The Post Covid Church. Part III – The crisis in church leadership

In a post Covid environment, church models will rely less and less on property and resourcing and become more defined by mission and leadership. Denominationalism will continue to fragment and lose its grip over church formation due to the dynamics of property divestment, and the emerging hybrid-networked church.  

The  first challenge of church denominational leadership for the Post Covid church is inherent in the seeds of the Protestant Church sola scripture (by scripture alone), which is dependant on church authority to safeguard creedal dogma. 

It is the reason why Protestant denominations have continued to fragment over the last 400 years.  We keep splitting doctrinal hairs over the truth of Scripture. And as the Bible has become more inerrant, doctrine has become more fallible. With each new theological twist we constitute a new branch of the church.

The second challenge is economic.  Market forces have driven doctrinal fragmentation deeper due to competition between churches and disputes over church governance and leadership.

State control over church faith conceded to individual choice of religion as the Protestant churches flourished and fragmented in the colonies over the last three centuries.  Churches became independent market agents competing in a market for doctrinal purity and economic viability.  

The final bastion of denominationalism is authoritative leadership.  But this too is fragmenting as church leadership devolves across the trans denominational movements, from the pastor-teacher of doctrinal purity to the evangelist-apostle of church mission.  

Church denominational authority has already morphed with consumer religion discounting and cherry picking creeds, traditions and doctrines.  Denominational control persists primarily in ordination of religious ministers (clergy) and trusteeship of property and resources.  However, this is likely to wane.  

Denominationalism is fragmenting along economic-socio fault lines that have transcended creedal statements and dogmatic divides. 

The first seismic quake was the post denominationalism regrouping of meta-narratives – evangelistic, charismatic, and liberal-progressive. Under this first wave, denominations remained more or less intact. 

Churches within denominations coalesced around these trans denominational banners, in large part without breaking ranks from the mothership church.  So we witnessed the emergence of charismatic Catholics, Pente-Baptists, and low church Anglican evangelicals. 

Will there be a second shake out moving the church beyond post denominationalism? Ex-evangelicals and the indiscretions of fallen church leaders of franchise brand churches are symptomatic of deeper seismic rumblings.

All of this presents a crisis for doctrinal authority.  Protestantism was necessarily defined by its dogma based on sola scripture in a way that inhibited it evolving into a broad church like it’s mother Catholic Church. 

Protestant church authority shifted from the Pope and tradition of the Roman Catholic Church which held diversity in unity, and moved to the dogma of doctrine based on Scripture which split unity into warring factions.  The seeds of Protestant fragmentation were built into its very DNA simply on the basis that Scripture could always be interpreted and debated outside church authority.

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The onus of doctrinal purity lay heavier on Protestant denominationalism than the Catholic Church up until the Protestant Reformation which had mainly been concerned with heretics within its own ranks.  The very nature of denominationalism is a process of definition and differentiation against other churches. 

Before the Reformation the church was defined against the world.  After the Reformation it was more a matter of defining a church against other church creeds.

Protestantism bred sectarianism. And this put the onus of authority on church doctrine and leadership.  The custodians of a denomination’s authority were the theological seminaries of each state church.  Later the bible college movement defined the fundamentalists that morphed into the evangelicals.  The gate keepers of post denominationalism were now the ministers and pastors trained by the dissenting bible colleges.

A good litmus test for gauging the future viability of denominational organisation is the case for theological education.  Denominational theological colleges have experienced an increasing decline in students training for ordination and ministry in the second half of the twentieth century.1 This decline has been partially offset by an increase in lay students.  

But at the same time there has also been an increase in competing independent bible colleges and in-house church certificates for biblical studies and church ministry.  This demonstrates a shift of church support from denominational colleges – which have traditionally focused on ordinand training – to colleges and churches competing for students and ordained clergy as ‘guns for hire’ moving between denominations.  

Despite this shift, churches generally still struggle to find experienced capable clergy.  I believe this drop in demand for formal theological education will shift church leadership from ordained denominational clergical hegemonies to grass roots activism and community collaboration and partnerships.2

Top down leadership will cede to a more grass roots organic leadership grounded in networked nodes and cooperative alliances. Tentmaker ministries, missional entrepeneurs and incarnational servanthood expressing the presthood of all believers will herald the coming post Covid winds of the Spirit.

As this rerouting of leadership and authority continues, the question will not be what denominational executive body leads our churches but how will leadership be determined and on what authority?  The leadership question will refocus on how the church organises itself which is bound up with the ecclesiology and forms of denominations and churches.  

Mark Lau Branson and Alan Roxburgh’s new book offers both a critique of church leadership and a possible way forward.  In Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions: Confronting Modernity’s Wager (2021) they argue that church leadership has bought into ‘modernity’s wager’ of a life lived without God.  

Church leadership is professionalised and in the process looses touch with the community it is called to.  The ‘clergy industry’ has emerged from denominational networks to minister to the needs of congregations instead of forming the church in the community.

We have become dependent instead on spiritual technologies that covertly seek to manipulate God through formulas.  The consumerism of mission and professionalisation of ministry have become the drivers of success measured by the KPIs of church attendance

At the micro level, church will continue to reinvent itself in the first two trends of property divestment and hybrid networking.  But the macro level trends of denominational break down and challenge to authoritative leadership could well spell the end of church denominations as we known them.  

We have become dependent instead on spiritual technologies that covertly seek to manipulate God through formulas.  The consumerism of mission and professionalisation of ministry have become the drivers of success measured by the KPIs of church attendance. 

The shift in church mission is independent but linked to authority.  I believe mission will shift if for no other reason due to an accelerated fragmentation of denominational interests.  Hopefully this will open the way for a more calibrated gospel of redemption that not only ‘saves souls’ but challenges and redeems our power structures and political systems.  

Power is not restricted to structures and systems in buildings and institutions as we once knew. And influence is no longer the domain of church boards and religious minsters as imagined. We are now woke in a brave new world of techno psycho-politics of subjugation.

Michel Foucault theorised that power had migrated from the sovereign might of the sword to the biopolitics of industrialised institutions. Medieval punishment and penance advanced with industrialisation to state panopticons and church confessional booths where the subject was monitored and controlled by the unseen observer of prison guard and parish priest.

Power continued to evolve as advanced by Foucault’s technologies of the self as demonstrated by the Protestant work ethic and the pietism of self restraint. These technologies enable an individual to act upon themself to acheive individual domination. Examples abound today in the cults of self discipline – time management, efficiency hacks, and atomitised habits.

Capitalism has mutated from physical production to digitised information and algorithms.  We now find ourselves in the neoliberal turn from biopolitics and technologies of the self (Foucault) to psycho-politics (Byung-Chul Han).

Byung-Chulhan makes a compelling case for psycho-power as religious devotion that controls our psyches. “Every technology or technique of domination brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate.”

“Smartphones represent digital devotion – indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital, period. As a subjugation-apparatus, the smartphone works like a rosary – which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device too. Both the smartphone and the rosary serve the purpose of self monitoring and control.”

“Power operates more effectively when it delegates surveillance to discrete individuals. Like is the digital Amen. When we click Like, we are bowing down to the order of domination. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – global synagogue (literally, ‘assembly’) of the Digital.”3

Need I add, another sacred cow, this time a techno-psycho cow, to the pantheon of sacred cash cows?

Christian doctrine preached from the pulpit by ordained ministers of religion no longer binds us to our faith as it once did.  We are led by our phone apps, social media ‘likes’ and fake news bites.  We are bound by our echo chambers of choice to political mantras which we confuse with God’s kingdom imperatives. 

Hashtags like #me too, #black lives matter, and #ex-evangelical are replacing our denominational doctrinal distinctives.  

Our theology is increasingly defined by hashtags, soundbites and social media echo chambers. This is the world we live in and the culture we swim in. Our culture is not so much the problem – if we’re doing our job we should be redeeming our culture.

The bigger problem is our conflation of culture with revelation which manufactures idols. We – the church – need to stick to our call which is to be change agents and harbingers of God’s coming kingdom.

It’s not all bad. On my phone I have YouVersion Bible and Lectio 365 apps for my daily devotions with bible readings and devotional guides wherever I am. I go to my church on FaceBook and check out other churches and teaching ministries on You Tube.

My point is that denominational authority and clerical responsibilities are not just being eroded by trans denominational trends. Sheperding the flock is increasingly farmed out, digitally streamed and channeled beyond Sunday pulpits and midweek cell group studies. We are our own pastoral curators creating our spiritual formation from digital bric a brac, shaped by psycho-politics.

The devolving of top down church leadership and athourity has been a slow train coming. Cell groups necessitated by bigger churches and the shift of pastoral care to training the flock to do God’s work has all contributed in like fashion to the displacement of manual clock ins and middle management for office workers.

These are socio-psycho meta trends shaping the shift in authority, power and discipline. Of course we still need leaders. But not heirarchical, authoritative, governing. The new church leadership paradigms will be grass roots, in the community, incarnational, networked.

We are our own pastoral curators creating our spiritual formation from digital bric a brac, shaped by psycho-politics.

Just as the church is not the building, so too, church authority is not exclusive to religious practitioners.  The priesthood lies in all believers.  Our ministers and buildings are important but not essential in being church.  That is, if we really believe in the power of the Spirit and the lordship of Christ.

The leadership challenge for the church is not in a shortage of ministers and a drop in theological college graduates.  Our challenge is bringing about a shift in mission interests that will represent next generational concerns with our planet that are reflective of a Trinitarian gospel of redeeming culture and political power.  

A recent sign of our ecological crisis was signalled at the start of 2020 with the Australian east coast bushfires leading to an increased awareness of climate change. Covid-19 is a second signal with the onset of increasing pandemic outbreaks. (See my blog post The Bug for a poetic ecological rave to wake the soul.)

Nature is in chaos from human mismanagement and corrupt corporate leadership which is toppling economies and displacing workers creating political upheaval and mass refugees.  Our world is calling for a restitutive justice and redistribution of resources to address the escalating humanitarian and economic crisis brought on by this breakdown in nature.  

Many are looking for answers in technology, economics and political reform.  But if that’s where our hope lies, we are reduced to the idols of our times. Scripture and Christ’s mandate tell us that the answer lies in the redemption of all of creation of which the Church has been called to be co-missioner and partner with God.  

The call of the post Covid church is to exercise our Christ given mandate to lead the world and become a vanguard for God’s revolution and redemption in creation. Even when this mandate necessitates a crisis in church leadership, shifting denominational authority to the priesthood of all believers.

  1. “The Future of Theological Education – Fly or Die: The Problem” United Methodist Insight
  2. See “Imagining The Future of Theological Education” for an interview with four theological educators on how the landscape might shift in theological training.” The Christian Century
  3. Byung Chulhan, Psycho-Polictics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power, Verso, 2017, p12

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1 reply

  1. A very insightful article on the devolution of traditional ecclesiological structures. The comment that our technological age has re-shaped social interaction and this culture transferred to church attendence and the ensuing redundancy of physical buildings is a logical outcome. Coupled with a growing apathy towards traditional political leadership and a greater awareness of climate change and economic inequity, grass roots society has looked to solve issues without the agency of government. This cultural trend shifts into the church and permeates the thinking not only of congregations but leadership as well that seeks to empower individuals as they are also influenced by the surrounding culture. However, although scripture does not offer blueprints for church government with an exactitude that satifies all, whatever shape leadership takes, gifted individuals are endowed by God as a gracious bestowal on congregations to continually offer God’s promises of grace and redemption which do remain unchanged but may be communicated in ever changing media and language that evolves with cultural development. It is amongst the noise of a myriad of competing voices and bible colleges, church structures, social technology and a series of denominational beliefs lacking traditional definition that a person or a community are confronted with a complexity that in itself demands greater complexity, dissatisfied with simplicity and wanting to effect here and now beneficial change. This is a welcome challenge to traditionlism to re-shape their thinking and expression and re-evaluate their mission and ecclesiasitcal footprint in their locale.

    Liked by 1 person

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