Common Mistakes Church Leaders Make and How to Overcome Them

Sally felt like she was drowning. She was in her tenth month of service as the chairperson of the Board for Congregational Service at St. James Church. It seemed that the responsibilities of her position were overwhelming her. She was asked to assume this leadership role because she had been an active volunteer at the church. The nominating board recognized her to be a true servant, so they assumed she’d do a fine job leading the Board for Congregational Service.  

Sally had agreed to the nomination with some trepidation and was elected to the position. But she had no leadership experience before this election. And her gifts and skills were not oriented toward leadership. She thrived in doing hands-on service but floundered at the task of leading and managing other members of the board. Moreover, she was dropped into the chairperson position without any training. As a result, the six members of the Board for Congregational Service were frustrated, and Sally was flustered.

What Are Common Mistakes Church Leaders Make?

Mistake 1: Failing to Recognize People’s Unique Gifts

Sally’s experience reflects some of the most common mistakes that arise in placing lay volunteers into positions of leadership in congregations. The first mistake was made by the nominating board, which assumed Sally would be a good leader simply because she was a faithful servant. The Bible indicates that leadership is not a gift all possess (see Romans 12:6–8). Often, churches are looking for warm bodies to fill leadership positions prescribed by their bylaws and engage in little reflection on who is most gifted and able to lead.  

Mistake 2: Selecting Leaders without Training or Experience

The second mistake was that Sally was not experienced in leadership tasks. The old adage says, “Leaders are made, not born.” Leadership skills are formed in the crucible of experience. Thus, the nominating committee should have looked at Sally’s record of leadership and management before slotting her for a major leadership role in the church. Granted, one learns leadership by being given opportunities to lead, but these should be on a graduated scale. Sally had only served in the church as one who took direction from others, not as one who directed others. It would have been better if she had demonstrated some experience in organizing and managing others before being placed in a major leadership position.

How to Overcome Common Mistakes Church Leaders Make

Identify Leaders with Experience

One way to overcome these mistakes is to engage in a more thorough discernment process for identifying potential leaders. This is where the pastor (and other staff members) should be involved. As he becomes familiar with the gifts and experiences of members of the congregation, the pastor can guide the nominating committee to identify potential leaders who already have some track record of mobilizing and motivating others. A church member might have a servant heart and a consecrated spirit, but he or she should also demonstrate the competence to lead before being assigned a significant leadership role such as a board chairmanship.

Intentionally Develop Leaders

Another way to overcome these mistakes is by providing an intentional process to develop leaders in a church. Chapter 8 of my book, Organizing for Ministry and Mission: Options for Church Structure, describes such a process. It involves three tasks: instruction, immersion, and imitation.

In the first task, the potential leader is given instruction about the goals, resources, and limitations of the role. Leadership is moving other people to achieve a common purpose, so the leader needs to be aware of that purpose as well as what resources are available to reach the goal and what boundaries require attention. Much instruction is done by demonstration. The experienced leader demonstrates to the learner how to lead. This is the stage in which the mentor does and the learner watches.

But simply receiving information is not enough. One also learns to lead by doing. This is the task of immersion. At this stage, the mentor and the learner share the tasks of leadership. The developing leader is immersed in some leadership tasks that increase in scope and responsibility over time. In Sally’s case, she should have climbed the “ladder of leadership” by participating in the Board for Congregational Service in subservient roles before being elected as chairperson.

Be Imitators

Finally, the process of leadership formation involves imitation. Through the immersive experience, the prospective leader observes the able leadership of others and then is given the opportunity to imitate that. It has been said that leadership is as much caught as taught, and learners catch leadership skills by imitating good leaders. Sally had not been exposed enough to other capable leaders so that she could catch their leadership skills by observing and imitating them. When this is done, however, the veteran leader can eventually say to the apprentice, “You do what I’ve been doing, and I’ll watch and give counsel.”

Common mistakes in church leadership can be overcome. Capable church leaders are the result of intentionality that is front-loaded into the congregation’s culture. This involves two important efforts: 1) greater discernment in the selection of leaders and 2) a more intentional process of leadership formation.

155263Organizing for Ministry and Mission will guide you through options for church structure. Which structure of organization will best proclaim the Gospel, serve neighbors, and work to administer the Sacraments in your community?

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David J. Peter

Dr. David J. Peter has spent twenty-three years in the parish, experiencing the realities of pastoral ministry and researching congregational dynamics. As a professor of practical theology and the dean of faculty at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, he regularly leads courses for practicing pastors. He has also gained many insights from students about the realities of administration and leadership in congregations.

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