View the Tools of the Trade Index
Five Reasons Pastors Do Not Lead Their Churches
By Dick Hardy
This sounds like an upside down topic but bear with me. Many senior pastors have the title senior pastor but do not have the authority to lead their churches. The consequences of this lack of leadership are too devastating to ignore.
Outstanding pastors do lead many churches. Too many pastors, however, forfeit leadership either because of their own propensity to not lead or the church’s propensity to usurp leadership from them. Whichever the case, the church suffers.
Here are the five reasons senior pastors do not lead their churches.
1. The board runs the show and the pastor lets them.
2. The congregation wants to vote on everything and the pastor lets them.
3. The staff runs the show and the pastor lets them.
4. Nobody runs the show and the pastor is one of the nobodies.
5. The pastor leads by consensus — takes a vote on everything from everybody and until everybody agrees.
So which one are you? After you sufficiently get over the shock of thinking of yourself in one or more of these terms, give the following recommendations consideration in navigating to a higher level of leadership.
The board runs the show and the pastor lets them.
At Issue: Typically the smaller the church the larger the influence of a church board and its members. In the smaller church people see the pastor as a “hireling.” They hired him to preach, marry, bury, visit the sick and elderly, and be at every event and personal happening of everyone in the congregation.
In too many of these churches, the board directs the future of the church. Frequently, the board is the permission-granting group for the pastor’s vision. If a real pastor comes to the church a conflict often ensues concerning who is going to lead.
Solution: When this is the case the pastor will likely be in for one or more showdowns with a board member or the entire board. I suggest you determine this on the front end. However, if you discover this after you are onboard you must set the record straight concerning who will lead. Be wise, but move forward.
When the culture has been consensus building in nature, the prudent pastor will take time recalibrating how the church will view the senior pastor’s leadership. The pastor must spend time re-educating the board and congregation on the issue of leadership.
Many board members are happy to have a real leader step forward. Those who are not will not last long on your board. Do not coddle controlling board members. If they cannot understand that the church will not grow unless the senior pastor leads, then they will need to step aside. This will be very confrontational. If you can confront and win, then they will receive your leadership with respect. If you cannot, then you will not be able to make the changes necessary to move the church forward. They will either ask you to leave or you will sit and stagnate.
Pick your time, confront the detractors to your leadership, and communicate clear and concise leadership. It had better be you.
The congregation wants to vote on everything and the pastor lets them.
At Issue: The stronger the congregational form of government the harder it is for the church to grow. The congregation becomes the ridiculous extreme of a committee-driven church. When the congregation needs to vote on everything from the color of carpet to whether to change the prayer room into a junior high game room, the church is slated for no growth and decline.
Solution: When you face the congregational leadership model, you need to slowly start turning the ship by beginning to make decisions yourself. When you initially do that, start communicating to the congregation of your actions in a growth-excitement manner, keeping them fully in the loop so they feel less a sense of we are not voting anymore to we still are hearing the inside scoop on decisions. This may go on for a few months until such point the congregation sees that the decisions that emanate from your office are good ones and that the church is growing. If you have this congregational model at your church, start turning it to the growth-oriented model. If you do not have the congregational model, do not let it get started. You are the leader. Act like it.
The staff runs the show and the pastor lets them.
At Issue: Multiple staff churches look like a senior pastor’s dream come true. When the right staff is in place and the senior pastor leads it can be a dream come true. However, in many cases the senior pastor is so bent on developing a collegial relationship with staff he forfeits his responsibility to lead. Likely, the previous pastor built the staff with strong leaders. When that is the case, the staff begins to step up and lead in the absence of the senior pastor’s leadership.
Solution: When a new pastor comes into a culture with an existing staff, he has the opportunity to learn new people while trying to demonstrate his own leadership. Never should a pastor, whether new or entrenched, forfeit his responsibility to lead.
Unfortunately, there are staff who build coalitions of people around them. They look for opportunities to lead. The pastor must gain buy-in from his partners on the team while never letting go of the senior leadership responsibilities. If the pastor has already allowed this to happen he must begin to turn it around by slowly and deliberately communicating the intended leadership style to the current team.
The pastor cannot be seen as a dictator but he must communicate that input is critical from staff members. However, at the end of the day regardless of the decision or direction, the team must coalesce behind the senior pastor. This leader gains buy-in and then steps out and leads.
Nobody runs the show and the pastor is one of the nobodies.
At Issue: This is one of the saddest scenarios. The church is on autopilot with everyone, including the senior pastor, taking turns being warm and friendly with everyone. No one challenges anyone or anything. No one leads. The senior pastor does everything by making sure everyone is happy and that no one ever gets upset. Nobody leads and that includes the senior pastor.
Solution: When this is the case the pastor must begin to step up and make decisions. The pastor cannot be tentative in his decisions even if he feels tentative. The good thing is that because no one has been leading, just the fact someone is stepping up to lead generally is received well. Nothing is worse than no leadership from anyone. The pastor cannot be seen as just another “nobody” sitting by watching nothing happen.
Make a small decision and then stand by it. Then make another one … and another one … and another one. Ultimately you will be able to make a larger decision and it will stand and be good for the church. If you get resistance to this approach, there really is someone else (likely a current board member) functioning in a passive leadership role. You need to find out who that is and put in place the elements relative to board leadership of the church.
The pastor leads by consensus — takes a vote on everything from everybody and until everybody agrees.
At Issue: The senior pastor is the ultimate consensus builder. He takes a vote literally or figuratively on everything. The senior pastor mistakes “gaining buy-in” for “consensus building.” These are very different.
Solution: Stop trying to build consensus and start gaining buy-in. Consensus building waters every decision down to the most palatable level for the lowest level leader. Buy-in has strong staff leaders hearing, understanding, challenging, debating, and buying into the pastor’s vision or adjusted vision. When that vision or decision is flawed the smart pastor does not dig his heels in, rather, retrenches and moves out again with an even better vision, plan and/or strategy for the future.
Strong pastors must come to grips with the difference between consensus building and creating buy-in. When buy-in is successful, the church has the greatest potential for incremental and then ultimately exponential growth.
At the end of the day, it is critical that the senior pastor has the ability to lead and that he does so. For a church to grow, it must have strong senior leadership. Churches that do not grow have fallen prey to one of the five reasons.
Senior pastor, it is your job to lead. Mitigate the reasons as articulated above. If you have others in your church culture mitigate those as well. The stakes are too high for you to simply sit by and stay with the status quo. Your mission is the greatest on the planet. Act like it and lead your church.
If you fail at this task the church loses. If the church wants to lose, then shake the dust off your feet and move on. Do not cop out to this, but where the entrenchment of leadership other than the senior pastor exists the church lacks vision. We all know what happens when there is not vision. But do not forget, when you lead there may be fireworks but if you are still standing at the end of the debate, the Kingdom wins.
Do everything you can to remove these reasons from your church culture. When you do, the Kingdom will win.
Dick Hardy is the founder and president of The Hardy Group, an Executive Consulting firm for senior pastors of churches.