Courageous Leaders

Courageous Leaders

October 30, 2017—Courageous leaders, which seem to be in short supply lately, are one of the most important facets of congregational leadership. Courage is the flip side to the claim to authority for the authentification of the leadership position. And its source is the leader’s capacity to lead out of his or her self based on convictions of principles and the clarity of vision. Courage is what enables the congregational leader to know the difference between real toughness and merely looking tough and acting tough. Real toughness doesn’t come from flexing one’s muscles simply because one believes he or she has more authority or more power than another. Real toughness is always principled.

Ethical and principled leaders, for example, understand empowerment as something that is delegated to them by the congregation. They accept that any personal authority they hold exists only within the frame of reference of the culture of the congregation they are called to serve. That culture is informed by the core values and beliefs of the congregation and is further bounded by the leadership function that the congregation requires—no more, and no less. The paradox, of course, is that the more a congregation invests its leaders with authority, the less mature and healthy a congregation tends to be. The effective congregational leader is one who has the courage of conviction to give back to the congregation those leadership functions that do not belong to him or her. These self-aware leaders are cognizant of their limitations and understand the need of both complementing personal strengths with skilled colleagues and compensating for personal limitations through the sharing of the leadership functions that rightly belong to the congregational members called to leadership.

Leaders with a strong sensing style, for example, must often deliberately seek another’s perspective on the long-range consequences of their actions. Strong intuitive leaders may need to find reliable people to attend to immediate, practical problems. The ability to maturely accept that one cannot do everything and be everything to everybody is a quality of effective leaders who are self-aware and courageous. In contrast, leaders who lack the courage to do so tend to be overfunctioners. They lack sufficient self-awareness to know where the boundaries of self lie, and therefore lack the ability to discern what he or she is responsible for and what is not the leader’s responsibility.

Or, these are leaders whose lack of courage is a sign of hubris or a misguided understanding of authority. They truly believe that they and they alone know what is best—not only for themselves, but for everyone else. In their insecurity they give in to the myth of competence and expertise and perpetually feel the pressure of having to have the to solution every problem and the answer to every question. Overfunctioning in congregational leaders is basically a faithless posture—it does not believe that God is capable of working without the leader’s help and it lacks faith in the congregation’s capacity to take responsibility for its own destiny.

Courageous leaders have the capacity to expect adherence to the common values of the congregational culture, while at the same time giving wide discretion in implementation in practice. They are outraged when they see these common core values violated. The values of the common core are the non-negotiables that compose the cultural strands, the covenant that defines the way of life in the congregation. Courage is what enables the congregational leader to be unapologetically ruthless when destructive forces or willful persons intent on being divisive or harmful violate these common principles and community values. Pastors provide a necessary symbolic and cultural function that resides at the center of the congregation. Church cultures are concerned with the values, beliefs, and expectations that the members share. Congregational leaders help to shape this culture, work to design ways and means to transmit this culture to others, but more important, they behave as guardians of the values that define the culture of the congregation.

A central purpose of the leadership function is inducing clarity, consensus, and commitment regarding the congregation’s basic purposes. When members know, agree, and believe in these defining values, practices, and beliefs that inform purpose and vision, the reality of community is experienced. From these defining characteristics come not only direction but the source of meaning and significance that members of the congregation find important. When the congregational leader acts as guardian of the congregation’s values, the values enjoy a special verification in importance and meaning—they become real-life cultural imperatives rather than theological abstractions.

In her study of congregations in Congregation & Community, Nancy Ammerman identified the presence of effective, and courageous, leadership as the difference between congregations who were able to turn around toward growth and effectiveness and those that remained non-adaptive and declining. She noted that:

Pastors in the status quo congregations, by contrast, tended not to introduce new ideas and programs. Most provided excellent care for the people in their congregations and performed well the duties expected of them. Most fit nicely with their parishioners, working hard to maintain the pattern of church life all of them expected. If they perceived any need for change, they were unwilling or unable to undertake the difficult (and often conflictual) work of dislodging old routines. A few expressed to us their sense that their leadership skills were simply not up to the challenges they knew the congregation faced. Others simply pastored the best they knew how. (p. 327)

* Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists.

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.


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