The one thing every pastor should know about leadership

Here’s one thing I learned about church leadership: It’s not about changing others. This was a hard-won lesson for me, after years of trying to do just that. And it was a relief when I finally learned it.

What is church leadership, then, you may ask. Isn’t that what I’m here for? Isn’t that my call?

Well, no. If people change, they do it themselves in partnership with the Holy Spirit. We can help create conditions that make it more likely change will happen. And the truth is, one of those conditions is that we aren’t in their faces all the time telling them they should change. Typically, that has the opposite effect!

You may wonder, What am I supposed to do instead? This is the job of pastoral leadership:

1.     Work on yourself and your own clarity. Know who you are. Know what you believe about God’s call on your life and ministry, and your understanding of how God is leading you forward. Be yourself in your ministry — your best self, not your sleepy pajama-clad self, or your cranky need-a-snack self. Pay attention to your own growth and put to work what you are learning.

2.    Connect. Show up and be present. Stay in relationship with key people in your congregation. For change to happen, little by little, you have to build relationships. You connect with people for their own sake, not simply to convince them to come along with you.

Over time, you do develop allies. But it starts with simple connection. Who are the key leaders and influencers? Have coffee with them. Connect, in person, in a way that works for them. Ask them questions. Listen and be pastoral. Remember, you are in a years-long process. Even if the situation seems urgent, take the long view.

3.   Stay calm. When change happens, people get upset. If people react to where you want to lead, it’s a sign you are on to something. Don’t take it personally: it’s not about you. Rabbi Edwin Friedman used to say “Don’t get reactive to the reactivity.” The main thing is to keep your head. Recognize that this is part of the natural process of leadership. If you react, step back and think it through. Get someone to help you reflect on your experience and see what you can learn from it.

As you face people’s reactions, you can repeat #1 and #2. Ask yourself: 1) “What do I think? What principles are at work here? What do I believe? What is my call?” Then 2) “Where can I connect? Whom do I need to talk to?” That doesn’t mean you need to process endlessly with someone who is upset about something. But don’t avoid them, either. Make sure to connect with those who give you energy as well as those who drain it.

Then, repeat #1, #2 and #3. Over and over. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s tiring. Yes, leadership is a challenge. However, remember to pay attention to what is right, what is working, what are the small achievements. Be patient.

Like you, I so want things to be different, better, easier. I have to remember that all change takes time. While vision is important, I don’t ultimately know what is best. I have to trust God is in the process.  Over time something new may emerge I never even imagined. The key part is how I manage myself. What happens right now is only momentary. This little upset won’t matter in a year, or ten years — or in heaven. My job is to pay attention to myself.

All clergy should memorize and put to work these words of Warren Bennis, a business leadership expert: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.” (On Becoming a Leader, p. 9)

How are you attending to your own growth?

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