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Let Go!

I stared in amazed consternation at the contents of the Communion tray. It contained those commercial Communion wafers – the kind that look like, have the consistency of and taste like recycled Styrofoam.

After the service I asked the missionaries who were hosting me about it. The wife explained: “The preacher asks us to bring them in from the States for him.”

“But why?! Why not use local ingredients? Communion bread is easy enough to make.”

“Well, the preacher insists on preparing Communion himself each week. There’s no way he could make the bread.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that preparing Communion would be something to delegate. It would be an excellent way to get others involved in ministry.”

“Oh, there are plenty of people who would be delighted to do it. The problem is the preacher won’t give anyone a key to the building.”

After a few mild comments expressing my astonishment I prudently bit my tongue. Nothing would be gained by saying what I really thought.

I’ve already written in these musings about Missionary Failure. Granted, it was my first visit to that part of the world. I know very little of the background and the circumstances. There well may be mitigating circumstances of which I am not aware. However, here in my opinion, was a clear case of missionaries encouraging dependency and reinforcing destructive behavior.

But the question which has plagued me ever since, is why church leaders cling so tenaciously to power. What was the preacher so afraid of that kept him from giving a key to anyone else even though it was clearly in the best interests of the congregation to do so?

Mind you, I am no stranger to power-grabs by corrupt and venal men (and women pulling strings in the background!). The church has had that problem almost from the start. Paul warned Timothy about men who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:3-5). But this man, by all accounts, was neither corrupt nor venal. Why, then, couldn’t he bring himself to let go and delegate? What is it that prompts good men who love the Lord to sabotage their own long-term success by crippling the churches they lead?

Only God knows the heart and I don’t pretend to know what prompted this particular man to cling so tightly to his prerogatives. However, I’ve been around long enough and felt some of the temptations myself, that I can suggest a few generalities.

I suspect that one reason good men cling to power is a genuine fear that if they are not vigilant, and don’t keep a tight hand on the reins, people with fewer scruples will seek power and try to use the church for their own agendas. This can be a legitimate concern. We certainly don’t want to give anyone authority unless they also have the character to use it responsibly. But how does one learn responsibility? How can people develop the skills the church needs and learn to serve unless we give them the opportunity? The irony is that the more we cling to power, the more we set things up so that eventually there will be a power grab. We will have created the dictator we hoped to forestall by holding all the power within our own hands.

The very fact that we’re worried about who has the power shows how skewed our thinking is. Leadership in the Lord’s church is not about power and control. It’s about service. But didn’t Paul say that the kingdom isn’t a matter of talk but of power? (1 Corinthians 4:20) He sure did, but to what power was he referring? In the context, Paul was speaking of the Spirit’s power. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV) Paul’s point was that when we try to accrue power to ourselves, we hinder the working of the Spirit who is the true source of power. The paradox is that we receive true power only when we relinquish it.

Another reason church leaders cling to power is the genuine desire to make sure things are done right. We often have the feeling – and sometimes it is legitimate – that no one can do the job better than we can. We will not turn responsibilities over to others because they will botch it. Or at least they won’t meet our standards. Though this may be true, to use it as an excuse to hold on to everything is, at best, short-sighted. I think that in the midst of running all their programs and preparing well-crafted sermons, leaders often forget one of their main responsibilities. It is to help others discover their gifts of ministry and train them for it. Isn’t that why Christ gave leaders to the church in the first place? (Ephesians 4:11-13) We also tend to forget that however talented we may be now, we hadn’t always attained our current level of perfection. No, we too had to learn. We too made plenty of bone-headed mistakes. We too fell far short of the standards of those who had been in the ministry for decades. We forget that it takes practice to develop any skill. How do we expect anyone to become proficient unless we give him the opportunity? We will never have competent teachers or speakers or councilors or administrators unless we train them, give them responsibility and allow them to fail.

However, there’s also flip side to this. Some leaders won’t give up control because they are insecure in their own place in God’s order of things. They’re afraid that if they train someone and give him opportunity to use his talents, that person will turn out to be a better speaker or teacher than the leader. God forbid if the congregation should like his classes or sermons better than mine! We’re like the proverbial crab-bucket. Instead of rejoicing that God has given someone a greater gift than ours, we must pull everyone down to our level and keep them there. And then we wonder why our churches don’t seem to make much progress!

When I asked the preacher who refuses to give a key to the church building to anyone why the congregation doesn’t have Elders, he said that men just don’t seem interested in church. It was obvious that this bothered him and he didn’t know what to do about it. Not knowing the situation, I didn’t know how to respond. It was only later when I learned about his holding onto power that I began to catch a glimmer of what the problem might be. Why would any man with gumption or leadership potential take interest in the church when there is little or no scope for ministry there? By refusing to let go, we doom the church to ineffective mediocrity.

Though our motives for clinging to power may be good, it seems to me that it really boils down to a lack of faith. Think about it. Christ calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow. Holding on to power is the exact opposite of that. By holding onto power we put ourselves first instead of last. By holding onto power we cling to our rights and prerogatives rather than die to them. By holding onto power we chose our own way instead of following behind Jesus.

It takes faith to let go. It takes faith to follow the example of the One we call Lord when He turned His ministry over to 11 confused, selfish and sometimes petty men. There’s no doubt that Jesus knew better than they did. There’s no question He was far better at serving. There’s no contest when it came to who knew the Scriptures better. But Jesus turned things over to them anyway. In fact, He said that it was for their benefit that He left (John 16:7). It was only after Jesus entrusted the disciples with the work that they finally came into their own and “turned the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6)

Thank the Lord, the disciples learned the lesson and followed Jesus’ example. What would have become of Paul if Barnabas hadn’t mentored him? Would we have the New Testament in its present form if Barnabas hadn’t seen the potential in Paul or John-Mark? Would we even know who Timothy was if Paul hadn’t mentored him? We can ask the same questions about the “beloved physician” Luke.

When will we have the faith to follow in their footsteps and let go?!

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