In olden times, we like to think, society accorded great authority to clergy. Whether or not this rosy generalization stands up to scrutiny (it does not), we mainstream clergy certainly have lost some of the cachet our counterparts enjoyed from 1945 to 1965 or so. Many people then believed attending and supporting congregations to be just as much a part of being a good person as stopping at stop signs, dressing neatly, and keeping your lawn mowed.

I believe our loss of authority presents clergy with a great opportunity. Authority, appealing as it is, can also be confining. In the days of easy postwar growth, U.S. congregations fell into rigid patterns and became more similar to one another. Like an inbred, highly cultivated strain of livestock, they became vulnerable to common threats. The social changes of the 1960s brought death to many congregations, especially—I would say—those that depended too much on authority.

The opportunity for us lies in developing a new capacity for leadership. Ron Heifetz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, sheds light on the differences between authority and leadership, and suggests how by depending on authority less and learning to lead better, we can redevelop a more varied, robust, and disease-resistant strain of congregations in America.

Authority is the legitimate power to make things happen. Check-signing authority, for instance, is the power to compel the bank to release funds. The right to direct the work of others, to hire and fire, to sign contracts, or to choose sermon topics—all these are examples of the formal authority given by a congregation to designated leaders.

Authority can be informal also: when some people speak, others listen. Jesus “spoke as one with authority,” and so do certain long-time, trusted leaders of a congregation, whether they hold office at the moment or not. Formal or informal, authority is always given to us by others

And sure enough, those who give authority expect something in return. Check-signers must sign only the approved and proper checks, congregations must provide expected services, and preachers are expected to give sermons people like. Anyone who has authority and wants to keep it needs to pay attention to the strings attached.

Leadership, as Heifetz defines it, is quite different. Leadership is not a personal trait, but an activity: getting the whole group to address its most important challenges. Leadership is measured not by whether leaders get their way, but by how well the resources of the congregation come to bear on crucial questions.

Authority can be a help to leaders, giving them the right to convene meetings, name issues, and hold the group’s attention. But the expectations that accompany authority can be a hindrance. People do not usually give authority in the hope that leaders will distress them by inviting them into hard conversations! Only certain people—call them managers—can use authority, but anyone, from any seat or pew, can lead.

Managers use their authority by making decisions; leaders exceed their authority by making others ponder troubling questions. Managers calm people by resolving ambiguity; leaders often frustrate people by refusing to decide quickly what can only be solved slowly. The most important challenges are too big for individual decision-makers to address alone. That’s where leaders come in to bring the whole group’s gifts to bear.

Which situations call for authority and which for leadership? One consideration is the nature of the challenge to be faced. If the furnace breaks, it must be repaired. The congregation needs to authorize someone to pick a contractor and spend money pronto. But a once-successful youth program that no longer attracts participation may need a cross-section of good heads to take whatever time they need to cook up a fresh vision of youth ministry.

A second factor in deciding whether to use authority or practice leadership is the amount of courage available. A “broken” youth ministry may be fixable simply by replacing one of the moving parts—for instance, a staff member. That’s the easy course. But for a brave congregation, even a broken furnace could become the kind of challenge Heifetz calls “adaptive.” Such a congregation might choose to interpret the cold sanctuary as a wakeup call, and ponder whether to install a new, “green” heating system.

The deciding factor often comes down to the fact that even the bravest congregations can deal with only a few adaptive issues at a time. Many congregations have no “bandwidth” for adaptive leadership at all, because their leaders are too busy using their authority. A clergy leader who cannot delegate to staff and volunteers soon has no time to address bigger issues. A governing board that is reluctant to delegate authority to staff ends up in the same position. Without a firm and mandatory plan for delegating authority, the decision-making demands that come with authority quickly overwhelm the people at the top of any organization. It is tempting, when this happens, to interpret every issue as a technical, decision-making matter.

The temptation to quick fixes is nowhere greater than in the fields of money, property, and personnel. A deficit, at one level, is merely a problem in arithmetic: expenses exceed revenues. The problem can be fixed by lowering one, raising the other, or a combination. Looking at a deficit this way leads us to ask questions of authority: Who can cut spending? What fund-raising methods will induce greater giving? When it comes to money, where does the “buck” stop?

But a deficit invariably points beyond itself to deeper issues. Perhaps the congregation has become overly dependent on endowment revenues. Perhaps it is still trying to engage people in outdated concepts of membership. Perhaps it clings to a grand style of congregational life that no longer fits the values or lifestyles of potential members.

Questions like these deserve the sustained attention of a varied group of leaders, information from outside, and time for conversation, prayer, reflection, and decision. Who will do this? Unless the senior clergy and governing board have freed themselves by delegating some of their authority to others, they will never get around to dealing with the most important matters on their plate.

Fortunately, anyone can lead. While it is far from the ideal solution, when official leaders fail, then leadership can still emerge from the periphery: from ad hoc planning teams, from voices crying in the wilderness, even from the mouths of babes.


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog    


Dan Hotchkiss  is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. “Authority or Leadership?” originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Clergy Journal (  



AL370_SM Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership  
by Dan Hotchkiss 

In Governance and Ministry, Alban senior consultant Dan Hotchkiss offers congregational leaders a roadmap and tools for changing the way boards and clergy work together to lead congregations. Hotchkiss demonstrates that the right governance model is the one that best enables a congregation to fulfill its mission—to achieve both the outward results and the inward quality of life to which it is called.

AL380_SM Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership  
by Jeffrey D. Jones 

Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you—Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are.  

AL326_SM Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace  
by N. Graham Standish 

Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us. Standish helps us explore the practices and attitudes that make humble leadership effective leadership.  

AL151_SM Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control: A New Approach to Faithful Leadership  
by Celia Allison Hahn

Hahn sheds new light on the dilemmas clergy and laity, men and women experience as they seek to be mature leaders who are authoritative but not authoritarian. She brings together the experiences of interviewees with the picture of authority in the Gospels to produce a groundbreaking understanding of how to grow toward faithful, integrated authority. Each chapter ends with questions inviting you to reflect on your own experiences and grow in faithfulness and competence. 




Hotchkiss,Dan 120xGovernance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership 
April 5-7, 2011
Simosonwood Retreat and Conference Center
Norcross, GA
Facilitator: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban senior consultant 

If you always thought the way you run a congregation should have something to do with the mission of the congregation, then THIS SEMINAR IS FOR YOU! 
Spend three days with Dan and you will never think about congregational governance the same way again. Dan will show you how rethinking and renewing your governance can lead to life-transforming ministry.  You will come away from this seminar with a flexible approach to clarifying the responsibilities of governing boards, committees, clergy, and program leaders, paid and unpaid. Dan’s concepts work in all sorts of denominations, with all kinds of organizing requirements, and just about any size congregation.  With your registration, you receive a copy of Dan’s best-seller, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership. 

If April in Georgia doesn’t work for you, you’re in luck! Dan will be repeating this seminar in September: 

Holy Family 

Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
September 20-22, 2011
Holy Passionist Retreat Center – Hartford, CT


Clergy Wellbeing: How to Balance Ministry and Life 
Larry Peers, Facilitator
This week in Santa Barbara, California – FULL

Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision
Susan Beaumont, Facilitator
March 1-3 in Jacksonville, Florida – FULL


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