When love isn't the answer

August 26th, 2015

I have just returned from a national church conference that brought together church leaders and thought leaders to talk about leadership best practices. For my part, I asked people to choose a leadership style that best described them. Overwhelmingly, the top choices were inclusive, affirming and humble. Energizing was a close second. On the surface, these are terrific leadership styles: they are people-oriented, upbeat, welcoming. They imply hearts full of love. And a willingness to express it.

At a time when people say churches are judgmental, unfriendly and hypocritical, these leadership styles are a breath of fresh air. These leaders are likely to lead with an open heart, an open mind and a smile. They will look for the best in the people around them, and seek to form collaborative ministries that gather in a variety of people. Personally, I love people like this!

But there are times when love isn’t the answer. When it does more harm than good. And when it prevents the church from growing in faith or accomplishing its mission.

Inclusive, affirming and humble leaders tend to lead from beside or behind. That’s a comfortable style for them. In fact, they may not even want to be out front or lead the charge. There are ups and downs to this style. Let’s take a closer look.

The upside

The upside of this leadership style comes when they are leading people who are chomping at the bit, who have lots of forward momentum and who don’t want to be stopped. Inclusive, affirming, humble leaders won’t stand in the way of forward motion here. Their position beside or behind will be seen as permission-giving, gracious and supportive. That’s a good thing.

The downside

But what about when the people they are leading are less sure of themselves? After all, not every follower of Christ wants to be out front. Many want to be, well, followers. They’re more comfortable enacting someone else’s vision than crafting their own. In this case, inclusive, affirming and humble leaders may be less effective. If their desire is to make sure all voices are heard, harmonious consensus is achieved, and no one is left out, then their loving yes is effectively a no.

What are they saying no to? No to embracing risk. No to uncertain outcomes. No to emerging situations that require a quick response. In a word, they are saying no to faith. Faith requires trust. Trust is only necessary if the outcome is unsure and the future is unknown.

Now what?

Let’s say you find yourself in the category of an inclusive, affirming and humble leader. First thing to do is to offer a prayer of thanks. You bring much to the table that others want to emulate. You are indeed a gift to the church.

Next, survey your congregation.

Ask yourself, who are you leading?

Let’s say you have a preponderance of folks who are chomping at the bit … eager to take on every ministry that comes their way. Let’s say they’re pretty comfortable with risk and change, too. If that’s the case, your permission-giving style of leadership is probably a good fit. You are not likely to stand in the way of people’s energy and enthusiasm to do good in the world.

So, here are a few things to remember: Make sure you are staying in touch with your leaders to resource and connect them. Help them remember the vision you are working toward. In their energetic pursuit of making things happen, they may get distracted and stray from the shared vision you have. Do ask for timelines and deadlines from your leaders so that goals are accomplished and communication channels are kept open. Finally, keep the encouragement going, even as you step aside to let them move forward.

On the other hand, let’s say you have a preponderance of folks who are followers, not leaders. They look to you or another leader in the church to make decisions, delegate tasks, keep things moving, and not incidentally, pick up the slack. Things move at a moderate but steady pace, as long as you keep things going.

If this is your situation, you’re dealing with a horse of a different color. Be assured, your inclusive approach is probably well-appreciated here. But it may be that everyone, including you, is a bit too comfortable. Know what I mean? It’s time to move out of comfort zone into the growth zone.

Here’s what I suggest. Begin by praying. Ask God to awaken in you a desire and willingness to stir things up. To bring more risk to the table. To choose adventure over caution. Ask for the ability to set aside gentle understanding so that you might prod people for results. Don’t be surprised if this prayer is answered by God sending someone or something to prod you! It’s happened before.

Next, involve others in your prayers for greater risk. Search the Scriptures for examples you can teach and preach. Lead devotions on the topic. Then don’t be surprised when someone approaches you with a desire to lead rather than to follow. When that happens, give thanks, say yes, and give them permission to eagerly follow the Spirit’s prompting.

All shook up

Churches that are willing to be shook up are churches that are willing to flow with the movement of the Spirit. One of the pastors I coach started off as inclusive, affirming, humble pastor. Great guy. But not much was happening in his congregation. Finances were flagging. Attendance was declining. The energy of the church was faltering. And it wasn’t even the off season!

After beginning to survey his congregation, he realized he had a lot of fellow inclusive, affirming and humble Christians in his congregation. They were looking to him to lead them. Because he preferred to lead from behind, he had been waiting for them to take the ball and run with it. He realized it wasn’t going to happen. At least not the way he thought. He began to pray, playfully, earnestly, regularly, for God to stir up something in him, in them, in the community.

Lo and behold, a tornado hit that town. It flattened several buildings and tore the roof off the community center. Many people were displaced — without food, water and the like.

Good golly Miss Molly, you have never seen people get into action like these church people did! Previously sedentary folks became like friendly drill sergeants, rallying the troops. Quiet quilters began hosting moveable dinner parties for the workers and displaced townspeople. Giving went up as a common need surfaced. It was a lovely, chaotic delight to behold!

In the end, of course, love was the answer. But first, there was a tornado.

What kind of leader are you? The kind your people need at this moment? Maybe it’s time for you to start praying …


Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of "The Jew Named Jesus" and "Green Church."

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