from August 18, 2007
Rules of Transformative Leadership
Last week I introduced Tony Robinson’s Rules for Transformative Leadership. A number of you report that Tony’s rules have provided some helpful insight into your own pastoral leadership style. This week I list the final five of Tony’s rules for pastors who would be more than mere managers:
1. Don’t overvalue consensus. Pastors tend to want to bring everyone along with all congregational moves. But intransigent individuals should be given the dignity of not approving of and not participating in every ministry of the church. Not everything needs to be put to a vote. Sometimes we need to ask members who have grave reservations about some course of action to trust those who want to move. Things can be evaluated later. If we wait until everyone is on board, we disempower those who are ready to take risks, and risk takers are usually in short supply in most churches. There may even be rare, difficult times when a pastor must be willing to split a congregation, be willing to let dissident, obdurate members disaffiliate with the congregation. Pastors are called to a ministry of reconciliation and peace making, yes. But we are also called to ministries of transformation, rebirth, and renewal. In order for something to be transformed, its old form must give way to the new, and that can be painful but the pain must be endured, expected, even welcomed, if there is to be new life.
2. Count the yes votes. We sometimes worry too much about those who are not yet ready to move, or may never be ready to move than we worry about those who are bored, frustrated, and disheartened when too little takes too long to happen in the church. I confess that I tend, as a preacher, to hear the voices of the two sermon critics long after I have forgotten the praise of the dozen who like my sermon. Sometimes we need to let the enthusiastic lay leaders go ahead, counting the yes votes. Rarely will a majority support a new ministry from the first, particularly if the new ministry requires risk. One caveat: never launch into a church building program if the vote is 52-48!
3. Create a new working group for a new job. Established structures tend to protect the status quo. Established boards love to say, No. If there is a new ministry to be done, you probably ought to create a new committee, composed of those who feel called to this work, to do the job. Ask the established boards not to stand in the way of new movements within the congregation, promising them an opportunity to help with later evaluation of the initiative.
4. Change by addition, not subtraction. It is easier to get approval to begin a project than to kill an established ministry. Why mobilize the supporters of the established program against you by declaring it dead and ready for burial? Go ahead with new initiatives. If the new program succeeds, people will gradually rally around it. People are more likely to let go of the old if they have something new to embrace.
5. Be persistent. Change, no matter how obviously needed, inevitably provokes resistance. Resistance, particularly where the matter is our devotion to and service of God, can be deep and unrelenting. Constancy is one of the essential virtues for Christian ministry, as we shall underscore in this book’s last chapter. Robinson advises, “Don’t give up too soon.” Studies indicate that it takes about five years before a pastor has gained the trust of a congregation to make significant, threatening change. For many women pastors, it seems to take even longer. Count on a couple of more years before you see significant fruit. In a mobile society, where transiency is the norm, pastors must be in for the long haul if they are to be truly transformative leaders. Those of us (United Methodists) who cherish a proud tradition of pastoral itinerancy may need to admit that a long pastorate has become a countercultural witness in a culture where everyone is on the move.
In visits to countless congregations, and in my own pastoral experience, I have come to the rather frightening conclusion that pastors are a decisive element in the vitality and mission of the church. To be sure, as we have said repeatedly, the pastor is not to assume all ministry in the church. The baptized are the chief ministers in the name of Christ. Pastors are to lead through service rather than dominance. The Holy Spirit is the source of all ministry. But having said all that, we still must say that the pastor is decisive. The pastor’s mood and attitude sets the tone for the congregation, conveys hope and energy to the people, hurts and heals, binds and releases. Sometimes, as a pastor, I wish it were not so, but it is. What Jesus wants for the church must become incarnate in a pastor or, in my experience, it does not happen.
I recall a distinguished church growth consultant who, in a workshop on congregational development, spent more than an hour listing all of the factors that were relevant to the vitality and growth of a congregation. There must have been more than two score of such factors listed. Then he led us in discussion. The first person to speak was a layperson who asked, “But don’t you think the pastor is a key factor in all of this?”
The consultant replied, “Oh, certainly. If the pastor’s leadership is lacking, you can discount everything that I have listed on the board. All of these factors contribute to growth. But if the pastor is inadequate, none of the factors that I have listed make any difference.”
William H. Willimon
(1) Anthony B. Robinson, “Lessons in Leadership,” Christian Century, (December 15, 1999), pp. 1230-1231.