Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

What Does it Take to Effectively Lead a Congregation?

Leave a comment


What does effective leadership need?  What actions best enable pastors and pastoral staff to lead their teams to success?  How do they set standards that challenge people to new levels of commitment in ministry? Why do other managers and leaders seem unable to motivate their team to meet even minimum standards?  How do they allow for powerful leadership within others, without feeling threatened, and still offer direction around clear values and mission? Why do some leaders and managers succeed and others watch in agony as their team’s performance slowly fades to the point of crisis?  Why do some pastors seemingly drive away their best staff people in a flurry of spiteful suspicion and hurt?  What is needed?

I sat with a group of business owners listening to their comments about their pastors.  Each of these men ran successful businesses and consistently integrated their faith with their leadership activities.[1]  These men had a measurable impact on their communities, employees and professional networks.  However, their comments about their pastors were filled with frustration, pejorative exclamations, and cynicism.  They had come to expect poor leadership skills, socially detached behavior, dishonesty and ethereal theological reflection that failed to offer any real insight to the immediate challenges and problems of these leaders.  Why had the ministry partnership between these men and their pastors broken down?  Two problems presented themselves in the midst of our conversation.

First, the pastors in question (all of them leaders of churches over 800 in attendance) could not speak the language of these businessmen.  Pastors conversed about the need for salvation, social justice and the importance of giving but were not fluent how to mobilize the talented and the able toward these needs.  The absence of a clearly articulated ministry/management philosophy, employee guidelines, job expectations for staff and analytically measured outcomes for the money invested in the church contributed to the perception in these business men that the work of the church was misguided at worst and ineffectual at best. They wondered why the work of the church seemed unimportant enough to create clear strategies and accountable/measurable action-plans.

Second, as I listened it became clear that the pastors in question ostensibly lacked the skills needed to engage in honest relationships with these men.  Personal disagreements were framed as problems of spiritual immaturity.  Personal honesty was replaced with denial and ecclesiastical censorship. Pastors seemed more interested in securing the power of their domain than of partnering with gifted men and women in their congregations for extending the grace of God.

I pondered the wide gulf of both relationship and respect clear between these men and their pastors.  Could it be bridged?  What might that bridge look like?  What skills were needed by the pastors to bridge the gap?  What assumptions in the businessmen needed to be challenged in how they viewed the mission of the church?

I reflected on the lives of highly effective leaders. Effective leaders have the ability to successfully bridge between or integrate the “spiritual” and “secular” in how they frame meaning and the purpose of the church. Or to put it another way, highly effective leaders capably define meaning.  In my excursions into the business world and the church I have found both capable and incapable leaders.

While my remarks contrast business and church leaders in terms of ability (which was true in the context of the conversation cited) I have met just as many incompetent business leaders as church leaders.  The difference is that incompetent business leaders are removed or fail more quickly because the metrics of their success are less complex than those facing leaders within the congregational setting.

Admittedly Christian leaders are not always so socially ambidextrous in their integration of spiritual/secular concerns. However effective Christian leaders have a perspective of culture and their relationship to it that enable them to communicate functionally in both the context of the church and the society in which they live. Watching leaders interact with culture seems to render one of two types of approaches; those that invite cultural dialogue and those who rejects cultural dialogue.  In effective leaders, regardless of their orientation to culture, three things seem inherently embedded in their approach to ministry.

Frame a Clear Vision that Applies God’s Promise

The first is that they exercised the ability to frame vision and outline clearly measurable tasks in light of the promise of God.  This vision inspired a “mind to work” in those they influenced.[2]  Nehemiah’s context for example possessed rules and boundaries that find similar to the networks and relational histories inherent in today’s experience.  Nehemiah had to address the threat to the Babylonian worldview raised by his conviction about the prominent role of God in history, the tension of unmotivated followers, the opposition of divergent worldviews and power agendas, and the propensity for organizations to disintegrate into mediocrity and “group think.”

Demonstrate Courage and a Bias Toward Action

The second is that in the face of a very real threat to their well-being and their future, leaders exercise courage in action and decisions.  Like Nehemiah, leadership action involves spiritual/social courage, not only because of one’s expressed faith in the God of Abraham, but also because clarity in demarcating action can drawn one into a power struggle between faith and the prevailing deities and power structures of the leader’s context.  In today’s context every leader faces the same pressure.  On the one hand a pressure exists to avoid rocking the prevailing social paradigm and violating certain social taboos on the other hand the leader must decide how to express clear commitments without bigotry but with a sure purpose.

Inspire, Direct, Maintain, Correct and Celebrate

Third leaders like Nehemiah exercised leadership activity that inspired, directed, maintained, corrected, and celebrated the right actions of those who worked around them. Stated from the premise of the reference above, wouldn’t it be nice if a pastor had the skills to, (1) create a team  of business people, other congregational members and pastoral staff and (2) lead them to work at the peak performance of their gifts and abilities that (3) helped them work toward measurable social and personal change as a result of their faith?

I have had plenty of opportunities to experience the frustration of not knowing how to lead people.  As a result, I have asked lots of questions and fired off more than my share of acrimonious complaints about the lack of commitment and follow through I saw in others.  What does effective leadership need?  What actions make the most successful production managers or effective executive and senior pastors, and enable them to lead their teams to success?  How do they set standards that challenge people to new levels of performance, while other managers and leaders seem unable to motivate their team to meet even minimum standards?  How do they allow for powerful leadership within others, without feeling threatened, and still offer direction around clear values and mission? Why do some leaders and managers succeed and others watch in agony as their team’s performance slowly fades to the point of crisis?  Why do some pastors seemingly drive away their best staff people in a flurry of spiteful suspicion and hurt?

I offered three insights to these questions yet I am certain there are more. What do you think it takes to lead a thriving congregation?


[1] I did not sponsor the meeting, I was a guest.  I did notice that among all the business owners in this evangelical organization not a single female business owner was present, nor did it seem like this was expected.  I mention this because many female business owners run companies that exhibit cutting edge employee relationships, superior customer service and superior profit margins.  The National Association of Women Business Owners, of which my wife is a part, has industry leading female executives that are often overlooked or dismissed by their male counterparts.  I would like to say that in the church world things are different that women are recognized for their gifts and abilities and authenticated in their ministries and leadership – but the same bigotry faced by women in the market place is simply re-framed with spiritual language in the church world and is offered as a biblically authenticated model of gender relationships.  I want to call this into question.

[2] Nehemiah 4:6.  My premise has been challenged by other educators in Christian Leadership who suggest that business models and assumptions are inadequate for the church – I agree with the statement as it stands. The mission of the church is not reducible to profit.   What I disagree with is that the ministry of the church is not measurable.  The simple fact is that the reasons why pastors and some Christian educators say that the ministry of the church is not measurable mirrors the excuses I have heard from my direct reports in business where everything is measurable.  The same verbiage and the same reasoning from one context to the next suggest to me that such statements are excuses used to mask the fear of accountability.  So, in the absence of a compelling alternative I will retain my assumption that there are measurable aspects of ministry and organizational development that must be used in the church and para-church organizations that keep the missional focus sharp and the work effective rather than the dull irrelevance that is sometimes the case.

Advertisements

Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s