Nothing is more painful than to watch a church of 5000 slowly die. A church that had been useful for the Kingdom for a number of years lost its way. It went through division. It sold off assets and closed ministries to stave off defaulting on its multimillion dollar mortgage. Slowly people drifted away. Not that it did not go down fighting. Even in its latter days the church was the venue of outstanding local Christian events and hosted several protracted ‘revivals’ for the community. Yet, except for a few wisps, the church is no more, a tragic end game to the leaders’ personal unfinished business, especially the senior pastor’s. This true story happened in my backyard.
It’s an open secret that a church tends to take on the personality of its pastor and its leaders. If they are passionate about reaching the lost, the church becomes evangelistically focused. If they are concerned for the hurting, compassion ministries spring up. If the pastor and leaders are strong on biblical teaching, people become students of God’s Word and biblical knowledge pours out of them. The longer a pastor serves a church, the more he, the leaders and the congregation develop in a common spiritual personality that characterizes the ministry of that church. Rarely is this intentional; often it is unconsciously done. Since it is so widespread, observers talk about the phenomenon of a church reflecting its leaders with approval, as if this is sort of the goal of leadership.
But there is a devastatingly dark side to this as well. What is not spiritually healthy in the pastor and leaders affects the church in the same way. Their hidden sin issues have a way of appearing in the rest of the congregation. If they are hard-hearted over certain issues, the attenders come to share their view. Unresolved spiritual problems in their lives become stumbling blocks for the church body. That which is wrong gets anchored in the soul of the church.
Leaders who have open eyes realize the church was not called into being to reflect them, but the character of Jesus. They are appalled at seeing their personal warts reproduced in the people they lead, especially as the congregation is unaware that they are reflecting their leaders’ spiritual poverty. Any church family that merely reflects its leaders falls far short of its potential. They are blind to the hazards of the out-of-sight spiritual issues that we leaders have left unaddressed, or worse—embraced as normal.
So if we are going to be used by God to develop transformational churches, the process starts with our own transformation pursuit. As Rob Bell aptly said, “I cannot lead people somewhere I am not trying to go myself. I don’t have to have arrived. I don’t have to be perfect, but I do need to be on the path.” You can see that the question is not whether you as a leader are perfect in every way, but whether or not you are personally in a transformational process with God yourself.
This may puzzle some of you who read this. Most church leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, trustees—perform in their faith at a high level already. But there is a difference between performing well and the ongoing process of becoming whole. Performing well leads us to a kind of self-deception that suggests we are safe. We get drawn into thinking that we have arrived spiritually and that all we need to continue to lead God’s people is maybe to pray more and to stay ahead of them in biblical knowledge. It is this self-deception in its leaders that leads to most of the spiritual crises a congregation experiences. Church splits arise out of it. Church attendance declines because of it. Few church disasters happen that cannot be directly lined back to its leaders. I remember once being finally asked to referee a leadership team at odds with its pastor over what was a non-serious matter which had become serious because the leaders made it so. They were challenged to be reconciled because they were rolemodels of mature believers for the rest of the congregation. Instead, most of them bolted out of the church as a testimony to their spiritual unhealthiness. It took that church a long time to recover.
Developing a transformational church must begin with gaining true insight about yourself. What do you see when you view your soul from backstage? You have to put aside your public face and discover what is really going on inside you. This question is not for self-knowledge, but for transformational knowing.
The best way to understand the idea of transformational knowing is through the encounter between Jesus and Peter in Luke 5. Peter and his crew have been fishing all night without catching so much as an old boot. He then allows Jesus to use his boat as a speaker’s platform to address a large crowd that has gathered on the beach to hear Jesus teach. Afterward, Jesus suggests that Peter take his boat out deeper and throw out his nets again. Mildly protesting, Peter does and is surprised by the catch of a lifetime.
Something shifts in Peter’s soul at this moment. His understanding of who he is dealing with deepens and as it does, he sees his soul naked before Jesus. This was not just another man who has a knack for speaking, a religious teacher who wows people with his insights. Peter perceives that Jesus is someone who possesses such connection with God that he knows things beyond the ordinary, including the hidden Peter. He goes to his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away! Lord, I am a sinful man.” Here is a successful businessman suddenly finding he can no longer live with his self-deception. Why? Not because of anything Jesus says but because of who Jesus is. The contrast between Peter’s identity and what he perceptively sees in Jesus makes it plain to him that he is not who he is meant to be in spite of his fishing business success. This encounter overwhelms him.
Peter’s changed perception of Jesus and himself is transformational knowing. Peter had met Jesus before this spur of the moment fishing trip. But this time, he saw his own life in light of Jesus and didn’t like what he saw. He knew in that instant that he had unfinished business. Up till then, Peter was either comfortable, or at least had come to terms with who he was until he met with Jesus in this way. He was like so many of us who lead Jesus’ church—confident and yet so unaware of ourselves—time bombs ticking away.
Let me encourage you who lead to take some personal time to pursue transformational knowing for yourself. Schedule a day to get alone with God. Take nothing but your Bible, plus a notepad and pen to write if you need to. Start the time apart by doing a comparison study of Jesus’ character and your own. Discover places where your attitude and actions do not line up with his. If you are aware of a particular sin in your life, focus on that with God. Take the next hours to be quiet before the Lord with this one question for Him, “Where is this coming from?” Don’t seek to answer this question yourself. Listen to hear what God says. As He gives you insight into your soul, ask Him to heal and restore you in ways you cannot possibly do yourself.
This is not introspection. It is ruthless honesty. It is admitting that you have unfinished business that only God can address in you that you have allowed to reside in your soul for way too long. It is the first step towards being ready to lead a transformational church.