What’s a Leader to Do?

The leader of a congregation holds a unique position. In order for the church to move forward, the leader has to step out and say, “I’m going in this direction.” People long for leadership. Some leaders say, “Where do you want to go? I’ll lead you there.” Others say, “You must go in this direction.” Passive leadership and autocratic leadership have their limitations. A generation ago pastors were trained in the “enabling” model. Nowadays the directive model, with a focus on pastoral authority, is more in vogue.
But there is a different way, a way where the leader defines themselves, while building relationships with those they follow, what Edwin Friedman called “leadership through self-differentiation.” When a leader is clear and reasonably confident, people want to follow. This is different and more effective, in the long term, from the autocratic leader, where he or she tells people what to do. People resist being willed to go in a direction, and they know instinctively when it’s happening.
What’s the difference between pursuing a goal with energy and determination, and willfulness? It’s a fine line. Making a difference in the world does require a lot of commitment. We can, however, be fully engaged in the process of leadership, while still holding the outcome somewhat lightly. We can notice the response of others without hovering, wondering anxiously, “Are they following?” Having a light-hearted approach to our relationship with our followers, even when the stakes are high, will always be more successful, than anxiously pursuing them trying to convince them we are on the right track.

2 replies on “What’s a Leader to Do?

  • admin

    My own observation fits with yours, Israel, that there appear to be at least tendencies toward more authoritarian leadership on the conservative side and tendencies toward less-assertive on the moderate-to-liberal side. The extremes of either approach are neither effective nor sustainable, it seems to me.

  • IGalindo

    It seems to me you’ve identified one of the biggest dilemmas for congregational leaders. I wonder how accurate, or fair, it is to identify stances along the spectrum in certain traditions. In my own Baptist tradition, those on the conservative side of the theological-ideological spectrum seem to lean toward a Machiavellian leadership stance, while those on the “moderate” end tend to fault of a less than assertive approach to congregational leadership.

    I suspect that a helpful corrective for deciding between being a “strong” leader or a “willful” leader is the capacity to hold and practice guiding principles and values related to leadership and relationship. But I think it’s telling that if we’d ask most congregational leaders, “What are your guiding principles for leading your congregation?” we’d likely get a blank stare.


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