Leading Congregations With Eyes Wide Open

Leading congregations is a unique endeavor. Participants in churches are not there to earn a paycheck, to move up in their career, or to gain status, making the levers leaders in other organizations employ unavailable to church leaders. Connecting with the motivation of participants sufficiently when it comes to leading change requires great insight, spiritual depth, and effective leadership skills. We need the same leadership skills and competencies of leaders in other organizations, plus more. The following insights will help us as we apply all of what we have to serving well.

Leadership will happen in your congregation
Every system, whether governmental, educational, corporate, familial, or communal will generate sufficient leadership for itself. If not, that system will cease to exist, or at least deconstruct to a previously unrecognizable form. This means that every congregational system needs sufficient leadership to function. To function well or effectively, every congregation needs more than sufficient leadership. This also means that pastoral and lay leaders are called on to function as leaders. The congregational system needs leadership, with that leadership ideally flowing from those in recognized positions of leadership.

Astute congregational leaders will also read between these lines to recognize that leadership will rise up from somewhere in the congregation when identified leaders do not lead. Now, I’m not describing dictatorial or autocratic leadership. I am suggesting that leadership is a functional requirement for systems to operate. The system will find the leadership it needs from somewhere in order to function. Healthy leadership in congregations occurs when the identified leaders function as leaders. So when we find ourselves in leadership positions in congregations, we are there with purpose. The church needs us to step up and function well. When we do not, for whatever reason, leadership will rise up from somewhere else in the system. Typically when this happens, things do not go well. Creating leadership vacuums through non-functional leadership invites power grabs, acting-out, and passive-aggressive behavior. One of the greatest tools for conflict prevention is making the decision to lead followed by leading well. When we don’t, expect leadership to happen anyway, usually in unhelpful ways.

Leadership in congregations is predictably transitional
When coaching clergy and consulting churches, they regularly complain about their fruit basket leadership turnover each year. One third of the formal leaders rotate off the lay leadership team each year, making room for new leaders and avoiding consolidation of power. So while this approach is helpful, it is also unhelpful. High investment in training and acculturation is required to get these new leaders up to speed.

Pastors and church staff are also transitional. Some denominational systems influence this to be more so than others, yet pastors and staff come and go in all congregations. Given this, we may as well accept the fact that leadership in congregations is transitional; always. This means that we must gain great clarity in role and function of our leaders. Leaders need to know their role and be able to articulate how they function in this particular congregation in order to maintain congregational momentum. Crafting a Leadership Team Covenant helps create cohesive culture among leaders. This helps avoid the losses, while continuing forward movement, when leadership transitions.

Congregational leaders cannot not lead
It’s funny. Periodically I will hear a lay leader describing their interaction with a disciple in the congregation, claiming they were speaking as just another disciple rather than from their leadership role. I’m sorry, but we can’t have it both ways. When we become leaders in the congregation, we are always leaders, even when we prefer not to be so. Sometimes pastors long for the opportunity to engage people in their communities without them knowing they are pastors. These pastors recognize that as soon as someone knows their vocational role, immediately this vocational role becomes a major dynamic in the relationship. This is also true for lay leaders. In meetings, gatherings, and conversations, leaders are always representing the congregation, like it or not. Given this, we may as well accept our role as leaders, knowing it’s with us in all congregational interactions. Congregational leaders cannot not be leading.

Leadership is always shaping culture

Whatever gets the most airtime, the most communication, is what we come to believe is significant. As leaders lead, they are always shaping the culture and values of their congregation. When leaders focus on items like budget, worship attendance, and building maintenance, then the congregation is led to believe these are the bottom line when it comes to being church. When the leaders focus on transformed lives, movements, and organizations, then the congregation grows to believe this is what’s important in our communal lives. Wherever we focus our attention, whatever we lift up regularly, whatever drives our lay leadership team agendas…these are what become our priorities over time. So, leaders beware. Take a very close look at what occupies your time and energy. Examine the stories you tell, the activities you highlight, and the content of your reports. Whatever these are is what your church will grow to value over time. Congregations are always asking themselves what is important here in church. Leaders are always shaping that answer through their focus. Choose carefully, knowing we are shaping our congregation’s culture, values, and trajectory all the time.

May we lead faithfully and effectively. The good news of the gospel calls for our best and no less.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA