Over the years I've had several colleagues ask me for advice about how to appropriately address leadership issues with their overseer. Like myself, these friends have served (or are currently serving) in subordinate ministry roles.
I've now served in both executive leadership roles as well as support staff positions in the local church. the sad reality I've discovered is that there are indeed (legitimate) times when the subordinate wants to pursue a healthier leadership path than the overseer and this creates an extremely difficult paradox. Whether it's one particular decision/issue or a more broad and chronic cycle of questionable leadership practices, these are challenging waters to navigate for both the overseer and the subordinate. I have two (very generalized) introductory thoughts:
- God chose the overseer. Though broadly generalized, I will choose to believe that every church's senior leaders are selected in a God-honoring way by people and congregations who want to ensure that their decision is a good one. Hiring processes for senior leaders are long, sometimes tedious, prayerful endeavors which often culminate as the result of countless hours of worthwhile effort. These leaders deserve to be honored and often face pressure unlike any I will ever experience. This is not to say that these very leaders can't fall into the traps of unhealthy leadership, but ...
- You chose to accept a call to serve under that overseer. I'm a firm believer in personal responsibility and some of the subordinates I talk to are surprised when I lay some blame for these situations on their own shoulders. You can certainly choose to be upset with an unhealthy leadership practice from your overseer, but my compassion for you will extend much further if I'm confident that you accepted the call to your position after making every effort to discern compatibility with that overseer BEFORE stepping into your role.
Lest you think that I'm a blind follower who never questions the decisions of my own overseer(s), I should point out that I'm speaking specifically of matters related to a lack of health and/or dysfunction. Healthy teams will (of course) have healthy disagreements and spirited debate on matters which are open to interpretation or which have varying schools of thought. There should always be room for leaders to have open and honest dialogue with one another. But I'm making an effort to focus in on legitimately dysfunctional behavior that would be considered so by any outside and objective observer.
In light of these generalized thoughts, it seems to me that the best way to avoid the paradox of the healthier subordinate is to choose your vocational ministry situation wisely and in a methodical, purposeful manner. Long term ministry partnerships among vocational ministry colleagues are far too scarce in the Church. And the Church needs those partnerships. Churches thrive when healthy, synergistic relationships exist between Senior and Executive Pastors, between Senior Pastors and Worship Leaders, between Executive Pastors and Next Generation Leaders and so on and so forth. It can't be overstated.
So for anyone currently considering a subordinate vocational ministry position, here's the best advice I have for you:
- Don't EVER accept a ministry position because it seems glamorous. It violates every principle that Jesus taught about humility and servanthood. And it ISN'T what ministry is about. Don't be lured in simply by a promising paycheck, a flashy experience, or the size of the department you'll lead. There are more significant things to consider.
- Don't EVER accept a ministry position if you sense that you'll be asked to be someone or something you're not. And take the time in the interview process to discern that. You're most likely to remain in a ministry position long term if you're operating out of your strengths and can be true to who God wired you up to be. I've been in both situations and can say with absolute certainty that one of the reasons I've stayed at churches far longer than the average pastor stays at an American church is because I'm accepted for who I am. There is always the expectation for me to be growing as a Christ-follower and leader but there is no expectation that I transform into an inauthentic version of myself.
- Don't be aggravated by a long hiring process if a church is genuinely trying to get to know you. You'll be better off in the long run. When I interviewed for my last two roles, I joked about the fact that I got a great start on my own autobiography because of all the writing and interviewing I had to do. On the flip side, other very similar churches were ready to hire me simply because I was a good guy who came highly recommended by some folks at my denominational alma mater. But when there was a decision to be made, I was confident that I could plant deep roots because of the time and effort that was put into the discernment process.
- Look for healthy leaders from whom you can learn. I'm blessed to have some pretty amazing leadership influences in my life and if you seek them out, you can too.
- Don't try to "climb the corporate ladder." Once again, it violates so many Christian principles and there's nothing less attractive to those around you than someone who's constantly trying to make a name for themselves. Authentic humility results in positional elevation. Do the work of the ministry to which God has called you and leave the rest to Him.
- Don't lose sight of the ideal. I've been thankful that God has allowed me to remain hopelessly idealistic even as I mature and develop an ongoing understanding of the imperfect nature of the Church. If you can keep your youthful idealism, you can remain zealous. And if you can balance that zeal with the understanding that the Church is comprised of imperfect people (like you and me), you learn how important it is to make healthy decisions. Effective church leaders will always remain hopelessly optimistic about the local Church's function as the hope of the world and vehicle by which Christ's grace, mercy, compassion, and justice will be made known. Anything less means your idealism isn't strong enough. Search for a leader who hasn't lost sight of it either.
The paradox of the healthier subordinate becomes even more paradoxical when you realize that the only way to truly avoid it is by not putting yourself in the situation at all. Once you begin to take issue with the health of your overseer's leadership decisions, there aren't a lot of appealing options that will resolve the paradox without a fairly significant amount of heartache.