When Church Leadership Goes Wrong and How to Prevent It’

The heart of the book describes the “slippery slope” from the accountability, transparency, plurality and embodiment that characterizes legitimate leadership to the murky world of dysfunctional, illegitimate leadership. Honeysett describes the slide as the replacement of transparency with secrecy and concealment, the cutting off of any meaningful collegiality, leading to leadership isolation, power imbalances from “on-high” and the corruption of accountability through concealment and cover up.

Powerful Leaders?: When Church Leadership Goes Wrong and How to Prevent It. Marcus Honeysett. London: IVP, 2022.

Books about Christian leadership are commonplace. Marcus Honeysett’s Powerful Leaders? provides an instant contrast to the legion of these I have read. He summarizes the common approach that describes leadership as “influence.” The popular guide to business negotiation, Getting to “Yes” comes to mind. According to that book, the purpose of negotiation is “getting what you want.” Like so many Christian leadership treatments, the point revolves around accumulating sufficient influence to get Christian churches or parachurches to do what a leader or leaders want. In the popular understanding of leadership, skills and competence prevail.

Honeysett fires his first shot over that bow quoting Mark 9:35: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (NASB). Citing Jesus’ rebuking the apostles’ ambition in James and John, Honeysett says bluntly that Christian leaders are not “Jesus’ top generals”. Rather, Christians in leadership positions are led by the Holy Spirit to create bodies of “Christ-besotted worshippers.” Leaders are servants fundamentally, under-shepherds to bring the flock to feed on God. Skills and competence lack the moral leverage to produce the kind of deep, spiritual Christ-followers that are needed.

The popular focus on influence rather than spiritual embodiment in leaders creates people who develop churches that do not reflect their creator, but rather look like their leaders. In Honeysett’s words, the wolves in sheep’s clothing we are aware of are far less dangerous than the wolves in shepherd’s clothing. False sheep do less damage than false shepherds.

The Bible’s treatment of leadership is clear but complex. Leadership, under God’s direction, can be a blessing, but the Bible has just as many examples of ungodly leaders and false shepherds as it has good ones. Leadership, therefore, can be a blessing or a curse.

The word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them (Ezekiel 34:1-10).

Regardless of the apparent risks, God desires and appoints leaders who can indeed represent his will faithfully to his people. In other words, good leaders represent and reflect God to them.

Jesus himself is described as leader and savior by Stephen (Acts 5:30-31). He is the leader who leads by serving however (LK 22: 26-27). Other leaders may be like David, a commander of his people (Isa. 55:3-4), whose flawed hearts belong to God and, in the presence of sin and personal failure, they model lives of repentance for us. Hezekiah modeled repentance and humility so that God saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians. His brilliant leadership had nothing to do with the rescue. God merely heard the prayer of a heartbroken king and rescued his people (2 Kgs 2:1-6). The Book of Judges is filled with leaders, both good and bad (but mostly bad).

The Bible also distinguishes between leaders and elders. Neither were primarily administrators. Churches today blur the clear distinctions between scribal or administrative oversight functions from the core descriptions and responsibilities of elders and leaders, but elders in particular. It seems to me that lumping the categories of leader (especially understood as influencer), elder, and administrator, we create serious risks for cross-contamination.

Honeysett notes that biblical leaders in the church today are those who nourish and equip the flock. Implicit in this is the requirement of leaders such as elders to actually know their own people well enough to encourage and equip them. Equipping itself is an active term. Those who equip are actively equipping. This level of interaction takes time and trust. If either are not present, the leadership enterprise fails. There are no substitutes for shepherds for time and trust.

The author introduces us to four features in the church that safeguard the godly integrity of leadership and protect the body from leadership misuse. These are (1) accountability, (2) plurality, (3) transparency, and (4) embodiment.

Leaders’ lives must be open books lived in the midst of the congregation (2 Tim. 3:10). Their leadership is not characterized by decisions made offsite behind closed doors in secret. In other words, leadership is fundamentally formal and it is not easy. The point Honeysett makes is that creating leadership that is primarily informal and relational tempts leaders to make expedient decisions that bypass normal channels of checks, balances, and oversight. Appropriate leadership is a difficult balance and in need of constant maintenance. It also places leaders under pressure because distance from the battlefield is harder to come by. The good news, however, is that it drives leaders into deeper relationships with Christ through prayer, genuine friendships (rather than tactical ones), and the Word. As a pastor, I know that a frequent, though unnecessary, casualty of ministry is an active and vibrant spiritual life. In order to achieve appropriate accountability, leaders need to be transparent and the only way to achieve this is by guarding and building up the heart.

Honeysett separates accountability from transparency in his list, but they logically interrelate. The difference, he explains later in his book, is seen in accountability being linked primarily to formal structures that ensure it. Visibility and transparency are virtues, but adequate means must be implemented to ensure the integrity of the exercise of leadership. Who oversees the leadership? In our case, we have a Book of Church Order that augments the Westminster Standards and, underneath that as a foundation, the Bible itself. In other words, there are three tiers of formal, directive oversight. But these are all self-reporting. In other words, leaders are responsible primarily to themselves and each other for conformity to the rules. If the inner circle of leaders is functioning well, the leaders hold each other to account.

As a Presbyterian teaching elder, plurality just makes sense. It distributes the load better. It ensures that every conflict in a church is not Bill contra mundum. In other words, every difference of opinion is not personal. It also creates a greater opportunity for wisdom through a plurality of wise counselors. That is the theory at least. Part of Honeysett’s purpose is to also describe what happens when pluralities become ineffective or even harmful. For the moment, it is important to grasp that plural leadership was intended to bless not curse. It can be a beautiful thing.

A potential complication results when the small group of leaders/elders is geographically separated from accountability to the wider sphere of leaders. Isolated churches easily develop dysfunctional social, cultural, and leadership patterns. When all you know is who you are, you become the new normal. In these cases, it is incumbent on local leadership to reach out and create wider webs of effective accountability. In other words, if you are ineffectively overseen, though, on paper, it seems that you are, go the extra mile to erect formal, visible procedures with the authorities over you. The absence of these leads to breakdowns in leadership and that means ineffective shepherding.

Embodiment means that leadership is actively on display in the church community. You can see it exercised in the midst of the people. People see decisions being made publicly. Shepherds shepherd visibly. People know exactly what kinds of things their shepherds do. As a missionary, I became acquainted with what sociologists and anthropologists term ‘power distance.” It describes the gap between leaders and followers in terms of power or influence. In a Presbyterian church, there is a difference between elders and members but not an extreme one. The elders are, after all, representatives to God from among the people themselves. Elders are representatives of the people to God and from God to their people.

The heart of the book describes the “slippery slope” from the accountability, transparency, plurality and embodiment that characterizes legitimate leadership to the murky world of dysfunctional, illegitimate leadership. Honeysett describes the slide as the replacement of transparency with secrecy and concealment, the cutting off of any meaningful collegiality, leading to leadership isolation, power imbalances from “on-high” and the corruption of accountability through concealment and cover up.

So much of this is familiar to me. I am an old man. My wife and I have pastored churches, and been pastored in many others. We have seen the good and the bad. I have trained church planters on five continents for over 20 years. In a way, I did not need too many illustrations to understand Honeysett’s argument. What makes the book special, I would add, indispensable, however, is it’s careful description of the transitions from legitimate  to illegitimate, from godly shepherding to abuse. The identification of the slippery slope is the book’s greatest value.

The slide from transparent legitimate authority to leadership characterized by personal power, insecurity and self-protection takes a number of forms. Honeysett describes “regulatory capture” for example that takes place when the leader and the men who oversee him become too closely and relationally intertwined. In this case, the leader and those holding him accountable become so close that accountability becomes meaningless. Analogously, when the leader becomes too closely aligned with the dominant culture of the church and its “priests”, honest critique becomes impossible.

The first step in the slippery slope is often the “non-transparent use of relational authority”. Honeysett quotes Chuck DeGroat’s description of “fauxnerability.” In this case, a leader calculatedly showcases vulnerability and “messiness” in order to gain sympathy with people. It is designed to increase personal influence by showing people how human and vulnerable one is, even though the calculated nature of its use demonstrates an intelligent intention to deceive. The author juxtaposes this performance with 2 Corinthians 4:2 which condemns such displays of deception. Why do it though? Why mischaracterize yourself?

It is motivated by a desire to manipulate people to get what you want. Leaders corrupt their offices and the structures of the church when they attempt to informally and non-visibly take control of the life of the church, its procedures and policies. I think Honeysett’s general point is that it does not make much difference whether that manipulation is a tendency baked into the personalities of individual leaders or it emerges as an expedient in order to be more efficient. In other words, leaders with extreme issues such as personality disorder and “normal” men who mean well, will stoop to unwise methods that result in dysfunctional leadership. It is a slippery slope. Anyone can get out of control and crash when sufficient care is not exercised.

Eventually, the systems of oversight in the church or organization shift subtly from protecting “gospel integrity” to protecting the underlying organizational culture and its leaders. It becomes an ecosystem of dysfunction and deceit. It’s participants, members and leaders alike, may not recognize what has happened to them. It becomes, in that sense, truly lost. It turns in on itself. Maintaining the system replaces shepherding God’s people. Honeysett’s work has the virtue of describing two sets of circumstances. One is an extreme example with leaders who are, in effect, predators. They can correspond to the high-profile cases that litter the news. The other example is of good people who make bad decisions that develop dysfunctional momentum as things race to the bottom. This, I believe, is far more common and far more tragic in the sense that it is so preventable.

Men become wolves who speed the decline of their ministries and their churches by looking and sounding just like godly sheep. Honeysett cites Jude of those that say good things and look good but only show their genuine selves when they are challenged or cornered. Winsomeness becomes coercion if the leaders’ control is challenged. The need to maintain control leads to even greater isolation and secrecy. Challenging the status quo becomes dangerous and an arsenal of tactics can be unleashed in order to smother dissent. Social isolation becomes a potent weapon in intimidating any potential whistleblowers. Critics become invisible to both the leaders and, by design, to everyone else. The author uses a psychological acronym to describe the approach to silencing dissent. DARVO: denying that anything is wrong, attacking the challenger, and reversing the roles of the victim with the offender are practiced to maintain control.

The author describes church cultures (tribes) as “echo chambers” who become more concerned with maintaining the social order than they are with the people that inhabit them. They become analogous to bodies whose aggressive, over-stimulated immune systems kill them rather than the disease they try to defend themselves from. The church devolves into group think that challenges critical examination or internal reformation.

The final part of the book contains a series of questions that can easily become checklists for leaders and members to diagnose the health of their churches. These are useful in facing who you are or have become. Implicit in them are also approaches that can be undertaken to repent and rebuild. Honeysett has given the church an incredible gift in helping each church see itself as a particular, and in some ways, unique, culture. There are patterns of relationships and structures of influence that not only created it but serve as control mechanisms over it. The title Powerful Leaders? itself becomes a somewhat ambiguous statement. Do distorted leaders distort the church or does the church distort them? Do these coercive, manipulative men own the systems that oversee or are they owned by them?

Honeysett describes healthy churches as analogous to healthy biological cells that are semi-permeable. They filter out harmful elements but are open to outside influences that promote their health. The lack of dynamic exchange between the inside and outside  leads to “fossilization”. These churches fail to change and therefore cannot grow. As Honeysett says, “willful blindness becomes genuine blindness.” Churches are frozen in time, having chosen to maintain a fictional view of themselves. He does not, however, think that things have to end up in that sorry state. They can thrive if they reject the impulse to perpetuate the cultural “pecking orders,” “repenting often, forgiving often and delighting themselves in the Lord.”

That is, in effect, the bottom line. Healthy churches know the Lord. Prayer and repentance drive them. They are clear about their mission and their beliefs. They have relatively little cross-contamination. They live in the world but they are not intimidated or attracted by it. Powerful Leaders make a spectacularly useful contribution toward reminding churches of their priorities and the pitfalls associated with forgetting them. I highly recommend it.

Bill Nikides is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as a church planting strategist with Reformed Evangelistic Fellowship.

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