Practical Leadership Theory for Local Church Leaders

There are plenty of things I would have liked to of known when I first started pastoring ten years ago.  Professional training and habitual reading have provided a great foundation.  Observing other pastors is another blessing.  However, nothing has been as beneficial as experience.  In reality, it is the mixture of all three that inform my approach to leading in the church, among so many other items as well.

Leadership is a word that brings up conflicting emotions for many people.  Some love it, and some hate it.  There seem to be as many approaches and definitions to leadership as there are people.  Like love, many of us acknowledge it’s reality but have a difficult time articulating it.  For myself, I was introduced like many to the famous gurus of leadership.  Those who had sold millions of books, spoke widely attended leadership conferences, and were highly sought after by CEOs and more.  However, after I entered seminary and especially after some time in a Ph.D. program on Organizational Leadership, there was a realization that leadership is a very complicated and sophisticated social science.

I would like to introduce you to some of the advanced theories that have informed my leading in the local church.  Also, just a note that these approaches can be singled out for discussion and development, but the reality is approach works together.  I hope that you see the need for leadership development in the Church.  While there are a ton of definitions and theories, we do have a solid understanding of what leadership is and what it is not.  At the least, we do recognize a good or bad leader when we come in contact with them. I also have provided some application to each theory. But, remember without understanding the theory you will only copy someone else’s application.

Stewardship Theory

This approach rocked my world.  Being a steward leader would have described my essential approach to ministry and life.  However, the theory provided an excellent framework to explain this method to anyone.  The idea is that we see life through three lenses: Ownership, accountability, and motivation.  First, God is the owner of everything, and we are only the stewards of our life, possessions, relationships, and responsibilities.  Secondly, and because of the first, we are accountable to God for everything we are given.  Lastly, this informs our motivation.  The intention is not that we solely serve God out the fear that we are accountable.  It is that we are motivated to serve God out of love for Him and His mission instead of our desire for self-advancement.  Another way of putting it is that we are responsible for caring for our relationships with God, self, others, and creation.  If you want to know more about this approach to leadership, look up Scott Rodin or Kent Wilson.

Key Lesson for Church Leaders: The local church is not your possession.  The global and local Chuch belongs to God.  You are a shepherd.  You are a steward that is responsible and accountable to God for how you lead and care for the congregation.

Learning-Centered Leadership Theory

A book by Don Dunoon, called “In the Leadership Mode” was one of our required readings.  Alongside Stewardship theory, this was one of those “lightbulb” moments.  Learning-centered leadership is a type of shared or team leadership approaches.  The approach is that leadership is not a position but an activity a person enters in when they make timely interventions during a contentious issue.  Most of the time, people are managing.  Managing is when you perform your tasks.  Leading is when you interact with others by listening, create meaning together, and speak up with to solve a problem.  In other words, you manage from position and lead by proximity.

Key Lesson for Church Leaders: You’re not the only one who can lead.  Also, you can’t lead when you are not working well with others.  Learn to listen and reason together.  Allow other individuals to have the floor and lead.

Servant Leadership Theory

Robert Greenleaf articulated servant leadership theory and popularized it.  Since then, the church has taken this approach as its own.  However, I feel that it is defincient and is best seen as an approach to help a steward leader.  Its strength is in its “people-centered” approach.  The idea is that the best way to care for an organization is to care for the individuals in the group.

Key Lesson for Church Leaders:  If you want to lead change in your church, do it from an individual-organization approach instead of an organization-individual approach.  We are supposed to be about individuals in the church.  Church leaders and plans fail because they begin to change policies and methods in the church thinking that the people will change.  However, if you serve people first, they will trust you later as you lead.

Transformational Leadership Theory

Another popular approach to leadership with a scholarly background is transformational leadership theory.  James MacGregor Burns developed this method and it is widely used.  The idea is that there are three approaches to leadership.  Leaders are either Laissez-faire (meaning uninvolved), transactional, or transformational.  Transactional leaders motivate people primarily by giving and taking away incentives.  The transformational leader motivates people by helping them through crisis moments and in essence, helping them become better.  Transformational leaders help individuals change through idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.

Key Lesson for Church Leaders:  Transformational leaders are usually termed charismatic (in personality, not religiosity).  This is hard for a person, like myself, that is an introvert.  However, a charismatic person is not necessarily an outgoing person.  Instead, it can mean that this person is genuinely interested in someone else.  If there is only one thing that you can engage in conversation with, focus on that to start.  Build a relationship with that person, serve them, and help them be a better person by your leadership.

Authentic Leadership Theory

This theory is a conflicted one for me.  I’m trying to be real with you (that’s authentic, right?).  The present society has popularized this word so much that it is almost annoying and void of real meaning.  Still, it is worth mentioning from a scholarly standpoint.  Authentic Leadership is built on four main factors: leading with a moral compass, a high self-awareness, relational transparency, and balanced processing (able to listen to conflicting perspectives without creating conflict).

Key Lesson for Church Leaders:  You need to be yourself.  Don’t try to be someone else.  Be confident in your identity as a child of God and what the Lord has called you to do.  Lead with a moral compass founded on Scripture.  Have integrity and keep yourself above blame.

LMX Theory

Leader-member exchange or LMX theory is a complicated approach in my opinion.  I was introduced to it in seminary in a straightforward way however by Bob Whitesel.  Organizations can be seen as one large group that is made up of many subgroups.  Leadership groups must interact with each group individually as those interactions are determined by the strength of the relationship between the two.  The complication of this theory comes from the idea that there are different types of relationships between groups and that each type requires a different kind of approach or discussion.

Key Lesson for Church Leaders:  There is no doubt about the existence of in-groups and out-groups, even in the local church.  The hope is that everyone feels like they are INvolved, INcluded, and their needs are INdividually considered.  This theory of leadership is vital to local church leaders because there needs to be an awareness that decisions and activities may leave a group of people feeling like they are on the outside.  Once these outside groups (whether real or contrived) are identified, church leaders can then address a way to bring them in.