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“Lead Better” is Not the Answer

“Lead Better” is Not the Answer

Blog Post 59 - Pastor1

When the business principles referenced in last week’s post don’t create healthy church growth (and they won’t), many pastors conclude that another business precept is at fault – leadership.  Countless business books, articles and consultants tell company executives how to lead better.  Today, leadership concepts are being pounded into the heads of pastors.  Megachurch pastors are publishing leadership content at a mind-numbing clip.  Many of the largest pastor conferences in America feature leadership as the central theme and advertise prominent church leaders as the main attraction.

The implication is clear – and insulting.  Your church is still small because you’re not a very good leader!

However, rather than view the implication as an insult, pastors gobble up leadership blogs and books.  I’ve seen hundreds of pastors stand in line at conferences for the opportunity to have a megachurch pastor sign their latest book on leadership.  I’ve heard thousands of pastors cheer like fans at a Beatles concert when a “celebrity” pastor steps on the main stage to speak about leadership.

Better leadership isn’t going to fix the Church’s declining growth, impact, influence and perception in America.  A new CEO of a company in the paper industry may make product design, customer service and advertising changes that take market share from competitors, but won’t materially alter its long-term fortunes without adapting the business model to account for market dynamics lowering demand for paper.  A more savvy and eloquent pastor can bring in new attendees and members, but won’t make the church more effective in making disciples and reaching the community for Christ without reverting to the Biblical definition of “church” and its “customers”.

In other words, better leadership of a bad model isn’t the answer.  Identifying the wrong issues has led to the wrong solution.  Churches shouldn’t fix the ineffective application of business principles with more business principles.  Those business principles don’t belong in a church in the first place, but became more prevalent as pastors and staff have assumed greater responsibility for “being” the church and the commitment level of members to act in that role has declined.  That’s the issue.  Leadership is important but it’s not the solution to the challenges facing the Church today.

The Real Issue…

Many large churches got big not because their pastors are more competent leaders, but because they’ve adapted better to the redefinitions of the terms “church” and “customer”.  As a result, some of the fastest growing churches in America place a great deal of emphasis on:

1. LEADERSHIP – positioning pastors and staff as “insiders” (e.g. the embodiment of “church”) and members as “outsiders” (or “customers” to attract and retain).  Therefore, they eagerly consume advice from today’s most renowned experts on church leadership, like:

  • Cast Vision – For the church, its future Growth and expected Impact
  • Track Key Metrics – Emphasizing Growth measures (attendance and giving) rather than Impact measures (# of Disciples Reproducing Disciples or # of Lives Changed by Members)
  • Empower Staff – Delegating responsibilities to staff for enhancing the church experience for select groups of members and visitors (e.g. families with children, men, women, singles, elderly).
  • Leverage Membership – Frequent requests for volunteers to build the institution and serve those inside the “4 walls”, yet few offer intensive (1-on-1 or triad) programs to build disciples who “go” and serve the real “customers” (who are outside the “4 walls”).
  • Deliver Quality – Excellence in communication, worship experience and programs

2. RETENTION – making church leaders more reluctant to challenge members to the level of life change expected of them as the personification of “church” (i.e. treating them as “customers”).

In light of that redefinition of “customers”, leaders of large churches have generally become more adept than small churches at “Customer” Experience DesignSmaller churches are typically slower to innovate, many resisting changes that would attract more attendees.  The new pastor we discussed earlier likely will encounter severe headwinds when trying to change the definitions of “church” and “customers”.  Asking members to take on greater responsibility for “being” the church and reaching out to the community (the intended “customer”) won’t go over well in most small churches.  Rocking the boat could quickly result in dissension or a split, led by a few long-time members who have far too much power and control.  Many small churches have become private clubs where new initiatives (or new faces) aren’t necessarily welcome.  New pastors would need to earn a great deal of trust and credibility before introducing any innovations that could upset the apple cart.

Numerous widely-recognized authorities on “Customer” Experience Design (labeled instead as church leadership coaching) stress:

  • Building staff roles around the needs of particular “customer” types to optimize the church experience for each group – a common practice in business but warranting caution in a church setting
  • Devoting significant staff time to putting on a well-organized, professional-grade event every weekend
  • Choreographing worship services down to the minute, unfortunately leaving little room for the Holy Spirit to shake things up
  • Meticulously planning and scripting emotional build-up from the music crescendo, to the announcements, to the message and all the way through to the closing songs and readings
  • Studying and applying the science of “customer” experience design (e.g. ideal # of parking spaces per attendee, % of seats filled to appear full, decibel level, visual effects, even down to seat spacing and cushioning)

A better “customer” experience may mean more attendees, but doesn’t translate into more disciples or greater Kingdom impact.  It can actually have just the opposite effect.  A goal to Attract and Retain will make church leaders more hesitant to Transform and Release.

The Real Answer…

  • Leading Better = Leading Biblically.  In other words, invoke Servant Leadership principles modeled by Jesus.  Flip the definition of “church” and “customer” by reversing the church hierarchy.  Rather than having staff serve pastors, pastors and staff serve members, and members serve the institution, make sure all hands are on deck preparing members to serve and share the gospel with the actual “customers” (those in need of help and hope).  That’s the path to better leadership of the right (Biblical) model rather than better leadership of the wrong (business) model.
  • Resist the temptation to control of the church’s future.  Subscribing to the philosophy that your church’s success hinges on your leadership is alluring – you can always improve and control your leadership skills.  Yet much like we must all resist the urge to think our actions impact our salvation, pastors should surrender control and distribute knowledge, power and responsibility to members.
  • Pastors and staff should commit themselves fully to discipling, equipping and empowering the congregation.  That doesn’t require fantastic leadership, just a deep abiding in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, compelling them to disclose the costs of discipleship and to hold members accountable to the Great Commission standard.  That’s when we’ll start to see more people showing up who didn’t simply come from another church down the road.  Personal relationships with members who’ve been challenged to become disciples and evangelists can attract even those who otherwise wouldn’t dare darken the doors of a church.
  • Carefully consider which business practices belong in your church, if any.
  • Overcome resistance to change, even when the risks are great.  Church planters are initially bold and externally-focused, but become more risk averse once there’s something to lose.  Isn’t the opportunity to dramatically increase your footprint by challenging your congregation fervently to live out the Great Commission worth risking the departure of those who view church as a social club?

It’s Your Turn…

Do you agree that leadership is overemphasized in the Church in America today because leaders are overemphasized?  Why or why not?


6 Responses

  1. Coming from the perspective of a secular leadership coach, a Master Trainer for Lead Like Jesus, and a volunteer staff member at a small church (150), I agree and disagree.

    I agree that to lead a church effectively is to come at it from a servant leadership perspective, trying to lead more and more as Jesus led, flipping the pyramid upside down, and coming to the church from a biblical perspective. That said, leadership IS huge. And like anything else we are trying to get better at (whether it’s marriage, communication, golf, etc.), reading, attending classes/conferences, getting a coach or mentor and just generally learning from others is a good thing. I agree the main textbook is the Bible and that some may bounce from thing to thing looking for a magic bullet; and I agree that the only Magic Bullet is the Holy Spirit.

    My point of departure, is that there are tools and techniques to help them understand others better, communicate more effectively, encourage and manage healthy conflict, just to name a few; so that they can in fact be better biblical leaders. Understanding how to identify and leverage strengths and differences to enable and empower their church members to help feed and draw the sheep is huge. I agree that you have to get the heart right first and I also believe in some cases pastors (and all leaders) need help with how to actually shift their behavior to make biblical leadership a reality.

    I love your article and taking it to our next staff meeting to discuss where God would have us make a change.

    1. Pat – Great comments. Yes, leadership does matter and the leadership training/coaching you’re doing is certainly important. My concern is that the modern American church growth model is both the real (“root cause”) issue why the Church is struggling today and the reason why pastoral leadership is overemphasized – because the model assigns the leadership role disproportionately to pastors rather than to members. I just wish more leadership training was focused on empowering members to be excellent leaders for Christ in all of their walks of life. Imagine the Kingdom impact of powerfully discipled Christians serving as the living, breathing church to all those they encounter. Thanks again, Pat for your thoughts and your service to the Lord.

  2. As a church leader with over four decades of experience including a Phd in organizational leadership I agree that the servant leadership model needs to be taught and practiced by the both staff and congregants. The reason many churches remain small is pastors are managers worried more about outputs than empowering disciples to do the work of the ministry!

  3. there’s definitely a lot of truth to this post. However, gosh have I been in a lot of incredibly unhealthy small churches that were small partly because of exactly the things the author says is wrong with larger churches – the pastor will challenge people who are destroying the church’s culture.

    the first senior pastor I worked under had seen his church grow from about 100 people to about 450 by the time I got there, and I was therefore to grow to about 1000. His greatest leadership principle was that whenever anyone in the congregation laid a ultimatum down and said “if you don’t do X, I’m leaving- with my tithe money.” He covenanted before God that the next five words out of his mouth would be “we will miss you.”

    I saw that one principle unleash spiritual health in an incredible way at that local church. It revived the cultural health of that congregation by not allowing people not interested in the work of the Holy Spirit to control the culture and keep people out.

    That would be just one example of many I have seen that persuades me that both large churches and small churches can be that way for the right reasons and the wrong reasons. And I have come to believe that you can grow a church larger through good leadership in most cases, and that therefore attending to what biblical leadership looks like is very worthwhile as a subject of study. Yet at the same time, I completely agree that there are secular modes of leadership that are as ungodly as anything else on God’s green earth.

  4. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you need to write more on this topic, it may not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t speak about these topics.
    To the next! Best wishes!!

  5. Hi to every one, because I am genuinely eager of reading this web site’s post to be updated daily.
    It contains pleasant information.

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