Five Questions Church Leaders Need to Ask Themselves

When I became the senior pastor at Captivate Presbyterian Church in 2017, I was straight out of Bible college and felt under qualified to be leading our small congregation. It was a steep learning curve and it’s thanks to God’s good grace and provision that our church not only survived some rather testing years, but has also grown since then.

In the last seven years, God has been teaching me what it is to be a biblical, gospel-driven and ‘integrated’ leader. At Bible college, you have the opportunity to hone specific skills – how to preach, how to think theologically, how to have pastoral conversations … But once you leave the college bubble and land in a parish, you can’t just be a preacher or counsellor or ministry coordinator. Instead, they all bleed and lead into each other, often coming at you together in one big tangled issue.

As with any job, too much focus on one of your responsibilities, at the expense of another, can make you ineffective. Time and time again I was forced to ask myself,  “How can I lead in a way that draws on my values and priorities to face the multifaceted challenge before me?”

Here are five things I’ve learnt about healthy church leadership throughout the years.

1. Leading by God's Word

Will my leadership be marked by courageous submission to the word of God?

The world often defines leadership as making big strategic plans and leading the charge. But a good king in Israel was one who was obedient to God’s teachings. One who trusted and rejoiced in the Lord and was dependent on his word.

O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices, and in our salvation how greatly he exults! You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips… For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved. – Psalm 21:1-2, 7

As under-shepherds, we need to lead like the one, true King. This means being recognised for our courageous submission to God’s word above all else.

As pastors, we should make the preaching of God’s word the number one way that we lead people.

God’s agenda should be clearly front and centre in the way we lead and in the way people receive our leadership.

The danger of not being led by God’s word is that you just end up being a CEO. You make a lot of decisions but they’re really just based on the way you work or how gung ho you are about a particular project, rather than God’s heart and plan.

One of the key ways that I’ve seen how this plays out is in the relationship between preaching and the life of the church. As preachers, we tend to fall off the horse in one of two ways. Either we don’t let our preaching influence the rest of church life at all, or we shape our preaching too much by what we’re doing as a church.

As a young preacher, I really had to wrestle with this tension. I didn’t want to bring my own bias to God’s word – and I still don’t. However, I’ve learnt that my preaching also needs to provide heat for the work we do as a church.

If what we’re doing is really going to be a force for the gospel, then the word of God needs to be the fuel that drives it.

I want to make sure that how I spend my time reflects the priority that I place on God’s word. So if it’s a preaching week, I’m not going to complain that it takes up 15 hours. I’m not going to shrink down that time for the sake of doing other things. I want the quality of my preaching to reflect the priority that it plays in my role as a leader.

Our greatest act of leadership is to be faithful, compelling and creative Bible teachers in all settings. That’s how the church is to be governed.

2. Leading With Wisdom

What will inform my process for making leadership decisions?

Wisdom for life and ministry is derived from God and his word. It begins with obeying Jesus in all of life and not just where an issue is explicitly addressed in scripture. As the psalmist says:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever! – Psalm 111:10

Unfortunately, a lot of questions in ministry life (and life, in general!) fall into the grey area, rather than being strictly black-and-white biblical issues. Some of the big questions that landed on my desk fairly early on in my first year out of Bible college were:

  • Should we adopt a purpose-driven model for our church?
  • How will we restart evangelism?
  • Where will we move to when we lose our current church site in 6 months?

Sadly, there was no class at Bible college on how to find a new church site. Instead I had to learn how to apply the word of God to the realities of the world – to develop my ‘theological gut instinct’ (ie wisdom) for situations where there was no clear right or wrong.

As we were searching for a new site for Captivate Church, we were given two options. We could move to North Ryde School of Arts hall on Coxs Road; the facilities were nice but it wasn’t particularly accessible or well located. Or we could have moved to Eden Gardens, which was really awesome but cost three times as much.

It was a big decision that would affect the course of the church. It wasn’t just about practicalities, like what the budget could afford. There were also theological considerations, like what was better for the mission going forward? What was more helpful for a small, young church? And then, once we decided to move to the hall, the question became: How could we make sure it wasn’t just a change in location, but also a missional move?

Part of wisdom is being able to see these spiritual and pastoral questions in even the most practical of decisions. There are two filters I regularly pass ministry issues through.

The first, biblical theology, grounds me in the bigger  gospel and the wisdom of God. Often I find that if I dwell in God’s word, biting my tongue, then clarity and conviction are born.

The second, contextualisation, encourages me to develop my own insights based on the specific church I lead. Rather than following hot takes or trending models, I try to get real with my situation and understand our particular vision, goals and limitations.

And above all, I pray. I pray for wisdom as I help chart the course of our church.

3. Leading Leaders

Is the ministry of my church built around me?

When all authority was given to Jesus Christ, he graciously empowered his people by his Spirit to carry out his rule – to make disciples as a team. Does your leadership reflect this example?

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them… – Romans 12:3-6

If the key to the body of Christ growing in truth and love is everybody playing their part, then:

Pastors need to take equipping their congregation as a very serious part of their role in leading the church.

When I came to Captivate, I didn’t want to be the type of pastor where all leadership and all decisions centred around me. I wanted to have a big vision for the role of lay leadership in our church. I wanted to be an equipper, not an expert.

I also knew that if I didn’t delegate well, our church wouldn’t grow as well as it could. There’s only so far you can get with just a pastor’s leadership. I also needed people who would champion things themselves, instead of simply following my instructions.

I’m very thankful to God that there were some keen, young leaders within the church. However, one of the challenges for me was realising that it would be a three to four year journey to get to a point where they could oversee entire ministries by themselves. That journey required a lot of investment from me, as well as the courage and humility to delegate and relinquish control of ministries.

One of the ministries I eventually had to relinquish was on the membership front. When I first started at Captivate, the church had 50 people. Once a newcomer had come to church twice, I would reach out to them to meet up for a coffee within the month. We’d sit down and I’d give them the little spiel about what Captivate was about. I’d share a bit of my story and then I’d listen to theirs. I found this really effective in building rapport and setting expectations for what they could expect at our church.

But a few years in, when we started reaching that 150 mark, I could no longer keep up with all the newcomers by myself. I had three church members, though, who were leading the welcome team on Sundays and who were absolutely nailing it. They had enough of the vibe and theory around how we did membership as church for me to start sharing this ministry, so I started training them for it.

I think we were very slow in the beginning and there were times in that first year where I wondered whether I’d made the right decision. I also just missed meeting everyone. I loved being able to do that, so that was hard to let go. But now, as a team of four, we’re able to do that connecting chat at a much faster and higher rate than I was ever able to. And that’s why we had to do it.

With leading leaders, you have to be happy to do the hard work in the early years – to bear the cost of the quality being (temporarily) lower, of the mistakes that are inevitably made and the time commitment of one-on-one coaching of different leaders – so that you can get to a place where you can hand over ministries to godly lay people who are trusted by you and your congregation.

4. Leading With Love

Will you strive to serve your people in love?

Ministry cannot just be a job and church cannot just be a club. We cannot look at our members as clients or patients because there is a deeper bond that binds us. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, children in the eyes of our creator, and we need to love them as such.

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. – 1 Corinthians 4:14-15

Part of what it means to be a godly pastor is to take responsibility for your own growth, just as much as the growth of your church.

As a pastor, I don’t just want to give advice but also affection that models and manifests the love we have received from God. This means offering sacrificial, fatherly love – the type of love that is the whole package. I love my children, but if all I did was play lego with them, that wouldn’t be very loving. I also have to read the Bible with them, do the budget and wipe their bums.

The same principle applies to loving your church. People know when you’re not leading with love; when you’re just doing a job. And while we all have times when that’s the case, if that’s how we are most of the time, then we’re missing something crucial.

Sometimes I feel the tension of leading this way. One of the things I’ve held onto at Captivate, despite there being good, practical reasons to delegate it, is pre-marriage prep. At the moment, I still do all of the pre-marriage prep at our church. I find it such an incredible opportunity to learn to love people. When else do I have the time to spend four two-hour sessions speaking so deeply into such a personal, intimate part of people’s lives? And it pays off. When the couple has issues or questions or challenges down the line, we already have a bond. They don’t just trust me because they know I love the Bible or love Jesus. They also trust me because they know I love them. Because they know I will do things for them for no other reason than love.

You want your whole church to feel that you love them. And many times, this requires an ineffectiveness or a messiness that derails the plan you have in your head for your day or month or year.

But you can’t just do the love stuff when it’s easy – you can’t only play with lego. And that messiness provides incredible opportunities to spend time with people and make them feel loved – not just by you, but by God.

5. Leading and Learning

Will you keep loving learning in your leadership?

Ministry can be overwhelming and, sometimes, what is before us is all too much.

No leader should be expected to be perfect, but all leaders are expected to make progress.

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.- 1 Timothy 4:14-15

When I first started at Captivate Church, I had only just left Bible college. I was going into a job where I was on my own and I knew that I could end up very isolated if I didn’t do something about it. I needed to set up structures around me where I could be fed, I could learn, and I could receive input from other Christians. So I invested in mentoring.

Before I even accepted the job, I asked a neighbouring pastor if he would meet up with me once a month for the first two years. Someone else recommended Peter Moore as a mentor, so I met with him for my first six years at Captivate. I registered with the Reach Australia Leadership Development Program when I heard about it, even though I didn’t entirely know what it was.

In many of these cases, I initially paid for the training or coaching myself. In the short-term, they weren’t cheap investments. But when I considered the potential outcome – a great next 10 years of ministry – it seemed like a small price to pay.

Of course, the other way you learn is through making mistakes. As a perfectionist and overachiever, I often need to pray that my confidence and identity would be in Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, rather than my own strength. My mistakes and inadequacy have helped me to believe that more than ever.

One mistake I made in my first year at Captivate came out of my conflict avoidance. I decided we needed to step back from one of the ministries that the church was involved in when I first started as pastor. However, instead of talking the ministry leaders through that change, I was a wimp and starved the ministry instead. I redirected people into other roles and reduced the effort going into it until it fizzled out. The result was that the leaders were upset and held some resentment; they felt that we weren’t on the same team.

I could have swept that under the carpet and just kept going. That was definitely my instinct. But instead I decided to learn from it. I sat down with the leaders and admitted that I hadn’t handled the situation in the best way. I apologised to them and we talked through it.

The reality is that no leader is perfect except Jesus Christ.

Part of what it means to be a godly pastor is to take responsibility for your own growth, just as much as the growth of your church.

And that never ends. It’s been seven years since I finished Bible college and became the pastor of Captivate Church. And though I’ve hopefully grown a lot in my leadership, I’m still learning these things. I’m still a sinful, proud human who falls far short of our perfect, heavenly leader. But my prayer is that I will never stop striving to become more and more like him.