Love in Action – Leading Your People Through 2021

In the aftermath of a tumultuous and divisive year, many pastors are feeling the strain. According to a recent survey from Barna Research, pastors are increasingly feeling pressure from their congregations to speak out about controversial and headline-grabbing topics. Burnout among church leaders and staff turnover rates remain high. Additionally, one in three practicing Christians stopped attending church during the pandemic.

The challenges of our broken world often appear insurmountable, and for those called to shepherd a congregation through these strange days, it doesn’t take much to feel hopeless and alone. For a pastor who feels at the end of their rope, where can they turn to rejuvenate their spirits and seek wise counsel?

In the twelfth chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul lays out one of the most eloquent and powerful odes to servant leadership ever written. In true Pauline fashion, the apostle has a way of cutting to the heart of the matter with incisive observation and blunt instruction.

Perhaps more than ever, Paul’s words in Romans 12 can serve as a guiding light for pastors looking for hope and inspiration for how best to serve their congregation with love and conviction.

All Roads Lead to Rome

Many New Testament scholars believe Paul wrote the book of Romans in the early spring of 57 AD during his third missionary journey. The apostle penned the letter to a small conclave of believers living in – what was at the time – the most important city in the Western civilization. Led by Emperor Nero, the Roman Empire was just beginning to notice a burgeoning splinter sect of Judaism who were called “Christians” by some.

The book of Romans is Paul’s longest correspondence we have in the New Testament, and it runs the gambit between dense theological ruminations and straightforward personal advice. Based on clues in chapter 16, the letter was probably meant to be distributed between five small house churches in the city. These Christians represented a fraction of a minority of the Roman populace.

In the twelfth chapter of Romans, we find specific instructions for how the Church should live in community with one another amid a pagan culture. At the time, the ethos of Roman culture could be summed up in one word: Dominance. There was no greater virtue for the Roman people than exercising one’s strength on the battlefield, in the halls of government, and one’s household.

In most modern Bibles, this twelfth chapter of Romans is under the header “A Living Sacrifice,” and that should clue us in that Paul is about to write something that runs counter to the dominant cultural narrative.

The Burden of Leadership

As we mentioned in the introduction, 2020 was a challenging year for pastors and ministry leaders. Not only did they have to shepherd their flock through a pandemic and a divisive election season, but they were also expected to have all the right responses to the headlines dominating the nightly news cycle.

It was, to put it simply, mentally and physically exhausting.

Pastoral leadership in Rome during the first century was also an incredibly arduous and stressful undertaking. Just saying “Jesus is Lord” aloud (as opposed to “Caesar is Lord”) could probably get you arrested or killed if the wrong people heard it. And since Christianity primarily spread among networks of widows and orphans in the first century, meeting the pressing day-to-day needs of your congregation would probably take precedence over crafting the perfect Sunday sermon.

While our modern society isn’t a direct parallel of Roman culture, it wouldn’t be too hard to claim that in regards to leadership, we’re still an “If you want it done right, do it yourself” culture – and that sentiment often extends to church leadership and ministry.

However, Paul offers a direct challenge to that secular message in the twelfth chapter of Romans. As Eugene Peterson beautifully rephrases it in The Message, “In this way, we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people.”

You were never meant to do this on your own. The body of Christ – or, more contextually, your congregation – is uniquely suited to ease the burden of leadership. Suppose this is in direct opposition to your leadership style, and you’re experiencing the early warning signs of burnout. In that case, it may be time to mobilize your congregation to become more active participants in their local body of Christ.

God calls us to be humble leaders, and at times that may mean letting your congregation know that you don’t have all the solutions for every Breaking News alert. And that’s okay; you’re a pastor – not a political scientist or public policy expert.

Regardless, you can take comfort in Paul’s gentle admonishment in Romans 12:3 or, as Eugene Peterson rephrases it, “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.”

Loving (and Serving) Your Congregation Well

In Romans 12, Paul uses the Greek word agape, which is often translated simply as “love.” However, agape is a different type of love than what traditionally comes to mind. Agape, for lack of a better definition, is a “giving love.”

Agape is the love of servant leadership.

The back half of Romans 12 contains Paul’s famous “Love in Action” essay. In it, the apostle breaks down the fundamentals of how Jesus’s love for us should guide our relationship with those entrusted in our care.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Paul writes. “Mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

If those aren’t words for 2021, I don’t know what is.

The calling of pastoral leadership was never meant to be an easy road. In fact, it’s portrayed in Scripture as one of the most challenging paths for a follower of Christ. But we know from history that those five little house churches that Paul wrote to in 57 AD eventually grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire. And they were led by men and women for which servant leadership was a way of life.

“Be devoted to one another in love,” Paul writes. “Honor one another above yourselves…Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

We know not what troubles and controversies the next year will bring. But Paul’s words in the twelfth chapter of Romans remind us that a humble heart and “giving love” are all God needs to change the course of history.

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