My father was a volunteer fireman when I was a boy, and I have vivid memories of his responding to emergencies when the signal sounded. On several Halloweens I dressed as a fireman. In a somewhat odd scene, our family sometimes shared lunch at the scene of a “practice” fire when the fire department burned down dilapidated buildings.
Following in my dad’s firefighting boots, I became a volunteer firefighter in my late 40s. Little did I realize how much I would learn about church leadership by serving with that team of first responders. Here are just a few of those insights.
1. Firefighters recognize the urgency of their role. The signal sounds, the details are given, and the firefighter springs into action. He must be focused on the task at hand, for a distracted firefighter is a dangerous one. In fact, everything else stops until he returns from dealing with the emergency.
I wish that were the case with all church leaders. We have the life-giving message of Christ to proclaim to the world. The signal has already sounded, and we know the details of the emergency—millions die every year without Christ. What would happen if we really recognize the emergency and prioritize evangelism again?
2. Firefighters understand the value of teamwork. From the truck driver to the pump operator to the Rapid Intervention Team (ready at any moment to rescue a fallen firefighter), every firefighter is critical to the team. More importantly, the other firefighters recognize that fact. They are trained to watch each other’s back, seldom if ever facing a raging fire alone. The best firefighters, in fact, are those that are both trained and trusted like brothers.
Church leaders, on the other hand, tend to be lone rangers. Not only are we not trained to be team players, but we also often don’t even trust one another enough to work together. Sometimes we’re simply too arrogant to ask for help. The danger is clear: church leaders who work alone are the most liable to being shot down in the spiritual battle that ministry entails.
3. Firefighters are well trained. Firefighters are required to complete training that includes book knowledge and practical training. Only when the recruit firefighter gives evidence of his ability is he granted permission to be an official firefighter. Even then, he is expected to complete additional practical education courses in order to stay current in his profession. Veteran firefighters walk alongside new firefighters, teaching them even as they together fight a fire.
I am a seminary professor, but training future ministers requires the support of the local church. We can provide head knowledge, but we can’t offer needed practical training apart from a church where praxis occurs under the care of a veteran pastor. Yet, church leaders are seemingly so busy that they have little time for this task.
4. Firefighters love what they do. Firefighters love the exhilaration of tackling and defeating a fire. Actually, they love the fire station, the fire trucks, the fire equipment, the firefighter uniform, their firefighting squad – almost everything associated with their task. They risk their lives every time the signal sounds, but they do so because they believe in what they are doing. They know that lives depend on them.
Perhaps here is where I am most concerned about young church leaders. Young leaders recognize that the North American church is in need of much reformation. We are reaching few non-believers, and church members sometimes live so much like the world that non-believers see the church as irrelevant. Some young leaders view the church in such a negative light that they find themselves trying to change a church they don’t love. That kind of leadership is quickly draining.
5. Firefighters serve proactively. Their role is to respond to fires, but that’s not the entirety of their role. Firefighters also educate the public on fire prevention. They visit local schools to teach children about fire safety. They enforce local codes to prevent open flames. In general, firefighters are always leading proactively so they won’t have fires to put out.
Good church leaders lead that way, too. They cast vision and build teams. They proactively make disciples. They know that if their leadership is only reactionary, the church will not move forward. In fact, they know that kind of leadership is not leadership at all.