February 22, 2006
National Pastors Convention: Will Willimon has Control Issues
Leadership's editorial team is posting from sunny San Diego this week. We've gathered with 1700 other church leaders for the National Pastors Convention. At the opening session Methodist bishop Will Willimon spoke (with his charming and colorful Southern humor) about our pastoral tendency to control and squelch the Spirit of God.
Building his case from John 3 where Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born from above, Willimon found it interesting that the only person Jesus told, "You must be born again" was someone "like him" - a church leader. Nicodemus' responds to Jesus with a question church leaders can relate to, "How?"
"How?" is a question pastors ask a lot.
How do I lead my church? How do I minister effectively? How do I deal with conflict? How do I grow my church? How do I (fill in the blank)? "How" is why we buy books, attend conferences, and go to seminars. Modern evangelical pastors are all about the "how." And we base our credibility as leaders on our ability to tell other people "how." We give them three-point sermons on how to do all sorts of things.
But Jesus irritates us by not sharing our passion for pragmatic answers. Jesus responds to Nicodemus' question, "How can a man be born again," with an unashamedly ambiguous answer. He says, "The wind blows where it wishes ?you do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Willimon says that like Nicodemus many pastors have a desire to control, manage, stabilize, and harness God. But we serve a Living God, and this God does not yield to the desires of men. His Spirit goes where he chooses, blowing freely like the wind. This, said Willimon, "is why we nail down our pews." We don't want the Spirit to blow in and disrupt our perfectly managed ministries.
I've seen this controlling tendency in myself, and my church - maybe you have too. We assemble boards, committees, and task forces to manufacture policies by which our ministries function. These policies determine the what, when, and how of ministry. They constrain the Living God and his people to minister within a bureaucratic framework that keeps us comfortably in control. The wind of the Spirit may be blowing outside, but we'd never know it behind church walls sealed shut with policies and procedures.
That is the danger of always building ministry around "how." History is full of Spirit-filled missional movements whose power waned as they become bureaucratic institutions. In the process of bottling the wind they lost it. But has this tendency come to mark a generation of church leaders enamored with the pragmatics of ministry - its procedures, policies, structures, and plans. Have we forgotten that the beauty and power of the Spirit cannot be bottled and stored on a shelf?
The mysterious movement of God's Spirit is what separates spiritual leadership from all other kinds. Some want us to believe that "leadership is leadership" whether in business, government, or church. And we can take principles from one arena and employ them in the others. I don't believe that. Sure, pragmatics are transferable, but the work of the Living God is something altogether mysterious and uncontrollable.