Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chief Executive Preachers?

Is your pastor the CEO of your church?

Should he be?

Yesterday on Facebook, two different posts by two different friends paralleled the dichotomy of pastors as leaders. One, a review of John Piper's book, Brothers, We are Not Professionals, related the misplaced ideals of many evangelical pastors who think they should be treated like executives in private industry. Another, an article from about Willow Creek Community Church's popular leadership training seminars, gushes about how pastors benefit from executive coaching from the likes of GE's polarizing ex-CEO, Jack Welch.


Leading Leaders and Preacher Management

I don't know if, since Willow Creek's leadership seminars have been going on for a number of years, Piper finally decided enough was enough. It's mere speculation on my part that Brothers, We are not Professionals represents a refutation of Hybels' incessant secularizing of the church. Parading unsaved Type-A go-getters in front of seminary grads, peddling business school management theories and plucky CEO sound bites to men who should be models of piety; doesn't Willow Creek risk causing more conflict than it resolves?

Even if Piper knew nothing of Hybels' seminars, he knows that plenty of pastors across North America run their churches like a for-profit enterprise. Eager clergy and evangelical business professionals have encouraged a church culture which views models for economic profitability as transferable to communities of faith. And in a society which values growth and compares everything so it can quantify success, "whatever works" seems to have eclipsed the Ten Commandments, even in church.

But isn't at least some management savvy a good thing for pastors to consider? Like one pastor commented in the Fast Company article, churches today have programming that didn't exist 50 years ago, and many church boards expect the senior pastor to masterfully supervise everything. Church budgets can run into the millions of dollars, and conventional wisdom holds that being a good steward of all that money means that it needs to be managed well. Massive building campaigns now involve bank oversight like never before, and banks want to see robust organizational charts and rigid departmental budgets. Plus, most congregations now expect everything to look, sound, and feel professional, demanding an ambiance and aesthetic you just can't get from some retiree volunteers and a Xerox machine.

How many seminaries provide enough training for pastors to effectively steer what many of today's evangelicals expect from their churches? To a point, isn't it hard to begrudge Hybels some kudos for recognizing a problem and addressing a need?

Well, it depends. Hybels and his fellow megachurch guru, Rick Warren, have created their church growth model on a seeker-sensitive format which claims to preserve the essence of the Gospel but abhors everything else that hints of "church." Traditional worship elements were the first to go, so that Baby Boomers reared on rock music wouldn't have Bach assaulting their eardrums. In their place came larger staffing levels, specialist pastors, sprawling campuses, and all of the management hassles of a mid-sized corporation or university.

Did American evangelicalism need all of this stuff? Has the church growth movement been a big, unnecessary fad? Has the astounding amount of dollars the American church has been guzzling these past three decades created Wall-Street-worthy religious empires that demand rigid management to be sustainable? Whose church is this anyway; ours, or God's?

And what have we gotten from all of the money and energy expended on consumerizing church? Does the evangelical church's standing in American society reflect the small fortune it's spent to produce the churchgoers we've got today? Is Hybels' management project simply an extension of the same results-oriented mindset that, despite claiming to be more culturally-relevant than ever, is witness to one of the most fragmented and ineffectual eras of the American church?

Wake-Up Call

If you think I'm sounding needlessly sarcastic or narcissistic, consider what my friend, Rev. Eric Redmond, wrote on his blog as he reviewed Piper's book:

"In the opening chapter... Piper calls pastors to see a great contrast between what humble, self-sacrificing service accomplishes, and what cannot be accomplished by professionalism - which seems, for Piper, to be an approach to ministry that is unwilling to identify with the ugliness and offensiveness of a ministry modeled after Christ (cf. Mark 10:44-45; I Cor 4:9-13)...

"Our hope before God is that we would be servants of the Most High God marked out by these characteristics (with Scriptures added by [Eric]):

  1. Mournful over personal sin (Mt. 5:3-4)

  2. Deep (in consistency, dependency, and earnestness) in prayer (Eph. 6:18-20)

  3. Given over to the study of holy truths (2 Tim. 2:15)

  4. Discontented among and because of perishing neighbors (Rom. 15:20; 2 Cor. 5:14-21)

  5. Full of passion and earnestness in all of our conversation (Eph. 4:29; Col. 4:6)

  6. [Full of (the)] childlike joy of our salvation (Mt. 11:25; 18:1-4; 19:13-14; 21:14-16)

  7. Terrified (my term) by the “awesome holiness and power of Him who can cast both soul and body into hell (Matt. 10:28)” (p. 4)

  8. “[Holding] to the Cross with fear and trembling as our hope-filled and offensive tree of life” (Jn. 17:14-26) (p. 4)

  9. Completely void of viewing anything the way the surrounding, unredeemed culture views it (Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:1-4)

  10. Complete indifference to all material gain (Mt. 6:19-34)."

Wow. Can you see the difference between the CEO kind of pastor, and the kind of pastor for which Piper advocates? Which kind of pastor do you want for your church?

Church Leadership in a Ministry Vacuum?

Now, I'm not against good management in churches. To the extent that Biblical leaders can incorporate basic management principles to avoid waste and confusion, Willow Creek's leadership project has some validity. But what is the extent to which Hybels' brand of church management can exist in a vacuum apart from viable ministry? Because he's assuming it can, isn't he?

Hybels claims not to care if the corporate managers he recruits to lead Willow Creek's management seminars are born-again believers or not. Yet I have to think faith matters. He doesn't seem to care as much about doctrine and theology as he does validating the conventional appeal of victory and success - in a part of life where God looks at what we cannot see: the heart. Some people praise Hybels for "thinking outside the box," yet I suspect he's actually putting God in a box by asserting ministry should be flowcharted. Pushing the envelope like Hybels loves to do may not be intrinsically evil, but it can't be particularly holy either, can it?

At first glance, adopting a Fortune 500 mindset in church offices may look like good stewardship, but can it really jive with the raw ministry Redmond explores in relation to Piper's book? Managing people, projects, and programs has become a hallmark of the contemporary seeker sensitive church movement. But the Holy Spirit doesn't punch a timecard. God's policies and procedures take up 66 books. And the organization which claims Christ as its head owes its very existence to His sacrifice. Talk about profit and loss!

What Truth Is

Hybels and his followers claim that truth is truth, whether it's spoken by a believer or unbeliever. It doesn't matter who teaches their management classes because John Calvin said any truth is good truth. But, as Pilate asked Christ, "what is truth?"

The apostle Paul writes that the wisdom of the wise is foolishness to God (1 Corinthians 3:19). It matters whether or not Willow Creek's management gurus possess faith through Christ because what we think is wise may not actually be.

Truth is reality without condition. But can Jack Welch, who was despised by his employees while being adored by Wall Street, sympathize with the struggles of modern preachers and their need for being open to the Holy Spirit? Welch claims to be on a "journey," but he doesn't like to talk about it in public, which isn't a very convincing affirmation for a faith walk. Is what he and his leadership cohorts preach to Willow Creek's eager audiences the unqualified, uncompromised, unconditional truth? Or is it, as I suspect, mostly what today's crop of management trendwatchers can get published?

Consider the Fruit

Should pastors equate their vocation to Welch's, in which he was responsible for squeezing profitability out of fewer people and questionable corporate takeovers? Granted, Welch is probably the most curious choice Hybels has made to lead his management courses; well, next to former president Bill Clinton, anyway. But even if you were to deny Piper's injunction against pastors feeling entitled to CEO status, corporate managers who follow Christ's teachings occupy few superstar CEO status positions. And those that do would probably attribute their corporate success to Christ primarily, with management style further on down the list.

I make no apologies for repeatedly returning in this blog to the Fruits of the Spirit. I do this not to beat you over the head with how you should be living, but to remind myself of what God wants to be creating in me for His glory. I can't help but wonder how the Fruits of the Spirit fit into the discussion of pastors as CEOs and leadership wonks. So here we go with the list: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control.

I've never been a pastor, and I've never been a CEO or an upper-level manager. But the best pastors and managers I've known in my life have, to varying degrees of success, tried to model some, if not all, of these Fruits. And by doing so, without any fancy leadership training or formulas, they've been the leaders you actually WANT to follow.

Of course, some people would simply chalk that up to charisma. Yet as I think about them, these people were not particularly charismatic. They knew their job, they had high expectations and hopes for those they led, and as a group, they were, um... patient, good, and self-controlled. With some of the other fruits sprinkled around to varying degrees. None of them were perfect, of course, but they led by example and with conviction. When they made mistakes, they owned up to them quickly, just as they expected the rest of us to do when we erred.

You and I look at outward appearances, but as I've already mentioned, God looks at our hearts. If Hybels and his leadership participants have genuine hearts for ministering the oftentimes lovely and oftentimes gritty reality of Christ's love for His people, then they will be known by their fruits. And that's as much of an ultimatum for them as it is for me. I'm not analyzing these issues in my own little vacuum as an armchair Christian; as a member of the Body of Christ subject to church leadership, I need to pray for my pastors and ministry leaders. I need to support them and engage productively in Kingdom work. Not so that we earn worldly success points, but so that our love for our Savior gets bathed in a testimony of His grace.

Whatever we do, we should do it for God's glory. Whether anybody else notices or not. Shouldn't preachers with executive aspirations examine all of their 66-book owners manual before taking Jack Welch's word?

Because technically, the "owner" in "owners manual" could also be capitalized with a deific "O."


  1. Our church in Austin frequently said that the church was led by elders, and the senior pastor was just one of the elders. Of course, he is paid and his term of service doesn't expire like the other elders, but the idea was that his input did not override that of the other elders.

    (BTW, didn't Willow Creek "repent" of their previous philosophy in 2007 or so? - although the final quote in this article is telling:

  2. This quote, by WC's Greg Hawkins, is also telling: "Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he's asking us to transform this planet."

    They can't stand God not giving them a special dispensation so they can win acclaim from the rest of us. I'd heard the "repent" angle too, but am too cynical to expect a leopard to change its spots this quickly. And these quotes appear to prove it. I'd love for the folks at WC to prove me wrong!


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