Who Does Leadership In Your Congregation?

“This is so refreshing. We rarely have balcony time. We are caught up in tyranny of the urgent; day-to-day ministry.”
-Lead Pastor’s comment while planning a staff retreat including balcony time

“They (the lay leadership team) don’t want to be in long meetings. They don’t want to make the time to move into leadership activities.”
-Lead Pastor describing the lay leadership team

“Our Lay Leadership Team meetings are down to 30 minutes or less. I’m so relieved.”
-Lead Pastor describing the monthly meetings; relieved not to be engaging minutia in their meetings, yet it’s unclear where leadership happens in this congregation

Hearing these comments, I’m wondering where leadership happens in congregations. Plenty of us know how to manage congregations (see management to follow), with few congregations actually making capacity for leadership.

Leadership focuses on identifying spiritual clues for living out God’s calling, resulting in a compelling vision for the future. Leadership starts new ministries (or churches), engages in holy imagination, and calls the congregation to a higher level of discipleship. Leadership seeks adaptation, shifting in order to be a healthy faith community in an ever changing context. Leadership requires the ability to step back, engage in balcony time, and see the big picture.

Management focuses on implementation of the vision. Management involves specific steps, timetables, resources, and budgets. Management considers the resources available and then identifies how to use them. Management focuses on keeping things running smoothly, making the systems function well. Organizing and problem solving are management activities, helping the congregation live out its calling.
Given this, who does leadership in your congregation? Who is tasked with regularly considering the mission and vision? Who encourages, invites, pushes, or pulls the congregation toward the mission statement (stewarding and advancing the mission)? Sadly, many congregations do management, but not leadership. We have conditioned ourselves to believe that managing things well is leading effectively. Therefore, leadership happens reactively.

Through observing congregational dynamics, one thing is clear: Leadership happens. Whether or not we have a considered or overt leadership plan, leadership will rise up from within the congregational system. Systems do not tolerate a vacuum; the absence of leadership. When we are not purposeful about leadership, then simply watch from whom and from where leadership arises. Reactive leadership is the predictable result when proactive leadership does not exist.

What can we do to initiate or strengthen proactive leadership?

We observe two actions, one more desirable, sustainable, and effective than the other.

First, some congregations locate leadership in a single person or group. The pastor may be the one expected to generate vision and creativity. This approach works, until the congregation grows tired of an authoritarian leadership style or until the vision the pastor creates is incongruent enough with the congregation’s identity. Other congregations expect the pastor plus the ministry and program staff to do leadership. Simultaneously, this group is not provided enough capacity in their positions to actually step back for balcony time. Rarely do church staffs move beyond day to day urgency. Other congregations identify their lay leadership teams (deacons, sessions, vestries, councils, etc) as the leaders, or perhaps a Church Council is the identified leadership team. Some congregations call themselves “committee-led.” Have you ever seen a committee which is invested sufficiently in the big picture of the church, exercising visionary leadership? Obviously, we are not recommending that any one individual or group within a congregation become the sole leader(s).

Second, we are suggesting a shared approach to proactive leadership, with particular leaders stewarding the leadership focus. Each of the individuals and groups noted above have a part to play in leadership. Practicing shared leadership requires a culture which fosters leadership. There are churches who are prioritizing a leadership culture (another article). Successful leadership cultures specifically task individuals and groups with keeping this leadership culture movement moving.

Who is doing leadership in your congregation?

If nobody specifically does, then somebody reactively will. Congregational systems do not tolerate leadership vacuums. To remain mission-focused and grow into fully-functioning faith communities, we need leadership done well.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA