Just because pastors and key laity are called leaders doesn’t mean we are practicing effective leadership. Take me, for example. By the time I graduated from the Iliff School of Theology in 1998, I had an M.Div. and an M.A.R with a healthy cumulative GPA of about 3.75. I had studied Hebrew, Greek, Old Testament, New Testament, theology, church history, preaching, worship, and Christian education. I learned how to read and interpret the scriptures, lead prayer, organize a bible study, serve communion, baptize babies, visit the sick, bury the dead, counsel the distressed, call meetings, administer the life of the church, and under duress, consult the Book of Discipline.
I was prepared to manage the church, but not to truly lead the church.
What’s the difference? A manager helps an organization survive. A leader innovates so it thrives. A manager dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. A leader generates a brand new vocabulary. A manager makes sure everything is in order. A leader envisions a brand new order. Managers tend to people and processes. Leaders build up new people and craft new processes. If managing is sufficient when things are going well, leadership is crucial when things are not going well.
What I learned in seminary was sufficient for when things are going well. But we all know that things haven’t been going well. At the same time that I was honing and expanding my skills, there was a larger dynamic at play: a culture of decline in the church. Not just my church—but the denomination as a whole, mainline Christianity as a whole. Since the early 70s, we have seen a significant loss of membership, attendance, giving and influence. At the same time, we’ve seen a concurrent rise in the ranks of church alumni, the spiritual but not religious.
I pastored local churches for more than 11 years. By the time I left, I was frustrated and burned out—even with all the love and good ministry that had transpired. What happened to the grand calling I had? Why was the church in decline even though I put everything I had into it? In the 11 years since then, I’ve immersed myself in mastering the principles and practices of effective leadership in the church. Here’s what I’ve discovered including 5 confessions of my own.
1. Leaders may be born, but even more than that, they are formed. Some of us naturally possess a personality style that others equate with “leader.” We get things done. We have an air of confidence. We connect with people. As important as those qualities are, though, they are not enough to constitute effective leadership. An effective leader doesn’t do it all herself. She also knows how to empower others to get things done. Jesus intentionally authorized and empowered those around him to do what he did. That’s why his movement is still alive while the things I began in the local church most likely are not. I didn’t fully understand how to turn things over. Church leaders, it doesn’t matter if you’re a born leader or not. We can learn those skills. In fact, we must if we are to fulfill our callings.
2. Effective leaders have high emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, empathy, motivation, social skill and self-regulation are five commonly accepted attributes of EQ. Jesus had all these qualities in spades. He knew himself. He had empathy for others. He understood what motivated others, and had the skill to move people in the direction he wanted to go. Finally, he knew how to regulate his own actions, motivations and fears to accomplish higher ends. The Gospel stories of his interactions with friend and foe alike illustrate his EQ.
While I had self-awareness and empathy, I wasn’t always clear on what motivated others, or how to move everyone in the direction I sensed God was calling us to. That means my ability to self-regulate was limited. I did what I knew how to do—persuade, cajole, inspire, push—trying harder and harder. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I didn’t know sometimes people need facts and figures rather than emotion and inspiration. I didn’t know sometimes people need advance notice to figure things out and get on board.
Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is one definition of insanity. It’s a prescription for burnout, too.
3. Church leaders can’t save the church, and shouldn’t try. Decline is bigger than we are. Instead of our sole focus being on boosting giving, attendance, and baptisms, we need a focus that is larger than ourselves. That means keeping one eye on our current constituency and another on the needs and possibilities in the communities around us. If we attend to those things well, the church will likely thrive too.
Jesus had his eye on the Kingdom of God which required a complete re-focusing of spiritual and religious energies. Out of this vision emerged not only the creation of a brand new movement now called Christianity, but a stronger, re-invented Judaism as well.
I took decline personally. I figured the answer was to do more, demand more, spend more time, take less vacations. That didn’t work; it’s a recipe for burnout. Decline is overcome with a bigger vision and a change in consciousness, not more effort.
4. Leadership development for leaders is not an oxymoron or a redundancy. Most of us get 3-9 semester hours of leadership development in seminary or course of study. The rest of it comes from intentional continuing education. That’s how I became a leadership developer. I wanted to upgrade the conversation church leaders devolve into about leading and the church. Instead of slogging alone through years of nagging self-doubt, disempowerment and victimhood—like I had—I wanted to create a new conversation. So I developed what I learned into a useable, accessible format for others.
5. The culture of decline cannot produce a culture of renewal. Because we church leaders—locally and nationally—are used to operating in a culture of decline, our thinking is unconsciously limited by that. We’re more used to scarcity than abundance. It’s easier to tick off reasons why we can’t rather than reasons why we can. Effective leadership development is grounded in a different kind of culture. Creating a culture of renewal requires a focus on Jesus’ own empowerment of us and the structures he employed to cultivate it. That includes high expectations, life-giving accountability, miracle-making, acknowledgement and celebration.
I confess that I didn’t know any of this when I graduated seminary, or when I pastored three churches. I knew what didn’t work. But I couldn’t quite figure out what would work. That took lots of trial and error. In the 11 years since leaving local church ministry, fellow travelers have joined me on the journey and discovered their own path to effective leadership.
If you would like to learn how to step into greater leadership by becoming an emotionally intelligent, Jesus-empowered, visionary leader who can create a culture of renewal, let’s talk! Email me at Rebekah@rebekahsimonpeter.com, call me at (307) 320-6779, or check out my website: www.cultureofrenewal.com