Let me tell you a story that illustrates what I fondly call “the Stiletto Principle.” Years ago, Julie and I invited a group over to the house for lunch following Sunday services. One of the women who ate with us was a tiny thing—100 pounds dripping wet! But she was wearing a pair of stiletto heels and proceeded to poke holes in my linoleum floor with every step she took. I had to refloor my entire kitchen.

And I’m glad. That little incident taught me a great lesson about ministry: always have guests remove their shoes at the door. (Just joking!) I realized that even a small amount of weight focused onto a single point can really make a mark. From that time on, I’ve been fascinated with the possibility of leading church in such a way that the full weight of the church can be brought to bear on one, strategically chosen point and—to God’s glory—make a mark on the world.

Trust Pyramid Character Competence

The Trust Pyramid

Let’s visualize a “trust pyramid” made up of several layers. The bottom and most basic layers are necessary for almost every relationship. As the pyramid rises, however, more layers are required even though the range of relationships that are affected narrows.

As we’ve already discussed, personal trust is founded on the twin pillars of character and competence. These are the levels of trust necessary for friendships and working relationships to form. However, as relationships grow more complex and as higher expectations and greater dependence develop, the bases for trust must also multiply and expand.

Most church leadership groups in our fellowship (groups comprised of elders, ministry staff, and—in larger churches—a Senior Minister) only expect and work towards these two most basic levels of trust. We trust each other as church leaders because we have integrity and possess the skills necessary to do our job (i.e., lead, shepherd, and minister). And, quite frankly, character and competence are the only bases of trust required for the way most leaderships are structured.

I contend that, in the bulk of our congregations, leadership is structured as an association of relatively independent roles and ministries working from the same location to accomplish largely uncoordinated goals. Everyone is operating within the general area of “church” and “kingdom.” But apart from the broadest definitions of ministry, few churches are led in a coordinated and collaborative fashion.

Let me give an example. Consider Sunday mornings:

  1. An elder makes a few announcements, greets visitors, and reads a scripture that urges God’s people to holiness.
  2. The worship (songs and readings) revolve around the majesty of God.
  3. The Supper comments (offered by a young father still agog over the birth of his child) speak to a fresh appreciation of what God sacrificed in offering his only Son.
  4. The main prayer lists all of the sick of the congregation and asks for healing.
  5. The sermon focuses on Romans 1 and the gospel that saves us.
  6. At the close of services, a short-term mission group is called forward for a blessing.

Sound familiar? True, every element of the Sunday morning assembly falls under the general rubric of “worship.” But beyond that most general heading, there is no conscious or intentional theme that unifies the morning and coordinates all the disparate elements. Worshippers are dragged from holy living to majesty to Son-sacrifice to healing to gospel to missions. (And next week we start all over again with an entirely different slate of leaders and topics!) So far as the leaders of worship are concerned, it is literally a case of “every man doing what is right in his own eyes.”

Now imagine asking, instead, that everyone focus their efforts on a common theme. Same elements (song, prayer, comments, etc.), but a unified message … a coordinated topic:

  1. A call to worship that celebrates the gospel.
  2. Songs and readings that rehearse gospel ideas.
  3. Supper comments that speak of a memorial from the heart of the gospel.
  4. A prayer that thanks God for the grace and power found in the gospel.
  5. A sermon on the gospel as the “power of God for salvation.”
  6. A blessing on a mission team as emissaries of the gospel.

Can’t you just hear the howls? Can’t you feel the righteous indignation rising from those who have been asked to make a contribution to the public worship? “Who died and made you  Pope?” “We’re getting too programmed around here!”

Herding Cats

randomThis, in microcosm, captures our dominant leadership structure and applies not only to how we organize Sunday worship services but how we approach leadership in general. The result looks like the diagram at right. People of good character and (hopefully) good skill (C/C) are asked to serve (as shepherds, youth ministers, preachers, etc.). And each does so willingly, to the best of his ability. But the condition of that service is independence, freedom, and unfettered autonomy in carrying out the responsibilities that have been delegated to them. Each area of ministry goes its own way without much thought (or desire) to coordinate efforts, strike common themes, and shape ministries towards specific and common goals.

And so the youth ministry pursues its own plans and purposes without reference or accommodation to what is being planned for the teaching/preaching ministry of the church. Elders meet and pursue agendas that have little relation to the goals and directions of the small group or children’s ministries. Worship planning is conducted according to the themes that currently excite or intrigue the worship minister without any real thought to furthering the directions and themes being pursued by other leaders in the church.

The result of this vacuum of coordination, of too many directions in the life of the church, is an overall sense of lack of direction. Good things are being done, certainly. God’s work is accomplished in fits and spurts, no doubt. But there is no cutting edge, no sharp focus, to the ministry of the church as a whole.

[I am convinced we have adopted this model largely because of our allergic reaction to the notion of “a leader.” We are resistant to having any one person “take charge,” set direction, determine focus, and expect cooperation. As a result, we have developed a church culture where no one is allowed a greater “say” in the functioning of the church than anyone else. Our view of leadership is founded on an assumption that individual powers and influence must be moderated by peers, that checks-and-balances are essential for church leadership, and that consensus (i.e., a balancing of factions, coalitions, and priorities) is required to hold churches together and keep them moving forward.  This, in turn, has led to churches that are largely governed by committee (a group of elders). And, where committees are concerned, it is exceedingly difficult to set a specific focus: too many competing interests, diverse personalities, and clamoring interest groups. More pragmatically, we have moved to a leadership model where elders, ministers, and deacons are largely left to themselves in their areas of responsibility (see the next article in this series). When everyone is “doing their own thing,” focus becomes the first casualty.]

In such an environment, and with such a leadership structure, there is no real place for “team.” Since individual ministries are not expected to cooperate (except over relatively minor issues like calendar and facilities usage), there is no dependence of leaders on each other to accomplish overarching and mutually valued goals—a prime condition for developing a sense of “team.” There is no trust required beyond the basics of character and competence. So long as each leader keeps out of trouble and runs his ministry in a relatively organized way, he or she is considered effective.

The Power of Focus

Trust Pyramid Common CauseBut consider an alternative model for leadership. Let’s add one layer to the “trust pyramid” and call it “common cause.”

Imagine a Senior Minister, elders, and staff huddling together at a retreat and deciding that the fundamental mission of the church is to “foster transformed lives in the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Imagine elders committing themselves to this mission, praying in their meetings for greater maturity in the congregation and the Spirit’s transforming work, using their contact with members to encourage growth “into the image of Christ,” measuring their effectiveness by whether changed lives happen as a result of their ministry.

Imagine the Senior Minister dedicating himself and his preaching/teaching work to the same end. “From now on, I will hold this mission up before our people. I will communicate that our primary purpose as a church is not to schedule worship services or perpetuate a particular heritage or support mission efforts in Guatemala, but to help people grow up into the fullness of Christ. And every sermon I preach, from this time forward, will be preached with the intent and expectation that transformed lives will be fostered as a result.”

Imagine the youth minister being captivated by this mission and embracing it in his work with the youth. His primary task is no longer planning summer events or scheduling Frisbee-golf tournaments or hiring interns. Rather his business is the transformation of the precious lives God has entrusted to his care. All that he does and plans are merely means to that greater end.

focusedYou get the picture. Something as simple as this common goal transforms the leadership structure of the church into something that resembles the graphic on the right.  People of good character and good skill (C/C) serve as part of a team (shepherds, youth ministers, preacher, etc.), all focused on a common cause, a mutually-valued and collectively-pursued goal. Each member of the team commits himself willingly to this overarching mission, contributing his character and competence to achieving this goal.

In this structure, members of the team aim at the same target, use the same vocabulary, and depend on other members of the team to help the church achieve that greater goal.[1]

[Of course, developing, pursuing, and evaluating such a focus within a church requires “a leader”—one person who is entrusted with the task of protecting and promoting that focus. In most of the churches around us, this role is filled by the Senior Minister. I think this makes good sense and has certainly proven an effective model for “keeping the main thing the main thing.” But I can imagine a situation where an elder takes on this role … or perhaps another member of the church staff. Someone has to drive, however, steering the church bus and all its passengers towards a single destination.]

This “focused” approach requires a level of trust that goes beyond character and competence. Those are still necessary but they are not sufficient to build a team that is moving together in the same direction towards the same target. “Common Cause” refers to a leadership group that has identified a single focus for the church to pursue, committed themselves to that focus, and agreed to focus their individual ministries on the accomplishment of that greater goal.

Affirming Focus

Church leaders need to build “common cause trust” in the leadership team. To begin that process, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this church have a focus, a “common cause”? Can we as leaders enunciate it?
  2. Does anyone have the responsibility to carry the cause, promote it, protect it, hold others accountable for it?
  3. Is that “common cause” reflected at every level of leadership in the church? Among our elders. In the preaching and teaching. In the youth, children’s, small group, adult ed, outreach, missions ministries, and pastoral care of the congregation?
  4. In what ways does our “common cause” serve to guide our leadership and help us make decisions, set direction, and evaluate performance?
  5. Is our “common cause” so clearly understood and so deeply valued that it allows us to say “No” to good things that don’t directly address our chosen focus?
  6. Are all our leaders “on board” with our focus? Have they bought in? Have they made a specific commitment to shape their ministry and leadership in that direction? What form did that commitment take? A written covenant? A spoken assent?
  7. What is the level of trust among your team members in the commitment to the “common cause” made by other members of the team? Does each team member believe the others have bought in fully?

[Go to the next article in this series.]

[Go to the first article in this series.]



[1]     This “focus” is the fundamental message of such popular books as Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, and Sticky Church, by Larry Osborne.