Leadership Disaster

Sometimes the seeds for leadership disasters are sown at the very beginning of a leader’s tenure. 

Rev. Jack, in the market for a new church, found a new pastoring opportunity. Although the church had grown over the last few years, it had seen decline in attendance and finances as the pastoral search process took its toll. Like many churches, it was proving to be a year-long search and people were becoming fearful about the future. 

While Jack was interviewing during the week-long candidating process, he sized up the problem in this church. People spoke to Jack about the previous pastor, characterizing him as a “program guy,” someone who started a lot things in the church but always seemed to be asking people to become more and more involved. The congregation was tired. They wanted someone who would focus on Sunday sermons, visit the sick and administer the sacraments. They wanted a strong preacher. 

This was music to Jack because he strongly believed in the “primacy of the pulpit,” the idea that preaching is the defining function of the pastor and the center of church ministry. He told the church he understood the problem, laid out his plan on how to fix it, and the church hired him and heaved a collective sigh of relief. 

Jack made several mistakes in this scenario. 

First, he naively supposed that he could ascertain “the problem” with the church in a one week interview period. He had no way of putting the comments of the people he spoke to in context because he didn’t know the people. Nor did he factor in the growth of the church in the immediate years before the search process began. He did not take seriously the importance of “getting to know people” in developing his understanding of the church. 

Second, he clung to a notion of “heroic leadership.” Jack saw himself as the “hero,” riding in to save the day. He would save the church by providing the solution people needed, i.e. he would preach really well and the church would grow. Jack believed that church ministry revolved around preaching, which fit well into his “heroic” notions about leadership. His idea of “equipping people for ministry” was to tell them what they needed to do. For Jack, leadership was about the leader getting others to do what he thought best. 

Third, when Jack spoke forcefully to the people about “their problem and his solution” he lowered the collective urgency so necessary for change. What he communicated was, “Hire me and your problem will be solved.” He stole responsibility from the people to do the work necessary for real change. He did not realize that lasting solutions must be crafted by and with the followers. 

Jack left the church 18 months later, complaining about the “spectator mentality” of the congregation, never realizing he had sabotaged his ministry from the start.

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6 thoughts on “Leadership Disaster

  1. Very insightful. Oftenties it is so easy to get trapped by the illusion of “heroic leadership.” The equipping process is hard work—and churches are prime candidates for the “spectator mentality”. I’m wondering how Heifitz’ model can be implemented or “downloaded” for new Pastors….

  2. Very interesting. It’s easy for both sides to get caught up in the process, especially if each side thinks they have found the perfect fit. But you are right, it’s a set up. There’s always a bigger mess to clean up than what appears on the surface. The mature leader would have discerned this and even been cautious in approaching the situation (ie, what else was going on that missed the congregation’s expectations?)

    Great, realistic leadership advice.

  3. To my guilt and shame I have to admit that I’ve been there and done this. I’m also afraid that I’m currently serving alongside someone who has done it as well.
    My experience has proven time and again that too many ministers/pastors are operating from and with a heroic leadership mindset. An over-inflated opinion of our ability to be the leader that will fix things and make everything all better.

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