Herding Cats

September 1, 2011

One of the biggest challenges of a new movement within the Presbyterian Church is the leadership challenge. How are the people of God to be led through the adaptive changes necessary to shape the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and the New Reformed Body (NRB)? What makes this area particularly difficult among evangelicals is that they carry a gene resistant to national leadership, something akin to a cat’s aversion to a leash.

What I share in this post is the result of observations made over decades while serving four churches in various capacities, including senior pastor, and two evangelically-minded boards, one as president. The characteristics here do not reside in one person, the “composite evangelical”; rather, these are aspects that pop up often among decision-makers and influencers of an evangelical persuasion. These key movers and shakers—among them pastors and elders—are local opinion leaders, and therefore in nationwide movements such as FOP and NRB they are the ones to be convinced and enlisted to gather their own into the whole project. As I have done in the past, I offer this list to guide one’s own “examination of conscience,” since we are in a time and circumstance that requires us both to follow and to lead a significant number of people into a place of unity, common purpose, theological integrity, and passionate pursuit of God’s mission.

Seven reasons why evangelical Presbyterians find it hard to follow others in national leadership:

1. They are busy casting vision and implementing ministry among their own flock. Especially for those accustomed to leading, it takes a special energy and focus to follow the lead of another. (How many times have I said, “Gosh, it’s easier if I just do this myself!” rather than follow the process guided by an elder?)

2. They are passionate in the pursuit of purity. The upside of this is vigilance about sound doctrine and best practices. The downside is the temptation to believe that nobody else can get it quite right. Add to that the reality that many evangelicals, depending on their presbyteries, have felt under siege or outnumbered for so long, they are used to working from the outside of a circle. Once inside an evangelical circle where it should be safe to follow, they don’t know what to do except be critical of less-than-perfection.

3. An inflated ego gets in the way. Ego strength, sometimes necessary in the rough and tumble of a senior pastorate (where we call it godly confidence), is a positive trait for leadership. But there is a fine line between that and spiritual pride, that is, believing more about oneself than is justified by the realities of total depravity. The ambitious pastor struggling with humility may covet a position of national leadership more than a role of implementer at the local level. Unless that visible role can be achieved, the individual is unable to participate.

4. They hate to lose control of the message and mission. The messy Presbyterian life includes unpredictable events that feel like an interruption to local congregational life. Pastors (personal experience here) really like to stay on point with their sermon series and the year’s plan for motivating and equipping their congregations. When something at the national level happens to disturb that peaceful progress, pastors get resentful. They want to keep a firm hand on the “news cycle” of their congregation, which leads to the next concern:

5. Isolation from national denominational problems has worked in the past. Pastors actually believe that what their congregations don’t know can’t hurt them. And so any mention of national church concerns and possible solutions diverts from their local mission, or so they say. Pastors in this situation are less likely to attend a Gathering or serve on a national FOP committee, if there were any.

6. Pastors fear a negative effect on “the numbers” (e.g. attendance, giving) if they get involved in denominational efforts. They also tend to want credit for successes, so are less likely to mix the oil of local ministry with the water of national projects. (As an aside, this attitude is a big hang-up for pursuing missional ministry, where “the numbers” may never actually be reflected in the church’s statistical report.)

7. Trust remains an issue, even within the evangelical wing of the church. Church leaders feel themselves to have been burned for so long by PCUSA leadership (at all levels), that the post-modern aversion to institutional authority has become a factor even within the evangelical family.

These seven hang-ups may explain a lot about why the current leadership challenge seems so formidable. But it’s time to “get over it and get on with it.” The best leader is one who follows Jesus as Lord, is a team player accountable to others in ministry, and serves God’s mission with power, integrity, grace, and humility.

Tomorrow: Questions about how leadership will develop in FOP and NRB.


14 Responses to “Herding Cats”

  1. Houston Hodges Says:

    So thoughtful and helpful, as usual, Mary. I add a comment to your #7, about lack of trust in the “more inclusive” councils: as evangelicals have developed a disaffinity for “the larger church” bodies = “those people up there” — so it’s hard to make an emotional shift when it’s “our” people who are up there!

    • revmary Says:

      Yes, thank you, Houston. And there are lots of “our” people up there now, for which I am thankful. And yet some evangelicals feel that a once-certifiable-evangelical loses his/her street cred as soon as a PCUSA position goes on the resumé.

  2. redcleric Says:

    A good word Mary, I saw many of the same things come out at a couple of the Wineskins gatherings I attended. Being a ‘small’ church pastor I’m immune to any ego issues… cough, cough, hack… LOL.

    Bless you, looking forward to your insight as this group moves forward.

    Alan Wilkerson
    Kenton Church
    Portland, OR.

  3. He that is of a proud heart stirreth up strife: but he that putteth his trust in the LORD shall be made fat.
    (Proverbs 28:25)

  4. Bill Goff Says:

    Someone needs to pay attention to new labels and acronyms. Fellowship of Presbyterians sounds fine, but FOP is a word that means “a man who is excessively vain and concerned about his dress, appearance and manners” according to Dictionary.com. Newly Reformed Body is a phrase made for late night comedians. It suggests someone who has recently undergone plastic surgery.
    I am an evangelical and have been burned enough times by the Presbyterian Church to long for a better, purer, more perfect church. But I recall another group of godly people who were passionate in their pursuit of purity. They were deeply offended by a young Galilean named Jesus who hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors.
    I am not inclined to be a part of a group (whatever it calls itself) that puts the pursuit of purity ahead of the pursuit of love and justice.

    • Jake Horner Says:

      Dr. Goff,

      I got a chuckle out of your comments about acronyms. Thanks! I think Jesus was concerned about purity too. The difference was that the Pharisees were concerned about ceremonial purity, and Jesus was concerned about doctrinal and theological purity. Ceremony isn’t all it’s washed up to be. But the content of the gospel message matters. Would you be interested in a group that puts purity on a level with love and justice and tried to live in the tension of all three?

      Jake H.

      • Bill Goff Says:

        Jake, Glad you liked my analysis of the the new lables. I think you misread the Pharisees. as I read the Gospels, I see them as devout defenders of the Torah in both its ceremonial and moral instructions. Pharisees were offended when Jesus ate with tax collectors and associated with prostitutes, not because they were ceremonially unclean, but because of the immorality of their work.
        The passionate pursuit of purity can be dangerous and destructive. It led the most famous Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, to approve the execution of Stephen. Jesus warned against the effort to separate the wheat and the weeds lest we uroot the wheat (Matthew 13:24 – 30). FOP need to take this seriously. – Bill Goff

      • Jake Horner Says:

        Dr. Goff,

        I was thinking of this verse: “While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.
        40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” (Luk 11:37-40 ESV); this suggests that Jesus’ concern was with the outward practice and inward failure; and “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mat 23:23 ESV). This too emphasizes the deficiency of the outward act viz a viz the inner failure. Though both, indeed, point out the failure to work justice, mercy and instead practice greed and wickedness, which are moral failures, they both compare these inner failures with an outward ceremonial act that would have been viewed in a positive light by those around them, thus bringing honor. I suppose Jesus upbraided them for both : ) but the contrast highlights the greater inward moral failure. So I stand by my statement: The Pharisees were overly concerned with ceremonial purity and missing the mark on the weighty matters of justice and mercy.

        I think you forgot to answer my question. BTY, we do need to pay attention to the wheat and tares. It is not for us to initiate separation, it is God’s sovereign prerogative to initiate separation when, where, and however it pleases Him to do so.

        Jake H.

  5. L. Lee Says:

    Looking at past revivals, there are always Godly
    and Spirit driven people who come forward and are compelled to lead. They have gifts for leadership and wisdom to speak. Some, like Spurgeon were not even seminary trained.
    I’ve been praying for such leadership for a while and hope and continue to pray for God to raise up this kind of leadership. Mary, your posts are some of the most meaningful I’ve read and thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  6. Mary,

    you’ve hit the nail on the head. Too many times evangelical groups have lost their momentum due to many of the reasons you’ve listed.

  7. Renee Guth Says:

    I’ve experieced the same, Mary. But I’ve never seen it written down so well. This is a real service to us. I’m going to print it out for future reference. Looking forward to you next post.

  8. William L. Goff Says:

    Hi Jake H,
    You’re right. I didn’t answer your question: “Would you be interested in a group that puts purity on a level with love and justice and tried to live in the tension of all three?”
    Answer: Yes, I would be interested in such a group, at least finding out more about such a group. I would want to find out what they mean by purity and how they deal with Paul’s assertions in I Cor. 13 about the priority of love.
    You may be interested to know that I am retired from two biblical professions – minister and tax collector. I am a retired Presbyterian minister. I have served as pastor of three churches, one of which I started. I am also retired from nearly 25 years of service with the IRS for which I worked as a tax auditor and revenue agent. I take comfort from the fact that Jesus had much better relationships with tax collectors than ministers. – Bill Goff

    • Jake Horner Says:

      Dr. Goff,

      I am with you that we have to pay attention to definitions: the meaning we give to words like love justice and purity in theological discourse really does matter. I would define love something like this: a wholehearted commitment to the well being of my neighbor (ie. anyone whom the Lord puts across my path). I would also say that our default position is grace — after all, we are all sin-broken people living by God’s grace in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I agree that love — construed as an other-focused pattern of behavior — is our priority—after all you don’t have to like someone to love them : )

      I find justice and purity more elusive. It is so easy to get trapped into some sort of legalism/pietism on one hand or some sort of antinomianism on the other. I suppose I could say that if I am loving my neighbor as described above in the full breadth and depth of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, then I am on the right track. But that love is contextual also. It’s going to look different in different communities, for example, in a community of CEO’s versus a community of alcoholics. Yet regardless of context, the goal is to use one’s time, talents, and treasure to work for the well being of one’s neighbor in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

      BTW, I worked as a carpenter for about 15 years, but will be beginning work as a minister (I hope) in about 2 years so I am 1/2 so far ; ) I don’t know that I will ever have the opportunity to plant a church, and I’m not even sure I have the gifts to do that. God knows.


      • Bill Goff Says:

        Well said, JH!
        One quibble: I believe you were a minister as a capenter and that I was a minister as a tax collector just as much as when I served as a pastor.
        I was surprised and gratified that in Romans 13:6 Paul refers to the (Roman) tax authorities as “servants for God”. The word he uses here for servants is leitourgoi which is related to the English word liturgy and is usually used in the NT in reference to service in leading worship. I doubt if most people think of IRS employees as ministers let alone liturgists, but Paul did.
        -Bill Goff

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