• Caleb Nel

A CODE FOR HEALTHY CHURCH LEADERSHIP

The more time I spend embedded in the American church culture, the more I have become convinced that one of America’s top needs is a resurgence of healthy churches with healthy leadership teams at the helm of those churches.


The reality of the 21st century church (particularly in America) is that it has become plagued with leaders who are eroding the credibility of the church and the message of the gospel. Preachers whose ministries solely grow their net worth, with almost no benefit to the people they minister to. Pastors who fail sexually. Strong leaders who are domineering, heavy-handed, and function in isolation. Insecure church leaders who split churches. The list could go on (and I am sure you could even think of your own personal experiences to go along with this).

As a pastor in the greater Washington D.C. area, I have been shocked by the number of hurt and wounded Christians walking into our church. Christians whose Kingdom purposes have been derailed because of legitimate church leadership failures. Christians who feel stuck because of their past church hurts. Christians who are now struggling to engage in the church and her mission, consequently leaving both the individual and the church poorer.

America needs a resurgence - a resurgence of healthy churches with healthy leadership teams. In fact, healthy churches start with healthy leadership teams. Proverbs 14:8 says, “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception.” As a leadership team forms and evolves, they must give thought to their ‘ways’ if they wish to pursue health.

When skyscrapers are designed, one of the guiding principles is the higher the building, the deeper the foundations must be. The same principle applies to the church. As a church grows bigger, it should also grow deeper. In other words, it should focus on the foundations and ultimately should give intentional thought to its ways.

Below I outline a code for building a healthy leadership team:

  1. Make It Personal: Before leaders call their people to anything, they must make sure they have engaged their own hearts first. Financial giving. Sunday commitment. Small group participation. Prayer meetings. Discipleship. Leaders must first make their faith and discipleship personal. Long before they find themselves preaching to anyone else, they must first preach to themselves. This isn't only a matter of integrity but it’s also a matter of the gospel because before anyone is a leader in the church, they are a disciple of Jesus.

  2. Authenticity: Leaders should be the real deal. They should be comfortable in their own skin. They should be able to exude authenticity and vulnerability in a way that disarms people and makes them comfortable. It’s important to note that authenticity requires a deep sense of security. If leaders are insecure, they won’t be authentic, vulnerable, or real with their church community. So, leaders should lead themselves regularly into security. Psalm 139: 13-14 says, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made". In other words, you are exactly who God made you to be (including gifts, personality and more).

  3. Mutuality: Your life is not just tied up in your gifts and your calling, but rather in a team. Mutuality is best modelled for us in the dance of the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit. Since the beginning of time, the Trinity has teamed together – from creation to the cross and into eternity. The example of the Trinity forces leaders to ask themselves: Am I just on this team or do I genuinely need this team? Mutuality is believing that we need each other – that we are better together. So, leaders must train themselves to need the team.

  4. Humility: Do you easily admit your weaknesses? What do you do with your weaknesses in a team? There should be a willingness to defer to those with more experience/skill: e.g., if we consider preaching opportunities - ask yourself if you are content to be a pastoral leader without the microphone. In Matthew 20:20-28 we read that the mother of James and John requested that her sons sit at Jesus’s side in the new kingdom. The ten other disciples were indignant. But Jesus responded to them all: "Not so with you... Whoever will be great must be a servant/slave, even as the son of Man came not to be served, but to give his life." Jesus reminds them to let God promote and decide their positions.

  5. Courtesy & Respect: Leaders must create space for diverse views and be grateful for those diverse views. The weakest leadership teams are one's where everyone thinks the same, believes the same, and sees the same. Leaders must learn to listen to the entire view/argument before responding. Leaders should never allow their ego to be stoked in the process. It's not about who wins the argument - it's about how does Christ move us forward together.

  6. Mercy: Leaders will let each other down – fact. Leaders will have disagreements – fact. Leaders should not allow team meetings to be a place of innuendos and issues, but instead should deal properly with them in private. Leaders must work to keep their hearts clean before each other and before the Lord. Leaders should seek to extend mercy to each other in the same way Jesus extends mercy to them.

  7. Sympathy: Leaders struggle too. Leaders need care too. When last did you allow others into your weakness or struggle? Leaders must learn to identify with each other’s pain - we must sympathize. Galatians 6 reminds us to bear one another’s burdens (yet each leader should remain responsible for their own load).

  8. Confidentiality: Leaders don't gossip, and they don't undermine. Leaders don't dishonor people in conversations because they are leaders. Leaders want people to genuinely feel safe in their hands. There should be no derogatory tone when leaders speak about other people or situations. When leaders have a problem, they should go directly to that person and not to anyone else. If leaders do gossip, they should gossip thankfulness, encouragement, and the praises of people.

  9. Punctuality: This is a practical matter of diaries, watches, and communications. Life is busy and time is precious, so leaders should honor each other’s time by being on time (this shows that we value each other). The root of non-punctuality is spiritual pride: “the rules that apply to others don't apply to me”. Of course, there is grace for mistakes and emergencies, but that should be the exception and not the norm. Leaders should RSVP for meetings as soon as they can (not last minute). Leaders should put all their meetings in their calendar, so that no meetings are missed. A leadership team should aim for high levels of punctuality and commitment as they team together.

  10. Feedback: Leaders must create a culture where they practice praise, encouragement, and constructive feedback. Leaders must learn how to receive feedback well and give feedback well. Leaders must exude an openness to receiving feedback – both positive and constructive feedback. If a leader is open to being used on a team, then they must be open to feedback too.

  11. Celebration: Leaders must celebrate and honor not just the preachers and those playing public roles, but also the servers, the volunteers, and those who may feel invisible - all the unsung heroes of the church. We must remember that every contribution is amplified by the team e.g., preachers often look good because of the media team, or meeting hosts often look good because of the worship team. Leaders should seek to out-do one another in celebration, encouragement, and honor.

  12. Optimistic Disposition: Leaders should have fun! Leaders should joke and laugh. Leaders shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. Leaders shouldn’t allow bad experiences from their past to taint their outlook or disposition toward a new future in God (the Israelites struggled with this - God was doing something new and they just wanted to go back to Egypt). Leaders should guard their hearts and maintain a faith-filled optimistic disposition.

  13. Unleash Everyone: Everyone has gifts. Everyone has potential. Everyone has time. Everyone can contribute. A leader’s role is to release the full potential of the priesthood of ALL believers. Leaders must become masters of identifying, recruiting, releasing, and encouraging those in their church. If the church is going to impact the world with the gospel, we are going to need everyone!

  14. Friendship: Some of us will labor and walk together for over 40 years, yet the saddest thing is leaders who labor their whole lives without building genuine and sustaining relationships. Christians are not called to do mission on their own, instead they are called to do it with the church (i.e., with other people). This means that if we build God’s way, we should have many lifelong friends. So, leaders should learn to be more interested than interesting – they should make relational effort and share their stories and lives with each other. Just like kids feel safe when their parents love each other, so too does the church feel safe when they see the leaders genuinely loving each other in friendship.

Imagine a church leadership team with this kind of culture. What would it be like to participate in a team like this? It would feel like the Gospel personified. Imagine others catching this culture, and non-Christ-followers watching this team-culture in action. Imagine the glory God would receive. Although the list above is by no means exhaustive, it does encapsulate the qualities church leaders are called to live by; ultimately reflecting a gospel community.

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