Too often, church leaders are either held on a pedestal or unfairly judged. Church should be a place where good leaders serve the people around them, shepherding others toward the gospel of Jesus. God has put wisdom in each of us. You have the power to discern if church leaders and church structures are stewarding well. But be warned, you are not immune to poor leadership, no matter what role you have in The Body of Christ. We are all called to steward well and work together in unity.


Church Leadership

Mark: So when I first started going to the building where we meet every Sunday, what we call the church, right? And I started visiting different churches. And so there’s somebody that’s up on stage or up at the pulpit, and that seems to be the leader of the church, for lack of a better term, because I just didn’t know. Reverend or pastor or minister or whatever, priest, whatever you call them. And then I started hearing about different leadership structures, I hear the term elders talked about in churches or deacons talked about in churches. So now, from my perspective, what I’m hearing, because I do politics for a living, I’m hearing there’s some kind of political system inside the church. There’s a leadership structure. And so I’m looking at that and I’m thinking, “Well, what we try to practice in my organization–because I think this is biblical and I think it’s how our country is set up–we try to practice self-governance.” And by the way, we don’t find that easy to do. I feel like this is what God wants us to do, but it’s not easy. People tend to elevate themselves. People tend to like power. And so power structures develop. Self-governance seems to be the right way. So what I wonder is, I see all these churches and how they’re organized and structured– how does that work in a church? And more importantly, if we look at the Bible, what does the Bible say about how a church should be structured and how church leadership should be structured? 

Tim: So, God gave a lot of latitude to organize. The idea is that He gave us the rule over the angels who are more qualified than we are, more capable. But what he wants to show is that living in faith and dependence is superior to being a strong man and lording over others. We talked about that in another segment, “What is the Bible about?” That’s the meta-narrative of the Bible. So if God says, All right, I want to demonstrate that babies and nursing infants are superior to Satan, because babies and nursing infants are dependent and they walk in faith, they have no choice. I’m going to select a group of people who will walk in faith and they’re going to be better rulers. You would, therefore, expect that the way God would instruct both His nation and His body, if we think about Old Testament and New Testament manifestation–

M: So His nation, meaning Israel 

T: Israel, and His body–

M: Meaning all of us now who are believers.

Leaders Serving Others

T: All of us who are believers. Different manifestation, same idea. His people.That the leaders ought to be servants and the leaders ought to be walking in faith, serving others. And that’s exactly what Israel was set up to do. He gave the Law. But His basic principle of the Law is love your neighbor as yourself, and the responsibility for that is unto us, each of us. Each of us. Right? And if each of us do that, you have an amazing place. When you are part of a group–and hopefully everyone’s experienced that–where everyone is contributing something to a shared purpose. Maybe it’s a sports team or maybe even just a barbecue or something. It’s just fun to be a part of where I’m contributing to build this Habitat for Humanity house or whatever it is, we all have a shared goal and I’m doing my part. That is the most fulfillment in life because that’s what we were meant to do. So the opposite of that is strong man controlling, which was what Satan wanted to do. I will ascend to the most high, strong man control. And so in Israel, Israel was pulled out of Canaan and pulled out of Egypt and then contrasted with Canaan, both of whom were strong, exploit the weak cultures. And God was very specifically setting up a strong-serve-the-weak culture that and basically said “If you’ll do this, you will be blessed. Obviously that’s very practical. That’s a much better thriving society and I will bless you extra. And if you don’t, you’re a bad example and I move bad examples off the board. I’ll exile you.” That was Israel. He’s got basically the same idea with the new Testament church. So I’ll just go to this 1 Peter 5 and it says, “The elders who are among you, I exhort my fellow elder.” So now we’re talking about elders. So Peter’s Jewish, right? And this is the book of 1 Peter, so he’s probably talking mainly to the Jewish believers. There were Jewish believers. There were Gentile believers. They fellowship together but practically–

M: Culturally they’re different.

T: Culturally, they’re different and culturally he’s Jewish. An elder is who ruled in the Jewish communities. They were the rulers of the communities. And so they brought that concept over, elder. Which interestingly in Greek this is presbuteros. Sounds familiar? Presbyterian.

M: Presbyterian.


T: Okay, so “Presbuteros, I exhort you who am a fellow elder.” So Peter considered himself an elder, so did John. “I’m an elder also.” So this is someone who is over the church. I’m an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ. So what did Christ do as the ultimate shepherd? He suffered on behalf of his people, right? So this is giving you the servant idea right off the bat. And Peter says, “I’m also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.” I saw on the mount of Transfiguration what’s to come. I saw that. And I have that in mind. When I’m functioning as an elder, I’m going to see God face-to-face and I’m going to have accountability for what I do. He says, this is the command, “Shepherd, the flock of God, which is among you serving as overseers.” The word “overseer” is episkopos. Sound familiar?

M: Episcopalian 

T: So there’s been a historical split about church governance. And in this verse, we’re supposed to do all of those things. We’re supposed to have elders or leaders who shepherd by overseeing. And what do shepherds do to a flock? They protect and they nourish. That’s what you’ve got to do– guard and nourish, not rule over. And he goes on to say, not by compulsion, but willingly. In other words, don’t be forced. You’re not forced into this. It’s a service not for dishonest gain. So not because it’s a chance for me to monetize my influence. That’s off limits. “But eagerly, nor as being lords over those entrusted to you.” So don’t lord over, don’t be the big man that is getting affirmation from the people. And I’m commanding because which road is that? Like that’s the Egyptian/Caananite/Satan sort of thing, “I am lording over. I finally have some power. I’m going to exercise it now.” No. What we’re supposed to do is say “I have authority. I’m going to use it to serve, to protect, equip, to build up, to correct.” Okay. Why? Because it’s for their best interest. And then he says, “But be examples to the flock.” So the leaders in the church are supposed to be people you want everyone to be like. “And when the chief shepherd appears…” So now he calls Jesus the chief shepherd. So, “Peter, I’m a shepherd, but I’ve got a shepherd over me.” “And when the chief shepherd appears, in other words, when Jesus comes back and there’s an accounting, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” So there’s going to be a great reward by the chief shepherd for those who will serve as shepherds serving. And the servant leadership is, I am helping you get where you want to go. I’m helping you elevate your gifts so you can contribute now. And I’m showing you the way that is for your benefit and how that contrasts with the way that’s self-destructive. That’s servant leadership. And when we do that, we are actually doing what is for our ultimate fulfillment, which is Jesus coming and say, “Hey, thanks for doing what I left you to do, all authorities given unto me and heaven on earth, and I’m leaving it to you to do that.” So now that’s the proper expression of church leadership. What you call it, and what you put in your Constitution, there’s broad latitude for you. You can do whatever you want. The function of it should be servant leadership, serving people. That’s the basic principle. 

Should I Know My Church Structure?

M: It makes sense to me. And so a more basic question is, do I need to know how my church is structured and does it matter? I’m just looking at it generally. I’m guessing what you’re saying is if it’s aligned with those principles and it’s fine, it doesn’t matter what they call people, it doesn’t matter exactly what the structure is. Now that, Tim, might be a little bit controversial because there are people–you and I talked about this early on, and I think that’s an important side note–I came to you at some point and I said all this doctrinal differences between the various denominations and, you know, people get pretty agitated about that. You can read a lot of that online, and to be honest, most of it’s over my head. And I told you, I don’t really find it interesting. It doesn’t seem to be the essence of the thing to me. It’s my relationship with Jesus Christ that he’s my Lord and Savior. That’s the essence to me. And you said, “Yeah, that’s good. It’s better that way.” And I remember you saying, “I’ve studied this stuff my whole life. It’s interesting. It’s not that it’s irrelevant. It’s interesting. If you want to know, come to me. But that’s not the essence of the thing.” And I think that ties into what you’re saying. 

T: Well, most factions have some distinction that they emphasize. And the average person doesn’t care about that distinction. Because it’s usually some nuance. You know, I think 5,000, angels can dance on the head on a pin and you think it’s 3,500 type of stuff. And a lot of it has to do with church administration and stuff like that. And most people want to know, how can I live a better life? Like, what does God have for me? But ultimately, you are responsible for the doctrine that that church does, right? And as you get influence in a church, you have a responsibility to bring this leadership style into the church. And if there is a strong man in the church or a strong woman in the church that’s lording it over and there’s a worship of that person going on rather than a strong man or strong woman that is serving and protecting, that is an unhealthy structure. 

M: So there’s an important distinction you just made in modern culture. I think in these big churches especially, it can be a small church too. But if you’re a new Christian, you might find that there are pastors, ministers that are really well known right now. They have national followings, maybe huge churches that have podcasts, television broadcasts. That’s not necessarily bad. You’re not saying that that’s bad, that’s like the lording over. That’s somebody who has presence, but they’re not necessarily the strong man or strong woman. 

Submission to the Chief Shepherd

Joey: Well, I think that’s the key there, the danger in those situations is there has to be a submission to the Chief Shepherd. A lot of church structures end up being, you know, we see past Jesus straight to the way that our pastor sees Jesus. So as long as someone comes under the guidance of the Chief Shepherd, there’s nothing wrong with having a following. It’s more and more tempting to become the chief shepherd or to think of your pastor as the chief shepherd when they have a bigger following. But just on paper, there’s nothing wrong with it as long as you’re following the Chief Shepherd. I think in terms of your question, “What do I need to be aware of?” I think that’s maybe the key thing are we are all following under the guidance of Christ? I have some friends who really hate the term “head pastor” because of the way the scripture talks about Jesus as the head of the church. And just that, it might sound like, squabbling, but it’s an important distinction. We can’t forget that Jesus is the head of the church. And I would also add, there’s kind of two different ways of thinking about church leadership and one is,  you’ve got people that need to be in leadership roles. Someone just needs to make a final decision about something or vision or guidance and that’s a role. When Kylie and I were on the mission field, we would have people just falling over themselves to get in this leadership role because they thought it said something about who they were. They thought it was validating their identity or gave them some sense of power. And we were just like, “Look, in some ways, we just need someone to answer the phone when we call.” It’s a big deal, but it’s not as big of a deal where we should all be fumbling over it. There’s a reality in which there’s a certain structure and it needs to to be in place in order for an organization to be effective. But those leaders should serve. And if you’re in one of those roles, be careful what you’re asking for, because you’re asking to be in a place where you serve. So that’s the one dynamic. The other dynamic is that we’re all leaders in our church. We’re all called a leader. It’s somebody who influences another person towards a vision. And we’re all supposed to do that. And so be careful that you’re not outsourcing your leadership responsibilities onto one particular personality who stands at the pulpit most often at your church. We are all called to be leaders and to be people of influence within our church. And that, in a more broad way–the Bible talks about how we’re all supposed to be ministers, we’re all supposed to be pastor and guide–is maybe the most important way to think about church leadership. But it does also need that other element of there does need to be kind of a hierarchical structure. But you flip that upside down where the highest person isn’t the person with the most power and the most prestige and the one that’s most adored. That’s the person who is resourcing the other people to step into their leadership and is trying to serve them in order to help awaken them into the type of influence that God has called them into. 

M: You know, we describe in our organization, every organization has an organizational pyramid, right? Companies have this. And the way that pyramid works, traditionally speaking, is the very top is the CEO or the president and then you’ve got some mid-level managers underneath them and so on down to where at the bottom, the line employee or whatever you would call them in a particular organization. And I think it seems to me if you’re practicing servant leadership, that pyramid actually sits on its tip.The bottom is the tip. The CEO, the president, the executive director, whatever their job is to serve everybody else in the organization toward the mission.

T: Towards the mission.That’s the real key distinction between toward the mission or to make everybody feel good. So if you’re in that pyramid, let’s say you have an authority pyramid, The elders are at the top. Their job should be, as you said, the upside down pyramid serves the mission. So they are serving the mission, which is stir one another up to love and good works, equip the church, that sort of thing. Speak the truth. That’s the mission. Their job is not to make everybody feel better about themselves. Their job is to point them to a direction that’s more productive. And that’s a really important distinction. It’s how you use your authority for the mission. That’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s what Jesus did. He became a servant to all. But he didn’t make people feel better about themselves. He pointed them to a better way. It’s what he did consistently. That’s the right kind of leadership. 

Be Kind, Not Nice

M: That’s right. And, you know, we went through a transition in our organization that you helped lead us through. It was actually a godly young woman that brought this up to me. We used to say that one of the core things that we did as people and as an organization is to be nice. To the extent like it was so strong in our organization, that culture of niceness, that the staff had a shirt made for me that said, “Be nice.” And one day I had this young woman come to me, a lifelong Christian, and she said, “You know, I really have a problem with this. What you really mean is be kind. You don’t mean be nice, because be nice is make everybody feel good.”  There’s a fake aspect to it.

T: The core competency of a coward is niceness.

M: That’s a good way to put it. And so she said, “Being kind, Jesus was always kind.” But sometimes, and you’ve helped teach me that sometimes kind means I say the thing that’s hard to say, that you really don’t want to hear. And you probably won’t like me for saying it to you. You might even leave. You might leave our flock, our church, our organization because I said the true thing to you, because that was a kind thing to do. So that’s part of what you’re talking about. Somebody who is a true servant leader is not just being nice to everybody and making everybody feel good. So that’s not the pastor or minister’s job. 

T: Yeah, it’s exactly not what to do because who is that serving? If I want to make everybody feel good, what am I actually trying to do? 

M: You’re serving yourself, you want everybody to like you.

T: And that is exactly what not to do. That is not leadership. That’s wholly self-serving.

M: So to apply this to church leadership, if I’m looking at and trying to have an honest appraisal of my church’s leadership, part of the question is “are they willing to have the tough conversations, willing to do the tough things?” 

What an Elder Should Look Like

T: So there’s an actual passage here about what an elder should look like. It’s in Titus and it’s Paul writing a letter to Titus. And he says, “I left you in Crete,” an island, “that you should set in order the things that are lacking and appoint elders in every city.” And then he says, “Here’s the qualifications. If a man is blameless, husband of one wife” –so family oriented and has a solid family– “having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.” So can they cause obedience in their own kids? If their kids are insubordinate, they’re not good leaders, right? They don’t know how to create a good culture. So that’s an important thing to look at, is that person somebody where I would want my kids to be in their family? And then it says, “For a bishop must be blameless.” That’s interesting. Now, bishop is is used as the function of an elder, episkopos. It was translated overseer in the 1 Peter passage. It’s the same thing. It’s somebody who has a job of oversight. So now we’ve got Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and anybody that has a bishop and they’re all leaders overseeing. That’s what all that talking about. “They must be blameless. And a steward of God, not self-willed nor quick tempered, nor given to wine.” So they have self-governance. “And not violent, nor greedy for money.” They’re willing to serve others, “But hospitable, a lover of what’s good, sober-minded, a just wholly self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as they’ve been taught, so that you may be able by sound doctrine to exhort and convict anyone who contradicts the word.” So this is someone who stands for something. They have a really clear mission. They’re living consistent with that mission and they’re willing to confront and stand for what’s true. Why? Because that’s what protection is. That’s what you want in leaders. So I would say to every person, you have two jobs. One is, look, you’re a new believer. Look for a church that has those characteristics or is seeking those characteristics. It’s still going to be people, but more important, become this yourself. This is your call to be a leader. None of us should not be seeking this. So I had a time in my life where I started looking at a different passage that talks about these things.  And I said, “Well, you know, I’m not an elder in our church from the standpoint of an office, that’s an administrative function.” But I looked at it and said, “You know, I ought to shoot to have those characteristics. And I went through and though I’m pretty good. And I got to the word gentle and I’m like, I’m pretty sure I’m not that.” So I started diving into, what does that really mean? And I really decided that the main thing that that was talking about is the ability to listen to other people and see things from their perspective. And so I really dug in to start becoming an effective listener, it’s one of our servant leadership tools. And I think it helped me immensely in being effective as a leader just because I saw that in that list and thought no one would say that of me. Now they probably still wouldn’t because people tend to think of gentle as “you make me feel good” and “you’re highly approachable.” But I don’t think that’s actually what that passage is talking about. But from the standpoint of approachability of “do you actually listen,” anybody could do that. You don’t have to exude warm fuzzies, that’s either something you have or you don’t. But everybody can learn to listen.

M: To me that’s a pretty good primer on how you’re looking for a church, going to a church, now you know biblically how a church should be structured according to the Bible. And you have good insights on when you see somebody up at the pulpit or speaking from the stage and they’re a professed “leader of the church,” what’s their life looks like? And you can look at that, and those folks generally on the stage have fairly open lives. You can look at their family, it’s for all to see. Or they could be hiding stuff.

T: Maybe you have a public persona and a private persona. You can go do some digging and find out who the private persona is. If they’re a primadona, which happens. And sometimes people start out great and they have inadequate accountability. Which means, everyone of these elders, and it’s plural, why is it always plural? None of us is past going off the rails if we don’t have accountability. Everybody needs accountability. That’s one of the good things about marriage, your spouse knows.

M: You’re not as special as you think you are.

T: So anybody that has been let down by their fellow elders and been allowed to become a primadona–that’s a mutual accountability, I would say–I wouldn’t go to that place. Moses was called, I mean you would say he had a lot of authority right?

M: Yep.

Humbleness in Leadership

T: Moses is called the most humble man in all the Earth, the meekest man in all of scripture. Well he had a ton of authority. It’s not authority that’s the problem, it’s how you use it. And Moses used his authority 100% to serve that nation. Well, 99.9%. He had a couple slip-ups, he got really close. But he used his authority to serve that nation and God’s vision for that nation. Even to the point where God said “I think I’ve had it with these people. Why don’t I just wipe them out and start over with you? You’re a descendant of Abraham, I can still fulfill all of my promises to him through you. And I just can’t, I’ve had it with these people.” And Moses goes, if I remember this right, he went and fasted forty days and forty nights for Israel. And his main argument to God is “Yes you would fulfill your promises to Abraham but all the other nations would think you failed when you wiped them out, and you would look bad. So don’t do that, you need to forgive these people.” Well that’s a guy with ultimate authority 100% laying down his life serving his people. So there’s your humility, there’s your meekest man on Earth. It’s now how famous this person is or how much attention do they get, it’s what they’re doing with it that you need to look at. I’ve actually had enough exposure to that world to feel fairly confident saying there’s some of each. And I think you could say that about most every spirit of life.

M: Yeah I think we could sum that up by saying everywhere you go, you’re going to experience people.

Bear One Another’s Burdens, Carry Your Load

T: But you know, the judgment is up to you. God gave you the authority to make those decisions, you get to choose how you look at things. You get to choose how you ought to look at church leadership, how you ought to be a leader yourself. And He gives you the choice and He also allows you who to trust. And ultimately you’re going to trust God in all these things. Now there’s one other thing that I would say that is relevant to this whole topic. Because we’ve talked about how to select leaders and how to judge and all that kind of stuff, but ultimately the burden for leadership, and you started with this, is on us to be leaders. And Galatians 6 is my favorite passage on this because it says, “Bear one another’s burdens” and then two verses later it says “Carry your own load.” So when you bear one another’s burdens, our tendency is to say “Joey, you need to bearing my burdens, that’s what the Bible says. Mark, you need to bear some of my burdens.” Because that’s what we teach kids, when we teach them sharing the first thing they think is “Well they need to share with me.” That’s nipped in the bud, right? You carry your own load, don’t expect others to carry yours. But you carry theirs. That’s servant leadership in a nutshell. So when you go to anything whether it’s family, work, or assembling of other believers, the attitude you should have is “I’m carrying my own load. I want to be stirred up to love and good works. So I want to change. But I’m also looking to carry my load in my part of this organization.”

M: So self-governance at its essence means that it’s all on me. I think that’s a great overarching theme for what we’re talking about, when you go out looking for a church. Because it’s your responsibility to choose the right church, it’s your responsibility to look at the leadership and ask “Is this Biblical?” It can seem a little overwhelming but it’s actually relatively simple. We describe it, I mean you’re going to know. You go to a church and you can see, do they seem like good people who are willing to carry each other’s burdens? They’re living Biblically to the best of their ability. I mean, nobody’s perfect, obviously, except for Jesus. 

T: Are they trying to love their neighbor as themselves or are they lording over and self-seeking? That’s not that hard to figure out.

M: So we said a lot of stuff that can sound really complicated. It’s not. What I always tell people is, “you already know”. Go in, trust your intuition. Look at what’s going on and say “Yeah, this place seems to me that it’s generally not great.”

T: You just kind of summarized the summary of Deuteronomy. After all those laws from chapter 5 to chapter 26, fully explaining the Ten Commandments and how to live them. God then comes up with this “I’m adding this extra covenant thing.” And he says in chapter 30, he says “Look, you know. It’s not that hard. You don’t have to have an angel come down and explain this. You don’t have to have a missionary explain this. You know, so just speak it and then do it.”

M: I think that’s good. I remember raising my kids up and saying, “I know you know when you do something wrong. It’s not a question for you, you know what’s wrong. You’re trying to hide what’s wrong, that’s how I know you know.” And so I think it’s the same way here. We know more than we give ourselves credit for knowing, partially because God wrote it on our hearts. 

T: That’s exactly right. What do you resonate with? And if you’re resonating with something like, “Oh I want to be like that person because they have great power and they use power over others and they’re famous,” that’s the flesh. Now that’s temptation, run from that. And if you go and say, “Oh okay, these are people that are really giving and I want to be like them,” that’s the Spirit.