Pastoral Leadership, Part 1: Godliness

I have the joy of teaching in our Doctor of Ministry Program at Southeastern Seminary. It is an outstanding program of study with majors in Expository Preaching, Leadership, Biblical Counseling, Faith and Culture, and Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth. You can learn more about the program by going here or by phone at 919-761-2216.

Recently, I received a very fine paper from one of my students on “Leadership in the Local Church.” The author is a pastor of a very prominent church in the Southern Baptist Convention who is leading it through a time of transition following a long tenured pastor. The focus of his paper was on how to lead a local congregation through a time of transition without blowing up the place. As many of us know this is easier said than done.

With his permission I will share in several blog entries an edited version of his paper. There is real wisdom in what you will read. For obvious reasons the particular church and the pastor’s identity will not be disclosed.

Pastoral Leadership, Part 1: Godliness

Transitions in pastoral leadership can be one of the most critical periods in the life of a church. It will certainly be a challenge. Wallace Erickson, in his essay, Transition in Leadership, writes: “The events of history and observations in my lifetime reveal that transition in leadership can easily be the most traumatic event in any organization’s history. Succession in leadership makes a tremendous impact on any ministry” (George Barna, Leaders on Leadership, 298).

Over the years many have observed the departure of one leader and the arrival of a new leader with a sense of uncertainty. Sometimes the transition ends in disaster. As much as lay leaders pray, plan, and prepare, there is always an anxiety about whether or not the new leader will truly be God’s man to carry out the vision and mission of the church, as well as meet the pastoral needs of the congregation. Every week, in churches across our nation, leaders step down and new leaders assume their positions. As I have walked through this journey of leadership transition, seven principles have become my guide. They are principles that are needed in every leader who seeks to make an effective transition. Those seven principles are: godliness, integrity, courage, passion, compassion, competence, and communication.

The first principle that is vital to be an effective leader in transition is godliness. This is a principle that stands out in the life of every biblical leader. Nehemiah demonstrates godliness in his prayer life as he seeks vision and guidance from the Lord. It is seen in Jesus Himself, praying in Luke 6:12 and Mark 3:13-15, just to name two. The issue of godliness is most often described as part of the core issue of the leader’s character. Gary Bredfeldt, in Great Leader, Great Teacher, writes, “It’s a virtuous and godly character that provides the evidence that the content of one’s teaching is indeed true and that it can be lived with authenticity” (89).

In addition Jack Hayford notes, “A leader’s character will never rise beyond the flow of his obedience to the Holy Spirit dealing with his heart.” Seeking the face of God is paramount for any believer who desires to grow in the richness of his relationship with Christ. The leader must set his priorities to provide time for prayer, genuinely seeking God’s heart and God’s vision. Without the priority of prayer and the effort to seek God, this inner quality of godliness will suffer and go undeveloped. Oswald Sanders in Spiritual Leadership says, “Leadership is influence. It is the ability of one person to influence others to follow his or her lead” (Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, 27). It is only through a consistent, godly lifestyle that a trust and a willingness to follow new pastoral leadership can be developed within a congregation. It is here that many transitions in leadership struggle. Oftentimes it is not the lack of godliness or lack of character on the part of the new leader that causes the struggle, but rather that the congregation has simply not had enough time with the leader to recognize that he is godly and consequently to place enough trust in him to follow his lead. Let me provide some specific examples.

One must be cautious in the reorganization of the staff. Planning a second service, more contemporary in style, must be implemented with care. A wise step before making formal presentations is to pull together a “focus-group” of a cross-section of the church. The purpose is to be transparent, to place the vision out there, and sincerely seek feedback. In hindsight, the selection of my particular focus group may have been limited by my short-term exposure. Not all the people of influence were being heard in this mix. This is crucial as you seek to lead in a godly manner that builds trust and followship.

For any present staff you inherit, the whole idea of change after many years of doing things in a certain way will probably be a huge adjustment at best. Again, it is important for these individuals involved in major change to sense the godliness of the leader who would be completely open and reassuring of how their gifts will be used. The transition of leadership demands godliness. The core character will truly take time to become evident to people around the new leader.

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