Lessons On The Way 5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. 

2 Corinthians 11:28-29 (The Message)

Church leaders are controllers. Any of you who have been around churches for a while and neither heard that said nor felt it yourself? No? Exactly.

That those of us who lead churches are prone to excessive levels of control is a statement uttered so often that it’s taken on the status of indisputable truth. For good reason. I’ve been close enough to church leaders and seen enough of myself in this role to know that this is a real problem. Maybe it’s manipulating sound levels on the music to ensure worship ‘takes off’; dressing (or not dressing) a certain way; insisting on a certain title being used; micromanaging staff or volunteers; coming into the church office most days of a 3-month sabbatical; bullying of staff and volunteers … and so many other symptoms. If a church leader won’t admit control isn’t an issue or temptation for them, then they are either ignorant or untruthful.

There are many reasons for this. There’s always going to be some of the leader’s own brokenness at play. In addition there’s the strange dynamics of spiritual and ecclesial power, the projection of other people’s father/mother/brother/sister/power/church/god issues onto the leaders, the stress of working with volunteers, levels of pay that when can seem low compared to people with similar skills and qualifications in other sectors, the hours, the obligation to work when others are relaxing and partying.

These, and other reasons, are all real – and ultimately not an excuse, but an explanation as to why factors of control can enter into a leader’s life. However there’s a fine line between control and natural concern. One of the manifestations of control I often get told about is leaders checking in with the church when they are away on holiday. Text messages or emails to those handling things while the leaders are away are often taken as examples of control. Leave it be and relax! Trust us! Let go and let God! Stop controlling! I’ve heard them all.

There’s a fine line though, and it’s one that is hard to explain but that I see referenced in that quotation above from 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. The simple fact is that going away and doing something fun for a bit doesn’t help you switch off. Not totally. We talk of this role as church leader as a vocation, a calling. We do the same with doctors; I learned recently that the Hippocratic Oath compels an off-duty medic to take action if she happens to find herself around a medical emergency. Now we leaders don’t have a legal compulsion like that, but it seems to me to be similar. We view this not simply as a job, but a life (that doesn’t mean you can pay leader pittance because ‘they aren’t in it for the money’ … think how much some medics are paid …  but that’s the subject of a future post). It is a job, but it’s also not. It’s something which consumes and shapes and draws on everything we do and are. Leading a church means your whole life is lived in public; it means that you allow people with less expertise than yourself in relevant areas know details of your pay, your benefits, your working patterns and then they have some kind of ‘right’ to tell you what they think of how you’re getting on. It’s why in many countries employment law just doesn’t apply to clergy because, quite simply, it would be impossible to justify the levels of pay against the hours worked in a legal setting. On a quiet week I’ll work 50 or so hours, and I don’t begrudge that all; but it’s not a legal arrangement if viewed in the ‘normal’ way.

The job of leading a church is not a ‘normal’ one. That’s what Paul is getting at there. You pour your life and soul and blood and sweat and tears  – all quite literally as well as metaphorically – into something that most people never see or understand but about which they are very happy to have strong opinions, often very strongly articulated when the leader is feeling most vulnerable. Turn it off whilst you’re on holiday? You might as well try to turn off the wind. It may die down or become strangely becalmed for a while. You can’t, simply can’t forget it or not think about it. It’s impossible. It’s not control. It’s love, and the reminder that this is of eternal significance.

Granted there’s a dividing line, which ultimately only an individual leader can answer for herself, often best judged in accountability to honest friends, counsellors, medical professionals or spiritual directors. Coming into the office most days  – or even at all  – on a sabbatical  is not good. Checking in with people looking after things when on holiday? Maybe controlling; or maybe just showing love and prayer and support. Only one person can answer that.

If you’re a church leader be honest with yourself about when you’re controlling and when you’re not. Get counselling or therapy – we all need it. It will help us be less of what we shouldn’t be and more of what we should.

If you’re not a church leader, please remember this. Your leader is a bit like St Paul. That’s sometimes delusional. Sometimes unhelpful. Sometimes just a fact of the life to which she’s called. What you experience as control may just be love speaking, refracted through your own brokenness or assumptions. Be kind. They will, after all, be judged more strictly than you will. If we don’t do our job properly we will be held to account. So by all means challenge examples of control, but do it thoughtfully and prayerfully. Disagree, vehemently. Get angry. But do it all in the consideration that they will be judged, no matter what; and do it all remembering they carry something so dear to them that it can’t be properly expressed. Your church leader is indeed a bit like St Paul.

Question. I wrote this on holiday. Is that wrong?

Also in this series: 

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all