Sundoulos - Fall 2012

Pitfalls of Visionary Leadership

by Joe Hellerman

I’m all about vision. Visionary leadership is a non-negotiable part of effective ministry. The apostle Paul was a leader with a clear-cut game-plan. And Paul did not wait around for a word from the Lord to plan his strategy. He was constantly on the move, engaged in a strategic urban church-planting mission, always open to redirection, however, should God provide it (Acts 15:36;16:6-10).

Vision is not an option. It is the nature of vision that has become problematic in current evangelical circles.

The breakdown of the family, along with an influx of corporate business values and practices, has generated a volatile mix of ingredients in some of our churches: (1) a highly gifted, but emotionally dysfunctional and narcissistic leader, wielding CEO-like authority, who is (2) supported by elders or deacons whose metrics for ecclesiastical success find their roots in the Wall Street Journal, rather than in the letters of Paul.

The result? A church driven by a vision that is scriptural only in part, and which often cashes out in a whole lot of relational hurt among associate staff and their families.

Inadequate Metrics for Success: Crafting the Vision

It has been my experience that deacons and elders are generally quite satisfied to see their churches (a) growing numerically and (b) solvent financially.

I have no problem with these metrics, in and of themselves. After all, a church that is losing people and bleeding cash is probably not a healthy congregation. It is what is missing here that is absolutely crucial.

In the majority of our churches, if attendance is increasing and giving is up, it is assumed that the pastor is doing a good job, and there is little concern, for example, for the health of staff relations, or even, in some cases, for the quality of relationships among people in the congregation at large. David Platt’s clever alliteration drives the point right home:

One of the unintended consequences of contemporary church strategies that revolve around performances, places, programs, and professionals is that somewhere along the way people get left out of the picture.1

To be sure, numbers of church boards give small-group programs a degree of emphasis in their ministries. Seldom, however, do such leaders rate small-group involvement as high on their priority list for their people as they rate Sunday attendance or financial generosity.

Rarer yet is the board that includes, as a key benchmark of successful ministry, healthy relationships among its staff. This is regrettable, because lay leaders who are satisfied solely with numerical and financial viability are generally quick to ignore the kind of staff disunity often generated by a highly gifted but emotionally needy senior pastor. As long are there are people in the pews and money in the plates, the pastor gets his “Atta-boys!” and the institution charges ahead. Hurtful relational dysfunction around the church office is simply dismissed as inconsequential—the price of doing business.

Yet healthy staff relations ought to be an absolutely non-negotiable measure of effective Christian ministry. Why? Because the church is first and foremost a relational community. If we cannot make relationships work in the church office, among our spiritual leaders, something has gone seriously awry.

As Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger properly observe,

The church exists to love God, its own, the world, and the whole creation because it is loved in covenantal communion with God. This relational orientation indicates that the church is being-driven. A church that begins with a missional purpose before it begins with its identity as communal reality in relation to God is problematic. The orientation is very American but is not biblical. 2

Stop and think about just how counterintuitive it is, biblically, to prioritize institutional values like Sunday attendance and finances over healthy relationships among a pastor and his staff.

Jesus said that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). Can a preaching pastor truly challenge his people with integrity to love one another, if he himself fails to encourage healthy relations among his co-laborers during the week? Here a corporate mentality has all but completely hijacked God’s relational designs for his people.

If we are not successful relationally—at the top, among our staff—then we might as well close up shop, send away our Sunday crowds, and refund their generous offerings.

Randy’s Story

A year or so ago I had lunch with an associate staff person at a large church in Southern California. I had preached a guest sermon the week before. My topic was the church as a family, and the message had stirred up some issues for this young man.

Randy’s story was not wholly an unhappy one. He loved his work in the trenches with the people in his church. Staff relations, however, were another story entirely.

Poor staff management by a highly gifted but insecure senior pastor had generated such an unhealthy work environment that Randy and his wife were unwilling to make friends in the church for fear that Randy might lose his job, if word got back to the senior pastor that he was not 100% supportive of everything his boss said and did.

The atmosphere around the office had been much the same as Randy found it for nearly two decades. The church had grown, however, and finances had been generally robust—so much so that Randy’s boss travels the conference circuit, as a church growth expert. Because of this apparent success, the elder board had done next to nothing to challenge the relational incompetence of the congregation’s senior pastor.

Unfortunately, this kind of neglect is not uncommon with church boards. Such leaders, socialized to buy into corporate models of pastoral ministry, prioritize the institutional over the relational to the detriment of both relationships in the church and the health of the institution itself.

Things in Randy’s church have gone from bad to worse. In recent years, the church has enforced a non-disclosure policy, whereby terminated staff are persuaded to sign a form agreeing to say nothing about activities in the church office, in trade for a generous severance package.

God forbid that those Sunday attenders and generous givers might find out what actually transpires behind the scenes, among staff relationships in the church office.

Wounded Shepherds: Casting the Vision

I am thankful that Talbot School of Theology has an Intentional Character Development program. God knows we need it. And though there may be some exceptions, it has be my observation that the students who tend to resist this input into their lives are generally the ones who need it most.

An acquaintance of mine served as the chairman of a deacon board in another situation much like the one in Randy’s church, above. Steve is a godly man with a great family, who is a stellar public servant in his community. A natural leader, Steve rose to a key managerial position in his vocation in law enforcement in a local municipality. He is highly respected by both his peers at work and his brothers at church.

Steve would be the first to tell you, however, that his primary role model as a leader did not come from the Bible. Not Jesus but, rather, Captain Kirk, of Star Trek fame, has served as Steve’s leadership icon since he was a kid.

And why not? Captain Kirk is the epitome of an invariably wise and courageous leader, who has the unquestioned confidence and obedience of his crew at every turn.

As a police officer, moreover, Steve worked in a vocational setting that necessitated a top-down, hierarchical command structure. Officers obeyed their superiors without question, on the field and at the station. This, of course, only served to reinforce Steve’s Star Trek view of leadership and authority.

Unfortunately, Steve, like many church board members, imported his secular leadership values into the Christian community, thinking it proper to treat his senior pastor, Karl, like his watch commander—or, perhaps, like Lieutenant Uhura treats Captain Kirk.

Unquestioned obedience. Total support.

A leadership philosophy like Steve’s often finds subtle theological justification, moreover, in the misdirected view of a church pastor as the unassailable ‘Lord’s anointed.’ Suddenly, the door is left wide open to the abuse of spiritual authority. And this is precisely what occurred in Steve’s church.

I first gathered that Steve was having second thoughts about his philosophy of leadership from a phone conversation we shared several years ago. I had not heard from Steve for years. His call was occasioned by some pressing problems that had arisen in the church.

Pastor Karl had forced the resignation of one of the most beloved and respected associate pastors in Steve’s church. The pattern had become a familiar one, and it was transparently clear to many in the congregation that the senior pastor was doing a poor job relating to his fellow staffers. There was a bit of an uprising in the church, and Steve, as chairman of the board, was caught in the middle.

Here was a classic example of (a) an emotionally scarred senior pastor, who lacked the relational straw to make bricks, so to speak, but (b) who was nevertheless given total authority to do as he pleased among his staff and the rest of the congregation, by (c) a board chairman who had been socialized to run a church like a police department or, perhaps, like the starship Enterprise. It would be almost comical if the results had not been so tragic.

In the midst of the crisis, Steve called me, an outsider, for some objective advice. He asked, ‘Joe, should I ever question Pastor Karl’s authority?’

I replied, ‘Steve, Karl is not Captain Kirk. You should question the authority of any church leader who cannot get along with his peers, and who marginalizes the kind of top-rate ministers of the Gospel that have been forced to resign from Bethany Church during Karl’s decade- long tenure.’

Steve no longer serves on the board of Bethany Church. Pastor Karl remains securely in control, and associate staff continue to come and go as the senior pastor sees fit.

No Captain Kirks

Star Trek’s Captain Kirk is, of course, a creation of modern media. In the real world there are no Captain Kirks. There are no perfect leaders.

What we have, instead, are people with leadership gifts who are variously equipped emotionally to exercise those gifts in healthy ways with others. Sadly, some of our leaders are hardly equipped at all.

Manfred Kets De Vries notes, ‘Leadership is the exercise of power, and the quality of leadership—good, ineffective, or destructive—depends on an individual’s ability to exercise power.’ 3Kets De Vries ought to know. His background has prepared him in a remarkable way to ferret out and identify the unhealthy exercise of power and authority.

After taking a doctorate in economics from the University of Amsterdam, Kets De Vries earned an M.B.A and a D.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He then received extensive training in psychoanalysis, and was later certified to practice psychoanalysis by the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association. Kets De Vries’s research has centered around the relationship between emotional deprivation in childhood and narcissistic leadership in the corporate sector later in adult life.

His description of emotionally needy, narcissistic leaders mirrors, to a great degree, much of what we see in the stories of pastoral authority abuse that are surfacing in evangelical churches across America:

One of a leader’s most important roles is to be aware of and to accommodate the emotional needs of subordinates. Leaders driven by excessive narcissism typically disregard their subordinates’ legitimate needs and take advantage of their loyalty. This type of leader is exploitative, callous, and overcompetitive, and frequently resorts to excessive use of depreciation. This behavior fosters submissiveness and passive dependency, stifling the critical function of subordinates. 4

It is not hard to see Randy’s senior pastor, or Steve’s (above), reflected in this quotation.

As it happens, I just spent some time last week with Kyle, another staff person from Randy’s church. Their boss is convinced that he has assembled an outstanding group of associate staffers. He is right. They are quality guys.

What Randy’s and Kyle’s senior pastor does not know, however, is that almost to a man these gifted ministers are ready to jump ship at the first opportunity—precisely because of the kind of ‘exploitative, callous’ narcissism described by Kets De Vries, above.

Not all pastors are narcissistic power abusers. Many come from healthy childhood environments that have equipped them well emotionally to wield the power they have acquired in their churches.

The breakdown of the family in America, however, guarantees that more and more people will enter into vocational Christian ministry with serious unresolved issues, where emotional stability and personal identity are concerned. Character development programs like Talbot’s can surface potentially problematic issues. But we cannot give a student the childhood he or she never had.

The connection Ket De Vries makes between childhood deprivation and the unhealthy use of authority later in life deserves extended citation:

The degree of encouragement and frustration children experience as they grow up and begin to measure the boundaries of their personalities has a lasting influence on their perception of themselves and others and the relationships they form throughout their lives. Any imbalance between their feelings of helplessness and the degree of protective nurturing they receive from their parents will be felt as a psychological injury. An inappropriate level of frustration, arising from their environment, handling, or ability to cope with discipline, will feed their natural sense of impotence, and they will commonly respond with feelings of rage, a desire for vengeance, a hunger for personal power, and compensatory fantasies of omnipotence. This dynamic continues throughout life, and if it is not adequately resolved within individuals as they grow up, it is likely to be reactivated with devastating effect when they reach leadership positions and learn to play the game of power. 5

People who exhibit ‘a hunger for personal power, and compensatory fantasies of omnipotence’ are as old as Christianity itself: ‘Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive us’ (3 John 9).

It is likely the case, moreover, that the proportion of narcissistic people in leadership in our churches is greater than it is among the Christian population in general. This is because narcissism and public leadership prove to be mutually attractive. As Ket De Vries asserts, ‘[I]t is only to be expected that many narcissistic people, with their need for power, prestige, and glamour, eventually end up in leadership positions.’6

These tendencies would seem to call for some checks and balances in our churches, so that we can help our leaders use their power in appropriately selfless, nurturing ways. Unfortunately, the business- like approach to ministry described earlier in the article has virtually nothing to offer in this regard.

The opposite is the case. As it turns out, a hierarchical model of ministry—where the pastor functions as a CEO, supported by a theologically unsophisticated corporate board of directors (elders or deacons), who are more interested in numerical growth and financial solvency than healthy staff relations—proves to be a breeding ground for precisely the kind of unhealthy, narcissistic leadership that Ket De Vries describes.

Embracing shared Ministry: Redefining the Vision

There are a number of ways to address the vexing issue of pastoral authority abuse outlined above. Vision-casting is but one of those. But it is a crucial one. Until healthy staff relations find their way to the top of the list of metrics for ministerial success, we will continue to affirm gifted, hurtful senior ministers who attract a lot of people and money to their congregations.

Let’s keep numerical growth and financial solvency right where they belong, among our key characteristics of a healthy church. But let’s add to our criteria for success the non-negotiable markers of healthy staff relations and the proper exercise of pastoral authority.

Just how do we do this in practice? Well, I’m just about at the end of my allotted word-count for a piece that is designed to outline “Pitfalls of Visionary Leadership,” not to provide the solution to those pitfalls. I deal with the latter extensively in a forthcoming book, so I’ll just give you a teaser here. 7

The solution, I think, is quite straightforward, though it demands a profound paradigm shift from the way many of us conceive of vision- casting and church leadership. In a nutshell, the corporate, CEO model of visionary, one-man pastoral leadership has got to go.

God’s church is to be led, instead, by a plurality of pastor-elders who relate to one another first as brothers in Christ, and who function only secondarily—and only within that primary relational context—as vision-casting, decision-making leaders for the broader church family.

Several of us on Talbot faculty serve on leadership teams like the one described in the previous paragraph. We are healthier for it. Our families are healthier for it. And our people are healthier for it. We think that you will be healthier for it, as well!


1  Platt, David. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Multnomah, OR: Multnomah Books, 2010, 90.

2  Harper Brad, and Paul Louis Metzger. Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009, 20.

3  Kets De Vries, Manfred. Leaders, Fools, and Imposters. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993, 22.

4  Ibid., 35.

5  Ibid., 23.

6  Ibid, 33.

7  The article summarizes portions of my forthcoming book, Embracing Shared Ministry: Power & Authority In The Early Church And Why It Matters Today (Kregel 2013).

Joe Hellerman (M.Div., Th.M. Talbot; Ph.D. UC LA) is Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature, and also serves as co-pastor of Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo, California. Joe and his wife Joann have two daughters, Rebekah and Rachel.

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