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5 traditions that shackle church leaders: The Circuit Riding Preacher


The wild west was settled in part by circuit riding preachers who rode into town, preached the Sunday message, then moved on to the next church in the circuit. They were among the real heroes of our western expansion. As the railroad moved across America, and the vast resources that built it, along with the bonanza populations that gathered in gold territory, the circuit riders brought spiritual truth to pioneer villages and towns that soon dotted the landscape. They often were responsible for planting churches and schools out there as well, institutions necessary for civilized community development.

The functions and ministries of the local church, therefore, were the proprietorship of the citizen members of the church, and their elected or appointed officials. It was a biblically accurate implementation of the church model under the teaching and preaching ministry of the Apostle Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, John Mark, and the others who took Christ's commission to the uttermost parts of the earth. Usually, the circuit riders appointed elders, and later deacons, stayed for a period to train and disciple the new believers, then moved on to the next region to preach and plant more churches. So, the tradition of the circuit riding preachers isn't alien to Scripture and therefore not a tradition that shackles church leaders today. Thank God for those he called and sent to the primitive areas of our own nation to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and settle the American west.

The tradition that shackles many church leaders today is one that grew out of the circuit riding days. Today it is more visible because pastors practice a circuit riding mentality in their frequent moves and short tenure. As a result, more than a few congregations overlay their mission with a "the pastor comes and goes, but we're here through it all" administrative sub-text. In these churches the pastoral influence is hindered and his leadership is placed on the shelf, an element of his calling and training that is not necessary in that environment. It is a serious tradition of men that has crept into the practice of a good number of moderate sized to small congregations.

Here we are again, talking pastoral turnover. It may be the one trouble spot we can't seem to solve. Our system of governance and the 42,000+ scorecards we use to deal with this anomaly keeps us circling this same mountain over and over again. I almost feel like Moses when the Lord spoke to him about moving beyond Horeb. God said, "You have stayed at this mountain long enough" (Deuteronomy 1:6). They needed to move on , and so do we. Lengthening pastoral service in local churches would be a solution to many of our leadership ills and perhaps the stagnancy that haunts our cultural influence. In this instance, you can hardly blame committed church members for insuring that the mission of their church has traction even as the back door of pastoral ministry spins off it's hinges. Turnover stats are the real problem here.

At the same time, almost every pastor I know or have coached has experienced a call to lead a local church. Their training, most assuredly in our six seminaries and most of the others too, includes leadership development, measuring their leadership style, assessing their personality types or personal strengths, and other systems designed to inventory their leadership ability. Just the same, many of them are gifted spiritual leaders who can provide strong, effective leadership to the local church. Often the testing ground for these gifts, strengths, skills, and abilities is a moderate to small sized church who make his ledership unnecessasry. If they're treated like an circuit riding interim pastor, the leaership function becomes a confusing mess. This is not good.

Congregational polity is an article of faith for me, and the Body of Christ is the only biblical image of the church that effectively unifies and deploys the church in mission. But, leadership is an issue, what Reggie McNeal taught me during my time with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, the most critical issue in church life today. The shepherd model presupposes one who leads, guides the flock, directs their vision and mission. When his leadership isn't required, his training is neglected and ministry hindered. Like Peter, most shepherds are called to lead. He wrote, "...shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3).

How can we unshackle our church leaders and eliminate this harmful tradition of men? Back to Mt. Horeb, please. We must all tackle the pastoral tenue merry-go-round and make every effort to curtail this rapid movement. The means of accomplishing this have slipped through our fingers up to this point. It will not be easy in a non-hierarchical denominational structure like ours. But, with God all things are possible! Right? Here's are some helps---

(1) From top to bottom, at every layer of denominational life, we need to put greater effort into training Pastor Search Committees and pastors who are interviewing churches. Over and over I encounter committees and pastors who are asking all the wrong questions when these strategic meetings occur.

(2) Southern Baptists need to study and train pastors in succession plans and ways to lengthen pastoral tenure.

(3) Pastors and church staffers must learn systematic conflict skills that are Scripturally mandated and based on our systematic theology.

(4) Church governing documents should reflect congregational polity and governance while emphasizing pastoral leadership. Daily I meet churches and leaders who are confused about who is leading the organization.

(5) We must all make pastoral tenure a significant prayer issue and object of deep study.

The writer of Hebrews wrote, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Hebrews 13:17).

The trouble is, many congregations can't discern who the leaders are. There's this destructive attitude, a tradition of men, of "they come and go, but we're here all the time", and that is confusing.

And, there's this thing about double-mindedness...unstable in everything.


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