A Culture of Yes:
How to Lead from Your Strengths, Not Your Weaknesses
Many pastors have confronted the limitations of their settings so often that a “culture of can’t” cripples their thoughts. Must this be the plight of the smaller congregation?
By Michael Clarensau
I wanted to dunk a basketball. After hours of watching Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the stars of my childhood — prove that dunking a basketball shaped the path to athletic stardom, I was convinced that the ability to play above the rim would give me that treasured spot on my high school team.
So I spent hours jumping. I could not enter a room without testing to see if I could scrape my fingers on its ceiling. I exercised my fingers, seeking to expand them to the length necessary to grip a basketball in a way that I could achieve my acrobatic aerial goals.
Unfortunately, I was the smallest kid in my class. Even after hours of hanging on the swing set bars at a nearby park in an effort to stretch my tiny frame, it was clear I would fall at least a foot short of my goal of being 6’ 10” tall. If my dreams truly hinged on dunking a basketball, then I had only nightmares of disappointment ahead. Over time, reality sunk in. I faced the harsh conclusion that I could not, did not, and would not ever be able to dunk a basketball.
Early in my first pastorate, a wonderful collection of about 75 redeemed folks in a small Kansas town, I struggled with similar disappointment. No, the church basketball team was not lacking a post player; I might have been the best athlete in the congregation. But we were a long way from where I wanted us to be, and my dreams for the church seemed as far away as that 10-foot rim.
I went to conferences, but there were Dr. J and Jabbar — or their church growth counterparts — setting the bar higher than I could reach. These leaders lived in the air above my head; and, though I admired their exploits and still dreamed of achieving my own, I knew my group of worshipping friends and I could not do much of what these hall of fame leaders were doing.
Many smaller church pastors know that feeling. Great books and boxed programs call from catalog pages offering paths to our dreams or conference notebooks promise the answers we want. But when we look inside, our hopes are dashed at the realization we cannot do what the author insists is easy.
We genuinely cannot. Many small churches lack the people resources, the financial resources, and the ministry abilities to simply take the prepackaged success of someone else’s reality and make it work. They do not have the musicians for that musical, the teachers for that discipleship strategy, the people to take on that service project, or the money to do things on that level. They say they can’t, and many times they are right.
I should tell you that I made the high school basketball team. I never learned to play above the rim, but my dad took me out in the driveway and taught me what I could do. He helped me master ball-handling skills and taught me to pass effectively. I even learned a jump shot that my skinny arms could manage. My dad helped me develop skills that landed me on the team, on the court, and on the winning side more often than not.
Many pastors have confronted the limitations of their settings so often that a “culture of can’t” cripples their thoughts (See sidebar “How Do I Know When I’m Stuck in a Culture of Can’t?”). Must this be the plight of the smaller congregation?
If the pile of things you cannot do seems a bit daunting, look for a different pile. My dad would insist there are answers among the things you can do. For most of us our limited resources mean that the can’ts will keep outnumbering the cans, but there is amazing potential in refocusing our efforts on what is truly within our reach.
In his book, Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham underscores the common misconception that our greatest room for growth is in our areas of greatest weakness.1 He argues that we will likely never succeed by focusing on what we cannot do well, but that great potential lies in the energy we give to our strengths.
Gary McIntosh, author of many resources for smaller congregations, affirms a similar idea. In There’s Hope for Your Church, McIntosh encourages pastors to look for their direction among the things their people can do well.2 In fact, he adds his voice to many others who mark out the following path for discovering a church’s unique path to health and growth.
The Leader’s Passion
The heart of the leader is the first place to search for what we can do. Pastors are people too, and goals and passions filled their hearts even before they stepped into their current roles. One pastor dreams of healing broken people because that is what a church did for him on his road toward God. Another pastor cannot help but weep over the challenges facing children and students. He feels a desperate desire to make a difference for this rising generation. Still another pastor’s heart turns toward embracing people whom no one else will touch. Others find no greater joy than when they see God’s life-changing power at work around them.
Pastors have a tendency to become task-focused after awhile. They live in the weekly demands of ministry until they think their true passion lies in the tasks of ministry, like preaching. But the real passion is deeper. Sometimes they can only find this by remembering, “what [they] were when [they] were called” (1 Corinthians 1:26). A visit back to the passion that first led them to ministry can help remind them of the deeper “why” in their work.
Pastors cannot lead in every available direction; but, when they move in the path of their passion, they are uniquely equipped to lead that journey. That passion differentiates them from other leaders, demonstrating that God has designed a unique road for them to take, a road where they can mobilize those they lead toward amazing impact.
The Congregation’s Ability
The second place to look for the right steps forward is among those things a congregation can do well. As previously noted, there are many things a smaller congregation cannot do well. But regardless of the level of its limitations, every church can do something well.
God demonstrates amazing creativity in His church. He distributes gifts and talents in such a way that every congregation’s ministry can be unique. We are simply not all good at the same things. One congregation proves effective in its teaching ministry, and proves that ability with a strong Sunday School or children’s ministry. Another church might be blessed with musicians that bring vibrancy to its expressions of worship. Still another church has a passion to serve and the capacity to find creative ways of doing so.
It seems that the longer a church exists, the more ministries and programs it will undertake. Congregational energy and resources are spread over a number of different efforts, many of which were begun because of denominational expectations or the success of another church with these ministries. Truthfully, the smaller church can be quite susceptible to traveling vision. Traveling vision is the ministry ideas someone brings from their old church to their new church. Since the pastor and church leaders are often more accessible in the smaller church, people can easily approach him and talk him into launching a ministry that a new member experienced at another church. This happens most frequently at a church that lacks clear vision and direction.
The result is an accumulation of programs and ministries that continually keep the congregation from achieving clear focus. It is not uncommon for the smaller congregation to be operating a wider variety of initiatives and programs than you will find on the calendar of a larger church.
When a congregation discovers what it can do well and begins to funnel its resources toward its narrower list of strengths, momentum often occurs. People enjoy doing those things they can succeed at doing and their quality efforts make a much greater impact than they can achieve in moments where weaknesses are on display.
The Community’s Need
Community need is the third place to look for the “cans” of ministry. While there are issues that arise in every city or town, each town can also have needs that are unique in either its nature or its extreme. For example, a small town could have an abnormally high rate of alcoholism or juvenile crime. Single moms might exist in great numbers, or perhaps an expanding ethnic group may present new challenges for the community. When a church’s ministry can step into a significant community gap, opportunities will follow.
Amazing momentum and growth can occur when the pastor’s passion, congregation’s abilities, and community needs merge. Combining passion, ability, and need can create a ministry focus that becomes an “engine,” driving the church forward to a new and fulfilling future.
Unfortunately, many smaller congregations seem determined to find their success in the wake of large church success stories. So they launch new ministries that lack the caliber and community connection of their original moment. And the more frequently a church tries and fails, the more resistant its people will become to the next new idea.
Every church has something it can do well or learn to do well. Finding a way to aim that ability outward is often the missing step. Too often a congregation focuses its most effective ministry efforts on one another, and the community can only experience these gifts if they choose to attend a Sunday service.
For example, suppose a church has an excellent Bible teacher. Every Sunday that teacher offers one of the finest classroom learning opportunities in town, but the only people experiencing the wisdom she offers are the 12 to 15 learners attending. Suppose that same teacher took a quarter (13 weeks) away from her Sunday School class and offered a 6-week course on biblical parenting at the nearby community center. The church’s strengths would be on display in the community and that teacher might never be the same again.
A church’s excellent children’s ministries could take a similar approach. In smaller communities, schools are often open to high-quality children’s programs for a school assembly or after-school event. If you do it well on Sunday, why not try it on Monday?
I remember my first congregation’s strong efforts in children’s ministries. They were doing a great job, but only a few families and about 20 kids in town knew it. Only when we found a way to aim that ability outward did it become a catalyst for growth.
Other churches excel in music. They may not have the resources or the high-tech production capacity of the larger church, but locals will still enjoy a concert in the park or a musical stage at the annual city celebration. Many churches have found a community concert on the 4th of July a more effective way to connect with new people than a traditional Christmas cantata at the church.
Many can find this outward capacity in serving the community. A year ago, a small church leadership team told me they were really good at funerals. At first, their admission seemed odd, but together we discovered that their pastor’s excellent care and encouraging message combined with the wonderful meal the ladies of the church could prepare might be a phenomenal way to impact the hurting people of their community. So now the local funeral home knows to call this small congregation any time they meet a grieving family that lacks the support of a church. What an amazing strategy to impact a community.
Of course, there are numerous ways for a church to serve its neighbors. Food banks, clothing drives, and single-parent care days are just a few of the dozens of ways a church can make a difference. But rather than making several such efforts, the smaller church would do well to choose one or two they can do well and continually find ways to do them better and better. Maximizing strengths is the path to greater effectiveness.
For some congregations, discovering what they can do well might be a challenge. Many smaller churches are aging, and the ministry energy of the past does not seem to be readily available. In such cases, learning to love people and love them well can be a strong alternative. The need for relationships is as strong as ever, so the church that truly loves people will always have a reason-for-being.
Of course, love is the mandate for every church, regardless of its other abilities (John 13:35; 1 Corinthians 13:1). Those who fail to love will never build a truly healthy church, so each congregation must number this ability among the things they do well.
Buckingham’s insistence that operating in our strengths forms the path to effectiveness can be liberating to leaders of smaller congregations. Trying to develop ministries that compare with those who have greater resource keeps many leaders in a state of emotional inferiority. Thoughts like our music will never be like theirs or, our youth program could never do that cause us to devalue the musicians and youth program we have. And that is a recipe for many unhealthy moments.
If every individual has unique gifts and abilities through which he or she can strengthen the church (Romans 12:6), then it follows that God has equipped every congregation in its own unique way. Discovering those abilities and growing them into strengths offer a path to health and growth that fits the congregation, and one it can sustain into the future.
Since the pastor’s role is to equip people for the ministries God has gifted them to fulfill (Ephesians 4:13), then helping people find and develop those gifts must be one of his or her primary assignments.
If my dad had not taught me to give my best effort to bouncing a basketball and shooting it reasonably well, the high school letters that are stitched to a dusty jacket in my closet would be replaced by wishes and what ifs. I never threatened Dr. J’s hall of fame spot, but more than 30 years later I still play a few nights a week. Memories would be clouded with disappointments, and I might not have gained the confidence to pursue other strengths upon which to build my own future.
So stop hanging on the swing set and dreaming other people’s dreams. Give your best energy to your true best, and watch your congregation become what God designed it to be.
1. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, Now Discover Your Strengths (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 7.
2. Gary L. McIntosh,There’s Hope for Your Church: First Steps to Restoring Health and Growth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 75.