I was going to do a movie review today, but got going way too late for that. So instead, I want to show you something about leadership in Christianity. We were talking last time about Jerry Falwell Jr., the leader of Liberty University, and one thing you might have picked up on was that I didn’t think very highly of his leadership of the school. It might even seem a little baffling to outsiders that so many leaders in the religion are so poorly-equipped with actual leadership skills. But there’s an answer for that question. I’ll show you why so many Christians subscribe to this model of leadership, as well as why it turns out so poorly for so many groups in the religion.
Welcome to Leadership 101 at Fundagelical U.!
Okay! Praise Jesus! Welcome, everyone. Uh, everyone, thanks. Thanks. Um, this is Leadership 101. If you’re not here for Leadership 101, you’re in the wrong room. Bye, thanks, sorry about that. Okay, everyone left, you’re here for Leadership 101. I’m Professor McGillicuddy. Don’t worry about the spelling right now; it takes time for people to learn it. This semester, we’re going to be talking about all the skills you’ll need to be a leader in today’s church.
Oh, did I say “skills?” Sorry, that must be an old syllabus. I meant “anointing.”
Leaders in Reality-Land.
Who here is a first-semester freshman? Raise your hands…. Okay, so almost all of you. Good. I’m passing out stuff you’ll need to know–a syllabus, my test and essay schedule, and a campus map so you can find the bookstore. We keep it on the third basement floor of the Student Life Center behind the tiger pit. Be sure you wear running shoes when you go.
In almost any other discipline, even in more mainline churches, becoming a leader is an arduous process marked by higher learning, the acquisition of degrees and necessary skills, and working one’s way up the ladder to reach the top of it. At every step, that potential leader has to demonstrate qualities and competencies to those who’ll make the decision to let that person advance further. It can take years to get to the top of the ladder, shortened only slightly by demonstrated brilliance.
That’s the ideal, anyway. It doesn’t always work out, of course. Incompetent people rise to positions of real power constantly–though they don’t often stay there very long. In Reality-Land, checks and balances exist to put strict boundaries around that leader’s power, and there are almost always processes in place to remove a leader who is getting out of hand. These limits and procedures are in place precisely because people in these respective groups know that sometimes someone gains power that they aren’t qualified to wield.
But in fundagelical churches, that ideal almost never works out.
The more extremist and toxic the Christian group, the less likely they are to care about any of that.
And this negligence in selecting and following leaders is going to cost them a great deal of credibility and it’s going to deeply affect their bottom line.
The Concept of Anointing.
Oh. A question already? Of course. And you are… Teddy. Thanks.
Well, Reverend Billy Lumpkin, the president of this college, has issued a formal statement about that. You can find it on the college website. For the purposes of this class, it’s totally okay with Jesus if I teach men. Yeah, glad to get that cleared up. Haha, yeah, about once a semester a male student tries to force me to change his grade with that verse. It’s kinda funny. It won’t work though. No, not even if you catch me outside of the classroom. Yeah. Thanks.
Anointing is one of those super-important words in Christianity that has absolutely no consistency from church to church, denomination to denomination, or even Christian to Christian. It means whatever the person using it wants it to mean, no more and no less. There are some broad strokes to the concept that we can consider a general definition, though, and it’s useful to know that definition because it–and the concepts that underpin the word–is such an important idea in right-wing Christianity in particular. More liberal Christians don’t tend to use it all that much, but the more fundagelical a Christian leans, the more they use the word and the more it means.
In fundagelicalism, then, anointing is a Christianese term that indicates that the person or project in question has been extra-specially approved by Jesus. The term is supposed to evoke images of a god pouring out a sort of spiritual oil onto the person he’s chosen to lead, or onto the project he wants his earthly ant farm to undertake. Sometimes Christians will even actually dab oil onto the forehead of the person that they want to show is anointed, but the actual approval is being given by a supernatural being, not by them. Totally. Totally not them. Nope.
So you can expect to hear the word in ways like this: Pastor Joe is anointed of God. The anointing of God is on our church council. The anointing is flowing over the guitars the youth group is playing right now.
As one Christian outlines in a post on the topic, anointing is conceptualized as a physical thing, the presence or absence of which can be observed, detected, and measured. A few Christians even think that anointing can be “transferred” from one person or project to another–or “blown” via the mouth to someone else or even flung from one person to another. Anointing can even “linger” over a dead person’s body, waiting for the next Christian that “God” wants to have it.
When I was Pentecostal, the tangible nature of anointing was made clear many times–often by pointing to a Bible story that made it into all three Synoptic Gospels1 about Jesus literally feeling “the power go out of him” when a woman touched the hem of his robe to gain a healing for her “issue of blood.”
Weirdly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody who grabbed an anointing meant for someone else, or of an object or project that was mis-anointed in similar fashion. In real life, the Christian god has very, very shoddy aim, frequently sending horrific natural disasters and lethal accidents to punish the wicked that rarely fail to completely miss the wicked and hit his own faithful followers, or that have such a huge area of effect that believers and skeptics alike are harmed. But when it comes to anointing, this god never, ever misses.
Once the person or project desired has been anointed, Christians expect whatever or whoever got that anointing to succeed and do very well.
How to Become a Leader.
Another question? Yes, and you are… Paul. Thanks. Yes, we have five essays through the semester. The word counts and topics are listed–oh, okay. Well, make sure you visit the registrar’s office so they can drop the class for no penalty. Bye.
A fundagelical can become a leader in the religion in one of several ways or combinations of ways.
First, an existing church may experience the loss of their own pastor through death, resignation, or imprisonment–or (way less likely these days) the main pastor might decide he needs a co-pastor or assistant pastor to help him shoulder a particularly busy workload.2
Turnover in church leaders can be intense–the Gospel Coalition cites a 54% turnover rate after four years or less of ministry. Often a church committee–drawn from the ranks of the older men in the church, usually, though often they’re made up of church deacons and other layperson volunteers–puts out the word that they want to hire a pastor. In a very large group, like the Catholics, the denominational authorities may just do the hiring themselves and send the lucky new pastor to his new church. Other groups have their individual churches handle the matter in whatever way they think best, like the Tennessee Baptist Convention does.
These hiring authorities typically will have a range of qualifications and educational achievements they demand of the person they hire. They’ll pore over resumes and do background checks and all that fun stuff. It’s a frustrating time for the hopefuls who send their resumes in for consideration, especially since smaller churches–which are far more numerous than the megachurch behemoths or the flagships of larger denominations–typically have no idea what they’re doing when they examine all those resumes. They’ll be weighing the much higher salaries demanded of an experienced, trained pastor against the lower cost of one who has no training or experience but claims that “God told me to send this to you,” among many other considerations.
There are few other times in a church’s life when it becomes more obvious that they are simply a business than it is when they need to hire a pastor. As that Gospel Coalition link above shows, the author of it doesn’t even pretend that a god is involved anywhere at all, and makes perfectly clear that church hiring committees often make serious misjudgments in their decisions, something you’d kinda expect a loving, all-powerful god to help them avoid. The author isn’t alone there; another group that specializes in church development did the same exact thing in omitting any mention of supernatural aid in hiring decisions. See, they know. They know perfectly well that no god is going to help them find a good pastor.
Second, a Christian can simply plow into power by writing a book or hosting a video series that catches other Christians’ attention in large numbers.
This is easier than it might seem. Fundagelicals in particular love buying Christian materials. They’re a segment of the public with money to spend, and they don’t think critically at all about what is on offer. Any schmuck with a gift for turning a phrase can snag their attention and create a wide following, as Ray Comfort’s demonstrated many times. He talks about being a preacher as well as a street evangelist, but it’s his many books and videos that have launched him into the stratosphere of Christian leadership. But he has absolutely no training in theology or ministry, making him roughly as ignorant as his millions of followers.
Third and easiest, a Christian can just unilaterally declare that he’s anointed and start a new church up.
Churches are a risky endeavor. Most of the new ones fail very quickly, after all, and a pastor is only as successful as he is charismatic. A pastor who isn’t terribly charismatic (in the non-supernatural sense, of course) won’t grow a church congregation very quickly. It takes money to do it right, as well, and most pastors are going to be solely responsible for all of those costs for a while–with no promise at all that new members are going to help in any substantial way.
One church development group uses imagery of standing on “a ledge” and thinking about “stepping off,” quoting a pastor who says that “anyone who claims to feel fully prepared for a church plant is either ‘lying, crazy or divine.’” It’s a heady experience even when it fails. And it probably will, leaving the church planter himself wondering where he went wrong. (We’ve talked before about one of these planters who wrote a “confession” about what he thinks he did wrong.)
But if he’s very charismatic, happens to find just the right location for his new venture, and attracts enough attention quickly enough, he can rise to the top of the pastoral pyramid of power before he goes bankrupt. That’s how Mark Driscoll himself rose to power with Mars Hill. He found a way to package Calvinism in a hipster way right when Seattle Christians wanted to hear a message exactly like that–and parlayed a home church plant (that means it was based in his own home for a while) into a vast, sprawling network of churches proudly bearing the Mars Hill name.
Of course, he also lost all that power eventually, but he’s been busy trying to cultivate a new following. He lost his leadership role and his first church network, but he’s still got the charisma and conjob shrewdness that launched him into power in the first place–and he knows how short Christians’ memories are, and how susceptible they are when it comes to leaders who make a big deal out of being anointed. It’s hard for Christians in that end of the religion to criticize such a leader.
Of course, it helps a lot if the potential leader has the right family name.
In fundagelical groups, there’s often a sort of “royal family” of the group that is composed of families who are very wealthy or otherwise influential. Typically, a church’s leadership is drawn from that noble court, and power is passed down from father to son. For example, in the first Pentecostal church I attended, the junior pastor was the senior pastor’s son-in-law; when the junior pastor died, nobody replaced him. Now that the senior pastor is dead, his eldest son leads the church.
This is the same convention we witnessed with Jerry Falwell Jr., “Dubya” Bush, and even the knucklehead sons of Donald Trump–a person who might or might not have much to recommend himself is pushed to the very pinnacle of power simply because he has the right family connection.
Anointing here is thought to run from parents to children; nobody thinks it’s weird if a son claims his father’s anointing for himself and continues to lead the group after his father dies.
These family dynasties can last for many generations, until the combined incompetence of the descendants finally outweighs whatever inertia that Christian organization might have accumulated.
The Biggest Problem.
Anybody else need to leave? Okay, go ahead, that’s fine. Just make sure you visit the registrar.
Okay! Wow, I feel like Willy Wonka halfway through the tour! Oh. Um, that’s an old worldly movie about a candy maker who gives a big tour of his factory to some children. Sorry about that. We’ll be talking more about it in the middle of the semester when we cover “Worldly Things.”
So these are the many ways that a Christian can achieve power in the religion thanks to the concept of anointing.
It’s important to note, though, that if a Christian venture fails, then Christians won’t think that the anointing was given to a doomed project or church or leader or whatever. Instead, they’ll think that they misperceived an anointing where none existed. See, it’s totally tangible, except when it isn’t, and easily seen as a presence, except when it’s not. They just mis-perceived, in those cases.
The biggest problem with the concept of anointing is that it totally circumvents the need for any formal training in management for the person claiming to have it. Instead of paying their dues, they can shoot right to the top without all that fussy preparation work. But that training isn’t about how to parrot the correct talking points or memorizing Bible verses and stories: it’s also about helping a person learn the emotional and mental skills needed to lead others, as well as throwing that person in with similar-aged peers who are also preparing for a life of leadership–which are connections that may be much-needed once they all launch after graduation. The biggest concern a Christian should have about an untrained pastor isn’t just that they’ll have a childish and possibly off-the-wall understanding of theology, though that’s almost a given. It’s that such a person is implicitly declaring that the usual stuff pastors do to prove themselves competent aren’t necessary at all.
It’s like how so many mediocre or flat-out awful musicians flock to American Idol-type competitions; they know they won’t succeed if they do the hard work that most successful musicians do without complaint. There’ll be no nights when these leaders sleep in their metaphorical drummer’s van on the street because they can’t find a day job that works with their performance schedule; there’ll be no exhausting practice sessions where they refine their skills or stagecraft.
Instead, they can just announce that they’re a pastor, rent a place for a church, and be preaching that very next Sunday. We see that same mentality on display when people decide to start a cooking show even when they have no formal training or experience in cooking, or decide to start restaurants or bars when they’ve never even worked in those venues. With such a lack of experience, the chances of something going seriously pear-shaped go up dramatically.
And that hurry-up-is-good-enough approach is a huge problem. It means that when very real people with their very real lives collide with that instant-leader’s lack of experience, the chances that this leader will handle those people with grace and competence dwindle to almost nothing. It also means that the leader is likely going to be way more focused on maintaining and growing his own power base than he is about meeting the needs of his flock.
As long as Christians consider “anointing” a perfectly acceptable substitute for education and experience, church leaders are going to continue to mishandle them and to crash and burn. On the plus side, with so many Christians walking away from their various churches, there are way fewer of them for an “anointed” leader to poach from other churches. I’m predicting that we’ll see more new churches fail (more completely and faster) than they do even now, as evangelical churn continues to gather steam.
Any final questions? Yes? Go ahead. You are… Jimbo? Thanks.
Why do we keep the bookstore behind a bunch of caged tigers? Oh, that’s just so people value their books more.
Okay! Class dismissed!
I’m in an 80s frame of mind lately, so we’re going to kick off next week with a movie review of a Christian movie from the um, Christiano Brothers from that time. Yes, we are totally going to hang out with a shockingly young David A.R. White in 1992’s Second Glance (it’s apparently all over the place on YouTube, if you don’t happen to have a PureFlix account). I might even dig up embarrassing pics of me as a teenager in the 80s. On Monday, I’m expecting to run a Lord Snow Presides off-topic Disqus-runoff post, and we’ll be watching the movie the next day! See you then!
1 The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they contain the same stories–often right down to appearing in the same order and using the same wording. The Gospel of John is very different and was probably written much later than the other three. Many scholars think that Mark came first and the other two Synoptic Gospels copied from it, or from whatever source Mark’s writer used. But there are a lot more theories about why these three gospels look so similar.