One of the key predictors of strong congregational health is the type of leadership the ministerial and paid staff of a congregation offers.
When the staff of a congregation functions out of strong spiritual and organizational health, the entire faith community benefits. Likewise, when that leadership is unhealthy, it is nearly always at the heart of congregational conflict.
Leadership in a congregation is a multifaceted and extremely complicated endeavor.
One issue that shows up repeatedly is the issue of how a congregation manages the polarity of clergy-laity leadership.
Even more specifically, is the prevailing spirit of the paid staff one of a “staff-led” congregation or one of a “staff-controlled” congregation?
What’s the difference?
Here is a crude effort to delineate the difference between healthy staff leadership and unhealthy staff control.
When a decision point is reached in a committee or team meeting and everyone swivels to see what the staff member (who is always present) has to say, and the vote is always a result of staff direction or preference, you are in a controlling environment.
When staff members encourage laity to think independently of the staff and to collaborate with them on ideas and strategies in ways that are valued and appreciated, you have healthy staff leadership.
When worship services are so rigidly set by staff that a key team or committee that wants to make a timely announcement or presentation is told, “you will need to wait three weeks for that,” you are in a controlling environment.
When staff worship leaders regularly seek lay involvement in evaluation and planning and are open to insights and inspiration from others, you have a healthy staff leadership situation.
When the prevailing mode of operation is to have staff do all the work of a committee or team between meetings, write the agenda and subtly direct the chair or team leader in their role, you are living in a controlling environment.
When a team or committee consults with and collaborates with staff, takes responsibility for the task the church has elected or appointed them to address, creates an agenda and invites appropriate input from a wide range of people, you have a healthy leadership situation.
When the credit for a rousing success or the blame for what is wrong with the church or an event that has gone awry is focused exclusively on staff, you are in a controlling environment.
When the credit or blame for success or failure is distributed upon both staff and laity, and when staff consistently emphasize that spirit, you have a healthy leadership environment.
When clergy consistently use possessive pronouns to describe the congregation (my people, my deacons, my staff, my board, my pulpit, my vision and so on), then you are living in a controlling environment.
When clergy use “us,” “we” and “ours” and invite others to take ownership and leadership roles that actually have power and responsibility, you are in a healthy leadership environment.
When clergy are urged to supply “your vision for our church” and do so, only to find that they have been set up for constant critique and resistance, then you are in an extremely unhealthy leadership environment.
When the entire congregation participates alongside the staff in discerning God’s vision and mission for the church and takes appropriate ownership for its implementation and strategic importance, then you are in a healthy leadership environment.
When staff members make all decisions about use of facilities, recipients of offerings, distribution of funds and personnel decisions without significant input from laity, then you are in a controlling environment.
When such decisions are made through clear and transparent processes that incorporate input from both staff and lay leadership, then you are in a healthy leadership environment.
Managing the polarity of staff and laity leadership is an ever-changing, always-present reality that must be dealt with proactively and from a deeply spiritual perspective.
Here are some good habits to practice as you seek to build a healthier culture of leadership.
1. Every year a new slate of lay leaders cycle into their positions and roles and must be acclimated to your leadership culture and to what is expected and needed from them. This must be seen as one of the most important tasks of the year.
2. All clergy need objective, strong and proactive accountability. Who does that and how that happens varies, but it needs to happen.
3. Clarity about how decisions are made needs to be regularly communicated.
4. Rather than avoiding conflict, staff members understand that conflict is inevitable and needs to be managed. Regular opportunities for the congregation to ask questions, express frustrations and share dreams and hopes are provided.
Living together as God’s people on a divine mission is one of the most challenging tasks we will ever undertake.
To do that in a healthy and effective leadership environment is one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable. I hope you have that opportunity.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.