When asked about his leadership philosophy, Senior Pastor John Wiley quotes a 1980s rock-and-roll lyric: “Just hold on loosely / But don’t let go / If you cling too tightly / You’re gonna lose control.”
What he calls the “deeply biblical” words to 38 Special’s hit “Hold on Loosely” have guided him as River Church Family (Kansas City East Foursquare Church) in Raytown, Mo., has become well known in the community for its practical expressions of God’s love.
In May, civic leaders and church members gathered for the official opening of River of Refuge, which provides transitional housing for low-income families. John established the autonomous nonprofit seven years ago, after church members began reaching out to people living in low-budget motels in the area.
Purchasing an abandoned hospital on 20 acres for $1 million, River of Refuge has completed 11 apartments so far, with another 30 or so in the pipeline. The high-profile ministry is only one way that church members are active in their community.
Other projects include a car oil change service for single moms, though John is unabashed to admit he can’t list all the things that are going on. That’s because “they are birthed in the hearts of our members,” he explains. “They have permission to just go do it.”
This hands-off approach extends to the sister River Church congregation launched in nearby Belton early in 2015. Relationally connected, it is free to make its own way while holding to the core River Church value: loving others and building relationships.
This emphasis is not a “bait and switch” to get people into church, John underscores, though many have come to Christ as a result. “We have this DNA that we understand that Jesus meant it that we show God how much we love Him by how we treat the people that we live next door to.”
Giving room for ministry to rise up from among church members frees him and the other leaders from the pressure of being “the Bible answer man” who has to know everything, he says. “I keep a shepherd’s eye on people, but I am not their boss or CEO.”
This hands-off approach can be messy. “Mistakes happen, ministries don’t pull together like we thought sometimes,” he acknowledges. Indeed, for years a River billboard on one of Raytown’s main traffic routes proclaimed: “Our church is full of screw-ups. There is room for a few more.”
When looking for emerging leaders, John has an eye out for people whom others are following in some way. Then he comes alongside, encouraging them to pursue the vision God has given them even if they may not appear to have the necessary qualifications, and offering support and encouragement. “I put them in charge because it’s in their heart, and it is not mine to take away.”
Getting away from top-down leadership means pastors have to be comfortable in their particular giftings and secure enough to give room to others who can bring balance where needed. Though founding pastor, John is not “the coronated leader of the church,” he insists, pointing to “a very diffuse leadership team.”
Discerning what ministries are being birthed in members, rather than deciding what needs to be done and then looking for people to lead them, takes a lot of pressure off trying to recruit participants.
“When you have to do that, well now the church leader is just like everyone else that wants a piece of my time from the Little League to the Boy Scouts,” John observes. “I don’t want to be a sideshow barker that is trying to persuade people that Jesus needs a little bit of your time too. If I am just adding good things that you can do, I am not really making disciples of Jesus.”