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January 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 1 · pp. 23–31 

Authority in Church Leadership

V. George Shillington

Questions relating to church leadership have surfaced repeatedly in recent years. Among the most important is that of the authority of the leader (or leaders). Leadership models in Mennonite Brethren Churches have shifted over the years: the gifted member who served as nonsalaried pastor-leader gave way to the “professional” salaried pastor, and that model increasingly is changing to a paid pastoral team ministry. In this development the question of authority has not been clearly focused, consequently the self-understanding of the churches and their leaders has not always been a happy one.

This article intends to bring the question of authority in church leadership into sharper focus by setting out the results of interviews with leaders of long standing in the Mennonite Brethren Conference.

John Regehr served in a pastoral role for about ten years, taught high school for seven, and has served on the faculty of Mennonite Brethren Bible College for thirteen. David Ewert has pastored, served as moderator of the Canadian Conference, taught at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and served for the past ten years at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. Isaac Block was chaplain of Bethesda Home in Ontario for seven years, pastor in Vineland for eight, and moderator of the Ontario Conference for three years. Sig Polle taught high school for five years, served as pastor in United States and Canada for eight years, taught at Columbia Bible Institute for six, and at Mennonite Brethren Bible College for three.

All of these men serve on boards in the Mennonite Brethren Conference; they hold graduate degrees in areas related to church ministry and are willing to express their insights in response to some questions on “Authority in Church Leadership”.

Have you noticed trends in leadership “philosophy” developing in the church over the years?

BLOCK: Yes, leadership trends have been in a state of flux. In the {24} Mennonite Brethren Church, there has been a shift from a clearly recognized lay leadership and multiple ministry, to a more professionalized ministry. With the professionalization of leadership, both the expectations and the potential authority of individual leaders increased. The trend now is to return to earlier styles of leadership. It is now fashionable to speak of “servant/leadership.” It should be noted though, that “servant/leadership” is interpreted in different ways by different leaders.

EWERT: I was in my twenties when I was ordained to the ministry. To my knowledge there was then not a single salaried pastor in our entire Canadian conference. Also, most churches had several ordained ministers. Today there is hardly a congregation that doesn’t have a salaried pastor, and in many churches he is doing all of the preaching and counselling. That is a marked shift. I wouldn’t say that this shift is altogether bad. Pastors are generally better schooled today than they were in the past (although I’m not sure that they preach very much better than the lay preachers I heard when I was a boy). However, our congregations have become much more pastor-centered than they were when we had a multiple ministry. Personally I would like to see the multiple ministry revived. In most congregations there are gifted people who could contribute much to the edification of the church. These could supplement the weaknesses of the pastor (we all have ours) and lead to a stronger, more stable church.

POLLE: The “chain of command” philosophy and authoritarian procedures from the business world have seriously eroded the concept of brotherhood in our conference. In our concern for efficiency we have short circuited the decision making process so that consensus seeking has too often been sacrificed for majority rule. Consequently we have neglected to listen seriously to one another and, in turn, to the voice of God. In general, I would say that we as leaders need to recapture the mind of Christ in which true authority in the Kingdom is the authority, not of title or position, but of the towel.

REGEHR: The paid system is relatively new in the Mennonite Brethren Conference in Canada, perhaps 30 years young. In our move to that model we swallowed the camel which evangelicalism had advertised. The system has deteriorated in some instances to such models as monarchies, private empires, and constitutional monarchies. In the process we have baptized the democratic model. {25}

In the last decade some voices have been heard about team leadership. A few of the silvery saints among us were delighted to think that we were recovering something of our golden past. The others made an easy shift to a multiple staff and understood the concept to encourage larger congregations, and thus larger empires. A few churches are attempting other forms of group leadership (i.e., a group within the congregation) but are so afraid of power that they shy away even from authority.

The move toward a “conference minister” may indeed be a reversion to the bishop. This, I think, is a necessary move. We need to have someplace to go when boards and committees become locked into positions from which they cannot free themselves without a massive threat to their identity and esteem.

How do you view multiple leadership in the church in terms of authority?

BLOCK: I think Keith Philips is right when he writes, “A person who is not in submission has no right to exercise authority” (The Making of a Disciple, p. 53). The multiple ministry is the context in which leaders submit to one another. To a large degree, this context for submission, and this attitude of submission, is that which allows a team of leaders to lead with authority.

EWERT: Multiple leadership seems to be the New Testament model (see Phil. 1:1, 2; Acts 20:17), since the word “elders” (who are also called “bishops”) is at times found in the plural. However, there must have been a leader among the elders, and that model is perfectly visible in our day. A church with multiple leadership is stronger, since it is not so dependent on the presence or absence of one pastor. Moreover, if there are teaching and other gifts among the elders, the congregation gets a varied diet. No single pastor can meet all the needs of every member of the congregation. With a group of elders to support him, a pastor can work with much greater confidence, for his fellow-elders will alert him to matters of which he may be oblivious.

POLLE: It may serve as a healthy corrective to a single leadership where the preaching “diet” is too restricted or where a single leadership style has become stifling. The matter of appointing or electing elders to diversify the leadership role is not necessarily to resolve the question of autocracy. A group of leaders (whether elders or a professional leadership team) may become more coercive than a single leader. The critical {26} question in leadership, however, is not one of form but of style. A brotherhood spirit which concerns itself with the welfare of others and treats those others with dignity and equal respect will honour Christ and inspire the church body regardless of the organizational structure.

REGEHR: The New Testament does portray leaders who seem to stand out as solitary bishop types. Yet the model for the local congregation does seem to be that of a team of elders. We have probably made the jump too quickly from that model to a multiple paid staff. A key point at issue here is the concept of team. Frequently the norm for such multiple staff functioning is that each does his/her thing with often not even as much as a daily greeting, let alone peer consultation, supervision, exhortation, or correction.

The team is the group that can help each member become and remain redeemed from the “will to power” and remain in a stance of authoritative service.

Do you see a need for strong leadership in the church?

BLOCK: Yes, there is a very great need for strong leadership in the church. Strength, however, must not be measured in terms of ability to manipulate and coerce individuals and congregations. Instead, strength must be thought of in terms of the degree of trust that the leader has earned. The more the leader is trusted, the more credibility he will have. And, the more credibility the leader has, the greater will be his influence.

EWERT: Yes, strong leadership is very advantageous for a church. The question, however, is what one means by strong leadership. A pastor who lives a godly life exercises great spiritual and moral leadership by his example. A pastor who expounds the Scriptures and applies them to the needs of his congregation is a strong leader. A pastor who, perhaps in a very gentle and quiet way, guides the members of his flock, is a strong leader. If by strong leadership we mean leaders who make a lot of noise; leaders who act independently without counsel from the congregation or its elders; leaders who take no advice; leaders who lord it over others, then I would say we don’t need strong leaders.

POLLE: Yes, but it must be a leadership of influence, not control. Christian leaders may influence by example and biblical instruction. Christ makes it unmistakably clear that those who would be “great” in his kingdom must learn to be servants of all (Matt. 20:25-28). Servant leadership demands that a {27} leader’s power is focused not on self-promotion but upon meeting the needs of his followers.

If we are to move ahead in our churches we may need to distribute the leadership and decision making power more broadly. Such distribution will serve to check the abuse of power on the one hand and to encourage membership participation on the other.

REGEHR: Yes, leadership must have strength. The strength is not to be thought of as having power over someone as much as deliberateness of action so as to move the church in following after Christ. Even a car with power steering must be guided with deliberateness. No less so for a congregation which has power steering through the Holy Spirit who is common to all. Deliberateness does not have to be heavy handed. The strength and deliberateness is related more to the goals toward which Christ in the congregation is moving than to the “power” and “right” to make decisions.

What kind of authority rests with the church leader, the pastor?

BLOCK: The only authority that rests with the church leader is that which has been earned, or that which is rooted in the word of God which he teaches. When a leader earns the trust of a congregation, he will be taken seriously; and when he is a faithful student and teacher of the Scriptures, that word will be taken seriously.

EWERT: The pastor has considerable authority, but it is an authority that has been given to him. When a congregation calls someone to be their shepherd, and this calling is affirmed by the laying on of hands, the pastor has the authority to teach the Word of God, to baptize converts, to correct the erring; in general, to watch over the flock which God has entrusted to him.

POLLE: His authority is from God in that the leader has been gifted by God’s grace for a leadership assignment. But there is another side. The pastor-leader has authority in so far as his church members are willing to be led by him. This authority the leader earns from the congregation. It rests largely on his relationship to the community which he serves. Where love and trust have been established there will be a corresponding authority assigned to the leader by his congregation.

REGEHR: My assumption is that persons are installed as leaders, i.e., are recognized in the larger context, because they have demonstrated that they are leaders. They are asked to serve {28} as pastors because they are pastoral. They are given authority because they are seen to function under the authority of God and have the ability to draw others together under this authority.

Is this authority in leadership derived or inherent in the office and the person?

BLOCK: Certainly, the leader’s authority is not in the office. One can say it is derived, yes. More to the point though, it is both earned and derived. Earning authority is little more than earning the trust of a congregation, but finally the leader’s authority in the church is derived from God and confirmed by the congregation.

EWERT: A leader’s authority is derived. God’s call to pastoral leadership must be confirmed by the congregation. We do not hold to a sacramental view of ordination, in which special gifts are communicated by the laying on of hands. However, when someone is “ordained” to pastoral leadership, the congregation affirms that God has called and equipped the leader for his task. He then fulfills his ministry not as an employee of the congregation, but as one who has been called of God—a call which the congregation has endorsed.

POLLE: It is derived in that the pastor is not merely trained for the job, but gifted. No individual member of the church can claim authority by virtue of office. Christ distributes gifts in the body (Eph. 4) so that authority in leadership is derived, but it is also inherent in the leader’s perceived expertise and integrity.

REGEHR: There is authority in the office, of course. One who is the moderator of the congregation does bring the agenda, and at various points along the way makes decisions about process and strategy. It is in respect to this kind of functioning that the Spirit instructs us to be persuadable and leadable (see Heb. 13:17).

The greater authority rests in the person and in the person’s response to the calling of God. Personal genuineness and integrity make the person authoritative, together with the congruity between the person’s own life and the Word of God. Whether or not the person uses the formula, the impact which his/her life and word make must be, “Thus says the Lord.”

In what respect do you see the church leader as “prophet”, one who has vision and seeks to have it implemented? {29}

BLOCK: The dynamic of a leader’s ministry will grow either out of the leader’s awareness of needs, or it will grow out of the leader’s vision for the church. To the extent that the dynamic grows out of an awareness of needs, the leader will be a pragmatist. And, to the extent that the dynamic grows out of the leader’s awareness of needs, or it will grow out of the leader’s vision for the church. To the extent that the dynamic grows out of an awareness of needs, the leader will be a pragmatist. And, to the extent that the dynamic grows out of a vision for the church, the leader will be a prophet, that is, he will be one who always beckons the congregation onward to better things.

EWERT: A church leader’s primary task is to proclaim God’s message. In so far as he expounds the Scriptures correctly he can speak by the authority of the Word of God. For some people to be “prophetic” means to be avant garde, to lead the congregation in breaking new ground, to be innovative. But a true prophet in the Old Testament was one who called people back to their covenant obligations. And so a pastor, who is “prophetic,” takes seriously the words of Jesus to Peter: “Feed my sheep.” Jesus did not say, as C.S. Lewis put it, “Make experiments with my rats.”

POLLE: Church leadership should demonstrate vision, prophetic vision. The prophet must communicate clearly what God’s “good news” is in the given context. Too often “prophecy” from our pulpits is neither “news” nor “good” and therefore fails to have motivating power. Prophetic vision, as I see it, focuses on contemporary concerns in the church and in the world and stimulates the people of God to respond appropriately in line with God’s Word.

REGEHR: The prophet(ess) is the one who finds the correlation between the Word of God and the present situation. He/she is the one who is fully in touch with the human reality, is immersed in it (incarnation model) and can hear the Word from that vantage point. This is not the clever discovering of interesting parallels, but a grasp on the inner dynamic of the situation and on the mind of God as portrayed in the text of Scripture. The prophet is one who goes beyond talking about the text, or even clarifying its meaning in the context of its origin, but who can do authentic transposing to where the hearer is now.

How can the church leader correlate his role as leader with his responsibility to the community that called him? {30}

BLOCK: The calling, the ordination, the commissioning of a leader must be seen at least in part, as a congregational act in which trust is publicly declared. It is also an act in which the congregation commits itself to being both teachable and submissive to the leader. While the congregation frees the leader to lead with authority, the leader must retain a humble attitude and see himself as a servant of the congregation. In this way he will work at fulfilling his responsibility to the congregation.

EWERT: A leader is not responsible to God alone; he is always responsible to both God and man. He must always view himself as servant of the congregation, but he must not think of the congregation simply as his employer. When that happens he may feel inhibited in his ministry as teacher of the Word and in his call to exhort and to discipline.

POLLE: According to Ephesians four he is to equip the saints for ministry, not to carry out ministry for them. To lead is to initiate, to inspire, to encourage, to restore, to admonish but not to commandeer or dominate, and certainly not to do so in disguise.

His major responsibility is to insure that the various gifts in Christ’s body are being exercised so that the various members are being built up toward maturity in Christ.

REGEHR: When we think democratically we can visualize a dissonance between the leaders’ accountability to God and to the congregation (or conference). Actually those two are quite naturally in harmony.

Accountability to the community of faith means that the leaders must listen to the needs of people and move to meet those needs. He is accountable to God for the teaching of the Word and its transportation into the lives of the congregation. The leader will also listen for spiritual wisdom from those who are in the mesh of world systems.

At times, of course, the leader will have to take a stand on issues where strong voices in the congregation are sounding non-Christian tones. When it actually comes to an option between people and God, then the choice is clear.


These four contemporary leaders in the Mennonite Brethren Conference of Canada exhibit a consistency of thought on authority in church leadership. They were interviewed independently, yet similar {31} views were expressed.

Perhaps on one point a different emphasis occurs, that of the primacy of preaching in leadership over against a multifaceted leadership ministry. Where the views converge, the focus is as follows:

  1. Leadership philosophy and practice has changed over the years, apparently in the right direction, but there are dangers.
  2. Strong leadership is needed, but the strength requires Christian definition.
  3. Authority in leadership is dependent on the call of God and the affirmation of the congregation.
  4. The church leader(s) can exercise a prophetic role in the congregation by identifying intrinsically with the congregation.

One concluding observation may be made: all four respondents omitted any mention of educational preparation for the needed strength of leadership in the church. This is all the more striking in view of the fact that the respondents are engaged in Christian higher education.

Is the consciousness of the charismatic aspect of leadership increasingly replacing the academic emphasis of an earlier time? If so, what does the new focus say for leadership in the church in the future?

George Shillington, the interviewer and editor of this article, is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies (New Testament) at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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