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11 Healthy Ministry Tensions for Church Leaders

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One of the most important concepts in the Christian ministry is the notion of tension. I instinctively resist tension, as do most people. Tension sounds like friction or conflict, and many leaders think that if they’re doing their job well, there won’t be any tension in their organization. But there is such a thing as “healthy tension.” In fact, more often than not, I have found that many areas of ministry that seem like conflicts to be solved are actually tensions to be managed.

Now, to be clear, in many matters of ministry, there exists a clear right and wrong: We preach the gospel and not works-based righteousness; we stand upon the authority of Scripture, not the prevailing winds of culture; we call our leaders to the highest standards of biblical ethics, not the sliding scale of relative morality.

But the tougher areas of discernment in ministry are not between what is obviously good and what is obviously bad. The tougher calls happen when two good and biblical ideals seem to be competing with each other. In those moments, we are tempted to pick a side to resolve the tension. Many ministry leaders do this with gusto, and they gather great crowds at conferences arguing for their “side.” But what makes for a great conference speaker isn’t always what makes for a real ministry leader. The moment we pick a side in a godly tension, we lose.

Imagine a man balancing a 6-foot pole in the palm of his hand. He wants to keep the pole upright, but to do so he always has to shift—slightly this way, now that way. The correcting and counter-correcting never stops.

So it is in our ministries. This is one of the reasons I have tried to be very intentional in structuring our leadership teams so that people don’t all think like me. Our staff is unified in our vision and mission, but we all have different leanings and passions. I want that. After all, if we all lean the same way, we’ll fall over. These various leanings reflect the different gifts that God put in the body of Christ on purpose. I believe God is honored when we experience the tension of competing (biblical) passions. He wants us to come to the table, to argue our positions with conviction and for each of us to walk away feeling the frustration of a healthy tension.

Here are just a few of the tensions that we manage in our ministries:

1. DEPTH / WIDTH

The term the New Testament uses for the leaders of the church is “pastor,” which literally means “shepherd.” So on one hand, our responsibility is rather clear: We must care for the flock God has entrusted to us. We are not called to grow an audience but to care for Christ’s bride. Depth matters.

But on the other hand, Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep, in which the Shepherd leaves the 99 sheep that are already his in order to pursue the one that is lost. That’s an astounding statement about the importance of pursuing width—not for our sake but for the sake of the lost. And both matter.

2. ATTRACTIONAL / MISSIONAL

For decades, there has been an argument in missiological circles about whether churches should pursue attractional or missional approaches. The attractional side points out that the church is the place where outsiders are given the chance to hear the gospel. The maddest Jesus ever got was when he saw the temple transformed from a portal to the outsider into a convenience for the insider. Our churches must attract outsiders and be ready to welcome them.

The missional side counters by pointing out that all throughout Scripture, people are drawn to the people of God primarily by their countercultural way of living. It is usually in the context of the community, not the church gathering, that the gospel goes forward. As Lesslie Newbigin points out, sharing the gospel in the New Testament almost always begins with the question, “What is going on with you people?”

And both are true.

3. HEALTHY CHURCH / SENDING CHURCH

We are always trying to keep the temperature turned up on sending, because it’s far too easy to slacken that emphasis. But there’s a pace at which sending our best isn’t healthy for our people here. For instance, the group of staff members most likely to leave on new church plants is our campus pastors. But a quick turnover of campus pastors undermines our pastoral care. So we’re constantly talking with our campus pastors about ways they can go that not only serve the Great Commission but also serve their campuses well.

4. EMPOWERING NEW LEADERS / EMPOWERING EXCELLENCE

We are committed to developing new leaders, and part of development is putting people in a position to make mistakes. But there are smart ways to do this and sloppy ways to do this. When it comes to our weekend worship services, for example, we don’t want to approach this time as a “lab” for untested musicians and singers. If they’re going to fail (which they will) and grow from it (which they will), it’s best for us to iron some of that out before we put them on stage, say, at the Durham Performing Arts Center during “Christmas at DPAC.”

5. CENTRAL LEADERSHIP / CAMPUS LEADERSHIP

We are one church that meets in 11 locations throughout the (Research) Triangle. So we should feel like one church. We have values that we want to be the same everywhere. I see it as a failure if people walk away from one of our campuses saying, “Wow, that’s nothing like what I experienced at that other campus.”

At the same time, God has gifted our campus leadership in unique ways. Part of our multisite approach is predicated on the idea that our best ideas often come from the campus level. We want to empower our campuses not only to execute the vision of our church but also to contextualize it, often in innovative ways.

6. THEOLOGICAL DEPTH / RELEVANT APPLICATION

Every week I look at my sermon and think, “Which do I pick—theological depth or relevant application?” I’ve tried to include every bit of each in the past, but some folks got upset at the 55-minute sermons. So now, as I’m trimming and editing, I’m always saying, “I want both of these in here, and I always want to feel like I could use more of both, too.”

7. PROPHETIC CLARITY / MISSION FOCUS

On social issues, the institutional church is always attempting to answer the question, “Should I speak to this issue?” The types of issues will vary, but this question is evergreen. And a quick glance throughout church history, even just in our nation, shows that we’ve often answered it wrong (on both sides). Many churches in the 1960s, for instance, should have spoken up more vocally and specifically in favor of civil rights for minorities. Farther back, it is shameful how few churches stood up to oppose the practice of chattel slavery in our country in the 19th century.

But the opposite error—being too enmeshed in specific issues—is possible, too. I remember being on a committee in 2003 that wanted to pass a resolution in favor of the Iraq War. This was back when nearly everyone (politically speaking) was in favor of that military engagement. But it felt icky to me for a religious group to weigh in on this, even when public sentiment was unified. In the end, the resolution passed, eight votes to zero, with one abstention (that was me). At the time, this seemed like a no-brainer. But looking back, it is easier to see that we should have exercised more restraint.

Weighing in on political matters is one of the hardest tensions we have to manage as a church. If we speak too specifically, we overstep our bounds and distract from the mission Christ gave us. But if we are too complacent, we can miss an opportunity God has given us to speak with prophetic clarity. We want to draw a solid line where the Bible does, and when it doesn’t, we try to exercise wisdom and restraint.

8. INVOLVEMENT / MEMBERSHIP

With new people, do we push them to get involved first, or do we focus on membership? Yes, we’re in favor of both, but this is one of those situations where you often have a legitimate conflict of time. If I know a person will only come to one event this week, do I make that event a membership class or small group? How can we structure our church events so that both sides of this tension are given a fair shot?

9. COMPLEMENTARIANISM / EMPOWERING WOMEN

How can we be a place that is both empowering to women and unashamedly complementarian at the same time? For many people in churches like ours, complementarianism—the belief that God has given distinct roles to men and women in the church—feels more like a box to be checked than a doctrine to be celebrated. That shouldn’t be the case at all. God’s created order is a good gift, worth celebrating. In fact, far from preventing us from platforming women to positions of influence, our complementarian convictions should actually compel us to platform them.

10. REACHING PEOPLE / EDIFYING BELIEVERS

This is another variant on the deep/wide tension. In the actual worship service, what people is the service for? This one actually has a clear biblical answer: edifying believers. That’s what church is actually about. But if that’s the only aspect of the service we think about, we tend to neglect our guests, which is both unbiblical and unwise. Jesus flipped over tables because the worship area was so clogged with believers’ conveniences that the unbelievers had no chance to hear the gospel. Why would we think he is less concerned about them today?

We aren’t always thinking through the lens of our guests exclusively, though. At times we need to prioritize the purpose of the gathering, whether that’s immediately attractive or not. For instance, we recently extended our service times to allow more time for prayer and fellowship. Praying for extended periods during our services is downright awkward for non-Christians. In the end, this may draw in more nonbelievers. It probably won’t. Either way, it’s healthy for the church, so we did it.

11. LOCAL CHURCH / NATIONAL INFLUENCE

I recently accepted the presidency of the SBC with this kind of tension in mind. I am—and always will be—first and foremost a pastor. But as God has grown the influence of our church, he has given us more opportunities to steward beyond the Summit. To refuse to share what God is doing here seemed stingy and selfish, so we decided to share what God has given us. We had been doing this all along by sending out our best, so it seemed consistent to continue “sending our best” by allowing our influence to extend to other churches.

Even as we allow our resources, our time and our people to bless the body of Christ more broadly, however, the weight here must always be toward the local. Martin Luther once wrote, in a short introduction to one of his articles, that pastors should never aspire to teach the [universal] church. They should teach and shepherd their local church. If the church at large wants to take note, they will. To reverse the order only leads to disaster.

Those of us in ministry must never lose our first calling to love and shepherd the people in our immediate community. This is all the more important, as the pull toward building a broad platform is greater than ever.

Read more from J.D. Greear »

J.D. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, one of Outreach magazine’s fastest-growing churches in the United States, and the 62nd President of the SBC. This article originally appeared on JDGreear.com.

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