Ten Essential Leadership Skills for Clergy - and Others in Ministry

by Victor M Parachin

During the American Revolutionary War, many influential citizens were timid and hesitant in supporting the effort to become independent from England. They feared that the colonies, with their small, inexperienced army, could not win a war against the mighty power and experience of the British Empire. More than any other leader of the time, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a great and independent America inspired the people.

“Jefferson believed it was inevitable that America would win … and the U.S. was destined to become the world’s greatest nation,” notes Joseph J Ellis, Ph.D., Ford Foundation professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

“The message Jefferson delivered was extraordinarily attractive — we as a nation could accomplish anything we set out to do, no matter how overwhelming the odds against success. In the darkest early days of our nation, Jefferson was there to assure Americans that the Republic was sound.”

Jefferson’s words and example became one rallying point as people took Jefferson seriously. “Because the people believed, they were able to act in ways that made it possible to accomplish the seemingly impossible,” Ellis notes.

Thomas Jefferson exhibits one essential characteristic of leadership: optimism. Leaders approach even the most formidable tasks with total optimism. True leaders are incurable optimists. They have the uncanny ability to see a swamp but know it can be transformed into a magnificent oasis. While the majority of people sit back and watch things happen, leaders like Thomas Jefferson, stand out from the crowd because they make things happen.

Leaders have a vision, articulate that vision, enlist the support of others, and establish ways and means effectively making the vision become a reality. Here are 10 other leadership skills essential for effectiveness in ministry.

1. Leaders lead. Lyle Schaller, noted analyst of large and small American congregations, laments the fact many people in positions of religious leadership do not lead. In his book, The Decision-Makers, he explains: “For a quarter century following World War II many theological seminaries taught courses in nondirective counseling, partly on the premise that the incompetent counselor would probably do less harm utilizing this style than with a more directive approach. Unfortunately some students in these courses apparently thought they were taking courses in church administration. One result is a large number of clergy who have developed a ‘nondirective’ style of leadership.” The fact is: true leaders do lead. They will chart a course, garner the necessary support and resources, and work to succeed.

2. Leaders lead from a spiritual center. Modern psychology accurately reminds us that we all have within us light and darkness. Those engaged in ministry are careful to lead from a spiritual center of light and not from the dark side of their personality. To do this means spending time in prayer, meditation, and reflection before speaking and acting. According to Scripture, Jesus spent 40 days in prayer and fasting before engaging in ministry (Matthew 4:1ff).

Today’s spiritual leaders must also take the time to quietly seek guidance. Their approach must be like the Psalmist: “Show me the path where I should walk, O Lord; point out the right road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me” (Psalm 25:4, NLT).1 Through prayer and meditation, leaders become more aware of God’s call. And through prayer and meditation, they will work from their own lighted spirits.

3. Leaders compromise creatively. As soon as a leader articulates his vision and establishes his plans, obstacles and roadblocks will emerge. New information and critical comments will come, prompting leaders to review plans and find ways to compromise creatively so they can still accomplish the end goal. Robert Schuller, founding minister of the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California, advises: “Consider all constructive compromises. It may even require retreat to advance later on. Rework, revise, rewrite, reorganize, reschedule, or refinance, and thereby creatively negotiate your way to ultimate victory.”

4. Leaders deal constructively with conflict. Whenever you have leadership, conflicts will arise. They often come from unexpected sources and arrive in all sizes and shapes. Effective leaders learn how to deal constructively with conflicts and maneuver around them. “You are a poor soldier of Christ if you think you can overcome without fighting, and suppose you can have the crown without the conflict,” declared early church leader John Chrysostom.

5. Leaders are willing to listen. Strong leaders know that listening carefully to others helps them in two ways. First, by hearing what others say, they can clarify, modify, and intensify their vision for the future by what they hear. Second, when leaders listen carefully and respectfully, even to criticisms, they not only gain additional insight but they often receive the support of the speaker.

When leaders listen, people rally around. An exceptional example is that of Abraham Lincoln. One of the reasons for his effectiveness as America’s leader during the Civil War was his ability to listen. In his day there were no public opinion polls. “Yet he kept in touch with common people and was able to perceive what they were thinking better than any other American politician at that time,” observes David Herbert Donald, Ph.D., professor of American History at Harvard University. “With no way to measure public opinion, Lincoln invented one. The doors of the White house were thrown open almost every day for what Lincoln called his ‘public opinion baths.’ Dozens of people dropped in and voiced their opinions. Sometimes Lincoln shaped policy to follow public opinion. More often than not, however, he used his ability to read people’s sentiments to determine how to sell them the policies he favored.”

6. Leaders are persistent. In his book, Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill offers this personal insight into the lives of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, men whose lives Hill studied carefully: “I had the happy privilege of analyzing both Mr. Edison and Mr. Ford, year by year, over a long period of years, and therefore the opportunity to study them at close range, so I speak from actual knowledge when I say that I found no quality save persistence, in either one of them that even remotely suggested the major source of their stupendous achievements.”

7. Leaders fall, but they get up and continue on. In times of difficulty, spiritual leaders are guided by the wisdom of these words from the prophet Isaiah: “Forget all that — it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do a brand-new thing. … I will make a pathway through the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:18,19, NLT).

A close look at any effective leader will quickly reveal that there were many disappointments on the road to success. Yet, they rise up and move ahead. In his book, Leadership Is The Key: Unlocking Your Ministry Effectiveness, Herb Miller writes: “Effective leaders are so completely committed to their personal visions and projects that they see setbacks as stepping stones rather than dead ends. When they fail, they forgive themselves and move on. When they fall down, they pick themselves up, figure out why, and give the game another shot with the added advantage of having learned from a mistake. An inner Teflon coating gives them higher than average tolerance levels for frustration. They keep rowing toward their goal against waves of ambiguity and new problems.”

8. Leaders respond positively to negative situations. In 1990, author and journalist Roy Rowan, spent 2 weeks on the streets of New York disguised as a homeless person for an article he was writing for People magazine. “What shocked me most was the large numbers of drifters who had once tasted success,” he recalls. “There was a once-popular TV actor, an opera singer — even a fashion model whose picture had appeared on the covers of many magazines. All had suffered setbacks and had let those setbacks destroy them,” Rowan says. The lesson for leadership: there will be delays and detours but true leaders will not be denied. They respond positively, creatively, and energetically to negative situations.

9. Leaders practice patience. Patience is the willingness to wait long enough for a process to produce desired results. Good leaders know that after they have done everything possible to set events in motion, they must wait for them to happen and cannot force them along. There is this important lesson for Christian leaders from the life of Mao Zedong, founder of modern-day China. His reputation as a skilled military commander came not by winning horrific, bloody battles but by closing in on his objectives and waiting patiently until they fell into his hand. For example, Mao did not send massive armies to conquer China’s great cities. He simply surrounded them and then waited. Soon city inhabitants realized that surrender was their best and only option. Zedong captured the great cities of Bejing and Shanghai in 1949 without much of a battle.

10. Leaders maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Effective leaders are aware of their strengths and alert to their weaknesses. They strive constantly to become even more effective. “Each of us brings together a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses,” says James E. Harvey in his book, Who’s In Charge. “Effective leaders identify their weaknesses, and when possible, seek improvement. … It may be a matter of health, interpersonal relations, or some elements of your job performance. But the desire to always improve underlies good leadership.”

Finally, those seeking to deepen their leadership skills heighten their efforts by thinking about these words from Socrates. Although the Greek philosopher-teacher was identifying characteristics of an educated person, his comments are equally appropriate for leaders “Whom, then, do I call educated? first, those who control circumstances instead of being mastered by them, those who meet all occasions manfully and act in accordance with intelligent thinking, those who are honorable in all dealings, who treat good-naturedly persons and things that are disagreeable; and furthermore, those who hold their pleasures under control and are not overcome by misfortune; finally, those who are not spoiled by success.”

Victor Parachin, Tulsa, Oklahoma