Ministry has its leadership storms, but tailspins can be avoided

The power to stay on course and in flight comes with the application of 
Bible knowledge to mind, heart and life.

By Ronald E. Keener

Daniel Henderson stepped into three megachurch settings as the new senior pastor at high-risk moments — two of them following moral failures of their previous pastors. “I guess you could say that on two occasions [of moral failures] I was left holding the ‘black box’ after a leadership crash,” he says in a new book that uses examples from flight training and piloting an airplane.

In Defying Gravity: How to Survive the Storms of Pastoral Ministry (Moody Publishers, 2010), Henderson writes about leadership storms and nine tips for overcoming them. Today he is president of Strategic Renewal, a renewal ministry, teaches part-time at Liberty University, and is on the pastoral staff of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA.

From February 2004 to June 2007, Henderson was senior pastor at Grace Church, Eden Prairie, MN, before starting Strategic Renewal, a missionary endeavor. He responded to questions from Church Executive:

You speak of being “the next guy in” following a pastor’s moral failure. Can you describe the circumstances under which those took place?

My first “challenging” assignment came when I was only 30. God used the previous pastor to lead the church from 60 to 6,000 in attendance during his 28-year tenure. In 1989, he admitted to an 11-month affair, concealed for eight years. The congregation was shocked and suffered significant loss in the ensuing months, in attendance and income. The church was also embroiled in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over a church discipline case. They did not secure an interim pastor during the transition. I arrived as the next senior pastor exactly a year after his resignation.

The second situation was equally challenging. This large, notable upper-Midwest congregation relocated to a new campus in 2002. On their 62 acres they built a 4,500-seat worship center and multi-faceted facility. Unfortunately, the economy affected their fund-raising efforts and they were left with an 18 million-dollar mortgage and 10 million-dollar shortfall in their cash campaign. Then, only a few weeks after moving into the new facility, their gifted pastor of 15 years confessed to an extramarital affair.

What has qualified you to be the guy who cleans up such messes — more than once?

We know that God calls the qualified and also qualifies the called. It is hard to know what qualifies someone to take on this kind of challenge. It takes a large amount of grace.  As one man said, it requires thick skin and a tender heart. I do know that my emphasis on prayer was vital — as passionate, pervasive prayer tends to facilitate healing, cultivate unity and restore trust.  My personality is quite entrepreneurial so the Lord knew that I was wired to embrace challenge and risk.

Why are pastors and other ministry leaders facing these temptations today? Is it more prevalent than ever?

We don’t really know that a higher percentage of pastors are leaving ministry than was the case 100 years ago — but all indicators would seem that the prevalence is too high. Of course, we live in a culture of unprecedented sexual temptation with the onslaught and availability of pornography. This allures and ensnares many spiritual leaders. Our consumer culture has produced a generation of typically ungrateful and non-committal church attendees.

I believe the comparison factor contributes to the discouragement of many pastors. My friend, Leith Anderson [of Wooddale Church], observed that 100 years ago, the only way to compare your pastor with another pastor was to go on vacation. Today, every pastor is compared to a composite of “the best of the best.” They feel this pressure to perform, and it can be very defeating. Pastors today are expected to be as deep as John MacArthur, as eloquent as Chuck Swindoll, as relevant as Andy Stanley, as creative as Ed Young Jr. and have the smile of Joel Osteen.

The media and entertainment-oriented culture has created some dynamics that have changed the expectations and commitment level of many Americans. Ultimately, this takes a toll on church life — and church leaders.

Beyond all of this, pastors are a special target of the enemy’s devices to steal, kill and destroy. Just as in bowling where it is nearly impossible to get a strike if you do not hit the head pin, the Devil seeks to land strategic strikes on the church, by attacking and defeating pastors.

What can a congregation do to lessen the pressures and temptations of pastoral work?

I would simply suggest a few things:

Pray rather than criticize. When you do have a constructive criticism, offer a positive solution and offer to be a part of that solution through your own service and prayers. I’ve always appreciated the adage, “Those who are pulling on the oars seldom have time to rock the boat.”

Don’t compare. Comparison is an ugly game that no one ever wins. If your compare your pastors favorable, it can result in pride. If you compare unfavorable, it can mean ingratitude and a critical spirit. Accept pastors as gifts from God (as God describes them in Ephesians 4:7-12). Cherish them, accept them and pray for them earnestly.

Refresh them. In Romans 15:32, Paul expressed his need and hope to be refreshed by the church in Rome. Later, in his final epistle, he tells of how a man named Onesiphorus pursued Paul and often “refreshed” him while in prison (2 Timothy 1:16-18). Leaders need “refreshers.” I pray for movements in congregations where individuals feel led to offer practical encouragement via opportunities for rest and spiritual rejuvenation for their leaders. This is a powerful and needful investment.

Your book uses aviation metaphors to describe these threats to ministry. How do you relate the “ground proximity warning system” (GPWS) to men and women in ministry?

The GWPS is a piece of equipment that warns pilots when they get too close to the ground or some other object.  Our conscience is our internal GWPS, warning us of dangerous territory in our lifestyle and leadership. The truth of the Word and the Holy Spirit work in harmony with our conscience to keep us from disaster. Of course, the accountability we have with authentic friends and co-leaders often serves as one of the key triggers for conscientious evaluation of our journey.

Are there parallels between successful flying and successful ministry/leadership?

The primary parallel I draw in the book is the fundamental need to reject self-trust and keep our focus on the objective indicators of our situation. When pilots encounter storms or lose visibility — they know they cannot trust their own senses or instincts. Regardless of education, skill or intelligence — they must trust the objective flight instruments. Otherwise, they lose their bearing and crash, along with their passengers.

Leaders who are caught up in the subjectivity of their present storm or emotional responses lose their bearings. Like pilots, they must trust objective instruments. The book is all about nine suggested gauges on the leadership instrument panel that are essential to keep us from losing altitude and risking a leadership crash. Much is at stake because there are no “solo flights” in church leadership.

You speak of an “unbalanced ministry” that becomes the “battleground.” What do you mean by this?

Pastor Jim Shaddix, who leads Riverside Baptist Church in Denver, shared this idea in an interview we conducted for the book. He spoke of an imbalance of emphasizing some other area of ministry (in his case, expository preaching) to the neglect of earnest prayer. This is a battleground because a prayerless ministry is a powerless ministry, where we can be going through the motions without the blessing or supernatural enabling of God. It is usually not a battleground of blatant sin, but long-term neglect that leaves us empty and ineffective.

What is Strategic Renewal doing to help pastors in this “battleground”?

For one, I am traveling 35-40 times a year to churches and pastors’ conferences, helping leaders gain a fresh understanding of the priority of prayer in their lives and ministries, and equipping them to develop a dynamic culture of prayer in their churches.

Jim Cymbala [of the Brooklyn Tabernacle] and I are also partnering together in a series of one-day events for pastors across the country, just to encourage them, prayer together and reinforce our need for a dependency on God in our lives.

We are also launching a national pastors’ fellowship that targets senior pastors with a clarion call to the Acts 6:4 paradigm of leadership (“prayer and the ministry of the word”). [See sidebar.] We want to call, coalesce and connect pastors for regular encouragement and equipping in the arena of life-transforming prayer that makes such a powerful difference for our spiritual passion, power and perseverance in ministry.

The Daniel Henderson I first knew was a prayer warrior of the first order. Is prayer still one of your focal points in ministry?

As you can tell, this is indeed a primary focus — not because I am such a great “prayer warrior” but because the New Testament makes it so clear that this is Christ’s desire for his followers, his church and his leaders. For me it is a basic issue of obedience and faith. Prayer is not just a utilitarian mechanism whereby we get the things we need from God. It is a transformational intimacy that makes us more like Christ and brings supernatural empowerment to the church. It is a key for “defying gravity” in our leadership assignments.

What do you mean when you write “my journey in prayer has certainly been a painful discovery of higher and higher motives.”

We can do the right things for the wrong reasons. We know this is true of prayer, even as we observe Jesus’ rebut of the prayerful but insincere Pharisees in Matthew 6: 6. I have learned that my motives for prayer can often be skewed with things like guilt, approval by men, church growth, etc.

God has taught me over the years that the only enduring motive for prayer is that God is worthy to be sought. This motive is not dependent on immediate circumstances or superficial results. He is worthy of our prayers. This is a worship-based model, rather than a request-based model and a primary message of our ministry and my books.

You’ve written in your website that “it’s estimated that in the past 15 years more than $500 billion has been spent on church growth efforts in the U.S. — with no appreciable impact.” Yet new churches are being planted and megachurches continue to grow. Do you agree, and on what do you base your claims?

This was documented by the Barna Research Group (The State of the Church 2002). Yes, new churches are reaching new people in many cases. Megachurches are growing — but often this represents a “recycling of the saints” as people move from smaller churches to bigger ones to enjoy the full-service capability of the megachurch systems. However, the “re-birth” rate is falling far behind the “birth-rate.”


6:4 Fellowship: Inviting Pastors to new resolve and leadership

The 6:4 Fellowship is fresh movement of the Spirit, designed to invite pastors to new resolve and leadership in “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). According to Jim Cymbala, Pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle, this idea represents the “single greatest need” in the American church today.

According to Focus on the Family, 1,500 U.S. pastors are leaving pastoral ministry every month due to church conflict, moral failure, marital stress, family issues or personal problems. In the last 15 years, we have spent $500 billion on church growth efforts with no appreciable impact.  Both in the personal experience of pastors and in church ministry, there is a deep and evident need for a new paradigm of leadership and a fresh experience of Christ’s supernatural power.

At the present time, virtually all of the current and popular pastoral associations in the United States are: (1) Denominational — Functioning exclusive of other streams of evangelical Christians and often burdened with bureaucracy;  (2) Church Model or Personality Oriented — Focused on the philosophy or methodology of one pastor or church strategy; or (3) Pragmatic — Promoting specific methodologies for church growth or leadership strategies.

The name, The 6:4 Fellowship, is simple and biblical — taken from the two vital priorities of Acts 6:4 (prayer and the ministry of the word). These priorities defined New Testament leadership and gave early church leaders the courage to say “no” to the distractions of lesser demands in order to focus on the supernatural heart of church leadership.

This fellowship will not be oriented around a single ministry or personality. It will be cross-denominational  and led by a team of senior pastors who exemplify the values of Acts 6:4. This fellowship will exist to CALL pastors away from the current distractions of program and personality-driven ministry to the heart of an Acts 6:4 paradigm. It will CONNECT leaders across denominational, methodological and age differences — in cities, regions and across the North American continent in prayer, encouragement and the sharing of vital resources. It will COALESCE a movement in which pastors unite to advance a “new normal” for local church ministry (which is really the “original normal” of the New Testament) distinguished by supernaturally empowered leadership. It will provide CONTENT, offering solid biblical equipping through a variety of resources that will challenge pastors to a relentless pursuit of the Acts 6:4 priorities (book reviews, interviews, conference calls, webinars, seminars and conferences). Finally, it will be CHURCH-ORIENTED, focusing very specifically on the local church with a primary target of senior pastors who will set the pace for their staff and congregations in prayer and the ministry of the word.

Currently, dozens of pastors are committing to serve in the various leadership roles of The 6:4 Fellowship.

Launch: October 20, 2010, in Houston   |   Website:


One Response to “Ministry has its leadership storms, but tailspins can be avoided”

  1. Patti Stephenson

    I grew up in tis church, since the 70’s. I don’t like the fact, that it has been portrayed like a small church and John grew it. It was a thriving church and gave millions missions in the 70’s. I am very familiar as my whole family of 7 went here. Also, we were stunned of the marital affair. We had grown up with John at another church, during his teens. His mother was lovely and helped my mother as a new believer. John’s dad was an alcoholic, but later I believe came to The Lord. Much due to a woman standing by her man. Always wondered if anyone tried to help John with any of these deep issues. I just think as believers we don’t need to embellish things. Jesus is Lord and He always gets glory!

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