Leadership is both a skill and an art; it is about both heart and mind. I call these two aspects of leadership the “what” and the “who” of leadership. It is as these come together, as we grow in both heart and mind, that the strength we need to be leaders comes to us.

The “What” of It

The “what” of leadership is about knowledge and skill. It has to do with techniques and processes you are aware of and how you use them. Do you know what the traits of a visionary leader or a democratic leader are, and how and when to implement each of them in an appropriate manner? Do you know the difference between appreciative inquiry and asset mapping and which process might be used most effectively to help a congregation make decisions about its future? Do you understand the power dynamics of groups and the stages of group life? Can you draw on skills of conflict management to help a congregation move through the tension that change always entails?

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the “what” of it. No one person can know it all. There’s always another technique that might have helped if you’d only known about it. There’s always a new process that those who promote it claim will transform any organization that employs it. An exclusive focus on the “what” of leadership easily leads to a sense of inadequacy and often to a sense of guilt. When a congregation is struggling, when tensions are rising, when criticism is mounting, it’s easy to think that you do not know something you should know—that if you only had greater knowledge or skill, everything would be fine.

This potential for feeling inadequate when dealing with the “what” of leadership is not a reason to give up acquiring new knowledge and developing new skills, however. Neither is it an excuse to dismiss the importance of skills and knowledge in the practice of our leadership. To lead effectively in today’s congregations we need to develop an understanding of a wide variety of leadership knowledge and skills and the ability to apply these to our particular setting. These include:

  • Various short-term and strategic-planning processes
  • An understanding of human personality, potential, and problems
  • The challenges and dynamics of change
  • The nature and management of conflict
  • The variety of effective leader roles and their appropriateness for different settings
  • Systems theory and its insights into organizational behavior
  • Cultural and societal dynamics and their impact on congregations
  • Group and congregational dynamics
  • Team and community building

When we add to this list the array of biblical, theological, and ecclesiological knowledge and skills that are essential to leadership in the congregation, we begin to get a picture of the high demands that are placed upon all who lead.

Developing effectiveness at the “what” of leadership is a challenge, but it is one that can be met; while awareness in each of these areas is important, expertise in all of them isn’t essential. Leadership in a congregation is always a team effort. If the team leader knows enough to ask the right questions and to recruit the right people, the burdens of leadership can be shared. In fact, in today’s world it is essential that they be shared—not just because no one can know and do enough, but also because this is the only way it is possible to achieve the meaningful involvement essential to building broad-based commitment and enthusiasm for ministry.

The “Who” of It

The “what” of leadership is only half the picture. The “who” of it matters, too. This aspect of leadership is based in the reality that not everything a leader needs can be learned from books or reduced to a step-by-step plan that can be universally applied; rather it must come from an internal sense of the situation and what the leader brings to it.

The “who” is often revealed under pressure. Your “who” is revealed in what comes out of your mouth when you need to respond instantly, without the benefit even of personal reflection. It also becomes evident in the long haul, perhaps when there’s nothing dramatic going on at all—how you handle day-to-day interactions with members of the congregation, how the way you live Monday through Saturday reflects what you preach on Sunday.

The “who” of leadership has many dimensions. Our own spiritual life and the way that affects both our self-understanding and our relationships is a primary factor. The depth of our relationship with Christ and the way that relationship is nurtured through spiritual disciplines shapes who we are and how we relate to others in profound ways. Without that, our “who” is something less than it can be.

Another dimension of the “who” of leadership is our own self-knowledge. Years of therapy aren’t essential, but a good understanding of what makes us tick is. What issues tend to threaten us? What strengths can we rely on, what blind spots can get us into trouble? How has our past experience shaped the way we relate to people? What are the needs, the hopes, and the fears that drive us? All of this (and much more) influences our ability to lead. To lead effectively we need to be aware of these personal traits and the way they shape our leading. The fact is that, given a decent amount of time, almost all of them will become apparent to those we lead, so we had best be honest with ourselves right from the beginning.

The “who” of leadership also results from the way we have internalized much of the content that makes up the “what” of leadership. When that information becomes part of us, when it shapes who we are and how we relate, it becomes more than book learning. This same process is at work when a sculptor takes the knowledge of stone and the skill of stonecutting and turns a block of marble into a work of art. That knowledge and skill have been internalized in a way that allows the artist to emerge and to produce a work of art.

The “who” of leadership is a product of our own continuing growth, both as people and as leaders. It is essential, but it always needs to be paired with the “what” of leadership. The transformation in self-understanding from shepherd to liberator that Moses underwent at the burning bush formed his “who” in profound and dramatic ways. It wasn’t all he needed to be an effective leader, however. He also needed the “what.” For Moses, that came in the form of continuing advice from Yahweh—who initiated plagues, opened up the Red Sea, and created commandments to live by. Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have God readily available to assist us directly in every leadership crisis we face. We do, however, have other sources of the knowledge we need. The books and workshops available to us are a continuing source of new knowledge and skills that can strengthen our leadership.

Faithful and effective leadership has always been about both the “what” and “who” of it. The demands of leadership in today’s world, however, make awareness and nurturing of both dimensions particularly important. The massive changes that are taking place in the world—from globalization to the breakdown of Christendom to the emergence of postmodernity—shape local congregations in profound ways. We can no longer simply implement familiar plans, follow tried-and-true processes, or rely on old answers. We can no longer fall back on what we’ve done before and expect anything more than the continuing slow death of our congregations. All leadership today is about change. In such a time, we as congregational leaders have a specific responsibility to enhance the quality of both the skill and the art we bring to our leadership. And both need to be continually deepening, emerging, evolving, and growing.


Adapted from Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership by Jeffrey D. Jones, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at alban@div.duke.edu and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

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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.

AL309_SM Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations by Jeffrey D. Jones

By becoming congregations of disciples, churches and their individual members will prepare themselves to do the hard work of seeking God’s will and discerning God’s call, finding new possibilities in old answers as well as radically new ways to be and to do church. Jones guides readers through what it means to be a disciple, from key experiences that contribute to the growth of disciples to the practices of disciple-forming congregations.

AL324_SM Leadership in Congregations by Richard Bass, Editor

This book gathers the collected wisdom of more than ten years of Alban research and reflection on what it means to be a leader in a congregation, how our perceptions of leadership are changing, and exciting new directions for leadership in the future. With pieces by diverse church leaders, this volume gathers in one place a variety of essays that approach the leadership task and challenge with insight, depth, humor, and imagination.