64. What if the ‘Lead Pastor’ Does not Want to Lead?

Perspectives about pastoral leadership vary considerably. Some consider it primarily a teaching/counseling role, or a chaplaincy function, or an evangelistic vocation. Organizational leadership, leadership development, oversight of ministry leaders may or may not be accepted as a significant or central or required part of a lead pastor’s position description and responsibility. In smaller churches this ambiguity can be managed without too much dysfunctionality occurring, because volunteer leaders can probably fill the gaps. However, if a church and/or its board has a desire to grow, a lead pastor’s discomfort with or sense of incapacity to provide organizational leadership and be accountable for implementing the ministry plan will create sooner or later, significant problems. Several things may happen:  the pastoral leader will decide to change and grow in his personal capacities, or the pastoral leader will leave, or the church will stagnate, or key volunteer leaders in the church will choose to leave. Alternatively, if the church board and lead pastor together discern that he is well-suited generally for the role, but needs help in the organizational leadership of the congregation, an associate, executive pastor could be hired to complement the lead pastor’s gifting.

Now I am not “down” on pastors. I fully appreciate the challenges they face in seeking to provide spiritual leadership within a congregation. However, I am also well aware of the way the development of a local church requires them to “step up”, deepen their personal capacity for pastoral leadership, and continue to grow within their vocation. Having taught in seminary for many years, I also know that pastoral capacity and competency results from serious personal study, character development, spiritual intelligence, and mentored guidance in real ministry situations. Seminary or Bible college education will only be the initial, but important stage of vocational learning. So if a pastoral leader desires sincerely to discern and develop his leadership capacities, I want to be supportive and helpful. All of this must be nurtured within our relationships with the Holy Spirit.

So here’s a scenario. Some board members are frustrated with the usual way the church board is operating because they do not feel the board is advancing the church’s mission very effectively. Making decisions, implementing plans, evaluating their success, and helping ministry staff fulfill their roles well — these things happen so haphazardly. They want change — and so do you as church board chair.  Heightened accountability, clearer lines of authority, improved implementation of decisions — are all desired. You have heard some good ideas about ways that church boards can organize themselves and relate to pastoral leaders which, if your board could adopt them, would elevate the spiritual ministry of the board to a whole new level, with consequent benefit for the congregation. But you also know that if you pursue this direction, it will require your lead pastor to embrace new leadership responsibilities and develop some  new competencies. You love and respect your pastor, but he has a view of pastoral leadership that is focused entirely on preaching and pastoral care and he constantly says that he has no gift or desire for  what he terms “administration.” He relies on the church board to do that organizational stuff. So the congregation shows signs of growth, key leaders in the board are becoming disenchanted with the current operational mode, and the lead pastor seems to be locked into a vision of pastoral leadership that precludes change.

So what can church board chairs do when they find themselves in this situation. Is there any way forward that will be helpful for all the players — pastor, board, congregation — and you? Such a complex challenge cannot be solved by applying some simple formula and will require significant prayer, trust, time,  patience, goodwill and sacrifice from all parties, with a belief that Jesus Christ desires his church to grow and be strong (however you define “growth”). However, I think there are some principles that if agreed to might provide a way forward.

1. Develop consensus that change is necessary if the mission of the church is to advance. If not all the parties agree that change is necessary, as well as what the required change is, then little progress can be made. As board chair you might suggest the use of an external third party to advise and educate the board (which includes the lead pastor) about possible new directions and modes of board operation related to the size and potential growth of the congregation. Such a strategy has the benefit of letting a neutral party articulate some difficult things about your congregational reality that not all have recognized or are willing to admit. This can overcome “the elephant in the room” syndrome and enable some spiritually honest dialogue. If your denominational ministry centre has a process of congregational review and evaluation, this may also be a good way to initiate the conversation based upon data and discoveries made, and move the discussion beyond the level of anecdotes. It may take many months to engage this conversation and develop consensus. Some “conversion” experiences may have to occur along the way or some people may conclude that this direction is not for them. Once the board has made its decision, always be careful as chair that speak on behalf of the board and with its authority. This is not just your idea as chair.

2. Develop an initial set of policies and demonstrate how the position description of the lead pastor may change. Seeing how the authority and responsibility are defined and the accountability flows will reduce some anxiety and enable a lead pastor to evaluate the “doability” of this in terms of his capacities and vocational goals. Keep setting this in the context of the spiritual leadership the church requires for advancing its mission. Perhaps significant change in pastoral responsibilities will also require change in level of compensation — which is only fair. Offer to pay for additional professional training.

3. Provide all the support and assistance your lead pastor requires. This is essential. As church board chair you do not want the lead pastor to conclude that he is the victim in this process. As the discussion ensues, you might suggest he talk with several pastoral leaders who have embraced a model of pastoral leadership that places the direction and  implementation of all ministry for the congregation under his responsibility with accountability to the board. Hopefully, such conversations will help your lead pastor discern the freedom and support that such an organizational model provides for him, actually reducing frustration. Frankly, some pastors will have to alter their perception of the pastoral role if they are going to exercise this kind of leadership. Many factors, however, create significant drag on their willingness to do so.

4. Implement your plan gradually and keep learning as you go. It takes time for an institution and its core leadership to understand and implement new operational modes. In effect you are changing the leadership culture of the church. So recognize the challenge and give the implementation process the time and energy required to make it a success. Think carefully about the staging of the transitions and what measurements will tell you that the changes have been implemented successfully. Establish clearly who is responsible for what components and what reporting will be required to keep things moving forward with accountability. No plan will be implemented exactly as you intended so be prepared to be adaptable, so long as key principles are being followed.

5. If some part of the implementation plan is not working, do not be afraid to adapt, but do not retreat from the goals and fundamental principles. Probably as things are moving forward, new insights will generate different and sometimes better ideas that need to be evaluated and perhaps followed. Sooner or later someone will claim its not working — the “I told you so” response, but do not be deterred. Allowing for some adaptability will indicate to those affected by the changes that you (and the board) are concerned about their welfare and want the plan implemented in ways that are sensitive to their context. Those closest to the work often know best how to implement and need to be listened to carefully. Willingness to alter the plan based on new learning demonstrates  confidence and builds trust.

6. Celebrate progress. As implementation proceeds and you begin to discern the fruit of all of the adaptation work, commend people, celebrate the gains, and note publicly the benefits that are accruing. In particular key leaders need to know that their hard work to develop new capacity and competency is being appreciated. Keep praying for them in the board meetings. When you meet with the  lead pastor, keep encouraging him and thanking him for his commitment to the mission of the church.

Despite the best intentions of everyone, not every situation will find a good resolution. Sometimes as church board chair you have to make a very difficult decision — do I stay in this role and try to make the best of a difficult situation or do I recognize that my only option is to serve out my term and look for another way to serve Christ? Or perhaps the pastor will come to the conclusion that the ministry leadership requirements are not what he signed on for and will resign. However, if the mission of the church is to advance, which is the primary responsibility of the church board, sometimes significant changes and sacrifices will have to be made on the part of individuals. You as the board chair play a critical role in all of these discussions, as well as the planning and implementation. If you are not sold on it, then it probably will not happen. However, if you discern that such change is critical for the governance leadership of the board to advance  the mission of the church successfully, thenyou are in a key position to stimulate and lead this change.

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