Friday, February 21, 2014

Team Leadership & the Early Church

Last week, I wrote about five things we can learn from small group house churches from the first three centuries. Actually there is a sixth, but the last one is so significant—and so often overlooked in our day—that it merits its own post. This attribute of the early church is related to how leadership operated in early house churches; it was team based.
teamwork 5 If we are academically honest about how we understand the history of the early church, we have to admit that we have very little detailed data about how leadership operated. Some have argued therefore that the early church was absolutely flat, that there were no appointed leaders. Then there are others who read the modern approach of singular leadership into the early church. We cannot read the New Testament to find some kind of house church leadership manual. We have to enter into the story and read between the lines. And we must be careful not to read our current experience into theirs.

New Testament theologian, Gilbert Bilzekian, wisely states, "Whatever leadership structures existed in the early churches, they were inconspicuous, discreet, self-effacing, and flexible. ... They were invisible servants, whose role is to equip the body" (Community 101, 97).

New Testament leadership was not about hierarchy, determining who is in charge, or leadership recruitment strategies. Leaders led out of their character, their knowledge of God, and their love for others. They would have formed a set of people to whom others would have naturally looked. Michael Green comments on how this kind of leadership would have naturally operated:

"Leadership was always plural: the word 'presbyter' from which we derive 'priest' is regularly used in the plural when describing Christian ministry in the New Testament. They were a leadership team, supporting and encouraging one another, and doubtless making up for each others' deficiencies" (Evangelism in the Early Church, 25).

It's safe to conclude that the early churches did not operate around the modern idea of a singular leader. But we insist in our modern group strategies that we build groups around individuals. We do this with small groups, cell groups, missional communities, and ... well you get the picture.

The standard approach to group leadership is to develop leadership on a 1:10 ratio: one leader (or couple) for ever ten members. Missional Communities often have a larger ratio, often 1:50. Of course we say that the goal is to develop apprentices so that they can lead a group on their own in the future, but apprentices are future leaders. I see five problems with individualistic leadership:
  1. The leader feels like it's his or her job to make the group work. 
  2. The group looks to leader to make the group work. This in combination with #1 causes the group to be leader centric instead of Christ centric. The fact that this issue is so little discussed in the literature on small groups and missional communities baffles me. 
  3. There are usually some things required of a leader that he or she is not good at doing. As a result the leader ends up expending inordinate energy trying to improve weaknesses instead of investing that energy on things which he or she is good at doing. For instance, a leader could be great a leading meetings, but horrible at providing care and follow up during the week. 
  4. Leaders never get a break. Can you say burnout? I talk to too many leaders who secretly confess to me how tired they are from leading their group, but they don't want to tell their pastors because they know how important small groups are.
  5. An individual or even a couple working together usually cannot establish a culture for the rest of the group to enter. You might say that it's the responsibility of the entire group to set the culture, and I guess in an idealistic world this would be the case. However, usually the group at large sets the culture around the lowest common denominator, leaving the leader asking what he or she is doing wrong. 
Team-based, small-group leadership would have an impact on our group strategies in the short run. I know many pastors who balk at this idea because they immediately do the math: 1/2 the number of groups. I'm not saying that we need to make some kind of radical shift from singular leadership to team leadership. That won't work. The problem is the fact that we have developed a church culture that is founded upon individualistic leadership. We need to

What think you? 

See Michael Mack's excellent little book The Pocket-Guide to Burn-Out Free Small Group Leadership. 

If you want to explore more about how leadership operated in the early church, there are some great academic reads on this subject. Joel Comiskey has written a very accessible introductory text entitled, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-based Church.

(Picture credit: D I via Compfight)

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