I am both a practitioner and teacher of congregational leadership. In my most recent pastorate I was Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational Church (UCC) in downtown Seattle. In 2008–2009 I taught congregational leadership at Emmanuel College in the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. I head up a regional leadership development organization, Congregational Leadership Northwest. I have also written on congregational leadership in Leadership for Vital Congregations (Pilgrim, 2006) and Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Eerdmans, 2008). And I explored leadership’s theological dimensions in What’s Theology Got to Do with It: Convictions, Vitality and Healthy Congregations (Alban, 2006).

One: Leadership Is Hot

After a long period of neglect or ambivalence about “leadership” in mainline churches, it is a hot topic today. There is a call, even a cry, from congregations for leadership. Increasingly, congregations know they need capable leaders. The cry and call of congregations for leadership may even be being heard, albeit reluctantly, haltingly, in denominational offices and in seminaries.

Two: Leadership Is Complex

Leadership is complex because people are complex, as is life. Once following a decent, reasonable talk I gave about leadership and churches, a wise retired pastor responded with the observation that, “That was great, but you might want to remember that churches are not rational organizations.” He’s right. Even more to the point, churches are not so much organizations, as they are organisms. Congregations are not static structures described by an organizational chart, they are complex, living organisms.

Three: Leadership Is Relational and Interactive

Leaders are partners in a relationship. It’s not all about the leader alone, but about the dynamic relationship between leaders and their partners or those whom they would engage. Often those who think and write about leadership forget this. They only have the leader in view. Moreover, the word that we reflexively pair with “leader,” that is, “follower,” may be too passive in its connotations. Congregational leaders are joined by partners, associates, or best, by a church.

Four: Leadership Is Dangerous

In their book, Leadership on the Line, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky put it this way: “You appear dangerous to people when you question the values, beliefs or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.”

Often those who become congregational leaders want to be liked and even define vocational success in such terms. When that is the case, resistance to change and loss, which is natural and normal, is misconstrued as failure. Leaders will experience opposition and resistance if they are doing their job. This is not, however, to be considered a warrant for needlessly offending people or for considering opposition a confirmation of one’s authenticity. It is simply to say that leading change is tough and resistance is part of it.

Five: Leadership Matters

A capable, veteran pastor once said to me, “You only need leaders if you are trying to accomplish something.” Churches should be trying to accomplish something for God. Churches should be trying to make a difference. Too many churches today are not trying to accomplish much, interested perhaps in only maintaining the status quo. If churches are to thrive, be vital, change lives and impact communities, that is, to make a difference, capable leadership is a key. In the absence of capable and ethical leadership, a vacuum is created. Like nature, congregations abhor a vacuum. Such vacuums will be filled, often by those who need power for personal reasons, and often with conflict.

Six: Leaders Are People Who Are Willing to Work

Frequently people want to think of leaders and define leadership in terms of personality traits (“He’s so inspiring,”) or in terms of a special charisma (“She just has something special”). While leaders are gifted people, what they are most of all is people willing to work, willing to put their shoulder to the wheel. While it is the case that sometimes we need to work smarter and not simply harder, it is also the case that successful leaders are hard workers because leadership is hard work.

Seven: Congregations Tend to Be Ambivalent about Leadership

That is, congregations both want and don’t want leadership. Congregations are seldom, if ever, single-minded in this regard nor unified in their desire for capable leadership, nor even united about what they mean by “leadership.” Those members who are most mature in their faith will welcome capable leadership for its capacity to help the congregation make progress on its important challenges. Others who are less mature will want leadership to relieve them of anxiety and responsibility. Good leaders do tend to reduce anxiety (at least in the long run) but they also ask people to be more, not less, responsible.

Eight: Leadership Is Not a Status, But a Function

Some clergy and congregations resist leadership because they see it, incorrectly, as a matter of status, that is, being considered better or “higher” than others. Or they understand leadership as wielding power or having authority. In reality, leadership is not defined by any of these—status, power, or authority. People may have status or power or authority and still not be leaders or give leadership. Leadership is a functional role within a group, body, institution, or congregation. As a function, leadership helps a group identify, name, and engage the group or organization’s own most important challenges. Without leadership the real issues and problems facing an organization or congregation tend to be unacknowledged, misdiagnosed, or not engaged.

Nine: Leadership Has Multiple Dimensions

One useful image or analogy for the multidimensional nature of leadership may be drawn from sailing, in which there are at least four crucial elements: the boat, the sailor, the sea, and the wind.

When applied to congregational leadership these four dimensions may be translated as follows: what is the nature and purpose of this boat (church)? Different boats have different capacities and purposes. Just so, different congregations are like different classes of boats, each with its own nature, crew complement, and purpose or mission. In particular, leaders pay attention to purpose or mission. What is the purpose of this church? Often congregations are surprisingly unclear about their mission or purpose, that is, what God has called them to do. Leaders help them to gain clarity about mission.

The sea is the ever-changing cultural context of a church. This has both macro (global and North American) and micro (local community) dimensions. Leaders pay attention to context, what it permits and what it requires, just as good sailors pay attention to the changing conditions of the sea.

The sailor is the leader (or leadership team). Who is this person? What has shaped her or him? What are that person’s particular gifts? How is it with their spirit? Leaders pay attention to and “manage” themselves, not in a self-absorbed way, but in a self-aware one. As Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke have indicated, leaders are people who are capable of managing their own anxiety.

Finally, the wind is the ineffable spirit of God, which cannot be controlled but must be waited upon, listened for, felt and responded to. Spiritual leaders are attentive to the movement of the spirit in their own lives, among their fellow leaders, in the congregation and in the community.

Capable leaders pay attention to all four dimensions: the congregation’s mission or purpose, the cultural context, their own person, and the movement of the Spirit.

Ten: Leaders Lead

Leaders actually lead, that is, they point the way forward and mobilize people and resources for the challenges the congregation faces at this time. Being a leader is not simply having your name at the top of the organizational chart or office stationery. It is not a matter of having more status than others. Leaders lead. They do not lead precipitously, but thoughtfully. They do not lead capriciously, but reflectively. They are willing, at times, to wait; but not forever. They name and frame the issues and challenges before a congregation, and work with others to chart a course through the changing seas.

While leadership is tremendously challenging work, it is important and satisfying work as well. Those who find satisfaction in helping a congregation to be vital and to make a difference in the world, will find leadership to be an important and satisfying calling.

Anthony B. Robinson is also the author of What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Conviction, Vitality, and the Church. Additional information about this book and information about how to order it can be found at https://rowman.com/Action/Search/RL/alban%20books.


Questions for Reflection

  1. As a leader, which of the ten observations did you find most challenging. Why?
  2. When you consider those observations you found most challenging in relation to your own leadership style, what are some ways you could most effectively address them?
  3. How does thinking of your congregation as an organism rather than an organization change your understanding of leadership?
  4. When have you seen evidence that the people under your leadership viewed you as “dangerous” because of the changes you were asking of them? Looking back, do you think you pushed hard enough? Too much?
  5. How does the image of the four crucial elements of congregational leadership (boat, sailor, sea and wind) apply in your context? Which if any need more attention?


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