Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith…17Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. 18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. 19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon…22Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly. 23 I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. 24 Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings. 25 Grace be with you all. (Heb. 13:7, 17-19, 22-25 NIV)
According to a 2018 statistic given by Thom Rainer at LifeWay Research, 6,000-10,000 evangelical churches are dying annually in America. On the low end of the spectrum, that represents 100-200 churches weekly. According to a little older statistic from the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute on Church Leadership, those churches are being replaced by new church plants at a rate of approximately 1:4 (25%). Meaning, for every 6,000 churches that close, only 1,500 new churches are planted each year. If they hold true, this does not bode well for American evangelicalism.
I am left to ask the question “Why?” Why are so many churches sick and dying? Why do so many close their doors? As a church consultant, I’ll be the first to admit there are nearly as many specific reasons as there are churches that close. No two churches are identical, no two in the same situation, and no two have exactly the same specific reasons for closing.
That being true, there are a few underlying issues that come to light frequently and predictably that contribute to why churches are unhealthy and so many are dying.
The first and often most ignored is the church’s leadership…but it’s not in the way you think. Recently, evangelicalism has seen men like Bill Hybels and James MacDonald leave the pastorate under allegations of misconduct. You might be tempted when you read that leadership is an issue underlying poor church health and dying churches, that I would lead with the poor health of its leaders and blame pastors for the demise of local churches. You would be wrong. I love pastors. I am a pastor. While it’s true pastors do fail and should be rightly removed from ministry when they do, that’s not the biggest issue surrounding church leadership in today’s churches.
We live in a highly transparent society. Everything is reported, often inaccurately, on social media in a blitzkrieg of information so rapidly no one has time to keep up. The same is true when pastors fall into sin. Before anyone can blink, a pastor’s failure has been analyzed, redressed, and splattered over social media almost instantly. The failures of a few are marginalizing the whole. Pew Research has demonstrated that pastors are waning in how the American society at large views them. They are considered less trustworthy and less beneficial to society by the year. Thus, the failure of the minority of pastors has tarnished the reputations of the rest of us.
The declining esteem in which pastors were once held has had a severely negative impact on the health of local churches. In fact, it is this that has become the number one way a church member can kill a church.
You will kill your church if you respond improperly to the leaders God has given you.
Any local church that intends to be healthy and effective must respond biblically to the leaders God has given it.
What then does the Bible say about how church leaders ought to be treated?
Before I can treat the topic at hand, I need to build a fence or two. When I refer to church leaders, I am not predominantly referring to a church’s deacons but to her elders. I understand that each denomination and every local church has particular duties for their officers, be they deacons, elders or both. For the purposes of this topic, I want to distinguish between the office of deacon and elder and stick with the biblical material regarding both.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the elders are the leaders of the church not the deacons for several reasons. Most biblical scholars trace the origin of the office of deacon to Act 6. At that time, deacons were established as a servant-support role, not as the primary leadership role of the local church. The New Testament further gives servant oriented qualifications when it speaks to the role of deacons (cf. Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim 3:8-13) and never gives general oversight or direct leadership responsibilities to deacons.
Conversely, elders were given by God to be the leaders of the local church. The New Testament uses three  synonymous terms for elders that express the leadership nature of their office. The first, and most commonly used term, πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros – trans. “elder”), is a general term that refers to one who has the responsibility to preside over an assembly of people. The second, and next most commonly used term, ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos – trans. “overseer/bishop”), refers to one who oversees, supervises, or is responsible for the work and well-being of others. The third, and least commonly used term, ποιμήν (poimen – trans. “pastor”) refers to one who assumes the leadership over a group of people like a shepherd leads a flock of sheep. All three of these taken together denote a definitively leadership oriented role for the office we commonly call elder. How does the vocational pastors fit into this scheme. From Scripture, it appears the pastors were among the group of elders and functioned as primus inter pares (“first among equals”).
So the question becomes, how can improperly responding to the leadership of your church, in particular the church’s elders/pastors, kill a local church? How is it that people improperly respond to their leadership?
Fail to Understand the Responsibilities Your Leaders Bear.
Pastors and elders have God-given burdens to bear that most in the church do not. Not every member of the church has been called and gifted to lead the church, but Christ has chosen some who are. These leaders bear the responsibility to live and lead from a vantage God does not call every believer to, and deserve understanding, grace, and honor from those they are called to lead. These leadership-specific responsibilities can be summarized as follows.
Pastors and elders have the serious God-given responsibility to lead the Lord’s people (1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17). Their leadership mandate requires them to have a clear biblical picture of the church’s God-given mission and vision, to communicate that mission and vision clearly and repeatedly to the congregation, and to lead the church to effectively engage and commit to the completion of that mission so that they church remains healthy and on-mission.
Pastors and elders are responsible to model spiritual growth to God’s people (1 Tim 4:16; Acts 20:28). This requires that they live with a view of answering to God someday (Heb 13:17), maintain a good conscience before others (Heb 13:18), model a life of personal dependence on God (Heb 13:7, 18, 20-21), and be willing to lead God’s people through self-sacrifice (Heb 13:23).
Pastors and elders are responsible to model unity to the congregation. They are to work together with each other in unity. One might notice that the writer of Hebrews consistently uses leaders in the plural as does Paul and other New Testament writers; indicating the expectation of a plurality of pastors/elders to lead the church (Heb 13:17, 23-24). It’s easy to work in unity when there is only a singular church leader, but a group of leaders must work together in a unified, harmonious team. As the pastors and elders do so, this models how the larger Body of Christ is to work and live with each other.
Pastors and elders are also responsible to help each believer personally live on-mission. The writer of Hebrews says they “keep watch” over the believers’ spiritual conditions (Heb 13:17). That term, “keep watch” means “to say awake, to watch over, to guard” as one might stand guard over a flock of sheep or over a city against invaders. They keep watch over God’s people by faithfully teaching them God’s truth (Heb 13:7, 22; 1 Tim 5:17), encouraging them to live for Christ joyfully (Heb 13:17), and emphasizing God’s grace at work in them (Heb 13:25).
These responsibilities are born by no other group in the Church. God takes ordinary believers whom He qualifies and gives them Divine authority to lead His people. This authority does not come without a high Divine responsibility. God calls pastors and elders to live with higher responsibilities and expectations than anyone else in the Church, and these responsibilities can become burdensome. When church members fail to recognize and appreciate the responsibilities their leaders bear, they will take them for granted, perhaps grow bitter against them, and can very well lapse into mistreating their pastors and elders openly.
Failing to recognize the burdens pastors and elders bear is the first step in killing your local church.
Fail to Respond Properly to Your Leaders’ Efforts.
As I said above, pastors and elders have been tasked with the leadership of God’s people and with that task comes great and sometimes burdensome responsibilities. And yet, God does not call men into leadership without granting them His Divine authority to lead. Because pastors and elders bear God’s stamp of authority over His people, they can become tempted to rule them harshly as demigods. This is why Peter admonishes the elders to treat God’s people tenderly and to not lord their authority over the church (1 Pet 5:2-3).
When a church is unhealthy and dying, church members will use Peter’s pastoral admonition as an excuse to misapply what it means to be a servant-leader. They will emphasize the servant aspect and overlook the truth that pastors and elders are their Divinely authorized and empowered leaders. God’s empowering of pastors and elders to lead expects certain responses from His people. When God’s people fail to respond properly to His Divinely empowered leaders, they are inadvertently killing their churches.
How, then, do God’s people respond improperly to their pastors and elders?
When God’s people fail to faithfully obey their pastors and elders they are killing their church. Hebrews 13:17 commands God’s people to “have confidence in” their leaders. This is a poor translation. The grammar in this clause expects the verb to be translated “obey”. The writer of Hebrews expands on his expectation of obedience by detailing why. There are eternal repercussions for disobeying your pastors and elders. Hebrews states that pastors and elders keep watch over believers’ souls and will one day make a report (give an account) to Jesus about you. Every believer will one day stand before Jesus and give an account for their lives. I may be surmising here, but I believe when we do every pastor and elder under whose leadership we found ourselves throughout our lives will be called up to report on how we obeyed their leadership, followed their example, obeyed their instruction, etc. The writer of Hebrews says that if you make your leaders’ jobs hard, joyless and burdensome that there will be eternal consequences for you. The term translated burden refers to a sigh or groan in response to dissatisfaction in a relationship. It’s the idea of “Oh, no. Not that person again!” When the writer of Hebrews says that it will be no benefit to you, the term means “to suffer something, to not be in one’s best interest, to experience harmful results of one’s actions.” Thought the New Testament is not specific about what loss will be suffered, it is clear that the consequences of making your pastors’ and elders’ jobs difficult and burdensome will result in unpleasant consequences in Eternity.
When God’s people fail to routinely and regularly pray for their pastors and elders they are killing their churches. God’s people should be praying for their leaders to be spiritually protected and fruitful in their ministry to them (Rom 15:30-31). They should be praying that their leaders would have boldness in declaring God’s truth to them and the gospel to the lost (Eph 6:19; Col 4:3-4). They should be praying that their leaders would be able to handle difficult situations in the church without compromise (Heb 13:18). And finally, they should be praying that their leaders would be delivered from circumstances outside of their control that would distract them from their leadership responsibilities (Heb 13:19). When God’s people are praying specifically for their pastors and elders they will more readily want to honor and obey them and their leaders will more joyfully and easily be able to serve them. This promotes unity and health. Failing to do so sickens and kills the church.
When God’s people fail to intentionally love their pastors and elders they are killing their churches. Hebrews 13:24 commands God’s people to “greet” their leaders. That word means “to embrace affectionately, to be fond of, to be friendly toward.” This is so much more than merely saying “Hello” on Sunday morning. In days gone by, pastors and elders were born and raised in the communities they served. Many served in the churches in which they were raised. In our 21st century American culture, that is not the case. Often, churches call pastors to lead them from miles away. These people and their families must relocate and replant themselves in a new community and a new culture with which they are unfamiliar. They do not know the local expectations or customs, are most likely unrelated to the people they are leading and have the dubious honor of living up to unforeseen expectations. This is hard on pastors and their families. Many pastors, pastors’ wives and children struggle to fit in, build truly transparent friendships and really feel as though they belong. It is imperative, in our modern culture more than at any other time in Church history, that God’s people make an intentional effort to include their leaders as part of their body; loving them as they love each other and never treating them like outsiders. This is best accomplished when God’s people intentionally partner with their leaders on-mission (Col 4:10-14; Phil 1:3-6), stand with them in good times and bad (Phil 1:7; 2 Tim 4:10), and commit to growing personally closer to Jesus in response to their leaders’ teaching (Phil 1:8-11).
When God’s people faithfully submit to and obey their pastors and elders, routinely pray for them, and intentionally love and include them, it breeds harmony, unity, cohesion and health. When God’s people fail to do so, either purposefully or neglectfully, they are killing their churches.
One could easily say that the best way to kill a church is when its leaders are not leading biblically. In fact, most often when congregants are disgruntled or leave a church they cite the leaders’ or pastor as the scapegoat. It’s almost always a problem of leadership and blame routinely gets assigned to church leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not perfect. No pastor or elder is perfect. Pastors and elders are going to make mistakes just like every other believer – that’s a given.
That said, the writer of Hebrews approaches church leadership from the basic presumption that your leaders love and serve Jesus and want what is best for the churches they lead. They’re sacrificing to see God’s mission advanced and desire nothing more than for the church God has them leading and the people they’ve been called to lead to live on-mission. Most often, pastors and elders serve their churches out of hearts overflowing with love for their Savior and His people.
Furthermore, I find it interesting that the New Testament gives more admonitions about how a leader is to be treated and examples of leaders being mistreated than it does of leaders being worldly or mistreating God’s people. The Church is the Body of Christ. Christ is head of the Body, but He has given leaders to His church as gifts to lead them, help them, and keep them on-mission. If church people mistreat their leaders by not respecting their role as God-given responsible leaders, by not obeying them and submitting to their leadership, by not praying for them and by not loving them they will their church.
You don’t always have to agree with every decision your leaders make or direction they lead. But, if you recognize that they were given to you as gifts by God and if they are qualified leaders who love God and His people and are being faithful to lead as they have been tasked, then you can trust them. When churches and their leaders are unified in this way, it’s almost impossible for Satan to infiltrate the Church and wreak havoc. When pastors and elders are mistreated, the doors are wide-open to the Enemy.