5 Patterns that Erode the Ability of Leaders to Lead

5 Patterns that Erode the Ability of Leaders to Lead June 6, 2017


Pastors work in what students of organization call “loosely linked bureaucracies.” What experts mean by that phrase is that clergy are largely unsupervised. Even in churches with bishops or district superintendents at the denominational level and boards or administrative councils at the local level, there is a good deal of work that many pastors do without immediate oversight.

It is not surprising, then, that patterns in leadership emerge on the congregational level that are corrosive – corrosive to the ministries of pastors themselves and corrosive to the parishes that they are called to lead.

Over the years, I’ve noted a number of such patterns:


The resume builder: Some of my colleagues are fond of distinguishing between holy ambition and ambition, pure and simple. Presumably, holy ambition is an ambition for the things of God and ambition, pure and simple, is focused on the individual. That’s a fair distinction, I suppose, but it’s not a forgone conclusion that the ambitions of clergy are, by definition, “holy.”

Some clergy make the mistake of sifting their life’s work through the lens of corporate America and chart a course to the top, climbing appointment ladders and placing themselves strategically with one eye on a purple shirt and the bishop’s office. The difference between a vocation (or call) to those ministries and a thirst for the perks that accompany them can be tough to make. Only the individuals themselves can know for sure (and with a good deal of prayer) what really drives them.


Hide and seek: For a variety of reasons, clergy can use the church to hide. Feelings of incompetence, fatigue, wounding experiences with members of a congregation, and – sometimes – a simple lack of discipline can lead clergy to narrow their focus.  Another factor can be personality. Ironically, many clergy are introverts, and playing hide and seek can be one way of avoiding activities that pastors find emotionally and physically taxing.

When that happens clergy sometimes hide in their offices and take refuge in their books, holding their parishioners and their parishes at arm’s length.

What often suffers, as a result, are the demanding and varied roles that clergy play: in providing financial and missional leadership, in making hospital visits, in ministering to people who are confined to their homes, and in attending to other public duties.


Retiring in place: If we are fortunate, retirement comes to all of us, but some clergy hold on long past their ability to lead, un willing to admit that they are burned out, that they are no longer really engaged, or that they are financially unable to retire. The telltale signs are a loss of energy, vision, creativity, and enthusiasm that once fired a pastor’s imagination. Those signs can also surface when a pastor has been in one place for too many years or has encountered long-term resistance to the leadership that he or she has offered.


Ducking the leadership challenge (being spiritual, but not a leader): It is common for some clergy to argue that they are just there to equip others spiritually or to pray for the church. To be sure, prayer and spiritual deepening are the lifeblood of a congregation’s life. So, the conviction that a pastor should equip his or her congregation isn’t completely off target. But leadership matters too, and the pastor of a congregation is charged with far more responsibility than simply equipping the congregation. Clergy should offer expertise, training, attention to the organic needs and gifts of the congregation, and full-time attention to marshaling those resources.


Ducking the spiritual challenge (leading without being grounded): The obverse of the last pattern is also a problem. Years ago I heard the rector of a large, complex parish say that, like his classmates who became bishops, he thought that he could lead a complex parish and remain a priest, but he had discovered that wasn’t possible. He was, he said with pride, a CEO.  That statement was not, as he seemed to think, a mark of achievement. It was an indication of the spiritual peril that he faced and eventually he left the ministry when a crisis in his parish erupted. To lead without a prayer life is to risk everything and offer nothing.

Question: What are the traps and patterns that you have noticed? Naming them is the first step in finding grace and freedom from the patterns that can erode our ability to lead from a place of strength.




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