Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rethinking Leadership....

Several years ago (before we moved into our church building) I was in a leadership meeting in which we were considering potential nominees for the Senior Leadership Team (SLT). Several names were being considered, more than enough to fill the one slot that was open. Then, just as the meeting was coming to a close, someone suggested another name. It was added to the list.

My first thought was, “Are you kidding me?” I looked around the room and could sense that about half the people in the meeting had some serious reservations about this man too. All of us knew what his election would mean: Trouble!

Out in the open this man was an expert at “God talk.” He was also an obvious suck up. But behind the scenes he was contentious and critical. He was difficult to work with. To make matters worse, he had a very narrow view of Christianity, possessed strong opinions, believed all Christians should be republicans, and fancied certain ideas of how a church should be run. Always quick to notice an interpretation or practice that differed from his opinion, he was inclined to see a conspiracy behind any decision he didn’t like.

I waited for someone to speak up, but no one did. So I did. I was unpersuasive. Apparently, everyone else in this meeting figured it wasn’t worth the risk of alienating him or his friends by refusing his name for consideration. Besides that, his name was at the bottom of the list, too far down to have a serious chance at making the final cut.

But one month later, there the man was, the final and only name on the list who was presented at our annual congregational meeting. His name had worked its way up the list when the others ahead of him had been unwilling or unable to run for office. Sure enough, he was elected to a three-year term. True to form, he became a major source of division and conflict. He resisted every attempt at forward progress. He was a gossip and caused our church a great deal of grief. Fortunately, his term ended early (after 2 years) when he left the church in a huff over a series of decisions he didn’t like.

Was I ever relieved. But my relief was short lived. This man continued to create division, conflict, and trouble for our church for more than a year after he left PCC! The fallout was enormous.

Similar scenarios are played out every year in churches. Each time, the unity of the leadership team (or church board) suffers, and often the entire church suffers. While we usually direct our frustration at the person who causes the problem (and they certainly bear responsibility for the divisions they cause), the real culprit is a CARELESS SELECTION PROCESS.

I have learned some bitter lessons about this.

After much thought (re-thinking) I have found there is only one cure. We have to “GUARD THE GATE.” That is, we have to be very selective about who is allowed to serve on our Senior Leadership Team. It’s too late to try to build unity after we’ve allowed a contentious or divisive person on the team. The damage has been done. At that point, the best we can hope for is damage control, not unity.

But “guarding the gate” is delicate and dangerous. To pull it off effectively, a key question has to be answered:

Representation or Leadership?

What is the primary purpose of a church board? Is it “REPRESENTATION” (of the congregation) or “LEADERSHIP” to the congregation? The answer to that question determines how much unity we will have and how effective our church will be.

Many congregations across America have opted for the representative model. It appeals to our sensibilities of democracy. It ensures that everyone has a chance to be heard and that everyone has a chance to vote. But a board of representatives also has its negatives. Members of a representative board see themselves as lobbyists who represent a specific segment in the congregation. From a representative perspective, any church member, no matter how divisive or unqualified, has a right to be part of the church’s leadership. John may become the chairman of traditional worship, while Larry defends the youth. Meanwhile, Sally fights for the rights of the women’s ministry, and Belinda serves on the flower committee and is willing to go to the mat each time her flowers are moved. Forgotten in this conflict can be the most important thing of all – carrying out the will of God.

For these reasons, and many more, I have become a strong advocate of the leadership-oriented board (or Senior Leadership Team). Leadership boards have a totally different agenda than boards who act as representatives. Rather than figure out what everybody else wants them to do, the members of the leadership team have only ONE FOCUS: FINDING the BEST COURSE OF ACTION and CARRYING IT OUT. They are more concerned with leading the congregation than responding to every whim and whine of the congregation. When faced with a difficult decision, they do not ask, “How will people react?” but rather, “What does God want us to do?” or “What is best for the mission of the church?”

This is not to say that the leadership team is unresponsive to the needs and concerns of the body. On the contrary, good leaders are always in touch with their people. But a good pastor and leadership team never forgets they ultimately work for Jesus Christ, not the sheep.

Leadership boards have an easier time “guarding the gate” than representative boards because they DON’T ASSUME that everyone who wants to be on the board has the RIGHT to be there. From their perspective, when it comes time to select members for the Senior Leadership Team (SLT), it doesn’t matter whether a person represents a portion of the congregation or how big a donor they may be. What matters is whether this person can help the church fulfill its primary objective.

Someone like the contentious nominee I described earlier would have NO PLACE on a leadership team. Nor would he have a CHANCE of being selected. Despite his popularity, his record of being contrary and difficult to work with WOULD BE ENOUGH to EXCLUDE him.

In the beginning years of PCC, our leadership team leaned heavily towards the representative model. As a result, whenever we had a critical decision to make, the first thing that the team members wanted to know was, “What will the congregation think?” They were representatives of a group of people who might complain if changes were made. No one really knew who “they” were, but we spent a great deal of time trying to keep “them” happy.

Over time I was able to get our church to learn more towards the leadership side of the scale. Instead of first asking what “they” want us to do, we first ask ourselves what does God’s Word command us to do. Not only is this a better question, it is a tremendous unity builder. It undercuts any tendency to see ourselves as lobbyists, defending the rights of the young or old, charismatics or non-charismatics, or any other group in the church for that matter.

I envision our leadership team as being on point for God. I often remind them that their first job is to discern and carry out God’s will, not the varying interests of the congregation. Yet, ironically, the more we’ve moved in this direction, the greater support and unity we have received from our congregation. Go figure.

For instance, when we decided to go to two services, a few people objected. But since our leadership team was convinced that this change was best for the church as a whole, we kept moving forward. If we’d had a representative board, we would probably still be debating the issue. As it was, once we made the decision, a few people who felt strongly against it left, but the vast majority went along with the change, especially once they saw that our leadership team was united. It was enough to convince me that most people prefer to follow a LOVING and UNITED GROUP OF LEADERS rather than a group of bickering representatives.

Who Are We Looking For?

In many churches the primary qualification seems to be a willing heart. Anyone who faithfully supports the church and works hard eventually finds himself or herself rewarded with a seat on the board.

But passages such as Acts 6, I Timothy 3, Titus 1, and I Peter 5 make it abundantly clear that a willing heart and hard work is not enough. There are other qualifications that must be met, and some of them are very strict. They go to issues of character, family life, and temperament, among others. These qualifications focus more on what a person IS, not their willingness or zeal. We shouldn’t be surprised, since some of the most contrary people in a church are often those exhibit a high level of zeal, hoping to be rewarded with a seat on the board. And if they get it, watch out!


Rethinking the leadership model at PCC several years ago demanded that structural changes be made, and so they were. These changes have resulted in high morale, effectiveness, growth, and unity for our church family. We are better, bigger, stronger and healthier today than we ever have been. And we also do a much better job at “guarding the gate” as to who gets on the Senior Leadership Team. The scenario I described earlier about the contentious man being selected for our leadership team will never happen at PCC again. All of this means we have a brighter future ahead of us. By realigning our leadership structure we have now positioned ourselves to make other strategic decisions about our future.

PCC is now twelve years old and it is time to rethink again - everything. Rethinking is not asking “How can I do this better?” as much as it is about asking, “Why do I do it this way,?” or even more importantly, “Why do I do this at all?”

If we are going to be the kind of prevailing church God has called us to be, then these questions and more need to be answered and the appropriate changes made.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Leadership and deciding who serves in those positions should indeed NEVER be about popularity OR about how close they are to others who serve . . .it's about being qualified and most often those who ARE are the ones that are already doing the job through volunteerism. If they're passionate enough about something to volunteer their time & talents toward it, they're probably the best candidate for Leadership, whether that be on a Senior Leadership Team or serve & lead in one of the many different departments within PCC.
The individual of whom you spoke, as I recall, only ONCE volunteered to actually work at the church . . . only ONCE in the 5 years they were with us, 2002-2007.
I'm glad we're now moving in a different & BETTER direction when it comes to extending Leadership opportunities to people, especially considering that those leaders are the ones who are & will be charting the course for the future of this church.
The last 5 years, especially, have taught us some tough lessons. I'm proud that you have had the strength & courage to lead well.