1. Become a real, pro-active leader. In my second pastorate, my one board member – a great guy who meant no insult by his words – said one day in frustration, “What we need around here is some leadership!” I remember thinking, “I wonder what he means by that?” Soon I began a “quest” to get good at leadership. It took me a long time, but by the grace of God, I think I’m a pretty good leader today.
Leadership is a big subject. I’m not going to try to make anybody into a leader with this article. I do want to make a plea for pastors to work at becoming good leaders because most of the interim pastorates we walk into are churches which are in dire need of strong leadership: personal problems have not been addressed, there is no unifying vision and there is no strategic plan for ministry. If God has called you to be a solo or senior pastor, He’s called you to leadership; He will enable you to do it successfully. I believe that leadership can be learned. While it may not come easily for all of us, we can all become reasonably good at it through hard work. There are innumerable books to read, classes to take, seminars to attend. However it works for you to learn a new skill, if you haven’t become a “pretty good” leader, become one now.
Here are some thoughts just to make sure you know what I’m talking about.
* A leader is dissatisfied with the status quo, like Martin Luther nailing ninety-five theses to the church door, or Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a freedom march. Unless your church has a vibrant, powerful ministry, your job is to be dissatisfied. That’s where leadership begins.
* A leader has a vision. He’s not just grumpy; he’s a grump with a vision. Okay, I know, some of you don’t believe in “the vision thing.” I think you do, you just don’t know it. What do you want your church to look like in two years? If a TV station did a story on your incredible church two or three years from now, what would they be filming and saying? (I bet you can do this, no matter what you’ve said in the past about “vision.”) I’ve had numerous church members tell me (regarding their church’s leaders), “I don’t know what their vision is, but I’d sure like to know. We’re all waiting for them to tell us.”
* A leader has a plan. I’m not against “lay” board members coming to meetings with great ideas (offering leadership), but for the most part, they shouldn’t have to. Their brains are engaged in their own jobs; your job is to have your brain engaged in this one. Leadership of your church isn’t their job, though they will try to do it if you don’t. John Kaiser’s great little book, “Winning on Purpose,” says that we win at this game when everybody knows and plays their position: The congregation’s role is ministry; the staff’s role (lay and professional) is management, the board’s role is governance, the senior pastor’s role is leadership. (Don’t miss Paul Borden’s companion volume, “Direct Hit” and his great illustration of the pastor as the tribal chief up in the top of the trees.)
* A leader has priorities. We all mean well, but I’m afraid that Stanley Hauerwas was right when he said that many pastors are “a quivering mass of availability.” I am, to at least some degree, a shepherd by spiritual gift. Like most of you, I get strokes from caring for individuals. I’ve also enjoyed writing Sunday School curricula, involvement in the community, playing in and leading worship bands, writing for church newsletters, fixing broken things in the church building and a lot of other things that I don’t spend much time doing anymore. The reason is simple: If I’m going to be used by God to significantly change churches, I have to focus on (1) preaching and teaching (2) prayer (3) leadership (4) equipping and (5) “remedial” administration.
In my current interim pastorate, we’ve just now radically changed our board meeting agendas so we can work on “the big rocks” (mission, vision, guiding principles, policies, strategy) in every single meeting. The only way this will be possible is for the whole board to be willing to forgo all kinds of good things we could do together (just like in my own personal ministry) so we can do the best things.
* A leader takes responsibility. In my long, long-term pastorate (13 years), I was rather frustrated after the first couple of years. I was committed to our church becoming effective at evangelism, and we weren’t. I decided to “give it a couple more years.” Then I decided to give it a couple more years. Then I decided to give it a couple more years. I think you get the idea. When I finally resigned, God had used me to do lots of good ministry there and to change the church in many good ways. I’m still happy about that. But we still weren’t effective in evangelism and that was not acceptable to me (most people weren’t bothered by this). To a certain extent, my resignation was a case of firing myself. I wasn’t beating up on myself for my “miserable failure,” nor was I blaming anybody else; it just wasn’t acceptable that we weren’t winning the lost. I took responsibility and resigned and it was one of the best leadership moves I’ve ever made. “If I can’t get this army moving,” I thought, “maybe somebody else can” (and he did).
2. Teach the other players. Returning to the metaphor from John Kaiser’s “Winning On Purpose,” the senior or solo pastor of the smaller church must function as a player-coach. While we do our own personal ministry (which we probably love doing) we must also teach the other players – the congregation, the board and the staff – how to play their positions.
I wasn’t born yesterday, so yes, I know that there are some “players” who don’t want to learn their positions. Most commonly, everybody wants to lead. There are staff members who want to lead, board members who want to lead and congregational members who want to lead.
For the most part though, I think that the players are willing to play their roles – and play them well – if someone teaches them this pattern and teaches them how to play their positions. Warning: you may need a fresh start in a new location to be able to assertively (not aggressively) re-train the players. But don’t write your “team” off as hopeless until you’ve at least tried.
Here’s one last reality check on this subject: More than likely, the only person around who can teach the players is you, the solo or senior pastor (with the help of some good books). You have a lot of teaching (and coaching) to do. Are you willing to carve the time out of personal ministry to train and coach the players?
3. Become enough of an administrator. Most of us don’t like administration/management. We’d rather be doing just about anything else. In the larger church, we can hire staff members to do management. In the extremely demanding role of the solo pastor of the smaller church (or the senior pastor who has only a fun, disorganized youth pastor and a part time secretary), the senior pastor has to be at least somewhat of an administrator and here’s why:
To as great an extent as possible, you want to mobilize great people to lead and staff ministries and you want to train them to succeed at what God has called them to do. Right? So how much do you have to manage? You have to manage enough so that the great people you’ve mobilized and trained aren’t frustrated. Are they? Then “buckle down” and get things organized. The alternative is to see your best volunteers quitting, or going to other churches, where they can do ministry in an atmosphere that’s not chaotic.
4. Become a real grownup. I don’t mean a “grownup” in the bad sense of somebody who’s no fun, somebody with no sense of humor. Please don’t become that kind of grownup. I mean the kind of grownup who has the “emotional intelligence” thing down pat. Let me be very specific.
* No using the pulpit like a psychiatrist’s couch. If you need help, get it from somebody who’s not going to be shaken by your honesty. Churches are hurt by pastors who confess their failures overly much in the pulpit, weep over their past hurts, whine about departed church members and take swipes at their own family members (or anybody else, for that matter). Forget the trendy talk about “being vulnerable.” Too many shepherds – in the name of being vulnerable or honest – hurt the sheep.
* No whining to church members about how you’re being treated by the board or others in your church. This is so hurtful! If you need somebody to tell your troubles to, find a fellow pastor or a denominational leader. Confiding in church members will divide your church. Do you love your church? Then don’t divide it. Solomon wisely gave the baby (I Kings three) to the woman who loved it enough to prefer it be given to the other woman, rather than divided in half. If you really love your church, you will not do anything to divide it, even if it means leaving it in the hands of some board members you don’t like. The church members you confide in will find it very hard to be loyal and happy members while you are still there and will likely find it impossible to stay in the church if you should leave. You have gotten them on your side and against the church. If this is what you want, it sounds suspiciously like malice, not love.
* If you say you’re leaving, leave quickly and quietly. If the board knows you’re “looking,” be discreet and positive until the day you announce your resignation. Don’t tell the congregation you’re leaving “sometime,” and then leave it ambiguous while waiting to be begged to stay. Neither is this the time to be taking “shots across the bow” at leaders or others you feel were unkind to you. Tell them in private and keep your tongue carefully tied in public. Be a “grownup” as you leave and you will be very happy about it for the rest of your life.
5. Leave before you have to. I believe there’s a fine art to pastors knowing when to pack up their books and move on. Please see the great article at this site by John Herman, “Long Pastorates, An Alternative View.” A “right-length pastorate” according to Herman, means staying as long as you are effective, and no longer. A denominational leader friend says he took his position hoping to convince pastors to stay longer only to find – to his surprise – that he was seeking to convince some pastors to leave sooner. He quoted an old army officer friend who said that the good thing about the army moving you around is that it gives you a chance to “learn from your mistakes, cut your losses and get a fresh start.” A fresh start is a wonderful thing; believe me; I’ve been there.
We all know that churches that grow “big and strong” usually do so during the long pastorate of a faithful leader. It’s easy to conclude from this that we ought to stay a long time or even a lifetime. Too many pastors have – on the basis of only this much information – decided they will stay in their positions until retirement. This can be a real curse for a church with a pastor whose leadership isn’t working. Please put the good of the church ahead of your own desire for stability and comfort. If you resign on good terms, you can always return to the area after you’ve retired and be received with honor. This is so much better than the alternative.
Returning to my story of my “firing” of myself, it’s much better to fire yourself than to have somebody else do it. Returning to the metaphor of the prostitute’s babies, it’s better to have one living, whole, baby than two dead, half-babies. Unless we’re talking about heresy, staying and fighting is hardly ever honoring to God.
While I love what I’m doing, I don’t want to come to your church. I’d love to be forced back into long-term pastoring because there are no hurting pastor-less churches. I’m not holding my breath expecting this to happen any time soon, but I pray that you are helped by these words to “interim-pastor-proof” your church.