Earn the Right to Lead

by Joe McKeever

I am thinking about two deacons, both warm-hearted effective men of God.

It wasn't always that way. "I don't want him on the deacons," I told the committee assigned to recommend the next group to be elected by the church. "Trust me on this. He has no business bearing this responsibility."

I hoped they would drop the matter there. The man in question, I'll call him Malachi, had been a deacon for several terms, was inactive at the moment and was being considered for re-election.

Pastors know things about church members few others do, as a rule, and yet we don't want to talk about these things in open forums. Or anywhere else, for that matter. (I once asked in a personnel committee meeting, "Can we speak in confidence here?" The chairman said, "Pastor, I wouldn't say anything in this room you don't want repeated." That was good advice.)

After the committee adjourned, one of the men followed me into my office. "I have to know," he said. "What is this secret about Malachi that disqualifies him from serving as a deacon." When I hesitated, he said, "He's meant a lot to this church through the years. There may be something we can do for him."

I said, "He's being seen regularly at the casino, gambling. It appears he's going there every day and staying for hours."

The leader said, "You know this for a fact?" I told him of a certain church-member-in-name-only whom I bump into occasionally, who had told me this. "And you believe him?" I said, "Oh yes. He has his faults, but dishonesty is not one of them."

"Then, let's talk to him," he said. Talk to Malachi.

I said, "All right. I'm in favor of that. But I'm telling you up front that nothing he says-no amount of repentance or explanation-is going to get him back on the deacon fellowship this year." He agreed.

In no church I've ever served has the pastor had the authority to hand-pick his deacons, and I wouldn't want that if it were offered. Yet the pastor should have veto power if he knows reasons why this person has no business being chosen for this office. And the leadership should take that on good faith until he proves he is untrustworthy.

Long story short, we sought out Malachi and confronted him in love. He admitted what he had been doing, confessed that it was wrong and he was ashamed of it, and then asked if he could go before the entire deacon body to ask for their forgiveness. Afterwards, it was like a heavy burden had been lifted from his spirit. He became the sweetest, humblest, most faithful member we had. A year later, he was elected as an active deacon and gave a number of years of excellent service to the church and community.

Now, the other deacon:

Micah sat in my office and said, "They want me to serve as a deacon. But, Joe, I can't. I'm not qualified."

I smiled and said, "I like that attitude. In fact, it may just qualify you."

He said, "I'm serious. My life is not the life of a good Christian man."

"Okay," I said. "Tell me what you're talking about."

For the next ten minutes, Micah talked to me about his profanity, his temper, and his spiritual shallowness. Actually, he had me convinced he shouldn't be a deacon just on the profanity thing, but he kept piling on. At the end, he said, "Eventually, I'd love to be a servant of the church in this way. But it's way too soon."

I agreed, and then something very special followed. We began discussing the changes he could make in his life-the way he talked, the matter of self-control, his growing in Christ. We read Galatians 5:22-23, the passage about the fruit which the Holy Spirit produces in our lives once He remains in control on a long-term basis. We talked about Micah's daily walk with the Lord, his beginning each day with prayer and reading the Scripture. And yes, we went back and made sure of his salvation, that he had truly received Christ as his Savior and Lord.

He began to grow spiritually from that day. Eventually, after a year or two, he came to me and said, "They want to put me up for deacon. And this time, I'm ready to give it a try."

Micah has made a wonderful deacon for the church, and represents the church well in the community.

A leader has to earn the right to lead. How we wish every pastor knew that. Some of my colleagues seem to think that if the Lord called them to lead, the congregation was called to follow, so let's get on with the program. While that has a lot of truth to it, the pastor should put himself in the shoes of the congregation and realize what they are being asked. Pastors, after all, come and go. And each one has his own agenda and mode of operation. Some are as trustworthy as the Apostle Paul himself and some turn out to be little more than con artists. As a result, the trust factor in some congregations is low.

The pastor has to earn the right to lead his people.

Sometime in the early 1990s I walked into the office of Landrum Leavell, the longtime president of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was on the phone with a friend of mine who was pastoring a big church in Texas. From what I picked up and from what Dr. Leavell told me afterwards, my friend was facing a critical issue in his church that was coming up for a decision that very night in a church business meeting.

I'll never forget this part of the conversation that I heard. Dr. Leavell said, "How long have you been pastor of that church?" On the other end, my friend answered, "Six years." The president said, "Then you have been there long enough that they know you and know they can trust you. Go for it, brother. Take your stand. I'm confident they will follow your leadership on this."

Not far from where I live is a church that almost self-destructed a couple of years back. The founding pastor had birthed that church as a soul-winning congregation where evangelism was paramount. He built a dynamic and loving church with one unusual characteristic: everything depended on him. He made the decisions and chose those who would serve in leadership positions. A family member said of the pastor one day, "He is a benevolent dictator." After many years of leading that church, the pastor died and a search committee was chosen to find a new pastor. They ended up selecting a pastor who was in some respects a clone of the last one. And therein lay the problem.

No sooner had the new minister arrived than he began to issue orders, make changes in the organization, replace office workers, and install people of his choosing in prominent positions. Practically every decision he made was one his predecessor, the founding pastor, had made a hundred times over the years. But the congregation would have no part of it and rose up in arms. A lawsuit followed and large segments of the congregation departed. Eventually, the depleted congregation asked a neighboring church to absorb them in a kind of merger, and they went out of operation.

All of that could have been avoided had the incoming pastor simply stilled his impatience and earned the right to the congregation's trust before making difficult decisions.

How does that line go?-people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Preach to them, pastor. Counsel them. Visit in their homes. Perform their marriages and funerals. Love them. Learn their names. Sit across the table from them at church dinners. Laugh with them, cry with them. Work through thorny issues with your committees and deacons. Let them learn that you can be trusted, that you are a person of prayer and integrity, that your great interests are the welfare of the church and the honor of the Lord.

I have sometimes preached to my congregations that there is a way to oppose something being proposed by the pastor and church leaders and carry the day. Essentially, it's this: build a reputation as a team player, be positive and supportive. Then, when the day comes you have to stand and speak against a motion being presented by the church leadership, you have their undivided attention. "Why, if Charlie is against this, he must have good reasons. He's such a great guy."

In my sermon, I would point out a church member sitting there. (And catching him completely by surprise, too!) At Kenner, I said, "Now, here's Mike Skiles. As fine a man as I know. Mike is positive and supportive and looks for ways to encourage people. Now, if the deacons and I were to walk into this worship center and propose something, and then Mike were to stand and oppose it, he has our complete attention. Mike doesn't oppose things just for the fun of it. He's a team player. He has earned the right to be heard."

Some people want their authority on the cheap. "Do it because I say so," becomes their mantra. But it doesn't work that way. It rarely works at home when a parent tries it on the kid and it certainly will not be appreciated at church where servant leadership is the standard.

"He who would be great among you," Jesus said, "let him be your servant" (Matt. 20:26).

Problem is, some of us want to skip the serving part and go straight to greatness. It never works.

In the term "servant leaders," notice that servant comes first, then by God's own timetable, the leadership will follow.

Joe McKeever is director of missions of the Greater New Orleans Baptist Association.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
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