The leadership of an institution is a stewardship entrusted by both God and men. I followed a man who shepherded this congregation for forty years. The same man was the founding president of DBTS. I serve a congregation with a clear set of doctrines and by-laws which govern it, and they called me to serve because I affirmed my agreement with those. Yes, I think God directed my life to this place of service, but He did so by the means of human agency—a pastor, a pulpit committee, and a congregation.
I fully acknowledge that this is one of the great challenges of leadership in ministry contexts. The leaders are not free to pursue all of the paths available to them. They must work within the boundaries of their defining documents. They must work under the authority of whomever invested them with the stewardship of leadership. That means that beliefs of the leaders are not the de facto beliefs of the organization. If I changed, for example, my view of end times, it does not mean that Inter-City Baptist Church has changed its view. I don’t get to make that the call. The congregation does.
When the leader’s beliefs shift away from the organization’s stated beliefs, there are two options that involve integrity and one that does not. Integrity would lead the leader to either resign because he no longer can affirm his agreement or to put the question of changing the organization’s position before whomever has the authority to make the decision. For the leader, however, to take actions that are contrary to the organization’s beliefs and governing documents is a serious breach of integrity. Dress it up in whatever pious language you want, but it is deceptive and destructive.
For a pastor to chart a new course that effectively empties the church until the only ones remaining agree with him is unethical. For the leader of a service organization to pursue a new direction that leaves the organization vulnerable to collapse unless people go along with his choices is simply wrong. This is not servant leadership. Really it is not leadership at all; it is coercion. The congregation or organization is not allowed to make a free, informed choice about its new course or direction. The leader has imposed his will, not served.
I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood here. I’m not referring to interpretive calls about what fits within the church or organization’s governing documents. I’m talking about contradicting and circumventing them. It is the mindset that treats a leader as if he has some direct pipeline from God that gives him the right to ignore the boundaries properly held in place by the by-laws and articles of faith. It is the evidence that no matter how much lip-service we pay to being God-centered, too many of our churches and parachurch organizations are really built around men.
A genuine servant leader lives within the stewardship boundaries outlined for him in the governing documents of his church or ministry. If he finds himself in conflict with those, he either removes himself or calls for the church or ministry to reconsider its position. If he does the latter, he does that first, not after positioning things so that saying no will lead to catastrophic consequences. Leaving people no choice but to bend to your will is the antithesis of servant leadership.