Acts 29 and re-assessing our culture

By now, news about Acts 29’s latest failure in leadership has spread far and wide. I first saw the news in an article published at Christianity Today. Soon enough, my twitter feed was full of it.

You would have thought, following the high profile fall of Mark Driscoll, that Acts 29 would have been extremely careful in making sure that – if another future leader was going to implode – it, at least, wouldn’t be for precisely the same reason. Appointing one narcissistic bully is unfortunate, but doing it twice is more than a little careless.

It speaks to something rotten in the culture of the organisation that is not limited to a single individual. Not only was their next appointed leader removed for the selfsame reason, but those who appointed him didn’t seem to find anything concerning. Given how fingers were previously burnt on this front, you would think they’d be on red alert for signs of the same. That these things were either ignored or people simply didn’t see them suggests that they actually believe this is ultimately a legitimate form of leadership.

You might consider the view uncharitable but is supported by the fact that five Dallas-based staff members raised concerns including, but apparently not limited to, ‘bullying’, ‘lack of humility’ and ‘creating a culture of fear’ in a 19-page letter. Instead of suspending the leader and launching an investigation, Christianity Today report:

During a meeting with [Acts 29 President] Chandler and two board members to discuss the letter, all five were fired and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their severance packages. They were shocked.

This seems bad enough but is then compounded by the fact that Chandler simply brushed all concerns off as ‘a clash in leadership styles.’ Others simply claimed that people ‘don’t understand’ the leadership style and that under strong leaders ‘feathers get ruffled.’ These kind of comments imply that those involved believe narcissism and bullying are genuine leadership styles that ought to be accommodated. For an organisation that is so painfully brand-conscious, this seems more than an unhappy oversight.

No doubt many will wonder what signs could there possibly have been? How could any of us have known? But the signs were there.

For one, there is the preponderance of people insisting on clinging onto the term ‘planter’. I have mentioned this phenomena here and here. Those posts remain true but I did omit one reason why some cling on to the term planter. It is assumed by some that plants, at least in their early days, may need to run like a benign dictatorship. Many who cling on to the title of ‘planter’ are trying to maintain the mirage that their now fully functioning church, of which they are now really a pastor, must be run like their personal fiefdom ad infinitum. But many – even after they have appointed elders (see here for how that happens) – set things up such that they remain the main man at whose whim and according to whose vision all things must kowtow. Those who want to cling onto the title ‘planter’ whilst running a clearly established church can be drawn to an organisation that encourages that so they can continue the benign dictatorship in perpetuity. Somebody wanting to set their church this way should raise alarm bells.

Second, there is the problem of gatekeeping from those who have never had to undertake the processes they set up for others. I was looking (albeit very briefly) at joining Acts 29. I never applied because I didn’t make it beyond investigating their process for joining. In my view, it is a process so utterly intense and intrusive that I wasn’t prepared subject my family to it. But perhaps most telling is that those who have created the process never had to go through it themselves. It is a classic example of instilling a culture and insisting others dance to a tune that you have set without anybody ‘vetting’ you in quite the same way.

Third, there is the tendency to promote a form of pragmatism. Approaches were largely justified by what works. Why do we church plant? Because it works. Why do we set up churches like this? Because it works. But this pressed into the leadership. Why do we want this person? Because they will get stuff done; they work. Theological reflection becomes secondary to results and character criteria for leadership takes a back seat to skills. Namely, efficiency, vision and getting things done. It can hardly be surprising – if the leaders are appointed on this ground – that the organisational culture may soon follow suit.

But why do all these things persist? Two basic reasons: (1) pride; (2) fear of failure. Why do people cling onto power and ensure that, if they have them, even plural elderships remain unequal in reality? Pride of the one running the show and fear that if they let go everything will fail. Why do we see tight processes and intrusive hoops setup by gatekeepers for others to jump through to which they never subjected themselves? Pride that they didn’t need to do so and fear that, should they dare affirm others, everything might fail. Simply taking the affirmation of another church who have presumably sent the person to work with you would imply that anybody might be able to affirm others and our way might not be the only one and, unless we satisfy ourselves, everything might fall apart. Why do people land so hard on pragmatism? Pride that they have found the solution and fear that if they don’t do what appears to work everything will fail. Both of those things are two sides of the same coin. We can’t be seen to fail because that would be too damaging to our pride.

It seems to me there are three (minimally) important solutions. First, trust the Lord and his processes. We need to be less driven by what works and more driven by what the Lord commands us to do. Second, genuinely support the local church by affirming that the keys of the kingdom and the authority to commission missionaries/planters/pastors lies with them, not external self-appointed gatekeepers. Third, we need to focus far less on entrepreneurialism and skills and start taking character far more seriously. The Lord has a tendency to work through highly unlikely, remarkably unskilled people. But what he wants is people of godly character. Again, the place to assess such suitability is not in the cobbled together processes of parachurch gatekeepers, but in the local church as people live and serve together.

Before we all start patting ourselves on the back for not being like that here, let’s not forget that pride has a sneaky hold on all our hearts. Whilst our pride may not come out in exactly those ways, it will come out somewhere. We need to see these things not as opportunities to congratulate ourselves on remaining unspotted, but as a warning to keep a check on the pride in our own hearts and the equally destructive sins that it inevitable causes to well up in us.