Everything Rises or Falls with Leadership

Jim Cowart

Jim Cowart

By Jim Cowart –
If we look at all the problems in government, business, our denomination, and our local churches most us of would probably say the answer is better leadership. Sounds simple right? But simple does not mean easy. Nearly everyone agrees that leadership is a key component in change. But what does that look like? What kinds of leaders do we need? And where do we find them?

Well, here’s the good and bad news. The bad news is there are no super leaders running to the rescue. We’re it. We are the leaders God has entrusted with the care of his church. It’s just us. Jesus has given us, as broken as we are, the Great Commission. But even in our brokenness there is good news, because God specializes in using ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

“Each time he said, ‘My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me,” the Apostle Paul wrote. “Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NLT).

Turn the Church
If you are a leader in your church, one of the most important things you can do is to help your congregation develop a biblical image of the purpose of the church. For instance, think of boats. There are all kinds of boats: rowboats, ski boats, fishing boats, speedboats. Every boat is built for some purpose. You could ski behind a rowboat, but not easily. You could row a speedboat, but why would you do that? Every boat works best when it’s used for the purpose for which it was designed.

Original artwork by Scott Erickson (www.scottericksonart.com).

Original artwork by Scott Erickson (www.scottericksonart.com).

Now imagine that your church is a boat. What kind of boat is it? What’s the first image that comes to mind? You might think of several biblical images, such as a fishing boat for fishers of men, a lifeguard boat to save people, or a sailboat blown by the Spirit. Those are pretty good images for the church. But here’s one that is not so healthy: a cruise ship.

Now I don’t have anything against cruise ships. They’re great! I love them! Have you ever been on a cruise? From the moment you step on board, it’s all about you! You are a valued customer and the crew is there to make your trip smooth and enjoyable. They work hard to provide quality service and entertainment for you. There is a buffet at all hours of the day. Everyone is at your beck and call. (I don’t even really know what beck and call means, but it’s awesome!) There’s food galore, and if you don’t like something, they’ll say, “Hey, just send it back; we want you to be happy.” They clean your room while you’re at the pool and fold your towel into a cool little swan or monkey. There is room service and even buffets at midnight!

Cruises are great because it’s all about us. When we step on board, it’s like we own the place. On a cruise, everything is designed to please the guest and offer the most comfortable and enjoyable experience possible. Why? Because they are nice people? Well, they may be nice, but their primary motivation is to get you to come back and spend more money with their cruise line. A cruise is all about customer enjoyment.

A church was never meant to be a cruise ship. It’s not a biblical image.
You can operate as a cruise ship, and many churches have slipped into that, but it’s not why Jesus created the church. Many churches try hard to please their members with quality music and programs for the whole family. Pastors and staff act as a crew, offering a smooth and enjoyable experience for the members. There’s fun, food and fellowship, and the entire experience is about taking care of members and their families. Like the goal of a cruise ship, the goal for many churches is to keep the consumer happy.

So what’s wrong with that? A lot, actually.

It’s not your boat. It’s not your church. It belongs to Jesus, and he designed it for something else entirely: a rescue mission. It’s about him, not you and me. So, here’s a more biblical boat image.

Your church should be a battleship.
That’s right: An all-hands-on-deck, batten-down-the-hatches, full-speed-ahead, lean, mean, fighting machine. This ship, the church, was built for a specific mission. It’s called the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). These are our orders. They come straight from the Commander-in-Chief, Jesus.

So, think about your church and the boat analogy.

What kind of boat is your church? Are you cruising or rescuing? Has the crew been assigned to a station or given a lounge chair with an umbrella? If your church has turned into a cruise ship, then you have an identity crisis. You are using what Christ intended to be a battleship for a pleasure ride. When you have an identity crisis, you are apt to do all kinds of crazy things in search of who you are.

The church is God’s battleship, sent into hostile territory on a rescue mission. Instead of Love Boat, think Navy Seals. Instead of Julie McCoy, think General Patton. (If you’re under 35, you may want to Google those names.)

Some churches will be afraid to adjust their ship mentality. They’ll say, “What if people get mad and leave?” Some will. Not everyone is comfortable with a mission. There will be those who prefer for you to maintain the cruise ship. But Christ did not leave us the option to choose the kind of ship his church will be. His mission is our mission — to reach people with his love. That requires all hands on deck.

Don’t be afraid to raise the bar in your church. Don’t be afraid to ask for a big commitment. Don’t be afraid to become a battleship. I used to think people would run from a battleship church, but to my surprise, they run to it. People want their lives to count. They are attracted to a church with a clear vision where they can make a difference. Would you rather be a Navy Seal going out on a mission or a sunburned tourist ordering room service every day? It may be easier to sit around all the time, but it doesn’t offer meaning or fulfillment. You were made to be a warrior, not a tourist. Let that sink in. Don’t contribute to a cruise ship mentality. If you do, you will have some explaining to do to our Commanding Officer one day.

Attitude and Action
Scientists debate which comes first and which is most influential, thinking or acting. But for the church, both are needed! Sometimes we need to change our thinking. Sometimes we need to change the way we do things. The two are related. Remember, your current results are because of what you’re doing. We’re interested in improving the results.

There is an old story about a farmer who lost his mule. He looked for days but couldn’t find him. One day he discovered an old well in a corner of his pasture had caved in. Sure enough, there was his missing mule, 20 feet down. The farmer could tell that the mule had given up on life. His head hung low in despair. Several neighbors came over to take a look and offer advice. (It’s not every day you see a mule down a well.) But no one could figure a way to get the old mule out.

Finally, someone said, “Well, we can’t get him out. Might as well fill in the hole.” The farmer hated to do it, but couldn’t think of a better option. The men grabbed shovels and started tossing down loads of dirt. The poor mule just stood there as dirt piled up on his back and began to fill up around his hoofs. This seemed to spark something in the old mule. He shook the dirt off his back, gave a big “hee haw,” and stepped on the loose dirt. After a while someone noticed the mule kept repeating the process. Shake it off and step up. Shake it off and step up. And that’s what the old mule did, all the way to the top of the well.

Whether you are a staff member, a church board member, or a pastor, don’t get overwhelmed. Just pick one or two ideas and try them. You do not have to change everything at once. Get the momentum moving in the right direction. Pick the easiest step and take it. Then take another and build on your success.

Your mind set is very important. Your attitude makes all the difference. Will you just stand there while others shovel dirt, letting your church get the same results it has always gotten, or will you step up and become the church God wants you to be? Attitudes are hard to measure and describe, but they can make the difference between life and death. Are you ready to shake it off and step up?

There is a spiritual war going on. There are spiritual POWs being held captive. Jesus says, “Go get them!” You are never going to be completely happy until you are doing what you were designed to do. You were made to be a warrior, not a tourist. Sure, take a vacation. Go on a cruise. Enjoy room service, midnight buffets, and towel art. We need times of rest and relaxation, but we need lives of purpose and significance even more! Help your church be a battleship.

Jim Cowart is the founding pastor of Harvest Church, a United Methodist congregation near Macon, Georgia. Harvest launched in 2001, and has an average attendance of more than 2,500 each weekend. The church has grown primarily through Professions of Faith. This article contains selections from Jim and Jennifer Cowart’s new book, Start This, Stop That (Abingdon).


  1. Dale Bigham says

    I would like your thoughts on the title “Everything rises or falls on leadership ” is that really a Biblical truth ….demanding that every failure is the result of leaderships poor leading ???? If that is the case then what would be the failure of the Lord when Adam and Eve fell ?

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