Today’s Star Tribune article highlighting the trend of church doors closing and mainline denominations declining is sadly not surprising to a leadership consultant to churches. While there are a number of great things still happening in these aging congregations from soup kitchens to care for widows and the elderly, a glaring reality is that the congregations are in fact aging. The average member has been a supporter for over a decade. New people don’t stick out like a sore thumb for they haven’t walked in the doors in years. With an inability to reach new people with the Good News of Jesus, the doors will inevitably close as members lives come to an end this side of heaven. But it doesn’t have to end this way for mature churches if a few cultural changes are heeded.
I was standing in front of a group of parents whom I didn't know too well, leading an informational meeting for high schoolers who were interested in going on a week-long canoe trip in the BWCA. After I shared an enthusiastic and detailed vision for everything the week would entail, I confidently asked if there were any questions. I couldn’t fathom there would be any as I had laid out all the details, now it was just time for the kids to sign up!
Well, the questions came and it became more and more obvious that the parents didn’t trust me. I was dumbfounded. To my knowledge, I had never been mistrusted in my life. Not only that, but I had spent countless summers leading multi-day camping, canoeing and sailing trips. My credentials were impeccable. I was made to lead a trip like this! But to the parents I was staring at, I was just some adult whom they didn’t really know that was eager to take their kids on a canoe trip that summer. Thankfully, a longtime leader in the church, who had all the trust and influence in their worlds, was going with. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have gone canoeing that summer.
One of the challenges of being a leader is that every time we are put into a new position, or even one new person is added to our team, we have to start from the beginning with building influence. Why influence? Well, in his book Leadership, Peter Northouse described the necessity of influence for leaders in this: leadership is the process someone uses to influence a group of people to achieve a common goal. When flipped on its head, in his book Leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl offered that leaders are those whom people acknowledge as the focal leader regardless of their actual position or formal authority over the person. Leadership is not one-sided; rather it is a dynamic relationship between leaders and followers.
The essence of leadership is found in the influence of the leader as they influence a group of people to do that which they would not otherwise do. True influence stimulates action in order to implement a change. In our churches, our hopes and prayer are that people do a lot of this – implementing transformational change in their lives, the lives of people around them, and throughout our communities.
And while some people blindly put their trust in others, the majority of people do not enable people to have influence in their lives without first trusting them. An oversight I see leaders in churches make all the time is relying on their position or title to influence others. Sincere and authentic influence is gained in one way: spending time with people. To have genuine influence in someone’s life is to know them, their wants and needs, their passions, their desires, their dreams, and goals. When you can genuinely engage people’s hearts and minds, then they might give you the opportunity to influence them. They might decide to volunteer and help you out. They might decide to engage in a spiritual discipline you’ve suggested.
When we do not rely on genuine influence to stimulate the actions of others, we are abusing our power as leaders, especially in the church. And Jesus had much to say about the evil nature of spiritual abuse in His day. Rather than bank on positional authority, Jesus so humbled Himself that He left heaven and inhabited earth for 33 years. He could have called His disciples to follow Him whenever He wanted to, but Jesus waited until the time was right. Leadership (servanthood) in the church is a massive responsibility. To lead through anything other than authentic influence is arrogant and prideful. There are no shortcuts. Get to know the people whose lives you hope to impact for the Kingdom.
Without leadership development, visionaries can bulldoze the very people they have a heart for, as seen by the early lives of Joseph and Moses. Joseph is an excellent example of the visionary leader Baldoni writes about in his book Great Communications Secrets of Great Leaders. In their research, Taylor et al. found that with their ability to create and communicate their visions, visionary leaders can energize their organizations by "providing meaning and purpose to the work."
Interestingly throughout the Scriptures, we see examples of visionaries like Joseph and Moses who know their purpose and calling, have a strong vision in their hearts, and yet when they try and live out their visions before the right time it seems as if their whole world falls apart. Joseph was sold into slavery, falsely accused, and ended up in prison (Genesis 37-40). Similarly, Moses tried to protect the Israelites from the Egyptians, killed a guy, and wound up as a shepherd for the next 40 years (Exodus 2). Both eventually ended up fulfilling their visions in more incredible ways than they likely ever imagined, but not after some years of maturing and submitting their dreams entirely to God.
Experience was the difference for both Joseph and Moses between their visions and successfully living them out. In her article on developing visionary leaders, Korngold offered that while education and formal training are important for leaders today, the best leadership development for visionary leaders actually comes in the form of hands-on experience. She offered that it is in the midst of the experience that emerging leaders can hone their skills and continue to develop their "care, loyalty, obedience, and imagination," all of which are essential when fulfilling one's vision by empowering followers along the way. Afterall, without the assistance of others, few visionaries ever realize their dreams. And if visionaries stop at dictator-like 'leadership' telling people to do this and that without empowering them in the process of realizing the dream, they've failed to engage in the greatest responsibility of leadership: empowering others to become their best selves along the way.
With leadership development and submission to God's timing, young visionaries can become some of our greatest leaders yet.
Churches in American Metropolitan areas see entirely too much turnover, not only of their staff but also of their congregation. For staff, one of the main reasons people leave is because they do not feel invested in and equipped to fulfill their role on staff. The top two reasons people leave churches are because they do not feel connected to others at the church or they do not feel like there is a place for them to serve at the church.
The value of investing in people simply cannot be overstated, especially in our local churches. In Ephesians 4:11-16, the Apostle Paul described how the various offices of the Church are designed to serve people, build them up, and help the Church reach complete unity in Christ. Not coincidently, contemporary leadership research also reveals that when leaders invest in their people not only do they thrive, but organizations thrive as well. Putting people first is a win-win for everyone.
It goes without saying for our churches, but I’ll say it anyway, the people in every church are its greatest asset. As leaders, it is essential that we provide the necessary resources for them. Resources for their spiritual life yes, but also resources to help them thrive in their roles throughout our churches. When people feel like they have the resources and skills needed to not just get their jobs done but to do them well, then organizational efficiency, productivity and commitment increases and turn over decreases. In their article in The Academy of Management Journal, Dvir et al. (2002) shared that their research of transformational leaders found that employees’ commitment levels, motivation, and satisfaction levels were increased by training and coaching initiatives. Further, Gyensare et al.’s research found that people’s intentions to leave depended not only on the leadership style of their direct leader but also on their “emotional attachment to and involvement with the organization.” While we don’t want to be overly protective of the people in our churches, there is much we can do personally to ensure they aren’t leaving because of us or our leadership.
When church leaders invest in the people in their church, the benefits are felt on multiple levels. It increases the self-assurance of the individual and their ability to be successful in their roles, as detailed in Kouzes & Posner’s book The Leadership Challenge. It also decreases the turnover of staff (and volunteer leaders) and thus diminishes the financial and time costs of training new staff as pointed out by Losey, Meisinger, & Ulrich. And overall, Losey offered that it improves the morale of the organization because people feel invested in and cared for.
The costs of investing in our people might be time, and potentially some money on our part. But the benefits to them AND our churches is incomparable. Let’s decrease the turnover in our churches and increase morale throughout by not only investing in people spiritually, but also by providing the resources, training, and coaching they need to succeed in their roles throughout our churches.
Does it sometimes feel like everyone is deserting you, or you are constantly overwhelmed with what needs to be done, or there simply isn’t enough time to do all you feel called to AND be there for your family and friends? While the adage “leadership is lonely” certainly can be true in many respects, it doesn’t have to be. Yes, you will feel stretched as a leader, and likely out of your comfort zone a LOT if things are going well (and even when they aren’t). But being stretched and being overwhelmed because there is too much for you to do by yourself are two entirely different things. The first is normal as we grow in our leadership; the latter is self-imposed. One of THE hallmarks of effective leadership is empowering others. Empowerment is not...