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A slightly different version of this article was first written for Sustaining Pastoral Excellence and appeared in Christian Courier.

In a provocative discussion on “competencies,” the CRCNA’s Leadership Development Team claims we “should not overstate the distinction between character and competence” (“Leadership: A Working Definition,” pp. 15-16). It then goes on to list some learnable skills: listening, understanding groups and system dynamics within congregations. Yet the echo of competency rooted in character sounds often.

Character Compromising Competency
The film The Apostle shows church leadership in which lack of character compromised competence. Writer-director Robert Duvall plays gifted, but volatile “Apostle E.F.,” preacher of a large Pentecostal congregation. After discovering his wife’s adultery with the youth pastor, he drinks himself full of bravado at his son’s little league game, then confronts and fatally bats his young colleague in the head. After faking his own death and re-baptizing himself, the wayward “Apostle” starts a new church that builds a daring ministry of racial reconciliation—though E.F. always steals some of Jesus’ limelight. His sins find him out when his wife recognizes his voice on a radio broadcast and calls police, who arrest E.F. as evening worship ends.

Apostle E.F. was surely saved by grace and hugely competent, but did his violent character change? Or merely his behaviour? God works wonders with jars of clay. Yet competence must be built on character or crackpot leaders will give Jesus and his church a bad name. What’s more, effective church leadership must multiply—itself a crucial competency—and not be pastor-centric, as both of E.F.’s congregations were. Not only movies, but real church stories are full of talented and flawed lone ranger leaders—pastors and laypersons—who hit a breaking point, collapse in exhaustion or, worse, in moral failure, sullying much of past accomplishments. Do the names Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart ring any bells? Let it not be so among us.

Character Complementing Competency
Exodus 18 presents a hopeful report of community leadership development from the young nation of Israel. (Thanks to Ben Vande Zande, now of Christian Reformed Home Missions, for first teaching me and many others this “Jethro Principle.”) In the Sinai desert, Israel has begun nation-building after fleeing Egypt. Moses—himself a flawed, but forgiven and proven leader—oozes competence and confidence, bragging to father-in-law Jethro all the splendid things he and Israel have accomplished. “Terrific,” says, Jethro, “let’s praise Yahweh and celebrate with sacrifices and a meal.”

Next day, though, Moses spends all day “judging” people’s complaints and problems. His work makes a difference, requiring varied competencies; Moses seems up to the job. Old hand Jethro, though, sees a trap that Moses misses as he steams by with youthful (he’s only 80 at this time!) adrenaline flowing. Here’s a paraphrase of Moses’ and Jethro’s conversation:
Jethro: “Why are you alone judging?
Moses: “Because the people come to me.”
Jethro: “Not good. You work like this, you burn out. You’re the people’s representative before God. Build a TEAM of representatives.

Leaders, LISTEN UP! Moses is a representative—NOT the main feature. Jethro’s words sound a fair warning for all church leaders—pastors, home-grown deacons, elders, small—group leaders, and teachers. Leadership must be expansive, not the turf of one person or group, no matter how gifted. If leaders monopolize tasks and programs, doing what they should train others to do, they stifle potential leaders and exhaust themselves to boot. How many churches have lost potential leaders, who then developed their gifts more (use)fully—not always in other churches?

Highview CRC’s Eager Competence
In previous articles we conflated stories from several churches into a fictitious congregation to exemplify one leadership trait. Today we look at “Highview CRC.” Its first pastor moved after eight fruitful years in the young congregation. This pastor with a decade of mission experience led the congregation from 200 to 300 members, urging them to develop personal and communal identity as hospitable evangelists. Highview called its next pastor precisely to “take our congregation the next step” to deliberate outreach in a neighbourhood virtually untouched by churches.

An enthusiastic Council began working with the new pastor to implement the congregation’s vision and mission articulated in a 75 page binder. The pastor warned that this vision looked like a deceptively beautiful mountain in the distance. If the congregation truly wanted to climb that mountain, they had to negotiate unseen, but risky rocks and crevasses of old habits and attitudes. Such hazards could trip the best-intentioned climbers. Yet key lay leaders emphasized again and again, “We don’t want this binder gathering dust. We believe God wants us to follow this route.”

Some goals seemed bound to create tension and friction: “Focus on community outreach.” “Develop internal unity using historic creeds.” Yet the pastor believed that using Reformed creeds would help, not hinder, evangelism. An engaging preacher and competent teacher, he developed with Council approval a plan for both afternoon worship and monthly Council devotions. Thus for five years congregation and leaders worked systematically through the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort (mercifully in just five lessons) and Belgic Confession.

Congregational response was enthusiastic. In the first year of the pastor’s tenure–and with little influence by the new pastor—Highview bought an old school, outfitting it for worship and education. Within two years, the congregation rented rooms and offices at bargain rates to such community organizations as neighbourhood police, family resource centre, youth orchestra and a counselling service. After three years, Council authorized a review and update of vision and mission. An inter-generational committee presented the revision four months later. Highview kept growing with several adult baptisms and 15 to 20 professions of faith annually, plus transfers-in of newcomers.

The pastor’s competencies were meshing energetically with the official leadership and congregational goals. Better still, Highview was developing “bench strength,” with retiring council and committee member helping replacements assume tasks and leadership—without butting in after leaving.

Highview’s Character Plateaued Its Competencies
Yet after seven years two seemingly unrelated issues converged and Highview plateaued. First, within two years of each other, two key council members moved for work reasons. These trusted leaders left a vacuum not immediately noticeable. As home-grown leaders who kept dust off that vision and mission binder, they regularly mustered unity and the courage to change among members who would not readily follow the imported pastor. These people understood and managed community dynamics with great conviction and principle. Even after they left, Highview continued vigorous outreach—as long as the rest of the close-knit community remained stable.

Second, the bane of Christ’s church attacked the Reformed community. The mother congregation suffered a split. Highview had never fully established identity apart from the mother church. Thus, after the split, a sizeable number of Highview members wanted to stop mountain climbing. They lost the courage needed to continue their moderate worship and outreach innovations, fearing painful—if unfair—criticism from family and community members in both mother and separated congregations.

Here again, character and competence in leadership converged–distinguishable, but inseparable. The fragile, mysterious “right stuff” needed to steer a fearful congregation past rocks and crevasses of community pressure vanished after two key families moved. Other influential council members embraced the new fear and helped Highview stall part way up the beautiful, risky mountain.

Where will Highview and similar churches go after losing leaders or succumbing to real, if illegitimate community pressures? No vision and mission plan or competent individual leaders can keep the climb going. For that to happen churches need a providential confluence of leaders, congregation, time and opportunity–which we will consider in a following article in the Pastors Network.

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