Need Better Tools to Implement Your Vision?
Leadership and management skills for the pulpit
by Diane J. McDougall
John was only one year into the pastorate at his new church when he and his elder board did what pastors and elder boards routinely do: attend a ministry conference. Their intent was to nose around for effective community-outreach ideas.
But before long, conversations at that conference helped expand their thinking. “We needed far more than fresh outreach ideas,” John Edgecomb says now, from his office at Harper EFC in Southworth, Washington. “We needed a clear direction and strategy that we could align all our church ministries around.”
John wasn’t new to pastoring; he’d served another church for 17 years. But he lacked training in organizational management. “I’ve got strong skills in counseling and in teaching, and I’m a motivational-type guy,” he clarifies. “But you’ve got to know how to develop people, then organize and launch teams and manage them.
“A pastor who doesn’t do that will be like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins—where he’s the one-man band, playing every instrument himself.”
Like John, many pastors today scramble for answers when it comes to the complexities of leadership. They’ve read pertinent books and their seminary professors have warned them, yes. But not until they find themselves wearing the leadership mantle does the weight of it fully hit home.
Close behind the clarion call for visionary leadership comes the drumbeat for basic management skills. “As leaders of smaller businesses and churches know, they will always have both leadership and management obligations, even if they don’t feel gifted for the work,” note the authors of Resilient Ministry.
Leadership coaching gave me “a huge new set of tools in my toolbox.” — John Edgecomb
Indeed, in an informal survey of pastors about what they wish they’d known before stepping into the pastorate, church-growth expert Thom Rainer identified “basic leadership skills” and “business training” as the No. 1 and No. 5 responses.
Clearly, the skills required to passionately and responsibly lead a church toward fulfillment of its God-given vision are not conferred with a seminary diploma. Yet they are crucial. Fortunately, even a pastor whose calling is clear but whose spiritual gifts lie elsewhere can find the support needed.
Visionary leadership required? Seek outside expertise
For his extra leadership support, John Edgecomb turned to a coaching network he’d heard about while at the ministry conference. Via Ministry Advantage, John was paired with a pastor-mentor in California who had experience taking a church the size of Harper (attendance roughly 400 then) to the next level. The strategic leadership coaching via phone calls and several in-person meetings was transformational, John says—“a huge new set of tools in my toolbox.”
He learned how to tighten up the church’s vision, mission and values; then frame a strategy in light of those elements and get everybody on board. John also learned how to develop and manage ministry teams.
“80% of pastors who come to us feel they’re not able to meet the demands of their job.” — Russ Olmon
“If you don’t have the management structure to grow your church,” he says, “it’s easy to get the cart before the horse: You have great ideas of programs to launch, but you don’t have an organizational framework that holds it all together and gives you direction. With the help of a super gifted administrative pastor, we were able build that framework.”
John’s experience is not unique. “Pastors usually have a passion for teaching the Bible and for shepherding, but they don’t have strengths in leading teams, developing people and ministries, expanding the organization,” reports Russ Olmon, founder of Ministry Advantage, with 20 years experience in leadership coaching.
With an experienced mentor, however, a pastor isn’t left alone to walk through critical decisions and conversations. A pastor whom Russ and his team had coached once told him: “What you guys have been for me is a crash dummy: Instead of crashing into my board or church, I can crash into my coach first, and he’ll tell me if there’s a better way to say or do it.”
“Leadership is knowing what to do. Management is knowing how to do it.” — Russ Olmon, Ministry Advantage
Without such help, according to Russ, “a lot of pastors suffer in silence. They go to conferences, which are great for motivation and inspiration. Then they return to their churches and sit behind their desk with a new great idea and still don’t know how to do it.
“Eventually the pain for too many pastors becomes too high. Eighty percent of pastors who come to us feel they’re not able to meet the demands of their job. They are so discouraged, they’re having thoughts of leaving the ministry.”
But, of course, no program or training is a guarantee of church growth. Brian Rathbun is another EFCA pastor who has benefited from Ministry Advantage’s coaching. And he’s quick to say that coaching “is not a magic pill.”
Brian invested 20 years as church planter/pastor of CrossBridge EFC (now renamed The Well) in Rochester, New York, before handing off the church to the next pastor in 2012. “If the church’s or the pastor’s struggle involves organizational structure or implementation of vision, leadership coaching will help,” he clarifies. “But if the issue is sin or immaturity or dysfunction, it’s not going to help with that.”
According to Brian, what leadership coaching does best is help a church (whatever its size) run well; then everyone can watch God do what He wants, to grow the church.
Stronger management skills needed? Look right under your nose
Skills in leadership and management are actually two sides of the same coin. As Russ Olmon puts it: “Leadership is knowing what to do. Management is knowing how to do it. Without both skills, a pastor will either be a great manager but the church will have no direction, or he’ll have great ideas but be unable to accomplish them.”
Another pastor, Rustin Smith, admits that he suffered from the latter: great vision but an inability to bring his vision to reality.
When Rustin stepped in as pastor of Vox Dei Community Church (EFCA) in Belton, Missouri, the church was basically starting over. Without many resources and only a small core team, he knew he couldn’t “do it all.” So he entrusted leadership to individuals along the way while looking for that strong right-hand person to help make his dreams a reality.
Three years into it, Rustin realized that lay leader Peggy Heid had the spiritual maturity, integrity and business savvy he needed. Since 2011, she has volunteered her time at Vox Dei in two roles: ministry development director and business administrator. And it doesn’t hurt that Peggy is a consultant with Living Stones Associates, helping churches in the areas of church health and strategic planning.
She’s found that offering financial advice or resources is one thing; when it comes to offering ministry development and leadership advice, she says, “that has to be more nuanced.” Yet with a pastor like Rustin, who’s secure in his gifting and able to recognize what the church needs, Peggy has flourished—which has led to Rustin and the church flourishing as well.
Peggy remembers: “Rustin’s wife once told me, ‘He has all these great ideas in his head, a beautiful picture of how he wants the church to work, but it’s hard for him to bring it to action. You seem like a person who can make things happen, and I think that’s a pairing made in heaven.’”
Indeed, with Peggy at his side, serving much like an executive pastor, Rustin has been able to lead the church in initiating a connections ministry and created a leadership community; in launching a spiritual formation plan and completing a building campaign; and more.
“Someone is leading your congregation. If it’s not the senior pastor … find out who.” — Chris Hefner
For Rustin, the key to making this relationship work is that he can rely on not only Peggy’s skills but also her character. “She’s a very capable, spiritually mature, high-level leader herself. The trust is what has made it not only work well but also made it a real joy.
“I have a sense of what I’m called to as a pastor, and what I want to spend my time doing and not spend my time doing. I wish I had a dozen people who could work together as Peggy and I do.”
Do whatever it takes
When pastors realize they need additional training, coaching or help in areas of management and leadership, they have several options: contact groups like Ministry Advantage or the Malphurs Group for individualized coaching; look within their own congregations for an experienced lay person; or return to school for a master’s degree in an area such as leadership/organizational development.
But it’s crucial that they do seek help. After all, warns pastor/author Chris Hefner, “Someone is leading your congregation. If it’s not the senior pastor, then you need to find out who is leading.”
And the senior pastor can’t afford to make off-the-cuff management decisions by blindly “stepping out in faith”—unaware of the resources needed to carry out his vision. He must balance the essential “triple bottom line” of ministry:1 gospel impact (Great Commission), social good (Great Commandment) and financial feasibility.
In short, leadership oversight and management skills matter. They might not be a pastor’s primary gift. And there’s rarely time to learn them in a classroom. Yet, out in the nitty-gritty of daily life in the local church, God surfaces the need and then provides the resources needed.
1 This phrase was coined by Daryl Anderson, executive director of operations for EFCA ReachGlobal. ↩
To understand how strong leaders in secondary positions in the church can help senior pastors reach their potential, Peggy Heid recommends reading Leading From the Second Chair: Serving your church, fulfilling your role, and realizing your dreams, by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson.
Other recommended reading: Spiritual Leadership, by J. Oswald Sanders; Christian Leadership Essentials by Trinity University President David S. Dockery; “How Pastors Rate as Leaders,” by Eric Reed and Collin Hansen, published at ChristianityToday.com; A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin H. Friedman; Leading With a Limp, by Dan B. Allender; Intuitive Leadership, by Tim Keel