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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Returning to basics – a return to the Biblical basics, teaching and stressing unity, submission, humility, accountability and the pursuit of common visions.
- 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.
- Re-commitment – re-commit our lives to God, to the church, and to each other.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Growing together in Christian bond – challenge each other and hold each other accountable to grow in an open, constructive and transparent environment.