Some Thoughts about Congregational Leadership

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The office I now occupy in the congregation I serve went unoccupied for about eight months.  After their former pastor left, the church decided not to hire an interim pastor, but instead had a local hospital chaplain fill the pulpit on a weekly basis.   He was not responsible for any of the pastoral or administrative work that needed to be done.  His role was to preach and preside at the table.  Everything else a pastor might do, church members took on themselves to do.  I have to admit they seemed to do it quite well.  The elders and the church board kept meeting and doing their work.  The elders pastorally caring for the church members and the board overseeing the whole life of the church, with special attention to the financial situation.  Sunday school was staffed each week and the entire youth program was continued.  They kept alive their ministry of partnering with other congregations during the winter months to make certain the area homeless have food and warm shelter for the cold nights.  All in all, the folks did a very good job of keeping the ministry of this congregation moving forward.

                So I am sitting now in the office that went unoccupied for several months and thinking about my role as pastor of this quite capable congregation.  Where should I spend my time? To what areas should I give my attention?  What should be the focus of my leadership?   The question of the role of pastoral leadership in this day is an extremely important one.  Not just for me, but for anyone who seeks to provide leadership in a local congregation.  Are we called to be leaders who help maintain the organization?  Should our focus be on the numbers?  Looking for growth in membership and budget.  Are we chaplains or prophets?  Or a little bit of both? 

Since I went to seminary thirty years ago, I don’t know what is presently being taught now about the kind of leaders that congregations need.  I do know as I sit in this office that went unoccupied for a while, surrounded by people who are very able to be church without me, I am giving lots of thought to what kind of leader I need to be for this congregation.  Here are some things I think:

1)      My role isn’t to be a program builder, but the one who reminds the folks why we do what we do.  In other words, remind them about Jesus and how we are to be His presence in the world.  My role is to help the congregation stay rooted in the Gospels and the message of good news for all people that is there.  I just finished reading the book, “Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in Ministry Failure.”  The author wrote of a mega-church conference where a number of pastors spoke about their “success” in ministry without even mentioning Jesus.  When we forget about Jesus, it may not be his work that we are doing at all.

2)      My role is to help the congregation as a whole to interpret the faith for this day and time.  When the question “Where are the young people” is asked my job is to help the church ask the question “Are we talking about and doing the things that help younger folks in their own experience of faith?”  That is, are we talking about meaning and purpose and are we engaged in hands-on-mission that makes a difference in the lives of people?

3)      My role is to help the congregation be ready for the emerging expressions of faith that are popping up around us.  Not to be afraid of them or feel as if we are in competition, but to understand that it might well be God doing a new thing in our midst.

4)      I need to be a leader who lets the people know that I am on the same journey in life that they are.  I am also trying to understand what my place is in this world.  And how I try to make sense of things from the perspective of my faith.  I lead by not just standing in front of them, but walking beside them as we journey together on this path of life. I came across a quote recently that asked “What does the world need: gifted men and women outwardly empowered? Or individuals who are broken, inwardly transformed?” (Gene Edwards, “A Tale of Three Kings”)  I think the church needs leaders of the second sort.

The specifics of my leadership role, of course, include sermons, bible studies, pastoral care and some oversight responsibilities.  It includes being present with the people as we minister together to the homeless of our area.  But understanding the reason behind those specifics is, I think, extremely beneficial to myself and to the congregation.

If you are a pastor, I encourage you to try and be clear about what your leadership role is in the life of the church you serve.  If you are a parishioner, I hope you and your congregation are clear with your pastor about what kind of leader you hope the pastor will be.  Leadership makes a difference and there needs to be clarity about what that leadership is for the church today.