Best practices for transformative leadership

November 15th, 2022

After listening to hundreds of American Methodists, interviewing leaders in dozens of congregations, I’ve found some best practices for those who want a Methodist future.

  • Leaders go first. The leader’s alignment with the congregation’s statement of purpose precedes the congregation’s. Today’s pastors are more scrutinized and criticized because they are more needed. (Who needs leadership when everyone is already walking in the same direction?) Leaders go first in modeling risk, being willing to fail, regroup, and start over. The leader goes first in reflection, realization, and repentance, publicly owning past failures, forgiving them, and committing to new directions. Leaders go first in building new relationships with people from different backgrounds, modeling humble listening and learning, and finding ways to get beyond the confines of the congregation and out into the community. As the pastoral leader you probably have the most to lose in the transition from old to new Methodism. You also have the most to learn in your transition from the pastor you thought you might be to the one who’s required now. Be willing not only to fail but also to be surprised that God is actively with you even when you aren’t sure how things will turn out.
  • Congregations tend to reward their pastor for not rocking the boat and punish for attempting to lead change. A leader who is convinced of the righteousness of this work must be prepared for times of discomfort, loneliness, and opposition. No resistance is usually a sign of no movement in mission. If some people take their money and leave, their departure could be a sign that you are at last making headway.
  • Congregations love placidity. A transformative leader’s job is to keep applying pressure, to persist in asking uncomfortable questions, and to raise the heat, lowering the thermostat just before things boil over. But please note: most of us paternalistic/maternalistic pastors overestimate a congregation’s inability to withstand pain. When they whine “please stop making us uncomfortable” say, “I’m not the one who called you to discipleship. Take it up with the Lord!”
    Leaders who veer too far from a congregation’s core culture and identity look back and find they have no one to lead. What in your congregation’s history shows that they already know how to do the work that must be undertaken now?
    “I’m sure we can find a way to muddle through a debate about same-sex marriage,” said the Lay Leader. “Remember when we had that big fight over whether or not to relocate? We made it through that without losing much blood. This church knows how to have a knock-down-drag-out argument followed by kissing and making up.”
  • If there are those who need to leave in order to stay alive as Christians, bid them farewell but not without giving your best shot to talk them out of leaving. Sometimes they are the people whose discontent, high standards, and expectations are needed to get the congregation unstuck. Plead, “Don’t leave us. I need you to keep questioning me, to hold me accountable, to notice things I overlook.”
    If your congregation says upfront, “Our purpose is the care and comfort of the few people who are here as a legacy from the hard work of previous generations of pastors,” you’ll hear a sigh of relief from the Bishop. Pastors whose skills are limited to unctuous, empathetic caregiving are a dime a dozen. Finding well-equipped, courageous pastoral leaders is hard work that many bishops and cabinets are looking for an excuse to avoid. Let the bishop send a pastor to them who is a caretaker (who will eventually be an undertaker) as you are sent to a congregation who wants to go places with Jesus.
  • Stay physically, intellectually, spiritually fit for ministry. Sabbaticals, workouts at the gym, longer prayer time, deeper dives into scripture, diet—these practices protect the gifts God has given you. Budget your time so that you are able to fulfill your vocation to marriage and family (if God has given you those vocations) so that they will benefit from, rather than be in competition with, your vocation to ministry. Cultivate friendships; Jesus begins his mission by putting people in a group and then sending them out two by two (Luke 10:1). Lone Rangers don’t last long as pastoral leaders.
  • Free your congregation from captivity to my generation and its mores. Check out the median age of the UMC or the GMC and you’ll know why it’s imperative to spend more time with younger people and newer members of the congregation. If the choice is between visiting homebound members (many people would be better at that than the pastor) or hanging out with a new generation of potential Methodists at the coffee shop or bar, your congregation’s statement of mission will tell you what to do.
  • Particularly after the isolation and disconnection of the pandemic, this is not the season for quiet reflection or keeping silence. It’s time for communication, connection, interaction, and engagement. Overcommunication is impossible during a crisis. Look for opportunities to talk, to listen, to argue, and to dream with people within and outside of the congregation, for openings to bring up, reflect upon, and reiterate the congregational statement of purpose. Rather than low-energy chat, “How are you and the family?” better to ask, “Got any ideas about how we can better live up to our aspiration to be the People of God in mission?”
    Have you had a face-to-face conversation with opponents of your leadership? It’s natural not to want to hang out with those who push back. Some critics just want to be heard; others may speak truth that no one cares enough about you or the fate of the church to say. Try not to be defensive and argumentative. Be an appreciative, charitable listener: “Can you say more?” “Got ideas about how I can be more effective?”
    Depressed, concerned about your congregation? Get out and visit folks at home, school, or where they work. I guarantee that the Lord will insinuate himself into those conversations and you’ll come back refreshed for leadership.
    The greater the crisis, the more fierce your opposition, the greater the need for talk, talk, talk. Don’t believe me? Note how the bishops’ relative silence has only exacerbated the threat of UMC division.
    An active member of your congregation stops attending or giving? Could be a cry for conversation. No person should withdraw without being asked, “Can we talk?”
  • Emphasize not congregational weaknesses but rather strengths, resources, and the help at hand. Begin with the faithful few who want a future. Be surprised by who God sends you to help.
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  • In the pandemic, pastors who wanted to stay in the game led their churches in a rapid embrace of digital media technology, making the past couple of years the century’s most active, creative period of church innovation.
    Diverse digital platforms have enabled expansion of congregational boundaries. We have learned what technology is good for (increasing time to get things done, shrinking geographic distance) but also what it can’t do well (provide a sense of community and deep, formative interaction). Online platforms level the playing field for small churches; even the smallest congregations can have a great web page, inexpensively expanding their public face, enabling constant contact, and offering convenient meetings. But technological media tends to be a better front door than a continuing, formative space. There’s no substitute for face-to-face, sacramental, bodily contact. 
    “I take a moment in the service to speak directly to our online viewers,” said one pastor. “Telling them, ‘We want to know you. Text me!’ My email address and phone number float across the screen. Our goal is to make viewers into active participants.”
  • Church staff must be aligned with your congregation’s mission. Growing congregations have a smaller proportion of paid staff than congregations in decline. Staff can coach, train, oversee, and convene congregation members for the fulfillment of the congregational mission, but they can also rob the baptized of their baptismally bestowed vocations. 
    It’s easier to raise money to pay staff than to recruit and empower congregational leadership. (Oops; almost said “volunteer leadership.” Christ gave none of us the opportunity to volunteer.) Declining churches try to solve problems by adding staff. A large staff boosts the pastor’s self-image and relieves the pastor of onerous responsibilities, but staff also can distract the pastor from equipping the saints, recruiting leaders, and paring programs and ministries that no longer contribute to the congregation’s purpose. 
    Need more money for mission? Get more members into day-to-day mission; the money will come.
  • Expect trouble. No leadership occurs, no organization thrives or survives, nobody follows Jesus Christ free of conflict. Few pastors like conflict; surely there must be some way to follow Jesus without getting hurt. 
    No. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” told his presumed white clergy allies that the powerful rarely give the powerless their due without a fight. Conflict may be a sign that the voiceless are at last being heard or that we are finally doing work we have avoided for decades. 
    You’ll know you are successfully leading change when the heat is turned up (“conflict” is from the Latin, confligere, “to light a fire”). Polite Methodists push back only when pushed. Truth is always contestable; Jesus is notoriously willing (sometimes, eager) to foment conflict and to push his followers into the middle of it. 
    The bishops’ desire for “gracious exit” and “charitable listening” to those who would dismantle the church the bishops are supposed to defend could be a cover for some bishops’ reticence to engage in difficult, conflicted conversations. 
    The enemies of transformative leaders are contentment, harmony, and self-satisfaction. A happy congregation is often one that has given up too soon. Maybe the only gift of the pandemic was to cause contented pastors to become innovators, whether we wanted to or not. 
    Conflict can be an opportunity to ask, “Why are we here?” “What is it that we most love about this congregation?” “Are the things we are fighting over relevant to and necessary for the accomplishment of our mission?” “Are we making too much of our differences and too little of our commonalities?” “Is this crisis a problem to be resolved by taking a vote and making a decision or is this probably destined to be an ongoing, chronic debate that no vote will stifle?” 
    BTW: The predominate reason given by clergy for leaving the UMC for the GMC is fatigue over conflict about sexuality issues. They will find that the GMC is no haven from conflict (except from disagreement over one social issue). 
    Good conflict is the result of having necessary arguments about the urgency of the congregation’s mission and how to accomplish it. Bad conflict is fighting over ideological differences (which Wesley called “nonessentials” or “opinions”). It’s hard to resolve ideological conflict and anyway, why must such conflict be resolved in order to further the mission of Jesus Christ? Having a clear, agreed upon statement of purpose and mission is your friend in managing divergence. 
    How much conflict is too much? Enough to be sure people have been heard, not enough to destroy the congregation. Dissident voices need to be heard but then responded to with, “Thanks for your feedback,” or “It appears we have a disagreement.” If all else fails, “We’re not going to do what you want us to do; I hope that won’t detract from your commitment to the mission of the congregation.” 
    John 13:35 does not have Jesus say, “see how democratically they split up from one another.” Intrachurch conflict has never attracted people to a congregation. Conflict is most dangerous when unmanaged or avoided. Not acknowledging or suppressing differences causes conflict to fester as dissident voices feel they’ve been squelched. 
    Pastors name the elephant in the room, set the table, offer space and time for conversation, establish and enforce boundaries and ground rules for debate. Pastors may have to forego their natural inclination to be the accepting, affirming, givers of care and adopt a more “parental” posture, refereeing among combatants, ensuring that dissident voices are heard without suppressing anyone’s witness, listening for nuances and complexities in a debate that’s simplistically presented as either “traditional” or “progressive,” policing bullies, teaching people how to fight like Christians in the church. 
    Externalize and depersonalize conflict. It’s not about you; it’s a discussion about how we should participate with Christ in his mission. 
    Do some of the combatants need to leave the conversation? That drastic step occurs only after prayerful pastoral intervention and deliberation. If you do what’s required, you’ll probably lose some members who are frustrated by their lack of power to control the congregation. Of course, they’ll claim to be leaving because of “biblical authority” or “Christian values,” but the main reason will be that they can’t get their way. 
    However, you will keep some people who would have departed a dying church and you may attract some new members who are grateful for a church that’s clear about its mission. 
    It’s too easy for pastors to count those few who walk out in a huff but fail to note the many who have given up on their church and have just drifted away. Pay attention to the new people for whom Methodism is the gift they’re grateful to receive.
  • Voting, rather than resolving a conflict, produces winners and losers, makes conflict worse as the majority forces its will on the minority. I saw a congregation demoralized because the Reconciling Movement insisted that the congregation take a vote in order to join them. The vote failed to pass by a margin of less than five percent. Those who voted against were labeled homophobic, and the vast majority were angry. 
    It’s downright un-Methodist to respond to agitation to separate from the UMC with, “Let’s take a vote!” Nobody knows what life apart from the UMC will look like. A vote to leave doesn’t address the most pressing problems of a declining church, cannot guarantee the end of Christian disagreements about LGBTQ+ inclusion, and unleashes all sorts of unhealthy, distracting dynamics within a congregation. (Would that we had not taken a vote at the end of the St. Louis General Conference!) It’s horrible that, through voting, a majority of a congregation can force out of their church the loyal minority who want to stay UMC. 
    Voting pushes people into simplistic either/or positions, denying the diversity and complexity of an argument. When the conflict within a congregation appears to be two-sided (“traditionalists” vs. “progressives”) sometimes a leader’s strategy is to move participants from a fight between Option A or Option B to a more charitable, supple Option C. Not UMC or GMC but how about a new, more missional and therefore more faithful MC?
    Rather than “let’s take a vote,” the wise pastor asks questions like, “What would it take for you to continue in fellowship with this congregation?” Or “Could we cease attempting to solidify this congregation’s stand on same-sex unions (which seems impossible at present) and instead name what’s required to stay together in this church?” Or “Could we allow same-sex unions to be cel- ebrated by promising that we will evaluate the experiment a year from now and see if we want to continue?” Or “We want to be an open, inclusive congregation, but for the time being, while we won’t perform same-sex unions, we will stay in prayer and conversation about the matter, and we will keep open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Empathy—the ability to feel another’s pain—is a fine pastoral leadership virtue but can also be a cover for cowardice—easier to sympathize with people in their pain than to hold them accountable for living out their vocation as disciples, even in their pain. Overly empathetic pastors can become overwhelmed by people’s pain. Protective paternalism of sensitive, fearful, needy people becomes the goal of their ministry rather than mission leadership. Mute empathy is always more gratefully received than truth-telling by everyone. Except Jesus.
    When I asked a pastor why he didn’t engage his congregation in conversation about their future, he replied, “If I told my congregation the truth that they are a dying church, it would kill them.” Ironic, huh?
    When members plead, “If we change this, we could hurt the feelings of some of our most devoted members,” it’s an indication that some have learned, “If we play to our pastor’s need to see himself as loving, caring, and empathetic, he’ll stop hurting us by telling the truth.”
    Empathy must be disciplined with resolve. The congregational mission enables us to say, as we are leading difficult, potentially conflicted change, “I’d like to get through this without causing discomfort and loss, but we probably can’t.” Take up the cross.
  • There’s no way to work with the risen Christ without being caught in the middle of contentious, stress-filled conversations between Christ and his people.
    You probably look back fondly on your first days of ministry in your first dear, difficult congregation because, when you were young, clueless, and nervous, the mission compelled you to be creative and courageous. Stress is another name for God-induced pressure that produces energy that leads to creativity. When I’ve got a tough biblical text to preach, I’m stressed into producing a livelier sermon.
    Say, “I want to please everyone and receive love and gratitude from all my parishioners,” you’ll need a healthy dose of stomach medicine. Stress can be a sign that we’re the wrong person at this place and time for this job, an invitation to ask, “Is this really the sort of ministry I’m willing to do?” Respect those who—on basis of an assessment of their gifts and the contentiousness of their congregations in the present—decide that they don’t want to be pastors.
    The trick is not to waste time stressing out on matters over which we have little control or impact and to learn to enjoy the peculiar stress induced in sinners like us by Jesus’s “Follow me.”


Check out our recent webinar with Will Willimon, Doug Powe, Haley Jobe, and Olivia Poole discussing the leadership needed for what comes next:


Excerpted from Don't Look Back: Methodist Hope for What Comes Next by Will Willimon. Copyright © 2022 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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