Why do church leaders crash and burn so often?
Church leaders rarely burn out, disqualify themselves, quit, or get fired based on a shortfall in their preaching ability, organizational savvy, shepherding skills, or other external competencies in their day to day work. It happens far more because of something going on in leaders’ internal realities—the heart and soul; one’s humility, self-care, and family life.
Sadly, though, leaders’ internal realities are rarely seen, and seldom equipped. I’m not a “demon under every rock” guy, but I am convinced that Satan hates Kingdom advancement, so his sights are set on individuals, families, and churches that are faithful to the gospel and have the potential to make a great impact for the gospel.
A Heart Check for Church Leaders
When asked to address what church planters should avoid, my mind immediately goes a different direction than common organizational mistakes new leaders can make. There are plenty of resources out there on that. Or you can look at the previous post for some areas to prioritize. Instead, I want to share from the heart six things I’ve seen as we’ve trained dozens of planters that reflect more internal cautions.
- Don’t assume you’re the best game in town: I can’t tell you how many churches have been planted in my own town that promise that because they’re here, there will finally be a… [fill in the blank: gospel-centered, different, biblical, relevant, etc.] church in town. Finally! Planter, you will be a church in your context; not the church in your context. By God’s grace, you’ll be strong in some elements of mission and ministry, and weak in others. Don’t try to be everything—especially early on—everyone wants you to be. Be the church that God has called you to be—based on your convictions, your leaders, and your mission field. And celebrate churches who are strong in other areas—even send people to them if needed.
- Don’t run alone: This caution has two sides to it. First, don’t run alone on the personal level. You need a team. If all of Christian life happens better in community, church leadership certainly does! Find a couple men and women you trust deeply, who are gifted differently than you—and frankly, who aren’t impressed with you—and run lots of decisions by them. Second, don’t run alone on the church level. The first churches reached out to Paul and his companions; denominations’ hierarchies and networks’ brotherhood/sisterhood exist in part to serve, protect, and correct church leaders. Find a group who can support your church in ways you need, and who you’d be excited to contribute to, and go all in with them. Things may be slower than if you ran alone, and you may not always agree, but you’ll be glad you did both.
- Don’t avoid your “sending” church: Churches start for lots of reasons, and in lots of ways. We’ll explore some of those on the blog later this year. But whether you were overtly sent, or you started based on a church split, or your small group or class or age-specific ministry kind of fell into becoming a church during COVID (see post #1 in this series for more on that), don’t avoid or hide or stay in the dark! Protect the unity of God’s universal Church, honor the leaders, history, and growth you experienced at the church you left, and keep the door open for genuine gospel partnership—no matter how different your church is from theirs. Maybe you left on good terms; maybe you didn’t. If you planted in COVID, maybe your church’s leaders don’t even know you left! Duke Revard, the executive director of Saturate, often talks about “openly distrusting” others if there’s tension. Talk about it! Clear the air! Move toward, not away from, others. If we can pursue that in hard relationships, we can surely do that in easier ones. In short, humble yourself, repent where needed, offer forgiveness if needed, be honest and forthright in everything, and honor your “sending” church.
- Don’t leave the flock: Church leaders—shepherds, in many biblical images—are always, and first, sheep. The Apostle Peter charges church leaders to “shepherd the flock of God among you.” We don’t let the flock trample us; but neither do we rise above them. We never graduate from being refined; we never become sinless; we’re never above the need for community, relationship, known-ness, and accountability. We always need shepherding, even as we shepherd others. We encourage church leaders often, to “topple the pedestal” that churches can put leaders on (or frankly, that many leaders perceive themselves to be on). Let people know your imperfections. Accept feedback. Be discipled. Be sanctified. Be in genuine community and deep, mutually-beneficial relationships, among God’s flock. Be a sheep.
5. Don’t neglect the things that matter most: Especially if you started a church in response to COVID, or fell into it more than proactively pursued it, you might not feel you have the time to do something as audacious as leading a church. If this is you, bring the community that has gathered into the conversation and determine your best next steps together. But don’t lead a church reluctantly or under compulsion! On the other hand, you may feel like you can give the new church all the time in the world… meanwhile your soul or family or job starts to wither on the vine. We all know that our relationship with God, spouse, and family matter more than our position in a church. Community and mission matter more than a leadership title. (We had an elder step down once because he felt he wasn’t being a good husband or missionary—it was a beautiful example to our church family!) God’s church matters, and God will take care of it. The personal and familial life of a leader, in part, qualifies you to lead and serve God’s people. Don’t neglect those, more important, things.
6. Don’t forget the gospel—or assume it: I think the biggest mistake I made in years four-six of leading The City Church is assuming the gospel as our church’s motive and our goal. We had, after all, talked about the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, kingdom, and return ad nauseum for three years. We had explicitly based our personal identities, and our church’s values in the gospel; our aim was to display and declare the gospel. It was woven deeply into our culture. Except that it wasn’t. At least not as much as I thought. Slowly, unintentionally, the gospel became assumed. We referenced it but didn’t explain it explicitly. We talked about gospel overflows, but not the good news of Jesus itself. The apostle Paul tells us that the gospel is of first importance. In Revelation, John tells us that God removes churches’ lampstands if they leave their first love (the good news of the gospel of God’s grace through the finished work of Jesus). Our church recovered, by God’s grace, but it took time. Learn from my mistake: don’t assume—and don’t forget—the gospel!
“Guard Your Life and Doctrine”
As with each post in this blog series, there’s plenty more to write. There are innumerable things to avoid. Flee from sin. Steer clear of bitterness and secrecy and pride. Don’t place your identity in ministry, but in being a beloved child of God. Keep away from self-reliance. As my friend Bob Roberts, Jr. quips, “Keep your pants on and your hand out of the offering plate.” And so on.
But church leader, no matter how you planted, or why or when, don’t neglect your heart and soul. Don’t neglect your inner life. Pay attention to your heart, soul, self-care, and family life.
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