Story by: Thomas Stanley
Five Ways Church Members Can Exercise More Leadership in their Congregations
When it comes to thinking about leadership in the church, much of the advice being dispensed gets doled out to pastors. Rarely do I see very much being asked of the congregation itself. As an evangelical Christian, devoted churchgoer and a student of leadership ideas, I’ve found this blind spot in how we think about leadership in a faith setting to be odd.
I don’t come to this issue as a trained pastor or someone with expertise in fostering church growth. I come it as a member of the flock. Being an active member of a church is something that I have a lot of experience in. Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell writes that one needs 10,000 hours of practice doing something before one can become an expert. Looking back, I estimate that I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours of my life in church or doing church activities. And my experience continues to grow by more than six hours a week.
Being a good church member is something that I’m deeply invested in. I’ve also devoted much of my work at the Kansas Leadership Center over the past seven years to assisting churches in their efforts to become more vibrant and effective. It’s given me a bird’s-eye view of what goes in a lot of churches here in Kansas. I’ve met with pastors from quite a few denominations and talked to them about their churches. It’s helped me see what church members like me can do to
make a church better – and how the congregation itself can sometimes contribute to the mess.
It’s also helped me see five unproductive patterns – sometimes repeated in the churches that I’ve attended – that could be stopped and replaced with leadership behaviors that could help make churches stronger and more energizing places to worship for members. From my experience, here are the things that church members often do that they need to consider stopping and what they could do instead:
Stop putting so much pressure on pastors. Start encouraging the pastors to take care of themselves as an act of leadership.
My friend Jake’s dad was a successful pastor with a growing and healthy church. He was adored by his congregants, including me. He was a pastor for about 20 years, so Jake grew up with his dad as a pastor. Everyone loved his dad because he cared so much for his people. He would visit every sick member in the hospital, officiate at every wedding and counsel every person who said they needed it – all this on top of his weekly sermons and pastoral administration.
Jake’s dad took care of it all and worked 60 to 80 hours a week. Jake told me how he hated it every time the phone rang when they were growing up, because he knew his dad would have to leave. Fortunately, this story turns out OK. His dad left the church to take on a job at the national level and now teaches at a seminary, and Jake is doing just fine. But every couple of weeks, I hear of a pastor who has some moral failing or has committed suicide. This isn’t simply a story of pastors failing in their calling. Church members need to see the bigger picture and how much pressure they put on pastors to meet their expectations and needs. Congregants must own up to the responsibility they share in contributing to the problem of systemic pastoral failing.
There are many occasions where pastoral care is needed. But that resource should not become a crutch. Church members need to be willing to consider what they can do attend to challenges within the church and not expect the pastor to fix everything.
What if, instead of asking the pastor to do something or be involved somewhere, church members encouraged their pastors to take a vacation or take care of themselves (and their own families)? What if members stepped up in your church to shoulder a burden the pastor could give up and engaged others to do the same? The pastor has some work to do on this problem, but so does the congregation. Church members should be reflective and think about the roles they have in creating burnout for pastors.
Stop just doing service projects, start building relationships with others.
Church service projects can be beneficial, especially if they contribute to a long-term effort. For example, building a playground in a low-income community could be a service project that carries a lasting impact. However, I’ve seen too many service projects (including ones I’ve been a part of) that have no real connection to the people they aim to help. These well-intentioned efforts often end up failing to make a real difference.
Picking up trash or caring for an elderly woman’s yard by seeding her lawn and laying mulch can be helpful. It can be fun to spend a whole day interacting with friends while doing something that makes everyone feel good. But for service projects to reach their full potential, they need to include time for interacting and building relationships with the people one is trying to help.
Real adaptive work is about engaging and mobilizing others to address tough issues. To help the poor, befriend them. Interacting with the people being helped can also assist church members in taking a long, close look in the mirror and consider hidden issues or ways they might be contributing to societal problems.
If you really care about human trafficking, do what one expert suggests and start openly talking about the topics of pornography addiction and sexual abuse. Ask others in your church whether a woman who has been trafficked would feel welcome in your church. And if not, what might you need to change?
The real work on tough issues is messy, frustrating and requires a lot of learning. I’m not sure how much learning takes place when you work next to people who are exactly like you doing things that you already know how to do.
Stop avoiding conflict. Start peace-making.
In Kansas, we are blessed with a Midwest sense of agreeability; some call it “Kansas Nice.” Take that disposition toward niceness and add an enormous scoop of church pleasantries to it, and it’s a recipe for incredibly nice people.
Though this is a handy gift for getting people to come to a church, it can be a hindrance when it comes to raising and addressing tough issues. I’ve been privy to and guilty of conversations within the church where we talked about the tough issues with the people who already agree with us and neglected to talk to the people who needed to be involved, be it the pastor, the staff or other factions within the church.
Instead of bringing up the issues, they festered. I’m sure the experience of avoiding these kinds of conflicts for the sake of unity is a common one in churches. Yet, there’s a great verse in the Bible that I think most people ignore related to worship. Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
This verse asks a lot of Christians, and although I’m no theologian, I think Jesus is asking us, in leadership terms, to work across factions and to address divisive issues before worship. My friend Ron always says “Jesus said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ not the conflict cover-uppers.” I’d encourage church members to think about what it would look like to leave the altar in an attempt to fully work across factions.
Stop expecting the “leaders” to do all the work. Start seeking opportunities to exercise more leadership.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
I talk to a lot of pastors who say their biggest problem is getting people engaged in their churches. Even mega-churches struggle with this. I think this goes well beyond serving coffee in the morning or opening doors. It goes to how each person in the church contributes to the kingdom – how they individually and collectively work to make their communities better for the sake of their faith.
It should be the work of everyone to find challenges the church can address. Anyone can start something. Anyone can join groups outside of the church. No one has to wait to be asked, and no one needs permission to start. Several years back, I was in a church where we had almost nothing going on to help create a sense of belonging in our church. So we created a team to address this challenge. When we came up with ideas, there were several people who would say things like, “What does the pastor think of this?” It’s wise to consider these questions from time to time. I understand a need for buy-in from authority figures within the church, and it’s not wise to be divisive in the church. But when it comes working on issues that matter, it’s wise to think first about what one can do to exercise leadership, and then about the barriers that might need to be navigated to succeed.
Stop inviting only religious people to your church; start engaging the “nones”.
I’ve heard stories of new churches going to existing churches to headhunt for volunteers. I’ve heard of shady practices like putting church fliers on cars in other churches’ parking lots. I’ve also been asked by countless people to come to their churches, even when they know I attend a church. Rarely do I hear about people engaging those who don’t go to church already.
This points to a deeper divide between the religious and the nonreligious. Pew Research reports that nones (individuals who indicate no religious preference) are growing as a share of the U.S. population. They made up almost 20 percent of the U.S. population in 2012 and 33 percent of people under age 30 (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/).
I don’t think any faith community has figured out how to effectively engage this growing group – which includes atheists, agnostics and those who indicate their religion is “nothing in particular.” For the religious, this is the adaptive challenge of the times.
There is a lot of leadership work that matters here. It takes some vulnerability and humility to talk with a group of people who don’t value your religion, or any religion. There is some diagnosis that one may need to do to understand what is going on that makes this the fastest-growing religious preference. But it creates opportunities to raise the heat on yourself and your own church to address the question of how your faith community should engage with the nones.
As a so-called “church attendee expert,” I have to admit that there are weeks or months where I fall into the very traps I’m writing about now. Some Sundays, I would rather sit with my friends and talk about stuff we all like. At times, I have pressured the pastor to do some project that takes a lot of time. So as a co-laborer in the work of building up the church, I encourage you to think not only about what you are actively doing to build up the church, but also what you are actively doing to keep the church stuck exactly where it is.
Thomas Stanley has spent most of his life engaging fully in the evangelical church and is currently serving at City Life Church in Wichita. He is the director of business initiatives at the Kansas Leadership Center
This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe