About Charting Church Leadership

About Charting Church Leadership September 28, 2015

An Invitation

Dear reader,

You are warmly invited to join a learning community interested in forging applied links between social science research findings and the practice of Christian church leadership. Our central question is simple but broad: how are the people of God led? And how should they be led in the future, if we are to advance the mission given us by Jesus Christ?

I mean “leadership” and “church” to be construed broadly, as I’ll unpack further below. Pastors and church staff are employees who work, and all Christians can lead the church that is present in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. That is why we belong here on this Patheos Faith and Work Channel.

Over the next few posts, I’ll introduce the topic and try to set a constructive, cheerful tone; later, I hope to interview readers like you, select and host guest contributions, and produce original research results together. I am committed to seek and welcome evidence contrary to any study, idea, or claim I may post.

Our goals will be to foster civil discussion, curate a robust collection of research publications and ideas, and share them with the interested public in an engaging, practical way. We’ll use the Disqus comment thread here on Patheos and on our Facebook page to host discussion.

We’ll also seek to provide practical, actionable support for others to pass our ideas onward. For example, we’ll share our growing reference list through a public Zotero citation library. Check it out! I’ve seeded it with some of my favorites and recent discoveries.

Why  “Charting Church Leadership”?

I’ve carefully chosen each word here for its ambiguities as well as some precise meaning(s). Let’s consider each word in “Charting Church Leadership,” moving in Biblical order from last to first:


Leadership is a challenging concept to define; definitions often contain a prescriptive (or “normative”) element of what leadership should be as well as description of what leadership is. I’m all for generating wise prescriptions for better leadership, but a social-scientific approach also means we should try to ground ourselves in some descriptive (or “empirical”) language. Dictionary definitions tend toward the tautological: leadership is leading or being a leader, going in front, exercising authority, or perhaps just pointing the way.

To focus our inquiry into church leadership, I suggest we define leadership as follows:

Leadership is any human effort to persuade, induce, or compel other human beings to think or act to achieve or maintain a condition the leader is pursuing.

A pastor seeks leadership when she preaches a sermon that invites some thought or action in the congregation; she exercises leadership if and when they believe in or act on what she preaches. A business owner seeks leadership when he asks his employees to work late tonight, and exercises it if and when they actually stay. A child takes leadership when she bodily drags her daddy toward the carousel at the carnival, and achieves it if and when he sets her, agiggle with joy, on the magic moving zebra’s back.

Young girl riding a carousel zebra
A successful leader enjoying her work

To put this in the terms of a potent social-scientific literature, leadership is closely related to the principal-agent problem. “Principals” (would-be leaders) try to get their “agents” to comply with their wishes. An agent might be a congregant, an employee, a child, a soldier, a business partner, or a voter. The principal’s chief problem is that he cannot always observe whether the agent actually does what she is asked or paid or commanded to do.

How can we identify successful leaders? We find principals whose agents are actually doing what the principal wants them to do.

How do we become more successful leaders ourselves? We learn research-based practices that successful principals use.


Like “leadership,” church can be a squishy term. In North America today, it’s likely to be taken as a building where worshipers meet or, in the best-case scenario, as a specific group of worshipers. It’s less likely that the idea of church is traced to its New Testament origins in the fusion of Jewish and Greek cultures.

Fortunately, an esteemed veteran colleague in Patheos blogging, Mark D. Roberts, has written a series on “What is the church?” that unpacks the New Testament texts and deals with the question thoroughly, including integration of the work of N. T. Wright. The church is the ekklesia, literally those who are “called out” by God to become the “assembly” of his people.

The historic origins of church are important because they remind us that the work of the church is comprehensive–it is about everyday affairs, the local and the global. Church is about politics and power, ethics and economics, business and budgets, health and happiness. “Church” is not a means to compartmentalize religion and faith; it is a vehicle to describe how religion and shared faith affect life and living.

Adults of different genders and races seated around tables in earnest discussion
Church is the assembly of the people of God. It makes decisions!

Thus, as we chart church leadership, we won’t just be talking about pastors and bishops and youth ministers; we’ll be talking about all kinds of “principals” and “agents” who are part of the ekklesia of God. We’ll be talking about how each of us can lead others in obedience to the call of God.


Yes, this blog will include a lot of charts, from polling data to demographic profiles to economic trends to election results to Internet traffic. There will be bar charts, line graphs, box plots, scatterplots, maps, and (gritting my teeth) maybe even some pie charts (but only under very specific circumstances). Some of them will even be interactive, God, data sources, and Tableau software willing!

As a down payment on the charting fun to come, here is a look at our title terms through the lens of Google’s powerful Ngram Viewer, which charts their relative frequency in English-language books since 1800. The usage of “church” has declined since a sharp peak in 1841, while “leadership” and “chart” (“charting” is too rare to detect) have slowly risen since 1900, though both remain less common than “church”.

However, charting is more than digital data graphics. The word has a delightfully broad set of meanings, both descriptive and prescriptive. As our masthead graphic suggests, a nautical chart can provide precise detail about the dangers and destinations of a voyage. Charting a voyage can be historical, documenting the actual positions of the ship (our ship is a “leader ship,” of course); but the chart may also include the prescriptive plan for the future course the ship will follow. This blog will be our shared effort to describe church leadership and plan for its future.

Let’s chart a course to better church leadership together! What are you interested in discussing? Comment below (you’ll need a Disqus account) or visit our Facebook page.

Next Week

To begin our inquiry into church leadership, next week’s primary post reviews the book Church Refugees by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.

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