Church Leaders Need to Be the Grown-ups

When my kids were teenagers I developed three rules for parenting teenagers:

1. Don’t take it too seriously.

2. Don’t take it personally.

3. Pay more attention to your goals for yourself than your goals for them.

These rules might apply to congregational life as well. I’m not saying churches are adolescent (although most churches have some adults who act that way). But all churches face some times of heightened anxiety where leaders can find it challenging to deal with the reactivity in themselves and others.

Let’s take a look at how these might apply for church leaders:

1. Don’t take it too seriously. Edwin Friedman used to say seriousness was a sign of anxiety. If you can lighten up yourself, relationships are likely to go better. You can tell yourself, “There they go again…” and sigh gently, rather than beating your head against the wall.

2. Don’t take it personally. If you are the leader, you automatically become the focus for other people’s anxiety. It goes with the job. I know if people are criticizing you or even attacking you, it’s hard not to take it personally. But the more you can recognize it’s about your position, not you, the better you will be able to lead through difficult times. And the less likely you are to be damaged by the arrows flying your way.

3. Pay more attention to your goals for yourself than your goals for them. “What?” you may ask. “Isn’t it my job to have goals for the congregation?” Of course there’s a place for congregational goals, developed in conversation with key leaders and members. But ultimately, you can’t control whether the church reaches its goals. It’s a collaborative effort. But if you have clear goals for your own growth and functioning, you are making a real contribution for the church. Your goals might be spiritual (I intend to spend daily time in meditation this year). They might be emotional (I intend to do some focused family of origin exploration this year). They might be personal administrative goals (I intend to learn more about effective supervision this year). But these are goals which depend on you and your effort.

Just as mature parents are the best gift to their teenage children, mature leaders are a gift to the congregation. It’s hard for an anxious leader to have a real long-term impact on a church. Paradoxically, when you focus on yourself, you’ll have more influence.

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