While doing research for my first magazine article—which I never got published—I was interviewing a pastor on the East Coast. I asked him about his biggest challenges in a growing church. He quickly told me that he did not have enough leaders. Through the years, I’ve never found a pastor who told me that had enough. In fact, I’ve got book after book on my shelf that talks about the need for leaders, how to develop leaders, and how to empower leaders.
Whether or not we need leaders is not the question. In fact, Jesus spent three years focusing on the development of a small group of leaders who would guide the development of the young church. The real question for us is this: Are we developing leaders to fulfill roles or are we developing persons who lead out of personhood?
I’m writing this post from Stillwater, MN, one of the first cities in this part of the country. In one of the oldest buildings in this town, where now there are little shops and boutiques, workers once built cars from the ground up. Henry Ford, known for his innovative assembly line, changed all of this. Instead of craftsmen who create cars, we have assembly-line workers who assemble automotive replicas, one part at a time. From a business perspective, this was genius because various roles were created along the assembly line that do not depend on the expertise of one individual. The roles were created so that almost anyone could do them.
Roles first, people second. Result = efficient production.
Has this Henry Ford mentality shaped the way we do leadership in the church? While serving on a church staff, a family moved into our part of town who had been effective leaders in a church in England. I saw them walk into our church one Sunday. I later met with the husband to share the vision of the church. While I listened to his experience, I thought of all kinds of roles he could fill. But he kindly told me that he and his family were burned out from leading in the church and that they needed a place of worship that did not need them to lead. I was disappointed that they decided to worship elsewhere.
I saw my job as filling roles first then caring of people.
A friend once told me how he had a similar experience when he moved to another city. He was tired and burned out from the ups and downs of church leadership. While praying about his situation, he felt impressed to take a year off from any formal leadership commitments. He had no intentions of withdrawing from church, but he felt the need to share his thoughts with his pastor. The pastor told him how taking such a break often leads to walking away from the church and ultimately from the Lord. He sited stories about this and then shared different roles in the church where his leadership could be utilized.
This pastor communicated to my friend that the roles in the church were more important the care of his soul.
We tend create roles that are needed to make the vision of the church work, we map out those roles in a way that almost anyone can do them, and then we look for people to fill those roles. This is the way of ministry efficiency, the way of ministry production.
It seems like we assume that if leaders fill the roles then their souls will flourish. But the role first mentality fosters an organization first mentality. Persons are objectified for the sake of the organization. They are treated like a general category and grouped like one might do when classifying species of insects. Leaders with the gift of serving go here. Those with administrative gifts here. We need more greeters, so let’s get people to help us out. Or we need more small group leaders, so let’s develop a training program. The pastor's is to fill the roles with the right people. We use people for the sake of the success of the church.
Theologian John Zizioulas challenges this,
“Persons can neither be reproduced nor perpetuated like species; they cannot be composed or decomposed, combined or used for any objective whatsoever—even the most sacred one. Whosoever treats a person in such ways automatically turns him into a thing, he dissolves and brings into non-existence his personal particularity.” (Community and Otherness, 167-8)
The church is not a producer of cars or widgets or anything else that might come off an assembly line. But that’s the way we measure church success. People are counted like products and leaders like assembly-line works who keep the line moving so more people can come. Or when we are talking about small groups, we think in terms of leaders, leadership training, and how we can multiply leaders so that we can multiply groups.
So what’s the alternative? How do we honor people as persons instead of seeing them as potential producers of ministry product?
There are many ways to answer this question, but I think the best place to start is with some questions based on this passage.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” —Luke 10:38-42
Let's assume that the pastor is in the place of Jesus in this story and that Mary is a leader or a potential leader. How might this inform how we work with leaders?
For instance, how would it shape the amount of time spent with leaders?
How might it change the dialogue?
How would it inform the questions asked of the leader?
How might it open doors to tap into the deep passions of the leader to see what he or she long to contribute?
How might this demonstrate that the leader is valuable as a person more than he or she is valuable as a leader?
We preach that we need to be with Jesus like Mary was, but then we structure our churches for a bunch of Marthas. Developing some kind of how to list so that we can change this will not get us anywhere. There are deep patterns that shape how we have lead the church and how we have created roles that use up leaders. If we want to lead somewhere else, then we have to ask different kinds of questions. At least that's a place to start.