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Leadership in the Church: A Manager’s View

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” James 4:1 (NIV).  These pithy questions of the Apostle James strike at the heart of conflict.  He asked them in order to segue into the erroneous prayer life of the believer.  But beyond individual situations, they also probe disunity, dysfunctional relationships and counter-productivity in the church.  Successful churches find a way to defuse these conflicts and harness the energy wasted by negativism.  They march forward.  Churches that plateau or decline, however, are often stalemated by circumstances in which two or more ministries nullify each other through contention and disharmony.  Ultimately, leadership must emerge, but good leaders are often plagued with poor management practices.  The saying that “management is doing things right, but leadership is doing right things” is generally true, but doing right things can be sabotaged by not doing things right.  Sorting out all the issues involved may be a challenge, but let’s begin.

The church is a multi-faceted institution.  It is commissioned to evangelize, disciple, organize, nurture, train, equip, counsel, inspire and guide its constituents, staffing and community.  Maintaining vitality across this diversity of functions is daunting and demands focus, balance and qualitative performance by leadership.  When one or two ministries are serviced at the expense of other ministries, toxic dysfunctionality results that is debilitating, if not lethal.  Servicing all facets of operations at adequate levels, however, provides for sustained and stable existence.  The key seems to be superior leadership as modeled in the Apostolic era.  If leadership is lacking, each function defaults into a self-serving locus of activity which contradicts and degrades other functions. Even as the human body requires interaction with and interdependence upon all the vital organic systems, so also the church cannot survive on the basis of a single point of emphasis. 

The concept of these interactive systems is advanced in the scriptures, although much must be extrapolated from metaphorical and narrative evidence.  Jesus spoke of the vine, of a great house, a great tree, a flock of sheep, a city and a family.  The most exhaustive treatment of the concept is the passage in 1 Corinthians 12:14-17 in which the Apostle Paul referred to the church as a human body with its diverse parts and organs which function separately, but all work together for the welfare of the individual person.  Paul also made an insightful comparison of the church to a building.  In Ephesians 2:21-22 we read, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (NIV).  All of these images consist of the interaction of systems working together to produce the richness and purposeful progression of the kingdom of God.  But it is the discerning architect who designs the building and the competent contractor who oversees its construction that produce the end result.  Sub-contractors must work within the limitations established by the general contractor.  The foundation must not be incomplete because the roof demanded more attention; the exterior treatment of the walls must not be slighted because the interior trim absorbed too much of the labor.  Every element of the construction needs proper attention if the building is to have integrity and durability. 

Conceptually, these points are easily understood as they apply to the church.  When the time comes for full implementation of the principles, however, turmoil is always one decision away.  Primary players in each sub-operation of the church often see things from their perspective alone, either unaware or unconcerned about the welfare of other operations.  While unit leaders cannot be faulted for wanting the best for their area, certain parameters must be imposed on them so that the success of one function does not cause the failure of other functions.  These constraints may take the form of budgets, programming, recruiting, physical space, equipment and supply, resource consumption, advertising and other aspects of the church operations that pertain to any given ministry.  In addition, a strong emotional element may be a factor in each unit leader vying for a desired goal.  If leadership cannot resolve these conflicts, they will paralyze the general operation.

Before we look at the types of unit leaders, it is important to discuss the process for recruitment and training.  Many people evolve into positions by default rather than by purposeful selection.  They may have been the only ones available, or they had seniority in the department, or they were close friends or a relative of the person in charge.  Some were put in charge of a ministry because the pastor was trying to “help them out” or to improve their self-esteem.  None of these are good reasons to serve as a leader.  Only those who are capable and have a definite calling to the ministry should be promoted to leadership.  This is where the pastor’s role must give way to the manager’s approach.  Some excellent resources for recruiting volunteer workers may be found at

The primary task for the overseer is to lead those who minister under his authority.  Let’s identify the types of unit leaders and understand what must be done to help them contribute to the overall success of the church.  I categorize them as the Overeager, the Under-Performer, the Maverick, the Whiner and the Bull Dog.  All of them can be managed with different tactics and tools, but the manager must calculate the effort and time needed for each type and determine whether or not it is worth it.  Sometimes, it makes more sense to find another, more suitable place for a unit leader to serve.  When each unit functions at its optimum level, the benefit redounds to the whole church.  In the next post, I will explain each of these types and discuss the pros and cons of each one.

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