Followship: Part 4 – A Culture of Complaint?

by Tim Woodroof

In the end, church leaders get the kind of followers they have fostered.

If our churches are fractious, if members have difficulty with discipline and rebuke, if they feel perfectly free to share not only their opinions but their low estimation of the intelligence and spirituality of their leaders (and if you don’t believe members would ever do such a thing, you have never been a church leader), we have no one to blame but ourselves. We give members permission to treat leaders with casual disrespect. We refuse to draw boundaries or hold followers to account. In the name of being the “bigger person,” we refrain from maturing people today and—thus—postpone the pain until tomorrow.

Read Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit? (1Co 4:18-21)

Can you imagine a contemporary church leader making such a statement to his church? Can you imagine thereaction of church members if any leader had the temerity to say such a thing? It would prompt a revolt. It would provoke a mass-exodus. It would permit a lynching.

“Yeah, but our church is not Corinth and I’m not the Apostle Paul,” some leaders will (no doubt) respond. True enough. Corinth called for extreme measures. Paul had the (special) authority of an apostle. But that is a distinction based on degree rather than kind. Let’s agree it’s probably not best for modern church leaders to call church members “arrogant” or to threaten them with the “rod of discipline.” (Even Paul is being metaphorical at this point, right?) But the point Paul defends in this passage is that he has a calling and authority that comes from God. There are church members at Corinth who are challenging that authority and asserting their own perspectives over Paul’s. They are attempting to undermine Paul’s leadership by questioning his motives, his goals, and his methods. Paul is having none of it. And—with all humility and deference—neither should church leaders today.

Good leaders listen to their followers, but don’t presuppose their followers know better or understand more or see God’s will with greater clarity than they do. Good leaders are willing to be critiqued, but not at the cost of being caricatured and belittled. Good leaders know they don’t have all the answers, but they also know that not every word that drops from members’ lips has come down from Mount Sinai engraved on tablets of stone. Good leaders recognize and respect God’s call on their lives. Good leaders realize they have been invited to lead for a reason and that their congregations recognized those reasons when asking them to serve. Good leaders look first to the church’s Master and mission and only then to the church’s members.

So here are five principles for leaders who are want to foster a different kind of follower and a different sort of followship culture.

Five Principles for Fostering Followship

Count the cost of spiritual leadership

Nobody promised that spiritual leadership would be easy or universally respected. One of the first things a leader must do is get over being surprised and resentful when church members act in disrespectful and ill-mannered ways. They treated Jesus that way. They treated Paul that way. Why should you and I be the exception to the rule? Remember Jesus’ words to his apostles: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master…. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” (Mt 10:24-25).

Persecution is almost always an inside job. Get used to it. Prepare yourself for it. And, when it occurs, determine to respond in Christ-like ways. (BTW, Jesus did not always turn the other cheek; sometimes he confronted and rebuked.) Suffering is the byproduct of leadership. Suffering is almost always a sign, not of getting something wrong, but of doing something right. Take Scripture seriously: when you suffer, rejoice! For that’s how God’s people have always treated the prophets who were before you. (Mt 5:11-12)

Set boundaries

There is a meaningful difference between suffering and masochism. Church leaders are not obligated to bare their backs every time a member wants to whip them. I appreciate the instincts of church leaders to take whatever punishment members may mete out. (Better that than leaders lashing out in self-defense). But too great a willingness to “go the post” for the cause simply trains members to inflict additional suffering and keeps them from learning more Christ-like responses.

It is OK for leaders to draw a line in the sand and say, “This far and no farther.” Jesus was willing to suffer the Pharisees’ opposition, but not their accusations that he was demon-possessed (Lk 11:14-22). Paul would endure personal assaults but not attacks on his apostolic authority. In a similar way, contemporary church leaders should expect to suffer at the hands of those they lead, but not without limit. When members question our spirituality or commitment to Christ or love of God’s people or grasp of God’s will, they have stopped being helpful critics and become character assassins. To permit such a lack of boundaries and accountability not only wears leaders down in time, it prevents members from recognizing and repenting of hurtful interactions.

Protect each other

It is hard for leaders to defend themselves against criticisms and attacks. Rejoinders made in our own defense are almost always seen as self-serving and self-justifying. Objections to maltreatment are dismissed as evidence of “thin skin” or an inability to handle the truth.

Far easier to defend each other, to protect our fellow leaders from the “slings and arrows” of public life. Speak up when your compadres come under assault. Affirm their character and their motives when both are being questioned. Refuse to listen to criticisms of other church leaders. Help members examine their motives and attitudes when talking about “leaders” in general or other leaders in particular. Ministers should protect elders. Elders should defend ministers. Let’s “have each other’s back” in church environments that are too often hostile to leadership.

In this vein, it is often helpful to ask an outside consultant to visit and “reset the followship culture” of your congregation. A little teaching on “calling” theology, establishing some boundaries for followship, and training the church to interact with leaders in a supportive and healthy manner goes a long way. But this is something that an outsider can do more effectively than church leaders can do DIY.

Discipline today to prevent pain tomorrow

I know. Discipline—whether in child-rearing or church-building—is not a popular subject. The problem is that the New Testament talks about the need for discipline/correction/rebuke so much, it’s hard to ignore—no matter how out-of-fashion it may be in contemporary times (Mk 8:33; 1Co 4:21; 11:32; 2Ti 4:2; Tit 2:15; Heb 12:5-11; Rev 3:19).

Like Eli with his sons or David with Absalom, we can either discipline today or pay the price tomorrow. Members who speak disrespectfully and defiantly to church leaders need to be confronted and corrected. By all means, let’s do this gently and with great patience. But, by all means, let’s do it. A lack of discipline does not demonstrate love and humility. Just the opposite. A lack of discipline is (often) a display of conflict-aversion and absence of care (Heb 12:8).

As the Hebrew writer states, no discipline seems “pleasant” at the time. But the result of godly discipline, received in trusting and appreciative ways, is wisdom and righteousness and peace (Heb 12:11).

Combat Consumerism in your Church

Our culture gives people a sense of entitlement, permission to complain, and a belief that their viewpoints take precedence. In such a culture, “The customer is always right!” can become not only a business principle but a standard for handling church members.

What is appropriate for Walmart is not, necessarily, good for churches. Church members are not “consumers” who must be pampered to foster loyalty. Members who insist on “getting their way in order to stay” do not understand how God’s new community works. We don’t talk about submission and deference to Nordstrom customers; but we should talk about such matters to the family of God. Honoring leaders who “keep watch over you as those who must give an account … do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden” (Heb 13:17) may not be a guiding principle for shoppers at Publix but it should be the rule for those who belong to God’s church.

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