (which Campbell presents as a central goal of the church), we must construct a loving community and live in it, copying its most loving members.

When we consider this quickly, it seems incredibly obvious. When we press on it harder, however, it is anything but. Most of our pedagogies are not set up imitatively, and this might explain why most of them are so ineffective at transforming people’s actual relationality and relating. Protestants have long placed their faith in the transforming power of the preached word. They are frequently surprised at how little the communication of information about the Bible and from its texts—however eloquently and passionately done—changes the behavior of its churchgoing listeners. How unsurprising though. There is nothing to imitate here, or to copy. People cannot copy a preacher except by becoming a preacher, and that activity can leave a lot of other moral activity unaddressed. Writing a book will not change much either. It can help, but it can only be secondary to the main business of constructing healthy learning communities out of people that are influenced by people…

We have already noted that the basic relationship is imitative. People copy people. But who copies whom? We come face-to-face here with the irreducibly elite nature of a learning community, and we shouldn’t get too upset by this. Sociologists have long confirmed that all communities have elites. Every community has leaders and followers. There just aren’t any alternatives to this. The $64,000 question is not, should we should have elites? but what sort of elites should we have? The answer for Christian communities is that we should have Christian leaders who are characterized by the relational qualities that we want everyone else to copy.”

Campbell, Douglas A.. Paul: An Apostle's Journey (Kindle Locations 1302-1306). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

I can't help but think that if we took Campbell's suggestion here about how Christian leaders are selected seriously- and added to it some statements about demonstrating a vibrant and bold faith along with some ministry training and experience- we'd be on our way to a much better way to selecting leaders. And, as an added bonus, we might experience far less cynicism-inducing moral failure from the people who lead our churches.

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