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Many congregational leaders know the importance of clear mission and vision statements. However, congregational leaders are less capable at enacting plans.

Years ago, Kennon Callahan described this as “calling plays the players can play.” There are lots of visionary congregational leaders, but not so many who can pull off Vacation Bible School. There need to be more leaders who learn to put plans into action. There need to be more who can manage annual festivals, start a small group ministry or spearhead an outreach trip. As a congregational leader, dreaming the big stuff can be seductive. But sometimes leadership means being able to design an operational infrastructure that can support a new Advent program.

After all, what good is a vision if the website hasn’t been updated?

The difference between management and leadership
I know there is a difference between management and leadership. But I also think the difference of the two apply more distinctly to very large organizations. Given the scale of most congregations, the distinction between leadership and management is certainly smaller than for a Fortune 500 company.

The link between leadership and management in the congregation is learning. Effectiveness at both means a commitment to learning how to do something new. Sometimes it is not so much vision that is needed as the ability to learn to accomplish tasks. This dynamic is true for many in the congregational system. The dynamic of learning is not limited to the lead pastor or to the chair of the board.

Flourishing congregations
Congregations that flourish function as a learning community. This is true even if the congregation doesn’t call itself that.

There is an observable pattern among congregations which learn to do new things. This pattern goes beyond the distinctions between leadership and management. The specifics of this pattern differ from congregation to congregation. However, this pattern reveals the importance of plans and behaviors as a congregation moves through:

  • Defining the challenge.
  • Exploring possibilities.
  • Having an “aha” revelation
  • Experiencing disappointment.
  • Designing and implementing the program, while letting go of something.
  • Feeling validation and facing a new inevitable challenge.

Is all this not theological enough?
This pattern is interestingly close to the pattern of revelation, identified by James Loder in his book The Transforming Moment. This pattern is at least as important, however less enticing, than having a vision. Sometimes good management is excellent leadership.

In terms of organizational learning, the book Immunity to Change from Kegan and Lahey provides a powerful perspective on how to manage any number of relational and missional challenges while leading and managing a congregation.


Tim Shapiro by Tim Shapiro

Tim is president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations – the parent organization of the CRG. He began serving the Center in 2003 after 18 years in pastoral ministry. He holds degrees from Purdue University and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Tim has served as alumni-in-residence at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a commissioner at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, and studied family systems theory under Edwin Friedman.

tshapiro@centerforcongregations.org