The Best of Times for Church Leaders

“We are dying and our pastor hasn’t a clue what to do about it. If our next pastor refuses to lead, we’re history,” lamented a layperson as we stood in the gravel parking lot of a little Alabama church.

A consultant told one of my churches, “Your church staff is intelligent, spiritually astute, but don’t know how to do the things that need to be done to give this church a future. Worse, they have a well-developed theology to justify their lack of leadership.”

At the risk of nostalgia — when I entered the pastoral ministry in South Carolina four decades ago I was clear that I was being sent onto the frontlines of a war. Jesus demanded the acquisition of leadership skills – truth-telling, pain-inducting, coalition-building, constant communication – that are rarely innate and few seminaries teach. I had to figure out how not only to maintain but also to move the church. When I became a bishop years later, it seemed that many pastors had reverted to maintenance and care-giving – safer work than the leadership of change.

It’s a truism that no human institution endures without change. As G. K. Chesterton said in defense of tradition, if you want a fencepost to stay the same, you’ve got to repaint it every year. Refurbishment and transformation are even more pressing for the church. Had I the time, I’m sure I could demonstrate – through appeal to Scripture and church history – that there’s no way to remain the church without continual renovation and risk because of Jesus. Leading is only necessary for an institution that needs to go somewhere or that lives under external mandate. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the nascent church by focus upon the leaders of the church. What Jesus demands of disciples can’t be accomplished without someone being given the burden of leadership (ordination).

“Just be with your people, be present, listen, and love them,” responded one of my pastors to a consultant’s criticism that little appeared to be happening in his church. I was moved by the pastor’s sweet response.

“That’s not good enough,” the consultant shot back. “It’s arrogant for you to refuse to acquire the necessary skills and practices required to serve the needs of the church here and now. ‘I’ll just be present with you’ means ‘I refuse to submit to serve you as leader.’ Hey, we’ve learned why churches thrive and be more faithful.   You’re ordained to lead.”

I surveyed seminary graduates whom I had taught recently. I asked, “What should we have given you that we didn’t?”   Nearly all of them responded, leadership. “I graduated from seminary with lots of great ideas but without skills in how to execute those ideas,” said one. As I see it, we are the first generation of pastors in a century to be forced – by the demands of a living God and our changed cultural context – not only to care but also to lead. The good news is that an increasing number of pastors are eager to grow beyond earlier disparagement of leadership resources as mere symptoms of “institutional anxiety” or facile, faddish “church growth quick-fixes.”

There are more resources for church leaders than have existed at any time in the history of the church.   Having taught M.Div. and D. Min. courses in leadership (I know, “those who can’t, teach”) and having field tested dozens of church leadership books (desperation forces one to read), I’ve got some favorites. For a church leadership book to make my A-list, it must: be congruent with my ecclesial tradition and congregational culture, be explicitly driven as much by theological commitments as by organizational and sociological insights, honestly tackle the tough, necessary work for mainline Protestant Christianity to have a future, and be unashamedly specific and practical.

I’ve been prodded and poked by the many books of Bill Easum, Paul Borden, and Tom Bandy, recommending them to fellow pastors: “Here is pastoral leadership on steroids.” Easum’s Go Big: Leading Your Church to Explosive Growth (2006), or Bandy’s, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry Anytime, Anywhere, by Anybody (1995) are hard-hitting, fast-paced shoves to be more assertive pastoral leaders. Paul Borden (Hit the Bull’s Eye: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field, 2003 ) nails pastors for wasting time with internal congregational hand-holding rather than externally engaging North America in mission, mission, mission. I wrote the foreword to his Hit the Bull’s Eye, admitting how Borden challenged my own tendency merely to keep house in the congregation because I didn’t want to do the hard work of standing up to and moving out into a world that thinks it’s already Christian, sort of. Though Easum, Borden, and Bandy have distinctive emphases and differences, their kicking-butt-and-taking-names approach is a life-giving shove to all-too-cautious and diffident pastors who may have unwittingly reduced ministry to chaplaincy to inwardly focused churches.

And yet, these popular church-growth gurus, though published by mainline church publishing houses, often sound if they are speaking to churches other than mine. Their ecclesiology tends to see the church as a hindrance to real mission and evangelism (defined mostly as harvesting converts who have assented to “the message”). As a pastor said of one of Borden’s books, “First become a conservative, non-hierarchial, non-connectional, sort of Baptist church with a pastor who is absolutely cocksure self-confident about his or her vision and goals, and the rest is easy.”

I have found some church leadership books of enduring significance: Anthony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture and Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (2003), answers the often heard criticism (from writers like Eugene Peterson) that church management books favor commercialized quick fixes devoid of theology. Tony has a gift for focusing on the essentials and for giving pastors the confidence to lead. His own pastoral experience shows; he is convincingly mainline (he’s a UCC pastor, consultant and contributor to the Christian Century). When I wrote my textbook for ordained leaders, Pastor (2002), wanting to condense leadership wisdom for future pastors, I leaned heavily on Tony’s insights.

Tony’s pastoral leaders are collaborative, humble enough to change, motivational without dominating, constantly teaching, eager to use acquired influence to do the tough work required to be a faithful, living church and confident that the Protestant mainline is a gift of God to North American religious life. A pastor leads congregational change by daring to ask the right questions, framing the problem in a theological perspective, and patiently, small-step-by-small-step moving people in the same direction. Tony tells us not only what ought to be done but how to do it by spelling out strategies like, “maintain disciplined attention,” “give responsibility back,” and “don’t over value consensus.” His What’s Theology Got to do With It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church (2005) is a little gem of theology put into practice.

Though her more recent books seem less theologically disciplined by theology, Diana Butler Bass’s The Practicing Congregation (2004), dares to confront the changed religious landscape faced by mainline churches. Some pastors’ leadership styles are dated. The theologian who urges, “Just be present with your people,” or “Don’t worry about reaching others; just be open and welcoming” Is clueless that we live in culture rapidly becoming post-Christian. It’s no longer enough passively to “be the church” in expectation that the world will see our liturgical and ideological superiority and spontaneously join in. While I benefited from her honesty and her passionate focus on younger people, I have heard some clergy use (abuse?) Bass’s insights as an excuse not to focus on leading staid congregations into a better future; why bother to reach out to the world if the world is dead set against us?

Many pastors in my church family trust Lovett Weems. His Church Leadership (rev. ed. 2010) has become the book that a wide array of seminaries use for leadership training. I’ve enjoyed watching Weems incite mainline pastors to notice numbers like attendance and membership growth. Weems’ refusal to bless decline as a theological virtue is no small feat in United Methodism, I can tell you. I wonder if Weems’ prescriptions are radical enough to address our current congregational challenges — he stresses caution and leadership that is respectful of and aligned with a specific congregation’s culture and tradition. Yet his advice is always sound and pastors find immediate help from Weems’ interpretation of secular research on organizational management (greatly revised from his 1993 first edition). Weems gives pastors the chutzpa to notice the numbers (without the courage to quantify, leadership is impossible) and to plan for growth. With words more gentle than mine Weems shows that pastors who are comfortable servicing the spiritual needs of one generation or social class and who are focused mainly on internal congregational maintenance rather than faithful mission, are attempting to serve a 2016 church using a 1950 Christendom mindset.

Gil Rendle’s Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (2010) is similar in tone to Weems. Though much less a “do this and you will get that” sort of leadership book, Rendle does a fine job of convincing mainline churches that we must move from a presumption of power to a position of active mission to all of God’s beloved, hurting people. The old cultural props are gone and that’s OK; what’s not OK is leading as if nothing has changed.

The foundation for that change of mind is Darrell Guder’s The Continuing Conversion of the Church (2000). While Guder probably didn’t think of his book as a pastoral leadership book, it really is. Guder forces us pastors see ourselves as lead missionaries in God’s mission in the world. A major reason why we pastors must read books about church leadership is that we now lead our congregations in the challenging mission field of North America.

More in line with the how-to-fix-it leadership genre is Molly Baskette’s thoroughly likeable and immediately useful, Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too. (2014) Molly renders church leadership as less an onerous burden than a fun adventure. She tells how her church started growing, collected more money, did more mission, attracted a more diverse and younger congregation and — she is U. C. C.! Earlier, Kirk Hadaway (an Episcopalian) Behold I Do a New Thing (2001) gave rout to the lie that liberal, mainline churches must succumb to slow death. I love the way that Baskette, and Hadaway before her, refuse to throw up their hands and throw in the towel, forcing us pastors to dispose of the alibi, “But what can anybody do?”

I enjoy telling seminarians, “You have been called by God and the church to leadership in the best of times. We’ve tried some things and learned a great deal. After decades of blaming, alibiing, and denial, we now have lots of practical, proven tools to help us to be faithful to our vocation.”

I not only believe that, I’ve seen it in action. What a great time to be a pastor

William H. Willimon’s forthcoming novel, I’m Not From Here, appears soon.

7 thoughts on “The Best of Times for Church Leaders

  1. Like some of your other students, I have to agree–seminary doesn’t teach leadership, and we find ourselves learning on the run. Thank you for the book ideas.


  2. Risk of nostalgia? “when I entered the pastoral ministry in South Carolina forty decades ago…” I think there’s another risk at hand… but sometimes the front lines do make it seem that long…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article. Leadership is the key to all successful organizations. In our book: “How Did God Do It? A Symphony of Science and Scripture,” we discuss on page 26 how anytime you find a failing or struggling organization it usually can be traced to lack of the skills of leadership and/or management.


  4. Reblogged this on Rev. Dane Womack and commented:
    “Just be with your people, be present, listen, and love them,” responded one of my pastors to a consultant’s criticism that little appeared to be happening in his church. I was moved by the pastor’s sweet response.

    “That’s not good enough,” the consultant shot back. “It’s arrogant for you to refuse to acquire the necessary skills and practices required to serve the needs of the church here and now. ‘I’ll just be present with you’ means ‘I refuse to submit to serve you as leader.’ Hey, we’ve learned why churches thrive and be more faithful. You’re ordained to lead.”


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