Tony* was building a career he really enjoyed when a leadership crisis at his church erupted. His steady, calm, servant-hearted personality and peacemaking gifts played a huge role in helping to settle the chaos. The elders at the mid-sized congregation invited him to join the church staff. “You’ll be able to use your skill set for kingdom purposes,” they told Tony. “We believe you’re God’s man for the job.”
What a vote of confidence! The request was both surprising and flattering to Tony. He’d never considered a religious vocation for himself, but Tony assessed the way he was spending his time, and realized that he was involved in church matters another 30-40 hours a week on top of his day job. After a long hard look at the finances (the position would mean a small pay cut) and a lot of agonized prayer, Tony said yes.
Tony loved his new job at the church at first, but the effects of the leadership crisis that had occurred a year earlier meant that there were a lot of other responsibilities that slowly began to be spooned onto Tony’s already-full plate. He was a team player and loved the church, so he pitched in and did what he could to help out. What were a few more meetings if it meant helping the church find stability and encourage congregation members to grow spiritually?
Tony found himself doing less and less work in the ministry area for which he’d been hired, and more and more church administration and preaching. When the embattled senior pastor resigned, the elder board came to Tony and said, “We believe you’re God’s man for the job.” When he told them he wasn’t sure he was qualified or gifted for the position, they told him to stop being so modest. “God equips those he calls, and we believe he is calling you.”
Tony was right. The new job required gifts that God had not given him. His young family was depending on his paycheck, so after begging God to help him serve well, Tony quietly set about trying to learn the skills he knew he was lacking. He couldn’t duplicate spiritual gifting, but he decided he could apply himself to become a master craftsman, studying other pastors’ sermons and attending leadership conferences. Maybe that would be enough to carry the church through this unsettling season.
Tony also knew that doing a job he wasn’t gifted, skilled or qualified for was usually a recipe for burnout. He banked on the “usually” and kept marching forward like the good soldier he was. He found the role alternately flattering (“They need me!”) and draining (“I can’t possibly do this job!”), but the press of responsibilities didn’t allow him much time for reflection. When he did get away for personal retreat time or vacation, he mostly fantasized about running as far away from the church as he could get. He knew that wasn’t a good sign, but as soon as he got back in the office, he shoved down his doubts, put his nose to the grindstone and kept doing his job. You could almost smell the smoke as he burned out.
Tony stayed in the position for several years. He had a slow transition from being a problem-solver to being a problem. He had become someone he didn’t recognize in his oversized lead pastor role: harsh, unforgiving, cold.
But the church’s leadership team, still smarting from the mess of a few years earlier, had no stomach for doing the hard thing and relieving Tony of his position. Instead, they all kept insisting that he was God’s man for the job, and they were very aggressive in their policing of their belief in the congregation, particularly among some of the congregants who’d begun to voice complaints about Tony’s harsh style. His leadership team buttressed their support of Tony using a variation of the old favorite “Touch not God’s anointed”. If someone complained, the person was labeled a problem. It was a short-cut way to maintain unity, but the strategy backfired in slow motion over several years.
The church’s numbers eroded during Tony’s tenure, and the church went through one band-aid program after another trying to pull Tony and themselves through. Finally, the recent economic crisis meant that Tony was going to have to take a significant salary cut. After nearly a decade, he resigned. After all, he has a family to feed. And the truth is, Tony isn’t even sure who he is or what he believes anymore. He is trying to figure it out – and my prayers are with him as he does.
If you’ve been involved in church life, you may know a similar story: a pastor who shouldn’t be pastoring, a ministry head who is a little intoxicated with her own power, a leader who brings his own agenda into the role, another who manipulated and politicked her way into her position. Last night, at dinner with some friends, we were talking about a dynamic similar to Tony’s story above. One person at the table said, “God puts leaders in their positions.”
I chafed a bit. This is often the handle of the “Touch not God’s anointed” club used to silence question-askers in dysfunctional churches. It’s true, I suppose, that if God really wanted these toxic characters out of the way, he’d get them out of the way. And a quick skim through Scripture shows that God is indeed willing to leave all sorts of really evil leaders in place, even though the only thing they do well is lead people into sin and rebellion. I agree that there is a larger purpose at work as a redemptive story is written across history.
But I can’t lie. I struggle with this issue. I see the short-sighted, political decision-making of a congregational leadership team (and then years of terrible attempts to buttress their decisions) and I can’t see the connection.
How exactly was God responsible for putting (and keeping) a guy like Tony in his position?
And how should I respond (in addition to prayer) to leaders who perhaps got dragged or manipulated their way into their role? Am I to “touch not God’s anointed”?
*not his real name