By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Gary Fenton said he had a defining moment in his ministry after he preached a message one Sunday and it really connected.
“It was a vision sermon and you could tell people really got it,” he said.
And then that afternoon, his phone rang.
“A lady called me and told me how good it was and then asked what they needed to do to make this vision a reality,” he said.
Fenton told her that the sermon had explained it. And she said no, it didn’t — it painted a picture but it didn’t tell them how to get there or what to do next.
“The next day I talked with a friend about it and he said, ‘You don’t know what’s next, do you?’”
Fenton, who retired in 2016 from Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, Birmingham, after 25 years as its pastor, said this moment shifted his entire ministry.
“My friend basically said, ‘You’re a cheerleader but you don’t know how to be a leader.’ I could point to the goal line but I couldn’t get them there,” he said. “I had just turned 40. I determined then that I was going to do everything I could to be a good leader.”
Recent articles from Christianity Today and Baptist News Global note that some experts in church life say the pendulum is swinging toward more and more churches wanting their pastors to be CEOs more than they want them to be spiritual teachers.
Preaching ability, which used to be the most important aspect churches looked for in a pastor, has slid down in the list and been replaced by abilities to bring in people and money, the articles suggest.
This CEO-style model “keeps the church from having any spiritual depth and it keeps the minister from having any real depth,” said Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York, and former associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.
It’s a trend he and other experts say are dangerous for the Church.
But Fenton said he feels churches shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to considering whether strong leadership matters.
To him, three dimensions make up a pastor — preaching/teaching, pastoral care and leadership.
“When you look at the New Testament writings of Paul, they appear to focus as much on leadership as the other two,” said Fenton, who now serves as senior advancement officer for Samford University in Birmingham.
Baptists are “people of the Book,” he said, so churches should begin with the assumption that a pastor will both preach the Bible and live the Bible. The letters to the New Testament churches often deal with leadership issues, he said.
“Use the Bible as a book that governs how you lead the church, not only how you teach the church,” he said.
Before Fenton’s defining moment after preaching that vision sermon, he neglected the leadership dimension of his pastorate, he said.
“I found that leadership was the one that if I didn’t give special attention to it, it got neglected because it wasn’t natural for me,” he said. “I understood pastoral care and the purpose of teaching and preaching, so I began in my scheduling to look over my week to make sure I had some time dedicated to learning about leadership and identify what my leadership opportunities were and how to prepare for them.”
If focusing on leadership is done to the loss of preaching, teaching and pastoral care, it becomes damaging, Fenton said.
But if it is left out, it is damaging as well, he said.
Mike Jackson, director of the office of LeaderCare and church health for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said when he meets with pastor search committees he talks through the three roles of a pastor and gets churches to rank them in order of importance to them.
“The preaching/teaching and pastoral care are No. 1 and No. 2 almost always,” he said. “Occasionally you will get somebody who says ‘we really want a leader’ and that’s probably going to be one of our larger churches.”
Ranking them provides good insight into what each church is looking for, but it also provides the opportunity for Jackson to talk to them about the importance of keeping the roles in balance, no matter which way they rank them.
Often the ones who say they are looking for a leader first are looking for someone who can cast a vision and lead the people to follow it, Jackson said — and that’s not an inherently negative thing.
The “CEO model” some are criticizing implies a situation where the pastor has distanced himself from the people, he said.
Working with excellence
That letting go of personal relationships doesn’t need to happen, but “at the same time we have to be professional in our leadership and preaching and caring for people,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to do that with excellence. To do it in an unprofessional way doesn’t serve the local church well or the body of Christ.”
Leadership should happen in a way that doesn’t sacrifice caring for people’s needs and teaching them the truth of God’s Word, he said.
“Anytime a leader becomes aloof and distanced from his people (he’s) not serving effectively like the biblical role of pastor is all about,” he said. “It’s all about people — it’s got to be people-oriented.”