June 10, 2019—What does it take to be an effective leader? That’s a complex and perennial question that has spawned countless books, lectures, seminars, courses, and workshops (and countless moments of personal self-doubt on the part of anyone in the lonely position of leader). There seems to be no end to the number of people asking this question—or to the number willing to provide “the” answer. Too often, leadership is treated from a reductionist view understood as a personal and individual matter that needs to be addressed through personal skills and attitude development. Or, more commonly, leadership is approached as an administrative function or as a motivational skill.
I recall two instances during my seminary days that highlight these approaches to leadership. The first instance was when a nationally-known motivational speaker visited the seminary campus for a series of lectures. The lecture hall was packed—mostly with business persons from the community (you could easily make them out, in contrast to financially strapped seminary students, that crowd was nicely coiffured, sparkling with power jewelry, and sharply, if not expensively, dressed). While the speaker was terrific—and yes, motivational—I noticed that most seminary students were sitting or standing at the fringes of the room. As I listened to the speaker go on about being a positive, confident “winner,” and a people-motivating leader, I could not help wonder if the reason that the theologically-oriented crowd seemed marginalized had something to do with an instinctual hunch that there was a disconnect between the speaker’s concept of leadership and the theological understanding of pastoral “servant leadership” most of the students were being exposed to at that time.
The second instance was the disconnect between the theological and biblical advocacy for a “servant leadership” approach to pastoral leadership, and the practical ministry leadership courses that were being taught concurrently. It would not be unusual for a seminarian to attend one class that taught the “servant leadership” model and then go to another course the same day that taught corporate methods of institutional management, staff relationships, marketing, and business administration for the church context (all focused primarily on “growing” a church by increasing membership). These secular business model approaches to leadership as management, supervision, marketing, and institutional development tend to feed the anxious drive toward organizational and institutional growth, typically defined by increased numbers in membership and in a bricks-and-mortar additions over ministry effectiveness.
The insight that a congregation is an organic relationship system with hidden life forces dictates that what effective congregational leaders provide for the church are the specific functions for the systemic relational processes in the congregation. More specifically, leadership in the congregational context is primarily a corporate function, not an individual one. It has more to do with the leader’s function in the system than it does with the personality of the leader or even with motivating others. Perhaps the most challenging idea about leadership is that it is not that good pastoral leaders have healthy congregations, as it is that healthy congregations possess and enable good pastoral leadership. As Edwin Friedman put it, “Institutions are emotional fields that generally affect the functioning of their members more than the members affect the field.”(1) In other words, effective congregational leadership is less about the individual personality of the pastor as it is the ability of the congregation to accommodate and foster the leadership functions it needs. To quote the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The group is the womb of the leader.”(2)
(1) Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed., Edward W. Beal and Margaret M. Treadwell (Bethesda, MD: The Edwin Friedman Estate, 1999), p. 29.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures, and Notes 1928-1936 in The Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed., Edwin H. Robinson and John Boweden, (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 196.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. 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 & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.