Prince Raney Rivers: Questions about authority

What is authority in leadership? How do you get it? When do you know you have it?

“And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses” (Josh. 3:7).

Several years ago, as I began a new pastoral position, a wise friend advised me, “Don’t use your authority until you get some.” This has been some of the best counsel I have ever received in ministry. But it keeps me guessing. What is authority in pastoral leadership, particularly for my generation of those under 40? How do you get it? When do you know you have it?

A young couple with two sons lived next door to us. The older son, Joshua, often engaged me in conversation. One day his mom pulled into their driveway as I was working in the yard and Joshua barreled out of the minivan. He ran over to me and announced, “I know what you do, Mr. Rivers!” “Really?” I asked as I braced myself for whatever might come out of the mouth of a four-year old. “You tell the truth about God.”

Apparently when Joshua asked his mom earlier that day about the work of their Catholic priest, she told him the job was to tell the truth about God. Joshua knew I was a pastor and made the connection. I must be about the business of telling the truth about God, too. He spoke well.

Blame it on my mainline protestant heritage, but I am convinced that whatever pastoral authority might be, it is inextricably tied to the pastor’s role as proclaimer of the gospel. Counseling can be delegated. Program development can be effectively executed by a team of committed lay leaders. But every Sunday morning, someone sits in the pews wondering if there is a word from the Lord. The preacher has to approach the ministry of proclamation with a sense of the transcendence of God and the afterglow of personal intimacy with God.

I love the description of one passionate preacher about his approach: “I just set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.”

Beyond the pulpit, I have found that there is no substitute for taking time to build relationships. There is often so much work to do that relationships can become an afterthought. When I have let that happen, I quickly discovered that I was leading, but no one was following.

In one congregation I served, I was determined to make relationships my first order of business. My first "program" was called 40 Days of Prayer with the Pastor. I posted a calendar my first month at the church and asked members to choose a date when they would like to arrange for an informal meeting with me. I gave them the option of choosing their home or the church. My wife joined me when she could.

The response was overwhelming. People could not believe someone would invest so much time (and believe me, 40 days was not enough!) in getting to know the congregation. The format was simple. We shared our stories and our dreams. Some even shared their hurts. We created a bond of trust. This bond made it possible to provide leadership in ways I had not anticipated. I have had many failures in ministry. This was not one of them.

A critical task of leadership is to discover the essential work without which no other work can be done and do it to the glory of God. Pastors are not primarily counselors or program coordinators. They are theological “sense makers” for the local church. Institutional leaders are not simply problem solvers. They are sent to call organizations to a vision beyond themselves in service to the church. In doing so, we may find that those we are called to lead will gladly come along for the journey.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.