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The plug-and-play problem of church leadership

The following is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book Multiplying Missional Leaders, which comes out at the beginning of May. 

Imagine that it’s a Tuesday morning, and that the staff of your church has gathered for its weekly staff meeting. Staff members discuss the weekend service and whether it delivered the message and experience they hoped it would. They discuss the attendance numbers; small group numbers and effectiveness; budget, buildings, and cash flow. You know, the normal staff- meeting routine.

Then, there’s a soft but decisive knock on the door. Someone says, “Come in!”

Into the room, dressed in normal clothes, step Peter, Paul, James, Priscilla, Timothy, and Lydia. (Obviously, we’re in a hypothetical situation here.) They introduce themselves and say that the Lord sent them to your church to serve in any way they can. They ask, “What can we do? We don’t want to be on the stage or anything. You’re doing the preaching/teaching thing really well. But we’ll do anything else you need. Just tell us what you’d like.”

A stunned silence comes over the staff — after all, this is a strange situation. But soon enough, the staff members snap out of it.

“Uhh, well, OK. Well, how many of you are there? Six? Well, let’s see. Could three of you be small group leaders? We’re looking to start some new small groups, and clearly you’d be great at that. Peter, James, Paul, could you do that?

“Hmmm . . . you know, we lost the person who heads up our First Impressions team a month ago, and it has been a bit lackluster. It has lost the punch it used to have. You know it’s important that people have a strong impression of our church within the first 15 seconds when they come to the service. Priscilla, do you mind heading that up?

“Timothy, we could sure use another usher, you look like you could handle that. Lastly, Lydia, I hear you play a mean bass and can sing too. We’re down a bass player and would love to have you in the band. Maybe you can even fill in and lead worship from time to time. Are you up for that?”

This is called plug-and-play. This is about having various positions we need filled in the machine of our churches and plugging people into those roles. Now don’t get me wrong: there are always going to be logistical needs when the scattered church gathers. That’s reality, and we need to attend to that and do it well.

But does anyone really think this is where a church should be using Peter, James, Paul, Priscilla, Timothy, and Lydia? Would this be the most effective use of their time and energy given the skill sets they have? Of course not.

There’s a leadership myth out there that programs that need leaders create leaders in and of themselves. But this hypothetical example shows us how systems can fall short.

Maybe we can think about it this way: If your church were suddenly given 250 missional leaders, would you have any idea what to do with them? Or would you just plug-and-play them in what you are currently doing?

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17 Responses to The plug-and-play problem of church leadership

  1. Dana 2012/05/16 at 9:12 am #

    This blog is hugely relevant to what our church is facing right now. Some of us who are trained Lay Speakers/Servants in our church were basically told to help prepare communion and host (not lead) small groups in the fall. We were in essence dismissed in the “plug and play” you described. We want to serve our church and all have a heart to speak, but we are willing to serve in many other areas. What our pastor fails to see is that because of our training, we can do things beyond what he is asking us to do. The sad part is that he does not seem to want to see that. We will find a way to serve and know God will honor and grow it. It’s just so sad that our pastor, for whatever reason, will not utilize us. Would appreciated more guidance in how to approach a pastor who seems to think in this mindset.

    • Gary Clark 2012/06/06 at 11:54 pm #

      Dana, I would like to hear about the vision you have been receiving from God concering your work of making disciples in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. As a trained servant leader have you been encouraged to pray about the gifts of grace Christ delivered, or distributed to you through which the Holy Spirit who lives in you, leads you to all truth about Jesus and empowers you daily to go and make disciples for Him.

      What have you discovered regarding how the Holy Spirit demonstrates His power in and through your disciplemaking walk in this world.

      Are you finding God is working ahead of you,sending people into your path who want to know why you are different from others in this world and perhaps why you have hope in God when others they meet do not se God or ever want to meet him.

      Have you discovered the joy of explaining God’s word in plain simple terms that enable people to learn to read and discern the truth of God’s word in thier livfes?

      Have you been meeting more and more people who tell you deep concerns in their lives or deep hurts and have you been led to share the good new that GOd is not looking for ways to send people to hell because everyone is already headed there because of the sin nature problem and only those who reject God’s way of escape/forgiveness purchased by Jesus Christ on behalf of all people will make it to eternal punishment outside of God’s heaven?

      In what ways do you believe God has gifted and equipped you to serve in that your pastor is unwilling or unable to recognize? Have you clearly shared these discoveries with him?

      I for one am unable to keep up with a portion of what God is leading His reoyal priesthood of believers to be involved in because of His call on their lives as His disciples who are sent each day to make disciples where ever God leads them.

      Keep seeking His kingdom and His righteousness and God will be faithful to complete the good work He has begun on you.

  2. Graham Carter 2012/05/20 at 4:21 pm #

    I see this a lot in overseas missions too (I work in several South Pacific Island nations). Too often we export the comfortable structures and programs from home, and call it missions. Rather than discipling local people into a vibrant and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and letting ‘the form follow the function’.

    Sadly the Islands contain plenty of examples of where ‘plug and play’ assumptions can ultimately lead us. The institutional church has become the most affluent and powerful political and social organization in Island communities (especially in Polynesia). Some churches extend their rule so far into personal life that we have ministers approving relationships, choosing marriage mates, and even name babies.

    These churches openly teach that unquestioning obedience to their leaders, laws and traditions will ensure a place in heaven. So, over several generations, church structures and programs have come to replace Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. It saddens me to see so many sincere missionary efforts bringing (unwittingly) a more contemporary version of the same old copy-cat or plug-and-play works-based systems, instead of seeking to disciple the people the way Jesus showed us.

    • Pastor Joseph Jobin 2012/05/25 at 11:51 am #

      The problem is not ‘Leadership’, but, rather, ‘Lordship’

      Even though we are instructed in many places in the Scriptures to honor and pray for our leaders( both secular and spiritual) I also think of the damning indictment that Jesus railed against the religious leaders of His time when He said to them, “Woe to you teachers of the law and pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in peoples faces, you wont go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.” (Matt23:13 NIV). Then Jesus goes on to say that when they did make a convert they made him twice the son of hell as they were.

      There is nothing new under the sun. What the religious leaders did then we can, and obviously are still guilty of doing today; which is giving into the temptation of miss-using our leadership gifts and callings by trying to control people, rather than serve them. We should make every effort to direct people to the true Master and Lord who is Jesus, rather than to ourselves. We need to do this with a pure motive of the’ fear of the Lord’ and with true godly compassion for those that we serve/lead.
      If we effectively point God’s precious people to the Lordship of Jesus, and we as ‘leaders’ are properly under His Lordship, then the outcome will be;

      a) a better balance between respecting our leaders rather than blindly following them into the fire
      ( if they should happen fall into deception, which can, and does indeed happen. Remember the Pharisees);

      b) we will see less the spirit of rebellion and insubordination, and;

      c) the leaders will be less manipulative and controlling. Why? Because the Lordship of Jesus will balance and fill our hearts with more of His Love and wisdom thus improving our relationship with both God and each other on all levels. This process of course will take time which is not always popular in the ‘fast food’ society in which we live.
      When we as leaders live and preach the Lordship of Jesus then, and only then, will true leadership and submission will begin to happen the way God would intend it to be. Even the Apostle Paul qualified his own leadership when he said, ” Follow my example (only) as I follow the example of the Lord.”(1Cor.11:1).

      It is tragic to see the spiritual abuse as leaders control the followers and the followers blindly submit to everything dictated to them. I believe we all, ‘leaders’ and followers’ equally have a responsibility and the wonderful privilege to make Jesus our personal Lord and Savior by submitting to His more than capable Leadership of our hearts and lives. By doing this we not only ensure our salvation, but His Lordship also places us, His body, in a position to improve our relationship with one another thus lessening the chance of the kind of abuse we read of here.

      . May the Lord Jesus bless and enlighten us all, to His glory and for our good !
      Pastor Joe

  3. Gary Clark 2012/06/07 at 12:05 am #

    Just a thought, some one once said, “If you want to find the leaders just stop long enough to see who is being followed.”

    This may be what Jesus had in mind when He sent to the Holy Spirit to be our guide.

  4. Russell Clum 2012/06/27 at 10:39 am #

    Mike, I’ve read through several of your posts and am encouraged by what you see and what you’re saying. Can you direct me toward some of your nuts and bolts answers to the problems you’re raising? I think most of us with any proximity to ministry can see how easy it is to default toward plug-and-play participation. You alert us to the fact that it’s hard to do otherwise, but I can’t see what you’re actually suggesting to help us in the Kingdom remedy our easy way out. How would you respond to these six people coming into your staff meeting?

  5. JR 2012/08/17 at 12:51 pm #

    I think there would be quite a number of churches that would be over-joyed to have 250 missional leaders sign on. We wouldn’t make them small group leaders, we would set them to starting their own small groups with people they naturally connect with, and when you do that the sky is the limit for what people can accomplish and the number of lives they can impact. Too many small groups are just comfort groups – a missional leader makes them places that multiply disciple-making exponentially.

    The problem I see is that when most new people walk in our doors they are either:
    1. Just looking for a comfortable pew to sit in with no involvement.
    2. Not really a Christian yet
    3. A Christian who has just left their previous church disgruntled and obviously has not dealt with things well.
    4. Used to be more active in ministry, but has allowed their job, family involvements, etc, to grow to such an extent that they are not planning to be so active anymore.
    5. Someone who is gung-ho to get involved, but you quickly realize has some major issue that requires you go slow in terms of handing responsibility.

    And then when we do get a really quality person with no entanglements, and try to promote them quickly into places of leadership, we get push-back from others in the ministry who think that like in a union seniority should determine who is the leader. (That just happened to us)

  6. Reinard 2013/03/18 at 10:42 am #

    Mike, I think the plug-and-play issue is a common problem with churches. It only highlights the fact there is a larger problem. It means our idea/vision of church is way too small. We tend to put church in a little box. Whoever tries to do something outside of this box is labeled either an apostate or someone who “got hurt in the church”.

    These 3 questions highlight a problem that a lot of churches face, and is of great concern to me:

    - Do you go to church on Sundays?
    - Is the church big enough to accomodate the service?
    - Which church do you attend?

    How can any of these questions even be valid in the light of the fact that we are the church?

    Do we truly believe that when Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”, that He actually meant it.

    What would I say to Peter, James, Paul, Priscilla, Timothy, and Lydia knowing the skill sets they have?

    “Please go back to where you came from and keep on doing exactly what you were doing. Go back to your work, to your homes, and integrate with your community. Find people who need Jesus Christ, meet them in their homes at your work places and disciple them. Love them like Jesus loves you. Baptise them and teach them to do the same to other people. Continue to do this for the rest of your life. And if you feel the need to share your testimonies with us on a monthly basis, that would be great! Oh, what’s that you’re asking?…What do you do with your open Sundays? Well, do what GOD did on the 7th day… rest”

    Do we continue to use “do not forsake the assembling of the saints” as an excuse to keep on gathering in buildings, so that more of these buildings can be constructed and more people can be slotted into roles like sound desk operator, light switch manager, clean-the-dishes supervisor etc?

    I think we seriously need to re-examine church if we are falling into a plug-and-play pattern.

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  12. Cindy Rauser 2013/09/12 at 9:46 am #

    Thank you Mike for expressing this so clearly. I think you are spot on the mark. This is a key frustration of mine as well.

    I think the foundational DNA of a church or any organization is largely dictated by the top. This presents lots of problems if we see our pastors as the center of our leadership rather than God as our center. The challenge is moving our congregations to a place where they can “feed’ themselves on God’s word rather than looking to our church leaders for every crumb they can find from our one table of communion. This is a hard transition because it is such a huge cultural shift. (Plus, the types of leaders who usually rise to the top in church organizations are often problem solvers and task oriented. It is harder for these types to sit quietly and watch something or someone struggle. However, wrestling is where the learning and growth happens.)

    Modeling relationships where discipleship can take place is the center of this. As much as we would like to have some control to move people into a better fit for their gifts. This is more than attending a small group as a social venue which is what most small group ministries are expressed to be. Also, we can be tempted as leaders to take the place of the One we are called to serve. We do well to remind ourselves that God invites and God leads. This requires intimacy and this same intimacy is required to fully invest in the people who are in our congregations. It is not possible for the staff of any one church to fully serve the intimacy needs in discipling everyone in our congregations. However, it is possible to invest deeply in a few who can then also go and invest deeply in a few more. This means that the staff of a church may often have to release their sense of control and be willing to let the Lord lead us into areas of discomfort. As administrators and educators we can become too attached to our programs and “self” baggage. When we do this, we knock the “spirit” out of our emerging leaders and leave them feeling isolated and alone in their calling. We need to encourage them and empower them so that they can share encouragement and empowerment with others. We need to “invite, listen and send” not “invite, plug and move on”. Invest in intimacy. Invest in relationship.

    I wish I had the answers to this issue. It is frustrating but it does me good to remember that even Jesus had people in his midst who failed to “get it” or completely missed their calling. It reminds me that we have a huge role to play in this as individuals for our own growth. We have to choose to have relationships. We have to follow God’s led. Even then, we are going to lose a few sheep but it is then we have to trust that The Shepherd will help those lost sheep realize that they were looking at the wrong shepherd from the start. It might be the best thing that ever happened to them or the church.

    Our systems aren’t perfect but that is alright. The church provides cribs for infants. We keep encouraging them to walk, talk and eat on their own. Some will run. Some won’t. All we can do is keep trusting that God will fill in the gaps. We don’t have to get it right. Our attempts to make disciples aren’t just for the instruction of others. It is for OUR instruction. (Ephesians 4) We just have to keep following and learning.

    As a side note, I would be more concerned if we were not discontent with this topic. Our spiritual health is often most healthy when we are kept in this tension of hope and discontent. It keeps us learning and growing.

    Love the post! Keep them coming.


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