Thoughts On Authority and Leadership in the Chinese Church

[re-posted with permission, originally on Facebook as Part A and Part B]

Dr. Daniel Law, an early retiree, is the Associate Director of Development for the China Graduate School of Theology (Hong Kong), operating from the US. A former biology professor and principal information analyst in the pharmaceutical industry, Dan has served in over 6 different Chinese churches throughout the US since the late 60’s.


Thoughts On Authority and Leadership in the Chinese Church

by Dr. Daniel Law

Leadership As An Issue

Weak leadership, or the lack of it, has been raised as one of the major issues facing the Chinese church today. Many lay people are secretly wishing that their pastors are more equipped to lead. Others, including the clergy themselves, have complained that our pastors are not given the authority to lead. The latter is a serious charge, since as far as we know, most Chinese churches are functioning more or less on a democratic principle, with leadership shared between the clergy and the lay. However, a lack of (or weak) leadership, or an inappropriate handling of authority, can result in serious conflicts in, or stagnation of, the church.

Authority vs. Leadership

A clear understanding of what authority and/or leadership is may help provide some insights on the current problem. Authority can come with a position, can be given, but should not be taken for granted. In the pastor’s case, his authority is based on his calling from God, his professional training (in Bible, theology, counseling, church management, etc…), and his faithfulness to his call as a servant of God. As shepherd for his flock, his spiritual leadership is to be respected and honored. However, a pastor can and will lose his authority as shepherd if he betrays his calling, or behaves in ways unbecoming of a servant of God. A pastor can seldom succeed as leader and shepherd by relying ONLY on his claim as God’s servant. Ultimately, a pastor has to earn his authority and respect.

Similar thing can be said of the lay leaders (elders, deacons or deaconesses) in the church. They are but servants called by God to serve with and help the pastors. Elders and pastors are in fact in the same role category. As servants of Jesus Christ, they are expected to labor as members in a “spiritual leadership team”.

While the pastors, due to their training as clergy, are “experts” in God’s word, they (particularly if young) may nevertheless be quite deficient in many aspects of administering a church, such as staff supervision, strategy formulation, management of projects and processes, counseling and human relations. In these areas, it may become appropriate for the experienced lay leaders to be involved or even to lead. The pastors therefore should respect the lay leaders and depend on them to complement their ministries, especially in areas where they are deficient.

The smooth and efficient operation of the church depends on a team-work between the clergy and the lay. An honest respect of gifts by both parties will make this team-work a highly successful proposition. An absence of respect will almost certainly bring havoc to the church.

Leadership, on the other hand, is a character trait. It can be in-born to a certain extent, but must be acquired via learning, education and experience. Leadership is empowered by authority, but authority is not leadership. A person can become a leader without (humanly given) authority. Further, authority alone never makes a person a leader, because leadership exudes from the being, the character, and the moral fiber of a person. It is what he believes, says and does, in front of and behind people. It is how he understands himself, others and accountability; how he puts his learning to work; how he understands management and team-work; how he thinks and plans and executes; and how he communicates, motivates and mobilizes others to accomplish his or his organization’s goals.

Leadership in clergy and lay alike is to be honored and respected. This is God’s teaching. God endows certain individuals in His church with the gift of leadership to be blessings to the whole Body of Christ.

Leadership and the Church

If a church indeed has been shown to be weak or lacking in leadership (spiritual leadership included), perhaps it is due to one or more of the following. Knowing their causes, and being alert to their potential ramifications, may help the church overcome many of her impending problems and conflicts.

  1. Role confusion – failure to understand and accept the pastors’ spiritual roles in the church; as well as the roles of the lay leaders, practiced often collectively as the church Council. In the church, the pastors and the lay should not be in competition. Role clarification and stressing mutual submission may help here.
  2. Failure to lead when called for – both pastors and Council may be afraid to face issues and to supervise for fear of confrontation. When leaders are hesitant to lead, the church suffers.
  3. Insufficient skills – the leaders may simply have not yet learned how to lead; or have insufficient training on the theology, sociology, psychology and art of leadership. The solution lies in an honest appraisal of the leadership. Seek help and receive more training.
  4. Disregard of protocols – Council or pastors who do not follow commonly accepted protocols in decision making and/or in church practices are inviting conflicts in churches.
  5. Weak “Constitutional” tradition – many churches, especially the independent ones, operate in a semi laissez-faire manner, paying little attention to their constitutions, rules and guidelines. This can become a cancer to many smaller and independent churches. As a church grows, she must lay down guidelines to safeguard her beliefs and operations. Related to this is the lack of a good leadership culture. When mentors or good role models are absent, a church often becomes disoriented and adrift. It may flounder for years and can not grow.
  6. Submission and authority – an un-Biblical understanding and attitude towards submission and authority, made worse by character conflicts, or brought about by past unhappy experiences in a local church or elsewhere, can often rack havoc and bring tremendous damages to a church. Consider the following scenarios:
    Scenario 1: An assistant pastor is rebellious towards his supervising pastor whom he considers inept;
    Scenario 2: A ministerial staff refuses to be supervised by a lay person in the Council (“How can a servant of God be supervised by one of his sheep?”) due to a poor understanding of accountability and submission;
    Scenario 3: A staff’s strict interpretation of his job, not being flexible to walk an extra mile. A ministry has become a job to him.
    The issue of submission and authority can be a huge topic in itself. Suffices it to say that I do believe in submission. However, I am convinced that much more can be accomplished, and with greater harmony, when the leadership (clergy and lay together) is willing to down play its authority, and practice Biblical accountability instead. All submissions in Christ’s church must begin with a healthy dose of humility. All must submit first to Him and His word.
  7. Reality of growing pains – as some of our churches become too large and complicated, their “structure and organization” become cumbersome, overly-taxed and outdated. These churches will need to learn to cope with and grow with their growth, to work better and smarter, and to adapt and change themselves and their church structures as needed.
  8. our sins – this of course is an issue as old as Adam. It is a known fact that most conflicts in church are not doctrinal in nature, but are due to sins of the flesh. It will take courage for the leadership to collectively return to the Cross to resolve this crucial problem before the church can resume its growth.

Where Are the Solutions?

I humbly offer the following for our church leaders’ consideration:

  1. Returning to basics – a return to the Biblical basics, teaching and stressing unity, submission, humility, accountability and the pursuit of common visions.
  2. Closer walk with God – under the spiritual role model, teaching and leadership of the pastors, practice a closer walk with God. Deal truthfully with our pride, selfishness, egos and sins.
  3. Re-commitment – re-commit our lives to God, to the church, and to each other.
  4. Improving one’s “serve” – each Council member to do a personal assessment of himself/herself. Acknowledge one’s deficiencies. Aggressively seek specific training or tutoring to improve his/her “serve”.
  5. More training in management and team-work – do not despise the M – management – word. By it, I mean much more than supervision. I mean planning, implementation, control, and leadership, etc… Some pastors will probably say that their job is only to preach and pray. But that’s an incomplete understanding of the pastor’s roles. Good leaders are often good managers, and are always well trained.
  6. Accepting scrutiny – resolve to accept supervision of, and scrutiny from, others. Beware of someone – pastors particularly – who does not accept scrutiny (or in a secular term, reviews), and who puts himself above criticism. No one in the church is above scrutiny.
  7. Forming a learning community – resolve to form a pack, to become a supportive and learning community to pray, study and learn to serve better, knowing that “two is better than one”, and that we all have rooms to grow.
  8. Growing together in Christian bond – challenge each other and hold each other accountable to grow in an open, constructive and transparent environment.

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Current Success and Future Failure

[a guest post from Timothy Lo, reposted with permission]

I write this from my own limited experience and observations… obviously limited to what I’ve seen and from talking to others.  And probably more relevant in the non-CA or TX areas of the US.

Since the early 1990’s there have been a lot of new churches that quickly started up and grabbed my attention.  For example, you might have heard of some of them like Redeemer Presbyterian in NY, Parkwood Community in IL, Liquid in NJ, and High Rock in MA.  God is doing a lot of great things in these churches, as is evident by how he is growing them in attendance, spiritual depth, and positive influence in their communities.  They are often marked by excellence in their ministries across the board: worship music, preaching, media, child care, fellowship, small groups, outreach, welcoming to newcomers, etc.  But it is the appeal of being part of such churches that has hurt and continues to damage the future of the children of immigrant Chinese.

What do the children of immigrant Chinese have to do with these churches?  Well from what I can tell these 2nd generation American born Chinese (ABC) as we call them have been greatly attracted to these newer churches.  And this greatly affects their attendance and participation in their home churches.

[This is a skippable section if you have less patience or time]

Let’s get this straight: immigrant Chinese churches haven’t always been good at keeping ABC’s with their churches (the history of this is pretty recent, since many Chinese churches in America are less than 50 years old).  This is a whole other topic in itself, but to summarize it, immigrants started churches, eventually they needed some English parts to it for their kids, they have childcare, children’s programs, then youth groups, and then eventually an English service.  The problem comes when the kids graduate high school.  I’m totally generalizing, but let’s say that roughly less than half of these kids stay with the faith, and out of the other half, maybe only half of those go to church weekly.  And out of those young adults (25% of the original teenagers) that go to church weekly, only some of them go to their home immigrant church, since many others go to the mainstream (white) American church somewhere else.

Now that may just be a typical rate of attrition in youth groups, which is also another whole issue for another time.  What I want to focus on is the fact that there are a bunch that do not go back to their home church, sometimes they just don’t feel the connection there anymore, it could be that they are dating or more comfortable with non-Asians, or for whatever other reason.  But then those who DO go back to their home church, they oftentimes face a lot of struggles there.

In a typical immigrant Chinese church, the primary purpose and mission is to minister to immigrant Chinese.  By extension, their secondary goal is to minister to the kids of the immigrants.  So children and youth programs are an important part of their ministry.  However, when young adults come back to the church, now not only wanting to assert themselves as independent, responsible adults but also with tons of Americanized values which are different than the Chinese, there is conflict.  I have rarely seen an immigrant Chinese congregation and an English speaking and led congregation work together in harmony, cohesion, and with equal authority and fellowship.  In many larger Chinese churches, the two sides (ooops, I mean, “groups”) just tolerate each other, and give each other large amounts of independence and freedom, and that’s called getting along (very eastern: “solidarity in conflict”).  It’s very much like two separate churches just worshiping in the same building–different ministries, schedules, programs, equipment, rooms, worship services, etc.

But in those medium and smaller sized Chinese churches, what I’ve seen happen is when these ABC’s come back to their home churches to serve their youth groups, they are underappreciated in their service, they get burnt out by constant requests and blame, they feel like 2nd class citizens (whether or not the immigrant congregation views them as such or not), there is no one to mentor or disciple them, they don’t have fellowship with other peers, and they wonder, why don’t I just go to that other church down the street that will care for me and love me (yes, it’s a consumeristic mentality) instead of this one that always asks me to help with the youth or children and never cares for how I am doing spiritually?

And then on top of that, and this is my real issue, there are all these new, really cool churches that have started up, full of other ABC’s (and ABK’s, Koreans).  They are intentional, they care for you and minister to your needs, they have excellence in their ministries, they are made up of tons of young adults just like you to fellowship with, and they are typically attended by the more dedicated group of Christians that are left over from the weeding out process in college.

We are thankful for these churches, that serve these American born Chinese who might be poorly ministered to by their home churches.  Perhaps we in the immigrant Chinese church need to do a better job of creating a place where young adults can come back to.  But, meanwhile, because these churches are ministering so well to all these ABC’s, there are fewer than ever coming back to their home churches.

It was hard enough that only a small percentage of our graduating youth would come back, as far as continuing to grow and strengthen the youth and adult English presence.  But now, with the existence of these new, good churches, the few kids that would have come back are not.  They’re getting fed somewhere else now, but that leaves the immigrant Chinese church with fewer role models and ministry leaders, resulting in weaker English speaking ministries.

Is your church one of these places where the spiritually stronger young adults from immigrant Chinese (or Korean) churches are going?  If so, realize that though that may be good for your church, it may also be hurting the future of the next generation of teens from these immigrant churches.  Without at least some American born Chinese students willing to go back to their home church to minister to the next round of students, our youth ministries get weaker, and result in fewer healthy adults.  And that might mean that 10 years from now, there will not be the comparable influx of ABC young adults that have joined your congregation in the past 10 years.

As an example, I am the only 2nd generation ABC in my church who serves with the youth group.  But there are over 40 kids who are craving to be ministered to.  So most will go through all 6-7 years of middle and high school without anyone regularly leading a small group, meeting up with them, walking them through their spiritual questions, or setting an example of “this is what you can look like when you grow up, as an American born Chinese Christian.”  I am very thankful for the many parents who help out in the youth ministry when they can (the cultural challenges for them to help out in the youth ministry are much greater than in a typical white American church).  But unfortunately the number of ABC’s that we have coming back to our church is sometimes very few, or often, none.  And that is crippling the future for these youth.

I’m torn, because I cannot “blame” these new churches for what they are doing.  They are in fact doing a great job of ministering to the 2nd generation ABC’s.  But on the other hand, our Chinese church ministries continue to be hurt by fewer of our graduating students coming back.

I guess I am just praying and hoping for these 3 things:

  1. That these newer churches realize and are sensitive to this dynamic
  2. That Chinese churches can figure out how to adjust to this (design youth ministries to say bye to our kids after graduating or try to create a place where ABC’s would be more welcome?)
  3. That God would put it on the hearts of those who were blessed by their youth group experience to come back and be that mentor and role model to the next generation

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Answer Me This

I was recently at the ANACEFC annual conference and got to sit in on a session where as a group the leaders wrestled with many questions together. It was really refreshing to do this in an Asian setting out of a seminary context. It was also interesting as a Korean American to listen to the concerns of Chinese American pastors and church leaders. We are surprisingly similar yet with some differences. First of all, let me express my respect and admiration for my Chinese American brothers and sisters who have a greater capacity and tolerance for differences than I have witnessed in Korean settings. I was also encouraged by the presence of women at the highest levels of this conference. And lastly, as we tackled questions together, I was impressed by the presence of dialogue as a problem-solving tool even as we discussed passionately and laughed together over difficult questions.

I would like to share some of their discussion questions with you in the hope that discussion can happen here that might help us all. Please feel free to jump in…

  • How do we embrace and empower the second generation ministry?
  • Is it really necessary to delete or change the word, “Chinese” in the name of the church? Is it more appropriate to adopt the usage of term “a church of Cantonese, English and Mandarin Ministries” and avoid the term, “a church of Cantonese, English, and Mandarin congregations.
  • With respect of a church of multiple ministries, what is the role of the Senior Pastor? Give your views on the structure of pastoral staff.
  • How do we effectively resolve conflicts between pastors, boat members, and pastors, among board members, boar dan members of the church and etc.?

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Reclaiming Chinese religious identity

**If you don’t listen to Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, you’re missing out on a top-notch podcast on religious faith. Highly recommended.**


I’d like to share the latest podcast episode from Speaking of Faith where Krista Tippett interviews Mayfair Yang, a scholar and director of the East Asian Center at UC Santa Barbara. Mayfair Yang speaks about the effects of modernity and Christian (how ironic) Western influence and its oppressive effects on the indigenous religious expressions in China.

http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/chinas-spiritual-landscape/

[Read more...]

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As untouched as the turn signal in an Asian woman's car

The title of the post probably makes absolutely no sense to you, but once you see it in context I’m sure you’ll understand it. Some of you may even chuckle about it. However, I’m not sure it’s the laughter that I would find offensive. Most-likely, it is the fact that people still have the perception that it’s funny because it is rooted in truth. Before I get to explaining this further, let me take you back about 40 years. Let me share with you a tv commercial from the 1960′s about a baby that wants to eat some glape jerr-o. Again, you probably don’t get what I just described, but after watching the video below you will:

Was it funny? Was it offensive? Are your feelings neutral about it? [Read more...]

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Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals newsletters online

Worship services and churches for the next generation, and even English ministries, were not all that common in ethnic Asian churches back in the days.

One factor that likely contributed towards the development of English ministries within the Chinese/ Asian church was an organization called FACE, the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals, which started:

… at the 1978 NACOCE [North America Congress of Chinese Evangelicals] congress, the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) was born, sounding a call for “parallel ministries” for American and Canadian born Chinese in the Chinese church. Today, American born Chinese ministries, and the broader challenge of planting Asian-American churches, are an accepted part of the ministry scene in North America. [a]

About Face
They published a quarterly newsletter from 1979 to 2003 called “About FACE”. According to the first issue, The Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals is a ministry established by four American-Born Chinese (ABC) participants of NACOCE and encouraged by NACOCE to enable the whole Chinese Church to be more effective in ministry to ABCs. The “About FACE” newsletters have been made available online for free download at www.mediafire.com/aboutface.

Browse this spreadsheet for an index of “About FACE” article titles, authors, and topics.

Browse through those ol’ newsletters and find historical artifacts and insights that may be quite informative to the conversations going on here. How’s that saying go: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?

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What's In A Name?

This is from a post on the great blog, dashhouse.com about dropping denominational labels. I guess my tweak on this would be to simply ask what does it mean if we were to drop the ethnic labels as well? What does it mean for us to have “Korean” or “Chinese” in the name of the church when we have very little sense of ethnic identity ourselves? I think the denominational labels reflect our own ignorance of the differences behind those labels. Perhaps we drop them to attract others, but also perhaps the omission reflects that we do not know ourselves. By the same token then, if we’re dropping our ethnic labels to make ourselves more multi-ethnic or more open, perhaps we underestimate the sense that merely being a church, regardless of what the doctrine is or what ethnicity the people are inside, has become unattractive to people who aren’t Christian. And our willingness to drop these labels just shows that we are still preoccupied with the wrong notion of church to begin with.

Here’s just a clip of the aforementioned post…

There was a trend in the 90s up until today to drop denominational labels from church names. A church would become a community church or just church period. So, in our case, we would drop Baptist and become Richview Community Church or just Richview Church.

The thinking behind this is that Baptist is a bit of a turnoff. So is Presbyterian, Alliance, Anglican, or whatever.

The problem today is that people aren\’t turned off by the type of church. They aren’t staying away because it\’s a particular type of church. It’s more that church isn’t on their radar. As Reggie McNeal said, you can build the perfect church and they still won’t come.

In fact, the labels are increasingly meaningless. They used to carry baggage; now people just aren’t sure what they even mean.

The example I use is of a vegan passing by a fast food joint. Inside the restaurant, they’re very concerned that everyone know they’re McDonalds and not Burger King. But to the vegan walking by, McDonalds is the same as Burger King. There may be differences, but the differences don’t matter to a vegan. He’s simply not interested.

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