“I Don’t Know How To Lead People”

Last week a friend said to me, “I don’t know how to lead people.” He’s a pastor– been one for 10 years.

Last month an Elder scribbled a note during a meeting of our Christian Education and Leadership Commission and slid it to me: “We’re not training any leaders!”

Yesterday I read this on the blog of ECO, the new Presbyterian denomination full of disgruntled former PC(USA) churches and leaders: “Churches rise and fall with their visions, and the vision usually hangs on the passion of the leadership teams.”

The question of leadership won’t leave me alone. On good days I almost relish the un-heirarchical structure of elected Ruling and Teaching Elders and the checks Presbyterian polity places on the lone leader’s freedom. But on bad days I despair that I’m not really leading and that mainline Protestantism as a whole is decaying from the inside out for a lack of leadership.

I know what I reject. I reject the ideal of the leader who casts a vision for her church, who produces with a select team a vision statement in which the bullet points all begin with the same letter, who pronounces a slogan and then single-mindedly rallies the faithful to follow it. To me, “Vision Casting” just feels . . . yucky.

There are other ideas about leadership out there that tickle me. Peter Block’s thing about leaders crafting and curating space for transformative conversations is compelling.  Missional Leadership trusts that “The future of the people of God is among the people of God,” and that feels right. The Adaptive Leadership school’s focus on technical vs. adaptive challenges and the need for leaders to know the difference is hard to argue with. Edwin Friedman’s insistence on self-differentiation as a primary leadership trait rings very, very true. And, of course, the community organizer style of leadership promoted by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is concrete and full of powerful potential.

But what is this? A buffet?

I hear my friend’s confession about not knowing how to lead people, and I wonder if our training hasn’t in some sense failed us. On the whole, I don’t see a lot of enthusiastic leadership development in the mainline. Evangelicalism seems much more clear about what its leaders are supposed to do: cast a vision for ministry and rally followers. Frankly, evangelicalism also seems more effective at producing leaders who do that very thing. But that feels to me like a very bland version of leadership. I don’t like it. I want something else.

Is there a style of leadership for the NEXT iteration of mainline protestantism? Or are mainline leaders left to pick from the Amazon “Leadership” section? Is the IAF the best thing going for training leaders in mainline churches?

What’s the model of leadership for the mainline for, say, the next two decades?



19 thoughts on ““I Don’t Know How To Lead People”

  1. This merges well with Jan Edmiston’s post this morning. Leadership in the church (at least, maybe more broadly) seems to need an ability to shepherd people past anxiety and fear and into the unknown future that God surely has waiting for us.
    The book that has helped me the most, as I’ve lived into leading the congregation I serve, is “Failure of Nerve” by Friedman. Would have loved to know the difference between technical and adaptive change 5 years ago, but it has been helpful to our session the past few years. Will look at the other things you’ve mentioned.

    1. I need to read Friedman again. So you’re not doing the vision casting thing for your congregation? If fact, it sounds like you’re trying to lead with, and not for, your congregation. Is that the ideal you’re following? (BTW, I appreciate your comment on Jan’s Blog about pastoral care being the fundamental “culture shifting” sensibility)

      1. I don’t know that leading and vision casting are mutually exclusive. Our congregation has gotten stronger because more people are a part of what we are doing and are equipped to contribute to our work and witness. There are times when I’m up front and unapologetic about leading. But more often I’m spending my time helping other people discern their own gifts and learn to use them.

        Whether we claim the title or not, we are leaders. The question is how good are we at it? I wouldn’t claim I’m particularly educated in being a leader, but I recognize people look to me to lead and expect it from me.

        One thing I was reflecting on recently, though, is that in almost 6 years of leading, I’ve learned how to get things done, and that often it requires leaving other people space to make mistakes, space to save face, and space to claim credit for it.
        I’m much less interested in “being right” any more. Much more interested in getting things done. (which is a big claim for an 8).

  2. I wonder if one of the issues, at least in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, is still the Christendom hang over. The choice of what kind of leader we want to be is not autonomous; we get assigned roles and in mainline Christendom that was pastor. The Board of Managers looked after temporal affairs and was by definition not the domain of the pastor. Cutting off the pastor from anything to do with finances severely limits their ability to lead. For instance, our church is just about to break ground on a $4.5 million dollar building project. The project has been going on for nearly two decades. My style is much different than my predecessor who steered the project for 17 years. Consistently, older members of the congregation will apologize for saddling me with all of these leadership tasks and roles. “That isn’t what a pastor should do. They should preach and visit. Lay leaders should build the building.” That kind of thinking is rooted in old role definition and I find that leading is more difficult for it. I don’t do “vision casting” etc. but even simple day to day practical leading is complicated by deeply institutionalized role definitions.

      1. I’m not sure I would want to universalize going forward but I definitely feel like bureaucratic maintenance and personal piety are two roles expected of the pastor that are antithetical to leading a dynamic and outwardly focused congregation.

  3. Yes. Amen to all of this.

    One reason for my interest in this year’s NEXT Conference theme “Lead. Create. Discern” is to put this matter of leadership front and center for us.

    I’m also a Friedman admirer. But my hope is that what you’ve isolated will become a major topic at the conference and will spark good development beyond it.

      1. Word. BTW, look particularly at the Ramsey/Farber workshop as one of your two workshop choices. It might directly talk about these things….

  4. Terrifically helpful–thanks! (And thanks Chad for being doing PR for our workshop at NEXT…) I do think leadership development has been underemphasized and underestimated in the PCUSA. Sometimes, this has been in service of important (and corrective) values of breaking down an overly-hierarchical approach, but it’s left us staring at the rich buffet you cite–Friedman, Block, Heifetz, etc–without much sense of what to use when and how to even nurture that conversation. I am drawn to the simple approach that leaders in churches should try to use their role to “starve problems and feed opportunities.” I am amazed how often I end up doing exactly the opposite. And Chad is right: we do want to talk about these things at NEXT, and are inviting people to send or bring a brief description of a leadership moment or challenge that we can discuss and work through together. This post really helps us frame that in a great way. Thanks.

  5. Rocky —-
    I’ve always felt that “real” leaders are born with the instinct. It comes naturally to them, they don’t have to be taught. I’ve always thought trying to teach how this is done, somehow seems to often “miss the point”, it just doesn’t work!!!! Sorry about that ——-

  6. I’m late to this party, but many pastors that I know who have had difficulty leading have that difficulty because they know that the people that they are leading have a habit of firing their leaders. The authority of government rests upon the consent of the governed, so how can a pastor truly challenge the congregation when the consent is so frequently revoked? We see the same thing with our 2-year election cycle for the House of Representatives. It’s always an election year, so those who ought to be leaders are more inclined to pander.

    1. On the other side, perhaps we need to take church discipline more seriously. What about firing the people?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s