Leading a Healthy Church Culture - Lesson 5

Discussion of the Case Study - The Shadow of the Leader

In this lesson, explore the struggles of Robert Avella, a leader who has lost his focus on the Lord and has turned to fear and control in his leadership. Learn about the historical and universal issues in leadership, such as the desire for a leader and the lack of accountability, as well as the progression from noble intentions to toxic leadership. Examine factors contributing to Robert Avella's situation, such as his insecurity and self-doubt, loss of community and accountability. Lastly, you will analyze the dark side of leadership and discuss a film clip from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," demonstrating the use of power and control in Nurse Ratchet's leadership.


Rick Sessoms
Leading a Healthy Church Culture
Lesson 5
Watching Now
Discussion of the Case Study - The Shadow of the Leader

Lesson: Discussion of the Case Study - The Shadow of the Leader

I. The Struggles of Robert Avella

A. Losing Focus on the Lord

B. Fear and Control in Leadership

C. Combining Spiritual and Positional Leadership

II. Historical and Universal Leadership Issues

A. Desire for a Leader

B. Lack of Accountability in Leadership

C. The Progression from Noble Intentions to Toxic Leadership

III. Factors Contributing to Robert Avella's Situation

A. Insecurity and Self-Doubt

B. Loss of Community and Accountability

C. Fear and Control in Parenting and Leadership

IV. The Dark Side of Leadership

A. Driven People and the Potential for Derailment

B. Similarities between High Impact Leaders and Criminals

C. The Importance of Staying in Community

V. Film Clip: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A. Power and Control in Nurse Ratchet's Leadership

B. The Struggle for Permission to Watch the Baseball World Series


A link to the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" clip that is referenced in this lesson can be found under "Lesson Resources".

  • This lesson covers the importance and characteristics of a healthy church culture, the biblical foundation of church culture, diagnosing the health of a church culture, and cultivating a healthy church culture through prioritizing relationships, creating a safe environment, nurturing spiritual growth, empowering the congregation, and celebrating God's work.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the characteristics, and importance of a healthy church culture, how to diagnose and address unhealthy church culture through biblical leadership and communication, and how to cultivate a healthy church culture.
  • You will gain insight into how to lead a healthy church culture by learning about the importance of healthy leadership, building healthy relationships, establishing healthy structures, and implementing healthy practices.
  • In this lesson, the class discusses a fictional case study called "The Shadow of a Leader," which describes the decline of a Christian leader named Dr. Robert Avella, who became obsessed with power and control over time, causing damage to the ministry and losing trust in his team, as they reflect on the early and later stages of his leadership.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the challenges and pitfalls of leadership, particularly when leaders lose focus on their spiritual values, become driven by fear and control, and lack accountability and community support. By understanding these factors, you can recognize and address toxic leadership in various contexts.
  • By engaging with this lesson, you will gain insight into the complex dynamics of power and control in leadership, the prevalence of misused power within the Christian church, and the critical importance of fostering accountability and community to maintain a healthy balance of power.
  • This lesson explores Jesus' unique leadership style in the context of the foot-washing event in John 13:1-17, highlighting principles such as leading from a secure sense of self, addressing the deepest needs of followers, and paying it forward through service to others.
  • This lesson teaches you about the significance of developing a Christ-centered church culture, including the exploration of culture's components and the positive and negative aspects it can have within a church setting. You will also learn about the role of leadership in building a healthy church culture, adapting to change, and overcoming challenges.
  • This lesson provides insight into church culture by examining its components, revealing how assumptions and values impact products and practices, and discussing the importance of addressing these core beliefs and assumptions for lasting change.
  • This lesson examines assumptions and worldviews in church leadership by comparing different mental constructs and their influence on leadership values and roles, while also exploring the machine metaphor's impact on organizational life and the new generation's response to this worldview.
  • In this lesson, you learn the importance of cultivating and nourishing people in a garden model of leadership, comparing it to the machine model, and discovering how various biblical metaphors shape the understanding of the church. Emphasizing core beliefs and values, you realize effective leadership focuses on following Christ and maintaining the right attitudes.
  • You will gain insights into the importance of leadership in creating a healthy church culture, including the role of leadership in setting the tone and creating an environment that fosters spiritual growth, discipleship, and healthy relationships. You will also learn about the characteristics of a healthy church culture, practical steps for building a healthy church culture, and the challenges and obstacles to building a healthy church culture.
  • By studying this lesson, you will gain knowledge and insight into the importance of creating a healthy church culture and practical steps for doing so, including the role of leaders in modeling and promoting a healthy culture, building relationships, developing a shared vision, fostering communication, and encouraging accountability.
  • This lesson covers Luke 5, gleaning lessons regarding Jesus' leadership and the four pillars of Christian leadership, which are relationship, influence, follower potential, and common purpose.
  • As you go through the lesson, you will learn about the four primary handles for developing a healthy church culture, which are stories, rituals, symbols, and power structures, and how they shape the values that become the real values within a culture.
  • By understanding the importance of what we measure, we can determine what is significant to us. Measuring something objectively makes it valuable, while not measuring something can result in losing its importance. The example of churches measuring attendance and donations is used to highlight this point, and the lesson suggests that churches should also measure other important aspects like outreach, discipleship, and community service.
  • This lesson discusses how Jesus prepared his disciples to establish the church, and how his actions and values during his time with them set the groundwork for the culture of the church; you are encouraged to explore the principles Jesus instilled in his disciples by examining specific stories, such as the healing of the demon-possessed man and the clearing of the temple.
  • Learn to lead a healthy church culture by analyzing current values, identifying actual values, and creating a strategy matrix to establish and support desired values using four embedding mechanisms.

This course is one of many taught by Dr. Rick Sessoms. It can be taken as a stand alone course, or as a part of the Christ-Centered Leadership Certificate. 

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Leading a Healthy Church Culture
Discussion of the Case Study - The Shadow of the Leader
Lesson Transcript

What's going on with Robert Avella? Let's just talk in general. What do you feel like is happening with him here?  

STUDENT:  I think he's taken his eyes off the Lord. He started out very much directive, wanting to make a difference. 

Do you think he would describe it as him having taken his eyes off the Lord?


STUDENT: I would say that he would say that ‘I'm living how the Lord's calling me, that ‘I'm the chosen of the Lord’ and that ‘I'm special. The Lord is speaking to me and through me.’

STUDENT:  and ‘These things are necessary for ministry to be successful.’  

It's interesting that control among leaders is almost always due to a fear. It's almost always to try to deal with fear. Fear gives way to control in leaders. The other thing that you've brought up that's fascinating is that in a very real sense, looking from the outside in, it's pretty obvious that this guy's in trouble spiritually, but he probably would not describe it that way himself. And part of the difficulty that we see in leaders is that there's a real latent danger, particularly within the Christian church, because we have tended to combine spiritual leadership with positional leadership, and when you combine positional leadership with spiritual leadership, the people in those positions become rather untouchable. And that's a recipe for a toxic kind of a situation, and we'll get into that just a little bit more, but I'm just curious what you think about that. Have you seen that? Has that been part of your own observation? What do you think? 

STUDENT:  I think yes, definitely. It's part of it. It's a very universal thing.  It's been happening two thousand years ago, four thousand years ago, I mean, it's happened through the history of mankind. Part of it's that whole notion, like the Israelites demanded a king like all the others, we want leadership, so we want the Robert Avellas to come and speak with confidence –

STUDENT: -- We want the alter ego, right? 

STUDENT:  Yes. We want to believe that there is somebody who's making it when we can't. And so it's a fuel, and part of it, you're absolutely right; it's where we don't have that accountability built in; we don't build that accountability, and because the people want a leader, and the leader wants to be the leader.  And it doesn't often start out that way; it starts out noble, and folks are doing wonderful things. But again, we force somebody into a leadership role, and in that leadership role, they do things to justify it, so they become above the rules of that society. 

Good. Good point. You mentioned the embezzlement that may have caused him to move toward this control sort of motif. What else do you feel may have pushed him toward some of this, some of this sense of entitlement or whatever the case may be? What do you feel like was happening there?  

STUDENT:  He said he was feeling more insecure and having self doubts, so maybe he had to work harder to prove that he was secure and deserved the position. 

STUDENT:  I have a rechargeable drill at home, and that sucker works pretty darn well until the battery starts wearing down, and when it does, it needs to be recharged; if you don't recharge it, you can't use it whatsoever at all. We're like that, and our battery is community, and he was getting away from community. He was getting a lot of strokes for being called to speak in this place or lead in this place, but he was called away from the community that he originally invested in, and as he did, that battery wore down, and so he replaced it with fake batteries and all sorts of other things. But I think that's a problem that all of us run into is when we leave our core view -- this is why we're here, this is our focus -- but when we also lose the community to help us keep that focus.

Good. Other thoughts? 

STUDENT:  I think there is a fear thing here. I remember when we came off the field. My wife, who's pretty much the nicest woman you could ever meet... 

I would attest to that.

STUDENT: … they were interviewing us and they said, “Do you have any questions?” And Nancy just asked the senior pastor, “And who holds you accountable?” And he had, I thought, a very good answer. Oh, he has the elder board here and that type of stuff. Well, five years later, he told me, “Your wife has never liked me, has she? She's always questioning.”  And it was referring back to that question that she had asked, and I thought, oh, my goodness. I had no idea the fear that he had there, of the control or the question of he and his abilities and his direction. 

STUDENT:  So is that a good question for interviews? In whatever the position is you're trying to fill, a leadership position, what are your fears? 

It can be if you can get a good answer. Yeah, it certainly can be.  

I'm just curious. There was some allusion to his childhood growing up with the father. Do you suppose that that impacted him as an adult?  

STUDENT:  When you get away from this, the Lord’s voice in your head, in prayer -- and I don't know, it just seems like he really had strayed – the old things come back, and you're hearing old voices of past things, so… 

STUDENT:  He didn't choose. But that was his earliest mentor.

STUDENT:  And the sins of the father. Boy, that is just so true, generation after generation. 

STUDENT:  Yeah, I think too, in this fear thing, it's very interesting. As a mother, I was always most controlling of my girls when I was fearful of something.  I don't know if it was, yeah…

There's a book called The Dark Side of Leadership, can't readily recall the author, but it's a fascinating book that basically contends that most high impact leaders are driven people – it’s about Christian leadership -- that which drives Christian leaders to be effective and impactful and fruitful, productive, if not dealt with, if those issues that drive them to be successful, to pastor the large church, to have the, you know, well-known ministry and so forth, if those issues are not dealt with, then those very things that cause them to be successful will derail them later on in their ministry lives.  It's sad news, and it's happened to so many.  There was mention made of so many pastors that we hear, and part of our motif in the Christian church today is about success, you know, there's just this driven-ness to pastor a large church and to be that person who's out there and well known and is successful. But the medicine that it takes to get there is the same medicine that’s going to kill you, you know, if you don't deal with it. In fact, the studies show that in high impact leaders, there's a typical pattern that exists, and they come often from backgrounds that have three common elements.

One is an absent father, and another is a dominant mother, and a third is a traumatic experience in late puberty or early adolescent life. Now, the problem is that's the very same profile of most criminals that are in prison, and so it really just has to do with how you're going to focus and funnel your energy. So what we're saying is that for all the good motivations that are behind so many Christian leaders, the fact is that there's a dark side to those that, like Dr. Avella, start out with this sense of, call it what you will, but ambition, we call it ‘calling’; all these elements that are championed then and cheered by those that are looking for a leader, as Jim has said.  If that person doesn't stay in community, that person isn't mindful, and it's hard to be mindful in one's own skin. There needs to be that voice from without as well, because we do get to feeling like we're untouchable and spiritual, even though we're not. So these are some of the real pitfalls that we see in leaders worldwide.  

After I show this short film clip, I'd like to just get some reaction to the case study as well as the film clip from you. This film clip is taken from a film that was from 1962, and I hope you can see it. It's 50 years old this year. It was a very raw story called One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And it's a story about a mental ward that was run by Nurse Ratchet. Power and control had become her favorite tools to break the spirits of the patients that she was committed to care for and help.

The following clip from the film is a scene where the patients want to watch the Baseball World Series during the daytime, but there are rules against watching television in the daytime, and so Jack Nicholson's character -- you'll notice a very young Jack Nicholson in the film -- he's attempting to encourage the patients to vote for permission to watch the World Series, and the audio syncing is off a bit, I think partly due to the age of the film, but I think you'll get the impact nonetheless.

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