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Effective Leadership for Vital Worship

Principles of leadership for collaborative projects

A vital worship project requires effective leadership to

•  strengthen your congregation's or organization's unique mission and history
•  collaborate with other people and groups to implement your project
•  nourish healthy congregational life
•  develop the gifts of the implementation team

Whether or not you consider yourself a leader, you will be involved in leadership. The good news is that effective leadership does not all depend on leaders. It depends on a healthy leadership situation.

Good leadership is not about having the right people with the right traits (research has not supported trait theory), but about having a context in which effective leadership can happen. In order to have such a situation good leaders and good followers are needed-a system that works effectively. Leadership is actually a reciprocal process. The followers are as responsible for the quality and effectiveness of leadership as are the leaders.

Good leadership is not having all the answers and telling the congregation how things are going to go.

A Definition: Good leadership is helping the congregation embody in its corporate life-and especially in its worship life-the practices that shape vital Christian life, community and witness in ways that are faithful to Jesus Christ and the gospel and appropriate to the particular group's setting, resources, and purpose.

Recent research on leadership shows that the following things are present when good reciprocal leadership happens:

4 C's of Effective Leadership

1. Character (trust)
Character is grounded in new life in Jesus Christ-in people who are dying and rising with him; and in whom Christ by the Holy Spirit is producing fruit. People of character, who show honesty, integrity, compassion, etc., are people that others trust, and trust is the only currency leaders really have. And there is also an emotional intelligence that is consistent with effective leadership.

Note about the reciprocal (the back and forth) nature of this leadership/congregation relationship: Character in the leader produces trust in the group, which produces trust in the leader, which produces character in the group. These attributes feed off of each other and build each other up. This applies to all four of these "C"s.

2. Conviction (vision & purpose)
Effective leaders believe certain things deeply and are committed to them-convictions based on Scripture about what the church should be and do. They foster conversation within the congregation to help them discern where God is leading them-jointly discerning the vision and direction they should go.

3. Competencies (healthy responses to normal anxieties of a living organism in change)
Leaders can learn certain things through training-certain skills and competencies, such as listening, communication skills, accountability structures, dynamics of change, dealing with conflict, understanding the congregation as a system, etc. The congregation will benefit and will show healthier responses to the various situations it faces in its commitment, communication, and practices.

4. Confluence (leader, congregation, situation, training coming together by the Holy Spirit)
Effective leadership happens when there's a confluence-a convergence, a coming together-of leaders, congregation, time, place, and ministry opportunity-with the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Confluence is not so much something we create as it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Every situation is unique. This reality keeps leaders humble, but is not an excuse for passivity.

Recent leadership theorists are using the term: Adaptive leadership. This does not mean adapting to whatever the group or the loudest voices want. It means helping the congregation address the conflict/gap between its values and reality, between what it says it wants to be and what it is. (E.g. A church wants to be an outreaching, evangelistic church, but there hasn't been a conversion in that church for 20 years. There's a gap between its ideals and reality. Leadership is trying to reduce that gap.) Leaders help congregations do the adaptive work necessary for this to happen.

Learning needs to happen in situations of effective leadership, so a process for learning is crucial. It's the difference between, on the one hand, a leader trying to persuade the congregation to follow his or her vision, and on the other hand, a leader simply bowing to the presented desires of the group.

One crucial distinction: Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges. A technical challenge is a problem to be solved. The boiler is broken. We fix it. An adaptive challenge is much deeper. It involves changing us. One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make is to mix up technical and adaptive challenges.


1. A church has a problem with fellowship and getting its people to be welcoming. "Visitors don't feel welcome in this church." Most churches view this as a technical challenge: "Let's build a bigger foyer. Let's build a welcome booth for visitors." But the church's challenge is actually an adaptive challenge: it needs to change from being a church of cliques. People have to be willing to go up to a stranger rather than go up to their best friend. This involves spiritual change in me, in us. God needs to change us!

2. A church wants to draw young families, so it buys a fancy beeper system for the nursery.

3. A church wants to be relevant to young people, so it invests in a PowerPoint system.

These are technical solutions for what are probably adaptive challenges. Young families want to know your church really loves young families. Young people want to sense in worship that they are in communion with God. These things don't happen by buying beepers and PowerPoint alone. They happen by transformation, by us changing. Adaptive challenges (challenges that involve us changing) virtually always involve learning.

Most of your projects are dealing with changes in conditions (in "us,"), not merely problems to fix. Many of you are starting new programs, new initiatives, working with new groups, introducing new artwork or music or other liturgical elements-or even new services. Therefore, you need to think about helping the congregation to adapt, change, grow-helping them to understand how this fits with what they believe about the church and about worship, based on Scripture, and helping them to discern how the adaptation should take place. It also means helping them understand how this project is fitting at this point in the congregation's mission and history.

Some of you have been engaged in the project for a while; others of you have already engaged in some of this learning as you developed your grant proposal, and have also left room for further learning that will involve the congregation in meaningful ways. It is important to allow opportunities for the congregation to learn in the context of this new initiative so that the congregation will have ownership of it. How can such a learning environment be created?

Ways to create learning environment in which renewal can happen:

  • Encourage study and learning-on the meaning and purpose of worship (book study group, committee, council/session, other groups within the church).
  • Help the congregation identify the gap between what it is and what it could be.
  • Design focus groups (new or "used"-adult education class, church council meeting, choir rehearsal, etc.) to create safe places for discussion.
  • Give the congregation time to learn; pay attention to the pace.
  • Provide the right amount of ingredients and pressure for the cooker, but let the congregation do its own learning.
  • Understand the congregation's values: do timeline studies, look at the past-when were the glory days, the difficult chapters in the story?
  • Listen to as many voices as possible-especially those who question the project.
  • Spend time in Scripture study and prayer-what Scripture passage relates to where we are and the transition we face?
  • Be open to learning from the process yourself.

Rules of Transformative Leadership (from Robinson, as quoted by Willimon, p. 284-286)

  • Give responsibility back. (Don't do the congregation/group's work)
  • Expect trouble. (Resistance is normal)
  • Value small steps. (Big steps too often result in backtracking)
  • Plan. (Don't just let it happen)
  • Identify the vital few. (Bell curve)
  • Do not overvalue consensus. (Consensus is desired, but not necessary if it means being controlled by a strong and inflexible minority)
  • Count the yes votes. (Not just the loud no's)
  • Create a new working group for a new job.
  • Change by addition, not subtraction.
  • Be persistent.

Discussion Questions:

  • What leadership strength will be my greatest asset?
  • What leadership quality will stretch me as I participate in this project?
  • What can I do to increase collaboration and communication in the grant project?

List of Recommended Books:

Joseph Badarracco, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (Harvard Business School Press, 2002)

Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute, 1999)

Jackson Carroll and Wade Clark Roof, Bridging Divided Worlds: Generational Cultures in Congregations (Jossey-Bass, 2002)

Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994)

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002)

Jim Herrington, Robert Creech and Trisha L. Taylor, The Leader's Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2003)

Thomas G. Long, Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship (Alban Institute, 2001)

Cornelius Plantinga Jr. and Sue A. Rozeboom, Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today (Eerdmans, 2003)

Gilbert R. Rendle, Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders (Alban Institute, 1998)

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations (Alban Institute, 2003)

Gil Rendle, The Multigenerational Challenge: Meeting the Leadership Challenge (Alban Institute, 2002)

Quentin Schultze, High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technology Wisely (Baker, 2004)

Peter Steinke, Healthy Congregation: A Systems Approach (Alban Institute, 1996)

Peter Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Alban Institute, 1993)

R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Systems Approach to Congregational Leadership (Alban Institute, 1993)

Paul Tokunaga, Invitation to Lead: Guidance for Emerging Asian American Leaders (InterVarsity Press, 2003)

William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2002), especially Chapter 11: "The Pastor as Leader: The Peculiarity of Christian Leadership"

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