Pastoral Leadership, Part 3: Courage

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 3: Courage

There is a third principle that must rise to the surface as you walk through the transition of leadership. It is the principle of courage. Courage within the Christian leader builds confidence in the followers. It is courage that motivates the heart of followers. Gary Bredfeldt points out that the English word courage, is rooted in coeur, which is French for heart. To have courage means to have a heart for something. This is another principle that is paramount in the effective, biblical leader. Wallace Erickson places a high premium on courage when it comes to the issue of transition. He writes, “When it comes to transition, some leaders face change, embrace it and make it their own. Others fight the process, and as a result are forced out, usually destroying relationships and tarnishing the ministry’s good name” (Barna, Leaders on Leadership, 300).

Throughout Scripture there is example after example of courageous leadership. It is seen in the life of Joshua. It is seen in the life of Peter. It is seen in John the Baptist. It is seen in Stephen. John Maxwell, in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, writes of Joshua and his courage stating: “Joshua’s life was marked by courage-as he stood up against the other spies, as he fought the Amalekites. And courage is nothing more than faith in action. He lived his life by this formula: Courage plus Obedience Today equals Success Tomorrow” (26). We are indeed called as God’s leaders to demonstrate courage in order to provide direction for those who will follow. As a new leader in the midst of transition, the courage to step out and overcome fear which often paralyzes organizations can prove to be extremely beneficial for the people. Andy Stanley notes in his book The Next Generation Leader, “courage is essential to leadership because the first person to step out in a new direction is viewed as the leader. And being the first to step out requires courage. In this way, courage establishes leadership” (51).

The quality of courage has been a huge challenge in my ministry over the last several years. While I have often felt over the last twenty years of pastoral ministry that courage was a part of my makeup, the challenges of transition into the current ministry have left me with doubts at times. While I have not felt any wavering from convictions, the circumstances that I have faced over the past years have certainly given me pause, and even at times doubt, over whether I knew what was best for the ministry I have been called to lead. In many ways the willingness to take the risks that are necessary in moving a ministry forward is what most often seems threatened. However, Andy Stanley reminds us that, “the leader who refuses to move until the fear is gone will never move. Consequently, he will never lead” (55.) While fear can often leave one paralyzed, we must understand that doing the will of God and moving a ministry forward must trump any fear of risk. This courage is more readily found when the first two principles previously discussed are in place. Only when there is a confidence, built by godliness and integrity, will one really move forward with courage.

During the days of transition, situations and circumstances will present themselves that, properly handled with courageous leadership, can propel forward the leadership of the new leader. One of the most challenging times for any transitioning leader is the opportunity of inheriting people who make up the team that will carry out the vision of the new leader. Jim Collins in his bestseller, Good to Great, emphasizes the concept of getting the right people around you. In fact, he worded it this way from his study of the organizations that moved from good to great, “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it to someplace great” (41.) Collins reminds every leader that you cannot see great things without great people moving the team forward. For any pastor moving into a new situation, particularly a larger church, with multiple staff, this issue will require a great deal of courage. The very exercise of learning, evaluating, and then determining who should stay and who should go is an extremely emotional and oftentimes extremely difficult process. However, it must be tackled!

Leath Anderson, in Leadership That Works, describes the staff situation in terms of an old school versus new school approach. Anderson describes as “yesterday’s rules” the idea that the resignation of the senior minister requires all other staff to resign to give the new leader a “clean slate.” He writes: “Rather than helping the new pastor, it actually handicaps him because the departing staff members take so much infrastructure, so many relationships, and so much history along with them. Far wiser are those who recognize the value of the rest of the team and hold on to them at least through the first year or two of transition and then decide who stays and who goes” (124.) While in theory what Anderson shares sounds good, he overlooks the fact that a large amount of infrastructure and relationships are lost any time a long-term staff member leaves, whether his departure occurs early or later in the transition. Unfortunately for the new leader, any departures of long-term staff in the first several years of his ministry makes him suspect for “running off” a beloved staff member. The issue of those relationships runs deeper than any facts or truth concerning the new pastor and the inherited staff member not sharing the same passion, vision, and direction for where the church needs to go. It takes incredible courage to make those decisions. In making those decisions, there are at least three steps that m must be considered.

The first step of courage will be found in the leader’s willingness to sit down and hear the passions and vision that each staff member has had for this church family. How would they describe the vision of the previous leader, and what part did they feel they had played in seeing that vision fulfilled? This is a great time for the leader to ask each staff member the question, “If you could write your own job description for ministry, based on your passions and your spiritual gifts, what would it look like?” The chance to share their hearts and thoughts about overall ministry can be a huge opportunity for staff members. It takes courage, however, for what the new leader hears may involve a “change of seats,” or a “removal from the bus.”

The second step of courage involves a willingness to keep and perhaps develop into new roles those that have been part of a long term staff. What makes this a courageous decision is the requirement to trust that these individuals will exhibit the same loyalty and have the same support for the new leader that they had for the leader that brought them to the church in the first place. There is no question that maintaining some of the current staff can allow the pastor to have insights and understandings of the congregation that he would not otherwise possess. It is extremely important however that he believe that they share the same passion and vision that he shares for what God can do in the church.

The third step of courage, and perhaps the most painful, is the reality that some of the inherited staff will not fit in the new vision and goals that the new leader brings. Upon this realization there must be some plan of action. Here, several questions have to be considered: Is this person doing damage to the overall morale? Is this person speaking negatively about the new leadership and the new approaches? Is this person respectful, and obviously aware that the fit is not right? Can this person move easily into another ministry in another church? These are just some of the questions that will help any leader determine what path to travel in bringing change to his staff position. The reality that the new leader must accept if he brings substantial change to staff leadership is the likelihood of criticism and negative feedback from those with whom the outgoing staff member shared strong relationships. It takes great courage and great heart to step up and lead out in significant change, particularly where the lives and livelihood of many others will be affected.

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