Leadership

A Primer on Church Leadership: What it Is and How it Works

Learn what church leadership is, what it looks like at its best, and how to shepherd your flock well.

A Primer on Church Leadership: What it Is and How it Works
by

Paul Maxwell

Church leadership is a blessing from God.
It is also a very difficult endeavor for those who seek to give the blessing of good leadership to the church.

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Leadership requires holding the pain of hundreds of Christians and shepherding them through the trials of life.

Leadership requires pastoral sensitivity, emotional intelligence, social aptitude, moral trustworthiness, and heartfelt conviction in the truthfulness of Christianity.

Here, we are going to dive into:

  • what church leadership is;
  • how it can be managed and mismanaged; and
  • what it ought to look like in a healthy church

Let’s get started.

1. The responsibilities of a church leader

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

The church leader is responsible for “overseeing” the church. This includes the discipleship of members, conserving the theological integrity of the church’s message, evangelizing and serving the community through church outreach initiatives, caring for the needy within the walls of the church and, of course, taking responsibility for difficult cases of church discipline.

2. The qualities of a church leader

“For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” (1 Tim. 3:5).

When we read the qualifications for a church leader delineated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter, they feel both admirable and overwhelming. Who could ever ascend to a state of such perfection? They sound nearly inhuman.

A church leader, in Paul’s view, cannot be a new convert, hospitable, gifted in teaching, gentle, and also cannot by greedy (1 Tim. 3:1-7). But there are other qualities that are more difficult to directly measure, such as being “sober-minded, self-controlled,” and “respectable.” (1 Tim. 3:2).

Here are those passages laid out in their entirety, which are straightforward enough not to require exhaustive exposition. Their plain meaning is difficult to apply even as they challenge us:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:5-9).
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.  Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Tim 3:1-7).
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

3. The structure of church leadership

“And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).

There are many ways of practicing biblical church leadership at the local level.

Congregationalism. Some churches choose to govern themselves as autonomous congregations either through (1) the appointment or election of elders or (2) the democratic oversight of the church member base itself.

Presbyterianism. Other models, such as Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations, have regional collections of appointed teaching elders who pass rigorous tests of qualification and gifting, who “call” prospective trained candidates to positions of church leadership at the local level. Those church leaders would then not be members of the church they lead, but rather members of the regional presbytery or synod which called them to lead the church. In some cases, the congregation may still exercise the right to appoint ruling elders, who do not carry as much authority as the called minister, and who often remain members of the local congregation itself.

Episcopalianism. Some models, such as Methodism, Anglicanism and Episcopalianism, build upon the presbyterian model to appoint officers to lead those presbyteries and synods with single officers, often called “bishops.” Those bishops are charged, often by a nationally ruling bishop, to take responsibility for the operational, financial, and spiritual health of every synod and congregation within their regional scope.

Some New Testament experts, such as D. A. Carson, believe that the New Testament gives churches liberty to choose whichever of these models seems most biblical, practical, and appropriate for their own contexts. However, many leaders within these models self-selected these denominations for the very reason that they viewed their church leadership structure to be the most biblical. While theologians remain divided, denominations and church leaders often practice a high level of respect toward one another and see the matter of structure as an issue of Christian liberty among church leaders as it regards the biblical legitimacy of each model.

Over to you

Use these insights from Scripture to perform an honest self-assessment with your leadership team. What does your team need? Encouragement? Repentance? Self-evaluation? New church staff? Improved training?

When you begin asking these questions with humility, your church membership will feel it in the culture of the church. And that sense of safety will show up in higher levels of engagement, giving, and participation in all that God is doing in and through your church.

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A Primer on Church Leadership: What it Is and How it Works