Basic Assumptions

It seems as if this has been the month of déjà vu. In four weeks, I’ve had the same conversation with five different pastors. The names may differ, but the complaint is consistent: I can’t seem to get people to volunteer to serve. That one sentence has unfolded into a litany of complaint:

I have to work almost as hard to recruit someone to serve as I do to lead someone to Christ … Forget trying to get someone to agree to be a leader, I can’t even find someone to cut the Church lawn or sit with the babies in the nursery … It’s becoming almost impossible for me to do what I have to do as a Pastor since everything else undone around here ends up on my desk… It doesn’t take a genius to realize that something has gone wrong.

When we first initiated the Fellowship Centre for Leadership Development seven years ago, my focus was centered on Leadership Development as a way to refine leaders who were rising to the challenge of ministry and eager for training.  It’s such an obvious target, and explains why so much effort is invested in developing training products for emerging leaders. But, hearing the complaints over the years, and especially over the last month, has caused me to expand my thinking. My initial fixation on training leaders was as if I were staring at the end of a conveyor belt and wondering why there was only a trickle being produced without realizing that the belt hadn’t been well connected at the beginning … to begin with.

Over the years, my attention has been shifting towards a view of Leadership Creation as a pre-requisite for Leadership Development. And for that, my attention has shifted from leadership as the expression of a high-performance individual … a leader, to leadership as the manifestation of a community that inspires initiative and discovers leaders who emerge from an active body of followers. It’s a theme that’s led me to view Church at large as the culture where leaders are birthed as well as developed. It’s a journey that has taken me past several critical boundaries, past the definition of Leadership Development to Leadership Creation … and on that journey past the definition of the word Leader to a greater appreciation of the words Servant, Disciple, and follower of Christ.

Along the way, I’ve encountered several noteworthy guideposts. The first was the result of research on Leadership in the New Testament and the Early Church. In a wonderfully comprehensive study on what Leadership meant in the early church by Ken Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians1 a few comments captured my attention:

“All the apostolic churches were developing institutions2 for the most part, the origins of the first churches lie in the synagogues, so common throughout Palestine and the Mediterranean world. The patterns of interaction and forms of leadership in the early churches bear some relation to these Jewish antecedents3 … thus a group of Christians meeting in a home as part of an extended family is our starting point for understanding leaders and leadership in the earliest churches4.

From this picture of the Church as an engaged household, Giles turns the focus of leadership away from roles and titles to something much more organic: In fact, Luke [in Acts] consistently implies that leaders arose to meet specific needs on a quite pragmatic basis. Initially the twelve apostles provide leadership to the whole community, but when a special need arises, discussion and prayer leads to the appointment of seven “almoners” [Acts. 6:1-6] …In Paul’s earliest epistles he addresses certain people whom he recognizes as leaders, but gives them no title [I Thess. 5: 12-13; I Cor. 16L15-18.} At the same time, he insists that when the believers assemble for worship they should all minister to one another: no sub-group or person should take preeminence [I cor. 12:4-7; Rom. 12:3-8.]5In the apostolic age, church life was dynamic and fluid. Leaders emerged to meet needs and as the Holy Spirit initiated6. …

With the passage of time the church grew as an institution and more structured forms of social interactions developed, resulting in leadership defined by office and title. This may explain the shift of focus from leader creation to leadership development.

But, I can’t help but sense in the earliest forms of the Church there existed a deeper sense that expectation to serve was spread out over an entire congregation. This expectation seems to be based on an assumption that a spirit of service was logically related to a commitment of discipleship and an obvious consequence of what it meant to be a follower of Christ. If my suspicions are correct, this assumption did not think so much of “leadership” as it did of obedience and availability and service that might end up leading others.

Musing on this history, I encountered a second guidepost in an interview recorded in Leadership Journal with Terry Fullem, the pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Darien, Connecticut.7 As one of the congregations at the center of renewal in the Anglican fellowship, Terry described a profound moment that redefined the essence of ministry.

In simple terms, he described the consequences of instituting two basic assumptions of the congregation. Both assumptions were based on a  person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. The church will be strong only to the degree that people are committed to Christ. So, in pursuing this goal, we make an interesting assumption: we assume a person does not have a relationship with Jesus Christ unless he is prepared to say he does. The simple fact of being in church in not enough. We don’t argue with people; don’t sit in judgment on their salvation; but neither do we take for granted that they have committed their lives to Christ unless they say so. Thus, those who haven’t professed faith in Christ are graciously and generously treated as seekers.

The second assumption was the one that captured my imagination: In the case of believers – and this will seem like the exact opposite – we assume commitment rather than non-commitment!

I love that simple phrase. It has such a New Testament sound to it: we assume commitment rather than non-commitment. What a contrast to the operating principle at work in our churches where everything, especially those things related to leadership requires a high level of recruitment, and produces a low level of response.

Terry Fullem continued with an illustration of this principled assumption: We have a number of clergy and lay leadership conferences here every year drawing people from all over the world. And we house them in the homes of the parish. For many years, I used to go to the congregation and say, “A conference is coming up, and we need 200 beds; please sign up.” We always got what we needed, but it was a hassle.

Then one day, I realized all that wasn’t necessary. I went before the congregation one Sunday and said, “You have heard me ask for beds for the last time. From now on, we will assume that if you have an extra bed in your house, of course you would let someone use it (we assume commitment rather than non-commitment) Because everything you have belongs to the Lord and you’ve consecrated your life and home to his service, naturally you would make it available to his service losartan online. So, we have made up a bed bank for the parish, and we’ll assume yours are available. IF, for some reason, you cannot host a guest, please let us know – otherwise we will assume commitment rather than noncommitment!

What a refreshing thought. Recently, I’ve had a chance to observe a church that operates under the same principle. Lists are posted with names attached for services to be performed. There’s no obvious sense of coercion or pleading, guilt-ridden appeals. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As lists are posted ,gracious announcements are made that if people are unable to fulfill their assignment, they are welcomed to either make arrangements for a substitute – or request help in finding a replacement. No harm, no foul. And, people take it seriously as a matter of honor. They don’t have to search for a way to “make a difference” with their lives.

Terry Fullem continued his example making the point that such an assumption, when made with sincerity and conviction, becomes the prevailing attitude in a congregation. It produces and propels people who follow God’s call in humble obedience. He concluded with a word of conviction: So many clergy pitch the level of their ministry to the least committed members of the congregation, being careful not to offend them. That’s not what we’re called to do (boldface – mine)

I’ve had a chance to observe several congregations who operate according to that assumption. It’s no surprise that they have little problem identifying and engaging leaders.

As I reflect on the conversations of the past month, I wonder if we haven’t made things harder than God intended them to be. I wonder if we, as leaders, may have become our own worst enemies based on false assumptions. And, I wonder what might happen if we changed the rules and shifted our focus.

I shared these thoughts with one of the pastors. His response was revealing. When people become members at my church, I ask them to state their commitment of time, treasure, and talent to the cause of Christ and the fellowship of our church. I suppose it’s time for us to mean what we say … As a result, he took a risk and with the support of his board did the same thing as Terry Fullem. He posted a few lists, told the congregation that he was going to honor their relationship with Christ by assuming commitment rather than noncommitment. To his surprise, the response was “thanks, we can do this…”

I’m eager to find out what more that will mean … not just for that church, but for so many more.


  • 1Giles, Ken. Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians, Victoria, Australia, Collins-Dove Publishing, 1989
  • 2Ibid., p. 10
  • 3Ibid., p. 13
  • 4Ibid., p. 14
  • 5Ibid., p. 8
  • 6Ibid., p. 8
  • 7The View From Above, Leadership Journal.