The Skills to Become an Excellent Leader of the Smaller Congregation

by Cal LeMon

There were typos in the worship bulletin — again. The restrooms, cleaned by a volunteer custodian, did not have hand towels in the wall dispenser — again. The worship leader walked into the sanctuary three minutes before the start of the service — again. And the Christian education class for the four teenagers in the youth group joined the adult class because their teacher did not set her alarm — again.

Sound familiar?

As a former church planter, I have lived in the spiritual euphoria and emotional angst of the emerging congregation. The ultimate challenge was not getting warm bodies into those folding chairs. Rather, my frustration was convincing the new congregants God deserved nothing less than excellence because Christ, the Son of God, was living among us.

Since a church will always reflect its spiritual leadership, I am convinced the only option to rediscover growth, renewed worship, and a mesmerizing mission is for spiritual leadership to discover pragmatic excellence.

Learning About Excellence

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc., said, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Apple stock split last year, rewarding its investors with six shares for every one they owned. Though Steve Jobs died in 2011, his leadership lives on at Apple.

Lexus is an excellent automobile. Harvard University is an excellent educational institution. And Four Seasons is an excellent hotel. We often do not hesitate spending our money and time on things and people we deem “excellent.” So what about the excellent small congregation?

The Excellence of the Small Church

The advent of the megachurch has cast the small congregation in the unenviable role of Chicken Little.

How can a congregation of 75 believers compete with 7,500 adherents who have the funds and faith to build a spiritual kingdom complete with 24-hour health clubs, parking lot attendants, and coffee stations in the foyer that strangely mimic the appearance and aroma of Starbucks?

The excellence of the small congregation is the well-established fact that, within a few weeks, everyone will know your name. And they will know your children’s names, your laughter, your tears, and your spiritual challenges. Most importantly, they will know you are growing in your faith — together. Spiritual and social intimacy is the excellence of the smaller congregation.

The Five Skills of Excellence That Will Impact Your Small Congregation

1. Always tell the truth, even when you know the listener will not be happy with what you just said.

Have you noticed there are few places to hide in the small church?

A leader who says “yes,” and then passively-aggressively acts out “no,” loses credibility.

If you adopt this skill of honesty, you may punctuate your conversations with parishioners with assertive language like, “As I mentioned in our last mission committee meeting, I cannot support sending three of our teenagers to Belize for summer ministry without two adults accompanying them.”

Or you may have to use this honest response, “Yes, as your pastor, I will always be available to help you in emergencies. And on Fridays, which is a personal day I spend with my family, I expect our elders to assume their spiritual leadership in my absence.”

2. Send the right message with your body language, eye contact, and verbal skills.

When you lean back and clasp your arms behind your back or fold them in front of your chest while a parishioner is talking, your body language says, “I’m not listening.”

Listen carefully, make eye contact, and ask incisive questions. Say, “Tell me more about that,” or, “I sense you are afraid of what God will ask of you. Have I understood that correctly?”

Another question that shows you care is, “How can I help you in this situation?”

3. Be excellent in your use of time.

At the beginning of conversations that are not emergencies, you can say, “Before we begin our time together, I need to make you aware of another appointment I have in 30 minutes. Is that enough time? If not, what is another time that will work for both of us?”

Of course, whatever you promise as a time to meet, keep that verbal obligation.

Always arrive a few minutes early for an appointment. Your ability to surprise the other person with your punctuality will make an impression and win respect.

4. Proclaim the Word through excellent teaching and preaching. If you are reading this column, you probably are doing, or will be preparing to do, just that.

In the small congregation, news travels fast. And, count on it, your flock will evaluate, analyze, and score your ability to declare God’s Word. Under that kind of scrutiny, people will easily detect your preparation or lack of it.

Read and reread your text, and take process notes without consulting a commentary, lectionary, or concordance. The ease of your communication will come from your outline, not a commentator’s. Ask yourself this question while doing your research: What do I want those who listen to the Word to do as a result of encountering God’s Word?

Create a simple outline of no more than three major points. Write out, verbatim, the entire sermon, but never read the sermon to your congregation. The text of the sermon will come back to your memory as you preach from the outline.

Finally, spend time in prayer, asking the Lord to bathe your hard work with the power of His Spirit.

5. Lead with love. Most people will view you as excellent if you genuinely care for those you lead. You are in the wrong place if you are building your own kingdom, consistently directing all the attention to the person you see in the mirror, or if you cannot emotionally handle someone who disagrees with you. Offer them your best, love them just as they are, and encourage them to keep moving forward in Christ.