Leadership seems to be a major issue in church circles these days. It seems like everyone working in a church needs to be or wants to be a leader. There are books and articles and seminars on how to be better leaders, how to lead the church, how to deal with roadblocks to leadership–all designed to make us better at leading the church.

And is some ways, I don’t have a problem with leadership–well, truthfully, I do have a problem with some types of leadership but that is another blog post someday. People in groups seem to have a need for leadership and churches, being groups of people therefore need leadership.

However, as a pastor, I have seen many leadership failures and have been called at times to help clean up the results of such failures in congregations. My experience in churches is that poor leadership causes much more pain and suffering in the church and community than any lack of leadership. Lack of leadership causes the church to drift–but poor leadership causes the church to sink.

But I don’t think we can simply ignore leadership issues. Churches need leaders–but it seems to me that different church contexts need different approaches to leadership. And one of the major problems is that many people are bringing the wrong approach to smaller churches, which is where I have seen most of the leadership problems.

I am going to take a risk and over-simplify what I know to be a complex problem by suggesting that small churches need different leadership than bigger churches. Essentially, the small church needs a pastor with some skills in leadership while a bigger church likely needs a leader with some skills as a pastor. Unfortunately, the prevailing theories I see and hear these days downplay pastoral skills in favour of leadership skills.

Small churches by their nature tend to be organized around relationships. There are within the small church people who are accorded leadership status by virtue of family history, wisdom, education, economic status or other reasons. In general, every small congregation has its already present natural leaders as well as a somewhat confusing but nonetheless clear authority structure. By that, I mean that people in the congregation if pressed can say who gets to do what but outsiders generally find it very confusing.

The basic reality we miss is that a pastor is always an outsider when he/she arrives. The pastor is respected, appreciated and given an opportunity to “tryout” for membership in the church community. As time passes, they may even be given some of the leadership burden–or they may be frozen out of the leadership and eventually the congregation.

That is because the small church doesn’t call the pastor to be a leader–they call the pastor to be a pastor. They want someone to love them, care for them when they hurt, feed them with God’s word, help them grow in faith at their pace, help them connect with the God they believe in but are somewhat afraid of. All this can only be done as the called person enters into relationship with the people and lets the people enter into relationship with him/her. It is also a process that takes time

After the new pastor has proven he/she is capable of doing the pastoral tasks well, then he/she is given some limited leadership tasks. If these are done well in a manner that maintains the good relationships developed in the early stages, more authority is loaned to the pastor. But all the authority still belongs to the congregation and is only loaned to the pastor because the pastor, no matter how loved and appreciated, is an outsider who will eventually leave.

Pastors who understand this process do well in small churches. Pastors who don’t understand this process or who want to rush it don’t do well–and as a result, neither do the congregations they serve (or don’t serve, depending on how you look at service). Pastors don’t really lead small congregations. Instead, they love and are loved and out of that relationship, things happen. Rather than being the leader of the congregation, the pastor in a small congregation is involved in a shared leadership with people whom he/she loves and is loved by. The relationship comes first and is the important thing–the shared leadership is a by-product of the relationship.

May the peace of God be with you.


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