I have known dozens of churches well. Some I served; some were served by colleagues. Others were neighboring congregations.

A few of these churches handled difficulties well. They took the initiative to deal with problems in the earliest stages. They set constructive boundaries and did not allow avoidable conflict to escalate.

Many of the churches I’ve known, however, avoided issues, simply hoping they would resolve themselves without pain or discomfort.

They prayed everyone would just get along, or they sacrificed a minister instead of addressing the underlying dynamics.

This second group of churches watched members disengage from participation or leave for other congregations as they grew wary and weary of growing problems.

I have no statistics or hard data to back up my conviction, but I have observed one crucial difference between the two kinds of congregations. I see one clear factor that separates them from each other.

Healthy churches all have the necessary leaders who will make hard decisions in the right spirit.

They have the leaders who will act in the best interest of the congregation, even when facing criticism. The other churches do not.

If I were a young minister, considering a call or appointment to a new congregation, a critical, human factor in my discernment process would include determining if the church has necessary leaders among its membership.

If I still served a congregation, I would find ways to develop as many of these leaders as possible.

What are the characteristics of necessary congregational leaders?

  1. They understand their proper role in the church.

We all use the expression “my church,” but necessary leaders recognize this statement reflects participation, not ownership.

In multiple letters, the Apostle Paul tells us that Christ is the head of the church. Therefore, necessary leaders always remember Christ has entrusted the church to them as human stewards of its mission and relationships.

As stewards, they seek God’s will and reflect the spirit of Christ in how they lead. Unhealthy leaders assert control over the congregation and its decisions, assuming whatever they want must be God’s will for the church.

  1. They function according to biblical standards.

A wise mentor once told me there is no difference between doing the wrong thing and doing the right thing the wrong way.

In the Kingdom of God, leaders are governed by the standards of Christ, not simple pragmatism.

Necessary leaders practice principles, such as speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), handling disputes forthrightly (Matthew 18:15ff) and operating openly (1 John 1:5ff).

  1. They have high emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman reminds us that the greatest factor influencing effectiveness in any field is emotional intelligence, also known as EI or EQ.

Necessary leaders possess the two major components of EQ: self-awareness and empathy.

Self-awareness is vital because we humans can easily confuse our motives with God’s will. Leaders with strong self-awareness can monitor their own motives, emotions and reactions.

Knowing themselves accurately, people with high EQ, consequently, can manage their own actions. They act and respond according to their principles instead of reacting emotionally.

They also demonstrate empathy by keeping the good of the congregation in mind. Empathy allows them to read correctly the emotional climate in a crisis and to anticipate and appreciate the reactions of others.

  1. Others recognize their integrity.

Members trust necessary leaders because they have demonstrated that they act fairly, make wise decisions and keep their word in a variety of settings.

Time after time, I have witnessed church members say, “I didn’t agree with that action, but I trust the people who made it.”

Trustworthiness is more important than position or title. It is earned over long periods of time and after repeated instances of wisdom, transparency and charity.

  1. They don’t bully and refuse to be bullied.

Edwin Friedmann says most organizations act on the emotional level of their most immature participants.

These are the people who threaten, demand, nag, whine and manipulate (all of them are forms of bullying) to get their way.

By their very nature, the leaders necessary to offsetting these dynamics neither use these tactics, nor do they give in to them when they are used against them.

  1. They act.

In moments of crisis or confusion, necessary leaders speak up, step forth or make hard decisions.

Based on their sense of stewardship and operating out of their understanding of biblical principles, they take responsibility and act.

If you were trying to discern who your necessary leaders might be, consider these questions:

  • Whose opinion do people seek routinely? Why? Are they trusted or merely opinionated?
  • Name a recent conflict and describe how it was addressed. What members of the laity were involved and how did they function? Who was mature and principled?
  • Name a time something unpopular was accomplished or addressed. Whom did the congregation trust in the decision-making process?
  • Who can be trusted not to act on self-interest alone? Who consistently acts on obvious, Christian principles?
  • Who would you say has genuine spiritual maturity?

These questions could be asked in an interview with a committee designated by the church to secure a new minister. Or they can be used to create a list of potential necessary leaders for further development.

I believe no more important task for a minister exists than to recognize and cultivate a culture of necessary leaders. Sooner or later, the health and direction of your congregation will depend on them.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches’ blog. It is used with permission.

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