Pastoral Leadership Challenges, Part 2

Dr. Hugh Ballou has done some great work in his transformational leadership seminars. Last year Dr. Ballou interviewed me on church leadership issues. Here is a part of that interview:

Ballou: As you know, I teach Transformational Leadership. One important part of this style of leadership is the area of relationships. Speak to the staff relationship area and how important that is to ministry and then, ministry overall is about relationship, with those whom you lead.

Willimon: There was a time in my ministry that I would have said that it’s all relationships and that, in the ministry, you have the opportunity to develop some deep, meaningful relationships. A pastor can only lead as far as people trust you and that you can talk into things. While affirming that relationships are key and that they are absolutely essential, I think along with that has got to be a vivid sense and commitment to the vision, to the results, to what we are all here together producing. A basic question: how do we know when we have succeeded? Or to put it more like John Wesley, What is the fruit of this ministry? I mention this because, it seems like in contemporary United Methodism, I think this is the result of pietism running out, relationships have become just about everything. I go to meetings where it’s a two-hour meeting. We spend the first 30 minutes on the hospital list reporting who is in the hospital and then we have prayer for them. Or we go to a meeting and spend the first 30 minutes of a one-hour meeting going around the room and introducing ourselves and telling where we are from. I know it’s better to do hard work with people you really know. But I question if just knowing people’s names and knowing where people are from contributes a huge amount to the output of the meeting.

More troublesome is that the overstress on relationships is a way of avoiding more threatening questions of productivity and fruitfulness. “By your fruits you shall know them.” When Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah?” “Are you God’s way of loving us?” Jesus says, “You go and tell John the following specific, measurable fruits of my ministry.”

As a Bishop, I am in the middle of moving pastors now for the coming year. A church says, “Why are you moving our pastor? We love this pastor. She’s the most loving pastor we’ve ever had. She sees my family when they were in the hospital. We’ve never gotten along better with a pastor. Everybody loves her. Nobody criticizes her and she loves us. Why would you disrupt that? We’re better off than we’re ever been.”

In too many cases I am forced to say, “Looking at the numbers, you’ll be closed in about 8 to 10 years. You are basically moving out of the business of being a church judging by how many people you have attending on Sunday, your professions of faith, your finances.”

Then the response is, “You don’t care about anything but numbers.”

I’m simply noting that concerns about relationship can have a sad side. We need to keep telling ourselves that we are in the business of relationships as Christians because the mission Jesus Christ gives us. The most important “relationship” we have is the relationship to Jesus Christ and his mission.

Ballou: Absolutely! It supports the first piece we were talking about, clarity in the vision.

Willimon: I was just thinking about that. I love your stress on clarity. This week, this is my thing – clarity. I’ve just read a good book by Bill Brosen (Dean of Sewanee School of Theology) The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation, Then and Now. And Bill says that when he listens to sermons, the biggest problem is clarity, just simple clarity. You can’t figure out what the preacher is talking about. Bill says that it’s a kind of theological problem and a sense of indecision when a preacher is unable to say, “I’m going to go with this as my subject; I’m not going to go with that.” Expanding that to leadership in the church, I’d say that one of the problems we have in the church is that we have these ridiculously broad, multi-faceted expectations – increase of love of God and neighbor, or we want to have a loving, caring congregation, or we also want to change the world and transform America into a Christian society. It’s a recipe for never accomplishing anything and never feeling that God has done something good through us.

So, therefore, clarity becomes a huge thing. What is it that God is most importantly calling you to do? What is it that the church says and does than nobody else can say and do? My complaint about and over stress upon relationships is that I feel that I am often in settings where you ask what is the main thing you want to do and the group could truthfully say, “The main thing we want to do is to spend an hour and a half together with no conflict and no uncomfortableness and then we want to go home and we don’t want anybody to ask ‘why are we meeting, why is it important, what is expected of this gathering?’”

The one thing necessary is Jesus Christ and his mission; all else is secondary.

For more information on the seminars, on-line coaching, and books by Hugh Ballou, visit

Will Willimon

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