By Tim Harlow
There are some wonderful benefits to leading the same church for 26 years. It’s actually very difficult to make much headway into your community as a church leader without longevity. However, when people ask me for the hardest thing about longevity, this is my answer—what got us here doesn’t usually get us there.
I don’t mind change. I don’t mind that I’ve preached through the years of overhead projectors to slide projectors to video to HD video. I don’t mind that I grew up in a church with a bus ministry and a puppet troupe, but I’m guessing my children’s ministry would not find that effective today.
Times change, methods change, doing church changes. This is especially true if the size of your church grows. That part I understand. The hard part has not been letting go of old technology; it’s been letting go of old friends.
In the early church, we find a story about a young man named John Mark. He was a sharp young leader who seemed eager to help the kingdom, but evidently got homesick at some point and bailed on Paul in the middle of a journey. Later, when Paul and Barnabas were discussing a second chance for John Mark, Paul didn’t give him one but Barnabas did.
I believe most people think Paul should have lightened up a little and given John Mark another chance. “Jesus gave YOU another chance, Paul!”
When you hear of “splits” in the church, it’s usually a bad thing for the kingdom. My favorite story is of a castaway who was found on a desert island with three huts.
“What are the huts for?” the castaway was asked.
“One is my house and one is my church,” he replied.
“What is the third hut for?”
“Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”
A split usually hurts God’s work. Jesus prayed for unity. But at what cost? Does unity require unanimity? Or is it possible to disagree, and even decide to go in different directions, while still loving and respecting your brother or sister in Christ?
I wonder what would have happened if Paul and Barnabas had just decided to mend their ways and work together, taking John Mark with them.
As it is, we never hear from Barnabas again, but we know what Paul went on to do. That doesn’t mean Paul was right. I’m hoping Barnabas’s work was equally productive and beneficial. However, we do know John Mark became a great leader. He was the author of the Gospel of Mark, which came from his direct connection with Peter. Did that connection happen because he wasn’t with Paul? Matthew and Luke seem to lean heavily on Mark, so where would the Gospel story be if things were different? I don’t know.
But I do know this painful truth: many times, progress depends on making some tough decisions. It may mean you do not move forward together with people who have been on your team. I’ve lost plenty of friends who have decided not to move forward with us as a church because they disagreed with our direction.
We could have made decisions based on making everyone happy, but what’s the end game here? Maintaining friendship with people on this earth—who I’m going to spend eternity with anyway? Or introducing Jesus to people who would otherwise never meet him?
Leading the church forward may also mean role changes for members of your team. The greatest single leadership moment in our church’s history came when the elders made a very unpopular decision to relocate. The congregational vote was only 56 percent in favor, but a majority was all we needed. We knew what God was calling us to do, and we decided to follow the shepherd instead of the sheep. That was 18 years ago. I believe that was THE defining moment when God took the lid off of our church.
But here is my point: none of those men are elders today. Some of them moved, one was hired, and some had other life issues going on. But even though several of them are still in our church, they aren’t the ones making those decisions anymore.
The church is literally 20 times larger now because of their leadership in 1997. But now we need elders who can understand the size and scope of leadership at this level. So literally, they led themselves out of a job. The only reason I haven’t done the same is I have surrounded myself with people who keep making me better.
It’s hard to sit down with a loyal friend and church member and realize it’s time to go in different directions. It’s very difficult to go to a staff member—a loyal, hard-working team member who has been like family—and say, “We need to have someone else do what you’ve been doing.” It’s so hard. But if we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be here. And they are better off being where they need to be, as well.
To be clear, no one asked any of the elders from 1997 to resign. There was a natural progression of leadership. And while I may come off as a hard-nosed leader, I have never, and will never, make hard decisions like transitioning a staff member by myself. The leadership axiom says, “Hire slow and fire fast,” but unless there is a direct reason, the church is no place to call security and ask for their keys. We are the family of God. There is no place in the family for meanness or callousness.
I don’t think Paul took this decision lightly. How hard was it to say goodbye to the “Son of Encouragement” (which is what Barnabas means)? He sounded like the exact kind of guy you wanted in your corner. I’ve had some tremendous people like Barnabas in my life. I need to catch up with some of them. I do miss those times.
Leadership is hard, and that’s why not everyone is interested.
Hey, someday the elders will need to put me out to pasture . . . tell me to turn out the lights because the party’s over. Someday they will say, “Tim, what got us here won’t get us there.” I hope I am mature enough to accept it.
Until then, I will lead. I will look forward to the future God has in mind. But I’ll always miss the good old days and honor those who got us here. I’ll look forward to Heaven, where I can introduce a bunch of people to leaders they’ve never met—who are very responsible for helping them find Jesus. Because they did get us here.
Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.