Leading a church is one of the most rewarding and frustrating, difficult and easy, convoluted and simple, spiritual and pragmatic tasks anyone could ever attempt to do. Today’s pastor is expected to be a good preacher, a sensitive counselor, an able administrator, an insightful teacher, an excellent fund-raiser, a visionary strategist, a saint, an effective volunteer recruiter, a mediator in marriage and family disputes, a conflict-resolver within the congregation and an expert in organizational development. All this in an environment that is increasingly secular and disinterested in spiritual things. Local church ministry today is like when you ask your daughter about her relationship with her boyfriend, that both you and she knows makes her ecstatic some times and at other times drives her nuts, she answers you by saying, It’s complicated.
Most all of us preachers love what we do. We feel called to do it and don’t want to do anything else. Still, it’s a mixed bag. Which is why as Focus on the Family reports, 1000 American ministers leave the ministry every month.
So how can we pastors best lead? Through my thirty years of being a senior pastor, I’ve arrived at five key steps that are common to effective church leadership. Call them Church Leadership 101. I’m not good at all of them all of the time. And there are times I’ve forgotten the importance of one or some of them—usually to my detriment. But I’ve learned that these five make a huge difference in how well my church functions.
1. Watch over your own spiritual life. This must be the pastor’s highest priority. Much of what happens in our churches is beyond our control. But an authentic and dynamic spiritual life isn’t. Time spent in personal prayer and Bible study gives us both the spiritual insight and personal toughness that are essential to leadership. And we can’t make the mistake of thinking sermon preparation serves as personal spiritual growth. It doesn’t. In fact, preparing and delivering messages actually has the opposite effect: it drains us. If we’re not deliberately seeking the Lord in our own hearts, sooner or later we’ll become dry and empty, speaking with those spiritual clichés that everyone knows have no real impact, concerned more with how our congregations are responding to us than with what the Lord wants us to say. Like Joel Osteen, only with cheaper suits.
2. Heavily invest in your core group. Effective leadership is organic: it flows from the inside out. The pastor first must lead himself. Then his home. Then the core group of people who are the influencers of his church. A seminary professor of mine used to call this group the “Nodders.” Whatever their particular position within the church, this group is where the congregation looks to “nod” their approval before anything of consequence happens in the church. They are usually spiritually mature and have the best interest of the church and the pastor in heart. The effective pastor has to develop an authentic and personal relationship with this group. That’s not playing favorites. It’s simple recognizing the way congregations function. I meet with my core group every month for prayer. I love these men and have spent years building relationships with them. They love me enough to tell me the truth. It’s worth the investment of time and energy to build up this core group because as it goes, so goes the church.
3. Don’t settle. Pastors are famous for settling, for just making do with whatever their congregation is willing to do. We settle for mediocre worship. Or we settle for poor programs. Or we settle for under-achieving staff. Or we settle for congregational apathy. And over time our settling leads to the loss of vision, passion and purpose. We settle out of fear of conflict or loss of vision or fatigue. While there are many reasons for the general decline we see in churches across America today, the willingness of pastoral leadership to settle is surely one of the most significant reasons why. On the other side of the coin, for those relatively few churches—often the newer, contemporary ones—that are really growing, they are almost always led by pastors who refuse to settle for anything less than the best.
4. Watch for God’s timing. This key to leadership is harder to explain than the others but I’ve come to believe that it belongs right up there with the rest. Pastors have to be incredibly sensitive to God’s timing. My conviction and experience is that the Holy Spirit can and does work in today’s churches, even Baptist ones. After all, if Acts 2 teaches us anything, it teaches that the church as a whole is the product of the Holy Spirit. We wouldn’t be here at all if the Spirit hadn’t called us into existence and empowered us to do what God wants. So within that understanding, we pastors have to grasp that there are times when the Spirit says Go and other times when he says Stop. Times when he says Act and other times he says Rest. This principle holds true for programming, special events, emphases, services and many other congregational initiatives. Like the cloud leading the nation of Israel in the book of Numbers. Call it momentum, intuition, a feel for the process—however the pastor may label it, he must be alert to it. God’s timing is always impeccable, even when it seems at odds to human wisdom, and effective pastoral leadership has to be sensitive to it.
5. Love your people. In the end, pastoring God’s people is always about love. The pastor must have a shepherd’s heart, and without that his ministry is reduced to religious professionalism or personal ambition. Both of those alternatives stink. Instead, a warm and authentic affection for the people we’re privileged to serve as spiritual guide is the greatest leadership asset of all. All the leadership techniques in the world can’t substitute for simply loving your congregation.
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