Selling Church Chairs Sometimes Reveals Real Leadership Tensions

By Ray Wheeler, DMin.

Pastors calling about church chairs for their sanctuary sometimes give us a glimpse of the tensions they face in leading their congregations.  The decision making process around purchasing church chairs places pastors in the position of purchasing agent, process coach, consensus builder and decision maker. The process illustrates an interesting thing about leadership – the work of leadership within a congregation, like other organizations, requires that pastors adopt complementary and even contradictory roles to stimulate new missional efforts while maintaining existing routines of training and discipleship.

Congregations are dynamic and complex settings.  Pastors have long felt the tension inherent in the diverse roles they are required to assume. Broadly speaking, pastors serve as manager, leader, counselor, coach and employer. Each role requires behavior that moves back and forth between defining a future and the meaning of the present on one hand and enforcing policies and procedures on the other.

Effectiveness in a pastoral capacity requires integrating these competing roles.  Like other effective leaders pastors must overcome the tendency to see leadership behaviors in an either/or fashion.  Instead they engage a variety of roles as part of a tool kit of behavior that enables them to address the multiple and competing demands of leading a congregation.

The recognition that pastors like other leaders must exercise management and leadership roles has only recently been measured by leadership researchers.  In popular writing leadership and management activities are often framed as competing roles with one or the other disparaged as somehow less effective.  Research indicates that they are symbiotic roles that engage various behaviors.

Research suggests that leaders who are able to diversify their behaviors across competing values show the behavioral complexity needed to better meet the demands faced by complex organizations like a congregation.  To the extent a pastor diversifies his/her behaviors across these competing values they exhibit a behavioral repertoire.  Recognizing that pastoral leaders need a broad repertoire of behaviors has lead me to help pastors build a perspective that engages disparate roles and divergent perspectives in a more accurate picture of effectiveness in congregational leadership and management.

So how is this behavioral repertoire developed?  First, it begins with the recognition of an individual’s unique perspectives and strengths and how these contribute to a congregation’s missional objectives.  For example Paul situates his description of the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:1-21) in specific behaviors. If Paul recognized that behaviors were important then the use behavioral and competency assessments for congregational leaders set a baseline understanding of their strong points and finds the gaps in behavior or knowledge that diminish potential effectiveness in ministry.

Clearly a pastor’s leadership capacity depends on (1) the range of behavior the individual is capable of performing and (2) the ability to apply various behaviors to divergent situations.  Using assessments in tandem with a leadership coach enhances the pastor’s behavioral repertoire. As a result the congregation’s capacity to; adjust to emerging social conditions, handle employee relations, meet stakeholder expectations and consistently produce measurable ministry outcomes increases.

Second, consciously adopt a learning orientation to experience. I remind pastor’s I know that feeling pulled in different directions simultaneously is an indication they engaged the act of leadership.  It remains up to them to decide whether they are willing to embrace the tension and develop a learning posture needed to uncover the gaps between their behavior and the behavioral repertoires needed to succeed. Possessing experience is worth very little without active reflection on what the experience teaches.  Peter discusses the concept of learning from experience when he wrote:

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.  5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure; they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Emphasis mine)

The highly effective pastoral leaders I know deliberately reflect each week on significant interactions and events.  I adopted the social research methods introduced in my graduate work i.e., field notes.  Each week or after significant interactions I sit down with my notebook and write out a short narrative.  Then I look for salient points or themes from the narrative.  Then I ask whether a hypothesis (rule of thumb) emerges from the themes that I need to look at further.  Finally I ask whether there is a quote or vignette that supports or illustrates the hypothesis.  Leaders often work from “rules of thumb” – that is just how the brain works.  However, if these rules of thumb are not subjected to critical reflection and testing they may just establish damaging biases and not helpful insights.

Third, find a mentor.  Find someone who has the experience and demonstrates a broad behavioral repertoire (fruit of the Spirit) and ask to spend time with them reviewing your own development. This feedback is invaluable.  I recommend that pastors seek mentors both within and without their congregations.  Internal mentors see behavior and its impact first hand and often offer a raw and immediate feedback.  External mentors see behavior without the relational or political filters sometimes present in an internal mentor and help provide perspective.   I have been saved from engaging stupid and self damaging behaviors by talking situations through with a mentor first.  Paul encouraged Timothy to expand his behavioral repertoire stating:

6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

Bobby Clinton one of my professors at Fuller Theological Seminary was fond of reminding us, “Leadership is complex – complexity is why we need leaders.” Each time we complained of the complexity we faced in our leadership roles he recited this truism.  I decided it was the virtual equivalent of a slap at the back of my head to bring me back from the brink of self pity to the reality of being a leader (yes, I watch NCIS routinely).

Pastoral leadership is complex it requires a broad behavioral repertoire.  Pastors are not exempt from personal and professional development as leaders. After working with pastors from around the globe I am convinced that following these three simple pieces of advice help develop the behavioral repertoire needed to unleash the local church into all its transformative potential.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.