Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #3

July 27, 1997

I wish I knew the source of this quote: "There are three types of leaders — risk-takers, caretakers, and undertakers." I ran across it a while back but can’t establish the source. I’m not smart enough to have come up with something that insightful so neatly packaged, so I know it isn’t original with me!

The history of God’s dealings with humanity certainly illustrates the truth of that statement. The two great leaders in biblical history are Moses and Jesus. In response to a call from Yahweh, Moses led two million people out of slavery in Egypt and brought them to their Promised Land. Was he a risk-taker? In response to a heavenly strategy to redeem all humankind, Jesus left heaven, lived a self-emptying existence in a hostile environment, and went into the darkness of a tomb. Was he a risk-taker?

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that people who lead effective churches are people who can take risks. Four fishermen were challenged by Jesus to drop their nets, leave their boats, and join him in fishing for men. A young rabbi was confronted on the Damascus Road and challenged to count everything in his life to that moment a loss for the sake of knowing Christ. A rich young ruler was invited to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and join Jesus in his work. The fishermen and young rabbi you know, but the rich young ruler’s name doesn’t even survive in the record. Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Paul were leaders; the other young man was at best a caretaker to his fortune and at worst an undertaker to his own soul.

There are far too many caretakers in church leadership. How can you spot one of them? They say things like "We’ve never done that before," "I’m not sure we’re ready for it," "It’s a good idea but impractical for now," and "You’re right about that, but . . . " They ask questions like "But where could that lead?" and "Do you think it might hurt our giving?"

From the looks of things, there are lots of undertakers in pulpits and elderships as well. You can spot them by characteristic lines like "We’ll never be able to do that" or "We need to defer action on that and talk about it some more." Their standard question is "Couldn’t that get us criticized?"

So how does a leader sound? Leaders say things like "We have to listen to the voice of God," "It’s simply the right thing to do," or "The Spirit of God is calling us to this." They ask questions like "What would Jesus do here?" and "Can this make a kingdom difference in someone’s life?"

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: "If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself."1 If I may paraphrase: "If the church is to be effective for its God-given mission, we must have spiritual leaders with ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees, business meetings, or elders meetings. Everything that matters in our spiritual life begins with an individual confronting the written word and the Living Word on his knees in a room by himself."

The fundamental difference in a risk-taker, caretaker, and undertaker is the quality called vision. And just what is "vision"? An oft-used quotation says: "Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream of things that never were and say why not?" The difference between those two attitudes is vision. Visionary leaders believe the call of God is always forward, always upward. Like Paul, they do not believe that they or the churches they lead "have already been made perfect" at any point in their history. Thus they "press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold" of them. They see a heavenly goal that reminds them to forget what is behind in order to strain toward things ahead of them on God’s agenda for his church (Phil. 3:12-14).

Vision has two elements: disaffection with what is and a dream of what could be. People mired in the status quo are caretakers and undertakers; people willing to take risks for the sake of repentance and constructive engagement of the future are, by contrast, true visionaries.

In this lesson, I want to point to four principles of spiritual leadership that can help us focus on the selection, nurturing, and continuing development of visionary leadership in local churches. I am going to try to make these principles clear by means of contrasting them with their negative counterparts.

Some Biblical Principles of Leadership
Engagement vs. Detachment

First, a godly leader builds a sense of teamwork by modeling in his personal lifestyle the ideals he wants others to embrace. Oh, he talks about and teaches lessons on compassion, generosity, or risk-taking for the gospel. But the strength of his words is in the modeling of those virtues in the routine events of his life. There may be a few places left where people who rule by fiat are still called leaders, but they are few and far between. Whether fascist or communist political systems or autocratic and dictatorial church systems, they tend to collapse under their own weight.

Jesus conducted a short leadership seminar among his disciples one day. He called them together and told them: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt.20:25b-28).

Jesus never modeled this better for his followers than on the day shortly after that seminar when he entered Jerusalem to the praises of people wanting to crown him their king (cf. Matt.21:1ff). Have you ever thought about the contrast he offered to the kind of leadership they knew best?

A Roman leader would have ridden in a chariot pulled by white horses, and a Jewish official would have put on the vestments of his position. Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey — a borrowed one at that — and in the clothes of a peasant.

A "mover and shaker" of ancient or modern times would have come in with an entourage whose job it was to keep the crowds from physical contact with him. Jesus came with his diverse little band of disciples, moved humbly through the crowds, and shrank from the question or touch of no one.

A military leader would have galloped along the road, giving only an occasional nod or wave of his hand to the troops and onlookers. Jesus moved along slowly on his donkey. He was one of many going up to Jerusalem for the festival, and the only difference between him and them was that he had the call of God on his heart in such a unique way that it made him a natural leader within the group.

Church leaders must not bottleneck a church’s gifts by limiting it to their own abilities, passions, and callings. Their goal must not be to develop a following but to develop others’ gifts and interests. John Wooden, the hugely successful college basketball coach who led UCLA to ten national titles in twelve years used to say this about teamwork: "The guy who puts the ball through the hoop has ten hands." Leaders in effective churches believe and implement this philosophy.

Or, as Lynn Anderson expresses it, "Shepherds smell like their sheep." They move among, know, and live the experiences of the people they are leading. They are anything but distant and detached. They are involved in the lives of people in meaningful ways. Thus they are able to build teamwork throughout the body.

Mission vs. Maintenance

Second, highly effective churches have leaders who know the difference between mission and maintenance. The church has been given a mission — a mission that matters, a divine mission. The notion of having a "mission" stirs the soul and engages our passions. But it is possible to lose the dream of pursuing a mission for the sake of simply maintaining an institution.

It seems that fallen human beings are always tempted to betray the holiest of causes by subverting them to personal benefit. Is it possible that some churches have lost sight of their kingdom agenda for the sake of mere institutional maintenance? Think about it . . .

The kingdom of God is the reign of heaven in human hearts and lives (cf. Luke 17:20-21). Christians — even church leaders — who embrace the world's way of thinking and behaving have no share in the kingdom of God. Yet we understand that the church is meant to be that entity through which the kingdom breaks into human experience. By our rescue from the "dominion of darkness," God has "brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Col. 1:13-14).

The church's calling is twofold. First, we are to pursue the kingdom of heaven. The church is charged with being an outpost of heaven's reign in a world that lives in rebellion against God. It is to be an atmosphere where women and men can internalize and live true values. Second, we are to model the kingdom before the world. By this means we become light to a world still shrouded in darkness. The church offers hope to those who want an alternative to the things of this world that are hostile to God.

How often does the church realize its ideal? It seems to abandon kingdom pursuit for preserving our own institutions when lectureships and journals are devoted to attacking brothers rather than exalting Jesus, urging conformity to received practice rather than promoting serious thought and responsible progress in communicating the gospel to our contemporaries. Elders are merely doing institutional maintenance when a church's life is dictated by a growling member who gives substantial amounts of money rather than by the larger body's needs, protecting their status as power brokers rather than emptying themselves as servants to all.

Jesus called the church to be radically different from worldly institutions. But there is too much of the world's way of thinking among us. How do we measure the success of a church? We typically look to the "bottom line" — attendance, contribution, property. These things may be consistent with faithfulness; if it is necessary to compromise integrity to get or hold them, however, the kingdom of heaven passes by for the sake of institutional maintenance.

Robert Dale has put it this way:

The church is an organizational expression of the kingdom of God. Some congregations may suffer from methodological tunnel vision by majoring on their church and minoring on the kingdom. These groups may ask too often, "How can we 'do church' here?" to the near exclusion of "How can we bring God's kingdom through this congregation?" A kingdom dream will undergird our methods with a theology big enough to cure tunnel vision.2

Life by the world's rules is focused on acquiring and keeping power over others. Leadership is conceived on the model of giving orders and enforcing compliance. If others have to be manipulated or coerced, so be it. Some form of "winning" is the obsession that lies behind all decisions, relationships, and actions.

One who does not know the kingdom of heaven must have the last word and push others around. He struts in victory and pouts in defeat. He is seldom honest with others and never with himself. He cries for himself but not for others. He wants to be heard but cannot listen. He is angry and finds fault with all things and all people. He forgives nothing and remembers every slight (real or imagined) that ever came his way.

The world is heavily populated with non-kingdom people. They lie, steal, murder, abuse, and assault. And the church is overpopulated with them too. They impugn, bully, dare, and disrupt. By these very means, they maintain their cherished traditions and institutional structures. In the process, they abandon the kingdom of God.

Love and peace, kindness and gentleness, patience and joy, humility and goodness, self-control and righteousness — these are the features of a reality that comes from God. They are the ultimate realities of the kingdom of God. They put flesh on the two eternal marks of the church: love for God and love for others.

So we continue to pray: "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And we long to see passion for the preservation of human traditions give way to delight in the reign of God. The fact that we are following deep ruts does not mean that we are being true to our biblical roots.

Empowerment vs. Control

Third, a godly leader had abandoned the desire to control people for the sake of empowering them. A leader’s willingness to develop, equip, and entrust authority to others is the ultimate test of his leadership. The goal of a leader is not to develop a cadre of followers but to develop other leaders. A true leader isn’t threatened by people around him who have ability and potential.

Warren Bennis quotes the legendary president of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, as saying that at MGM "the inventory goes home at night." His meaning was that his company’s primary asset was its talented people. In more recent times, MGM — along with many other once-powerful companies — has fallen victim to "streamlining." Leaders gave way to managers in those companies, and the managers stripped off merger profits at the expense of the future. In some cases, the buildings were left standing with the people gone. In cases like MGM’s, people, props, studios, and the film library of over 3,500 films all went on the block. Only the name remained.

I bring up this point because of the insightful distinction people like Bennis make between leaders and managers.

The problem with many organizations, and especially the ones that are failing, is that they tend to be overmanaged and underled. They may excel in the ability to handle the daily routine, yet they never question whether the routine should be done at all. There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. "To manage" means "to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct." "Leading" is "influencing, guiding in direction, course, action, opinion." The distinction is crucial. Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right things. The difference may be summarized as activities of vision and judgment — effectiveness versus activities of mastering routines — efficiency.3

It certainly shouldn’t be difficult to make the application of this insight to the lived experiences of effective and ineffective churches. In the biblical landscape of things, elder-shepherds and teachers should be the vision-casters for a local church; their role is to dream, teach, and model the doing of right things. The role of deacons or ministry leaders, depending on the term you prefer for this biblical function, is to supervise and carry through with the doing of those things well.

If the teaching and oversight roles of a church are reduced to micromanagement, that makes the roles of deacon, education minister, youth-group supervisor, or a dozen others meaningless. The people appointed to those positions quickly find out that they have neither authority nor freedom to function. So they either quit or fret over their meaninglessness.

I am fortunate to work with some leaders who authorize, entrust, and otherwise empower men and women to function for Christ in a local church. They do not see their role as "keeping the brakes on" but surfacing, training, and encouraging people to reach their fullest possible potential as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, most of the genuinely effectively ministries of our church have percolated up from creative people who have sensed their liberation to use their gifts to glorify God.

Leaders must have a vision of the kingdom of God that they can articulate. They know the institution is never an end in itself, but a means to an end. So do leaders in highly effective churches avoid the mistake of making church-as-institution (i.e., Bible School, staffing, etc.) an end in itself. They delegate those duties to responsible people so they can continue to define a vision, nurture giftedness, and build up the church-as-organism as a means to saving, healing, and sanctifying people.

It is the tendency of insecure people to surround themselves with "yes men," people they can intimidate, people they believe have lesser skills than themselves. Those companies, schools, or churches die because of strangling control. As my favorite preacher, The Reverend Will B. Dunn of the Kudzu comic strip puts it: "Blessed are the control freaks . . . for they shall inhibit the earth!"

In what we sometimes call the "secular world," there is a wholesale shift away from managing institutions to empowering people. In Megatrends 2000, for example, this point is made: "The dominant principle of organization has shifted, from management in order to control an enterprise to leadership in order to bring out the best in people and to respond quickly to change." This has always been the method of highly effective churches. For churches that have lost their effectiveness, this must be addressed immediately and forcefully.

Thermostats vs. Thermometers

Fourth, leaders in highly effective churches create a spiritually healthy atmosphere. Do you know the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat? A thermometer lets its surroundings regulate it; a thermostat changes its atmosphere. Christians are called to be the latter, not the former. Leaders in particular must cast the vision, proclaim the mission, and create a healthy atmosphere. Leaders in highly effective churches know how to make a connection between their faith and daily life, and their example encourages others to do the same.

A word that some have thought respectable is being revealed in the public press for what it really is. It is a disreputable, vile, and loathsome term. The word is neutrality. "He who is not with me is against me," said Jesus, "and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matt.12:30).

The truth of this apparently harsh statement from our Lord is being illustrated in what we are just now learning about Swiss "neutrality" during World War II. We know, for example, that Switzerland’s bankers were bragging of their neutrality even as they were taking hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen gold and laundering it for the Nazis. Swiss neutrality in 1938 meant turning down a request from the United States to host an international conference on the desperate plight of the Jews in Europe.

Honorable people cannot be neutral about places like Auschwitz and the secrets of its gas chambers. Yet it was that nation’s vaunted neutrality that caused Red Cross inspectors, headquartered in Switzerland, to turn their heads from the atrocities being carried out in Hitler’s concentration camps.

To declare one’s "neutrality" in the face of hatred and racism, greed and stealing, violence and murder is more correctly to declare one’s cowardice, degeneracy, and moral bankruptcy. And all that is not meant as an indictment against a Swiss official in 1943 as opposed to a detached and passive Christian who is confronted with such things at his workplace, in her school, or in a church today. It is the role of the church, in fact, to embolden people to live for Christ in a way that is distinctive and rejuvenating to their world. We are to be salt against the world’s corruption and decay.

There are ultimately two great kingdoms. There is light or darkness, right or wrong, the Kingdom of God or the Empire of Satan. Every person belongs to one or the other. To attempt to be neutral is to choose darkness, wrong, and Satan.

The leaders of highly effective churches must be people who have learned how to model the presence of Christ in the world. Without being strident or harsh, they live so as to spread the aroma of Jesus in their wake. They help the church as a corporate body of God’s people to be a positive presence in the world.


As we are presently embarked on a course to appoint additional leaders at Woodmont Hills, please keep this theme in your minds and prayers. God has blessed us richly in the past, but our focus must always be on the future. We must seek out, appoint, and support the people God has in mind for our next generation of leadership at Woodmont Hills. We must have such leaders in order to be a highly effective church.


1Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Decline of Heroes, quoted in Sheila Murray Bethel, Making a Difference (New York: Berkley Books, 1990), p. 147.

2Robert D. Dale, To Dream Again (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1981), p. 46.

3Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), p. 21.

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