The pathology of ecclesial autocrats
Some news this week has left me feeling very depressed indeed.
These thoughts have been buzzing round my mind for years, but I’ve been provoked to post by 2 friends’ unconnected experiences: both have suffered at the hands of autocratic church leadership. I’m very fortunate not to have to deal with this in my current job, as I work for and with someone who is the antithesis of such things. But I’ve had enough close contact with it (and counselled others who have suffered it) in the past.
A Crying Need
I remember going to visit John Stott back in 2000, in the months before taking up my job in Uganda, a context that he had some familiarity with. I asked him the question I asked many others before and during my years in Kampala – “what do you think the Ugandan church needs?” Uncle John barely blinked before responding: “Servant Leaders”. I certainly encountered a number of Ugandan Christians who are wonderful examples of such leadership. But sadly, they are far outnumbered by those who are not. Stott was absolutely right.
But this need is far from exclusive to Uganda. It is true everywhere – I’ve heard of its desperate lack on my travels in Eastern Europe and the US – and obviously know it’s a UK problem. As the two achingly depressing stories this week prove.
Handling Power Well?
We have SO much more thinking to do in the area of power. Power is a fact of life; it is a fact of church life. We can’t avoid it. It’s just that we must learn how to handle it well when we have it: in the pulpit, chairing meetings, appointing and managing staff and volunteers, discipling young believers etc. Yet too many naïvely assume it’s not really their problem. Others never consider carefully how to wield the authority they do have. While a few are so scared of the trappings of power that they try to avoid the responsibilities of their jobs altogether. We have a long way to go…
At the very least, we must heed the warnings and model of Christ himself. (Matthew 20:25 & Philippians 2:5-11) etc – and bizarrely enough, I took the theme of servant leadership when preaching on Phil 2 just before Easter.
One of the first things we must do is to identify the tell-tale signs. I’m not suggesting that you can find all these traits in one leader. But the combination of even a few of them makes for a grizzly cocktail… And I articulate them not to point fingers or to name and shame – but to search hearts, especially my own. For none of us is immune…
Features of an autocrat’s pathology
- Leaders don’t have to give (let alone even have) reasons for their decisions… they simply expect to be ‘trusted’. Of course, gut instinct has its part to play, especially for those who have long experience of leadership – but if this is the basis for a decision, then at least have the grace to acknowledge it.
- Disagreement (whether on matters theological, pastoral or strategic etc) is regarded as personal betrayal. This a tricky one, I realise – because every conceivable grouping of human beings will contain its own awkward squad – and their motivations are not always pure, to say the least. But betrayal necessarily…? That is an indication of steps too far.
- Church members are merely pawns on the ministry masterplan chessboard. I saw this in Uganda on a number of occasions, where bishops would move their ministers around the diocese to neutralise rivals. But it happens in local churches too…
- Numerical growth is presumed to imply personal endorsement: thus new converts or new members (esp if they are celebrated for some reason outside Christian circles) are seen as trophies of a leader’s ministry, not trophies of gospel grace. No wonder a celebrity culture of church leaders has emerged (which is the complete opposite of what Paul expects of his leaders in 1 Corinthians 1:12). But an autocrat will be grimly possessive about ‘his converts’.
- Seeing the ‘ministry grow’ (whatever that means and entails) becomes the end that justifies every means: pragmatism rules and integrity withers. This is the logical outworking of shoot first, seek forgiveness later. After all, that’s what the gospel does, isn’t it?! But while I’m all for pragmatism as a servant, it is horrific as a master – as Machiavelli once proved…
- Ministry teams are monochrome, or compliant, or both: diversity is a threat to an autocrat, because the leader has to be the best at everything that the team/church does (after all, that’s why he’s the leader, isn’t it?!)…
Each one of these features requires elaboration – each is probably worthy of a blog post of its own. But it’s a start.
We must turn our back on such things, as they characterise some of the shameful ways of ministry we are called to shun when we preach Christ not ourselves. It is not kingdom thinking.
O Lord, deliver us…