Establishing criteria for leadership appears to be a growing trend in many congregations. The obvious theory behind this movement is that leaders should model the behavior expected of others within the organization.

Modeling continues to be one of the most powerful, and most neglected, forms of church leadership.

In leadership seminars that I conduct, I often ask groups to list the top three or four “missional emphases” of their congregation. Such emphases are often listed in the congregation’s mission statement, posted in a public display area or embedded in the core values of the membership.

I then ask each person in the group to place a date beside each missional emphasis indicating the last time that he or she was directly involved in that activity.

If evangelism is at the core of a congregation’s mission, persons are asked to reflect upon the last time that they shared their faith with someone. If meeting the needs of the community is a part of the mission of a congregation, leaders are asked to reflect upon the last time that they were personally involved in that activity.

The results often reveal a lack of personal involvement in the core mission of a congregation.

Modeling behavior, or a lack of it, can have a very powerful effect upon an organization. “If the leaders do not care enough to demonstrate the core mission of this congregation, why should we?” members in the pew are tempted to ask. Modeling mission is a wonderful task for leaders.

As with most great ideas, however, this one comes with some safeguards.

First of all, the chosen criteria for leadership or involvement on a committee should be at the core of what the church stands for. The criteria should not be arbitrary. They should reflect the church’s mission.

If the church’s mission and vision are unclear, those issues should be clarified before establishing any criteria for leadership.

Unfortunately, criteria for leadership are sometimes chosen not because they are the core of the congregation’s mission, but because it is known in advance whom such criteria will include and exclude.

Another danger in lifting up criteria for leadership is the subjective proof-texting of Scripture.

For example, a number of congregations cite 1 Timothy 3:2 as a reason to exclude women or divorced persons from leadership, a phrase that just as accurately can be translated “wife of one husband” as “husband of one wife.” It also has been taken to mean “married only once,” “married to one person at a time” or “singly focused in marriage.”

I am not in this article advocating for one translation over another of this particular passage. The point is that many congregations tend to pick up a particular interpretation of a difficult passage of Scripture as a way to include or exclude certain persons in leadership, while ignoring other criteria also found in Scripture. Few churches using 1 Timothy 3:2-3 to determine gender roles, for example, give equal attention to the other leadership qualities also mentioned in the same passage.

Criteria for elected leaders should reflect not only the congregation’s core understanding of mission, but also that congregation’s core biblical understanding of all of the passages associated with leadership in the early church.

Just as congregations should clarify core values, mission, and vision prior to establishing criteria for leadership, congregations planning to support such criteria with Scripture should first thoroughly study related biblical passages.

Congregational leaders should reflect Christ-like behavior, as well as the values and mission of the particular congregation that they serve. Congregations that develop criteria that potentially include some and exclude others, however, should exercise great care, great prayer and discernment more than decision-making.

Jeff Woods works with regional ministries for American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

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