Author John Maxwell has said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” In over 50 years in ministry, here are some things I have learned about leading a church or any other organization.
1. Leadership Has Challenges
The greatest leadership challenge you will ever face in ministry is yourself. You must constantly grow as a leader to navigate the unprecedented changes happening in our world. What books are you reading? What podcasts are you listening to? How much time are you spending alone with God? What unchurched people are you interacting with? What cross-cultural experiences are challenging your assumptions?
I believe much of what you accomplish in life depends on whom you choose to admire and copy. It could be a mentor, coach, teacher, co-worker, spouse, friend, boss, or parent. By far, the person I most admired and who most impacted my life was my father. He taught me how to dream big and not be afraid to take risks. He taught me it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you don’t repeat them. He taught me to live for an audience of one—Jesus—and not to give in to peer pressure. He reminded me of the importance of loving my wife. He modeled leadership by example—that leaders will never ask others to do something they are unwilling to do first.
Early in my ministry, Bill Lown was the president of Manhattan Christian College. He modeled leadership for me in the way he could relate to people of different ages, incomes, and backgrounds without showing favoritism. Later in ministry, I was influenced by Bob Russell, founding pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. His character, consistency, and commitment to preaching the truth were qualities of leadership that impacted my life.
2. Leadership Requires Adjustments
In Leadership Pain, Samuel Chand wrote, “Growth equals change; change equals loss; loss equals pain; so inevitably, growth equals pain.” Our ability to grow ourselves and our ministry depends on how much pain we can endure as we make changes. If the church has too much change, there is chaos. But a lack of change can lead to complacency. The same thing can happen to a leader.
One reason a church stays at a certain size is because the pastor is unable or unwilling to adjust their leadership style. Leaders must be willing to hand off some things to others on staff and spend more time focusing on their own strengths and giftedness. Warren Buffett says that “successful people say no to almost everything.”
Another reason a church tends to stay a certain size is because elders are unable or unwilling to make leadership adjustments. In a smaller church, elders tend to know everyone and everything that is happening. They can tend to control the ministry and inhibit change. As the church grows, elders must trust the pastor and staff to lead the ministry. The elders must be willing to become advisors to the staff and work to protect the ministry. This requires lots of teamwork and trust.
3. Leadership May Bring Regrets
In trying to protect my wife from many unpleasant ministry situations, I neglected to include her in what was happening; later, I realized that, because I had tried to shield her, she didn’t feel valued as a ministry partner. I have asked my wife, Sue, to share some of her own observations:
In my 50-plus years as a pastor’s wife, I have found that sometimes pastors don’t stop to consider the role their wife plays in their ministry. There are all kinds of pastors’ wives out there; some work in a paid position in the church, some are volunteers at church, some have paid jobs or careers outside the church, and some work at home. Whatever she does, the fact that she is married to a pastor makes her his partner in ministry, and I don’t think pastors always recognize that.
My husband, for instance, often thought that by not sharing with me the difficult things he was working through in his ministry, he was somehow sheltering me or protecting me from something. But a woman can almost always tell when her man has something on his mind—I think it’s just something God built into us. We understand it isn’t always good for us to know all the details he is struggling with, but we need to feel we can come alongside him in some way.
In my opinion, the most effective way a pastor can validate his wife’s partnership in ministry is simply to ask her to pray for him in those times when things are particularly difficult. We don’t need details in order to pray for God to give our husbands wisdom and strength in working through something that is causing added stress. Prayer can be a powerful way for ministry couples to feel united in moving forward together in the ministry to which they have been called.
4. Leadership Produces Rewards
I was always energized to see the incredible life change in people as they accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. That energy allowed me to face discouragement head-on and remain faithful to my calling.
By far the greatest reward was seeing what happened in my family. My three children are all in ministry. All 11 of my grandchildren are believers and several of them are already in ministry or preparing for church ministry and the mission field.
No matter what joys or struggles you may be experiencing, no matter the size of your ministry, continue to stay the course and lead with courage. God always rewards faithfulness.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).