Books and theories of leadership abound and it is common for churches and leaders to study what works for other organizations or communities of faith. “Looking externally is okay,” says Center for Congregational Health Senior Consultant Chris Gambill, “but in my experience, the very best leadership skills and abilities are not those that are external, but those that are internal to the leader and to the congregation.” The beginning of good leadership for any pastor is self-understanding and understanding the congregation and its context.
Chris was a missionary in Taiwan in the 1980’s when the Church in South Korea was experiencing explosive growth. The dedicated young pastor of Chris’s church, a Chinese seminary student, spent several days in South Korea studying the South Korean leadership model for church growth. With great excitement, he returned to Taiwan and began to put into practice what he had learned – and it failed miserably. What worked for some Korean pastors in the Korean culture simply did not necessarily work in the context of Chinese culture.
Leadership models, processes, and skills are not always transferable from one person or context to another. Those at the Center believe in resourceful leadership, that is, leadership that begins by building upon what a minister and faith community already possesses, rather than what they lack. It is about capitalizing upon strengths and abilities not by asking, “What do I/we need to learn?”, but by asking, “What do I/we already know and seem to do well?” It is not about a congregation becoming LIKE another faith community, but becoming a stronger version of themselves by utilizing their God-given capacities.
For an individual, resourceful leadership means taking stock of natural gifts, capacities, skills and perspectives, and then asking, “How can I capitalize on these abilities?” A second key question then follows, “What does not come naturally for me? What do I need to develop further or compensate for?” Sometimes leaders do need to learn new ways of doing things to compliment what they already know or already do well naturally. Chris says tools like the WorkPlace Big Five Profile and Emotional Intelligence testing, both used by the Center, are extremely helpful for increasing self-awareness. They are especially valuable to young leaders who have less leadership experience and who have had less opportunity to discover their natural strengths and weaknesses.
After taking stock of one’s personality, strengths and abilities, an individual can begin to capitalize on those aspects that are natural and energizing for them. For example, someone whose WorkPlace Big Five Profile indicates a high level of sociability and a natural willingness to inconvenience himself or herself for other people would likely do well in pastoral care and in relationship-based leadership roles. On the other hand, someone who is reticent and low on tact and who becomes nervous around large groups, would find facilitating large meetings and leading worship alone quite draining. That individual should look for ways to compensate, such as enlisting others to help, finding appropriate training opportunities, and taking extra time to prepare for and recover from certain activities.
Know Your Congregation
Chris says these same principles of resourceful leadership – building upon existing strengths and using what you already know – apply to congregational life as well. Faith communities are complicated organisms and one style of leadership does not fit all. “In the past,” Chris says, “denominations tended to promote uniformity in many aspects of congregational life and leadership. However, no one model worked well in all places. Resourceful leadership requires recognizing the natural tendencies and giftedness of a congregation and capitalizing on what is there.”
For example, it would be helpful for a minister to know whether the majority of worshippers are extraverted or introverted. This might influence decisions about elements of worship (or their frequency) such as passing the peace, having lay members read scripture aloud or asking individuals to help to lead worship from up front. If the congregation is primarily introverted, the service can be modified or the leader can find those who are more extraverted and use them in more “up front” worship leadership roles.
A component of resourceful leadership is spiritual giftedness. Tools and assessments can help people identify theirs, but Chris says that does not mean they will exercise their giftedness or that it will always be effective. Leadership represents a multi-faceted set of abilities. Besides spiritual giftedness, God-given personality and passion are also important. Chris explains that life context can have a strong effect on congregational leadership as well. In some chapters of life, there may be more openness or opportunity for someone to be an effective leader than at other times. One might assume, for example, that a retired college professor will be an excellent Sunday school teacher. Maybe not, Chris says, if he or she is raising grandchildren, caring for an aging spouse, or just burned out from years of bearing the responsibility for a class.
One congregation likes to tackle maintenance or building projects together with everyone showing up for a Saturday workday; another prefers to hire a contractor. It takes time for a minister and even lay leaders to know a congregation. It is important for resourceful leaders to be acquainted with a congregation’s past – what has been valued – as well as what is presently energizing and constructive. They need to discover the symbols and rituals important to the congregation. Pastors new to a church should ask open-ended questions, such as “what can you tell me about your church?” Each church is different and leaders need to know the context of a congregation in order to build upon its strengths and compensate for its less developed capacities.
Resourceful leadership is about working with, not against, an individual’s or a congregation’s natural abilities and giftedness. It is about leaders knowing their own strengths as well as those of the congregation, in order to effectively use what is already there. To learn more about how you and your faith community can benefit from resourceful leadership, contact the Center for Congregational Health.