One question that often gets asked about leadership is whether leaders are born with some sort of leadership gene, or are they made by teaching and experience?
Since I am in the business of teaching leaders, you can probably guess my bias, but the question allows me to introduce my experience with developing leaders, especially clergy leaders. This blog will then serve as an introduction to a series of blogs on things that I learned about leadership.
Do We Have Lots of Bad Leaders in the Ministry?
When I went on the staff of the Diocese of Texas, Bishop Payne had just been elected coadjutor. Our offices were adjacent and this gave us a good amount of time to discuss congregations and clergy leadership in the Diocese. We found that we were being asked an evocative question by many of our clergy and lay leaders; “What are you going to do with all those ineffective and troublesome clergy you have in the diocese?” About three years into Bishop Payne’s tenure, I had worked with enough diocesan clergy that I had a much different perspective. This held up for all my time on the staff in Texas, and it continued to be my experience in working with clergy leaders since that time.
First, let me say this. We did have problem clergy. However, they were very few in number. They had poor leadership ability and they often generated conflict in their congregations by both their style of leadership and their personality. They were the source of much of that question we were being asked. They were few in number, but they generated a lot of attention from parish and diocesan leadership and thus created the impression that there were “lots of them” out there. They, of course, had to be dealt with one at a time as the next crisis arose, and there was always a next crisis.
Training and the Three Types of Leaders
What I found interesting is that I could divide the clergy in this large diocese into three distinctive groups. Here is how I came to see them.
The Instinctive Leaders
We had about 10% of our leaders that I would describe as Instinctive Leaders. They had instinctive and intuitive leadership skills and mostly these worked well for them. They were not much interested in what we taught or shared about leadership. This was because most of them believed they already knew how to lead. Now note that I am not denigrating these folks. Some were very talented and I often tried to have them teach or share with our other clergy. When I did the problem I encountered was that many times what they thought that they had done as a leader had little to do with what they actually did, or it was so instinctive, they could not really describe the how and why. They were essentially saying “do what I did in this situation and you will be a leader too.” Unfortunately for some of these instinctual leaders when their natural instincts didn’t work, they did not know how to adjust. They just kept plugging along with what they had always done before. A very few hit a wall hard enough that it opened them up to learning new behaviors, but mainly we found it best to let this 10% just run with what they knew.
The Majority of Leaders
Most of our clergy leaders, I would say about 70 to 80% were teachable. It was this group that I worked with over my 9 years there. They had some skills, wanted to lead, and were willing to learn especially when what we presented helped them. We weren’t teaching them a single style of leadership. What we tried to help them understand was the kind of leader their personality and experience tended to make them. Personality profiles are helpful in this and so was the DISC profile. I believe the Meyers-Briggs info is best for intrapsychic understanding and the DISC was best for organizational or outward understanding.
So, I liked leaders who had self-awareness about this information. Then the issue became how to maximize their assets. I am a strong proponent of the Situational Leadership Grid and often use this tool to help leaders come to understand both their preferred style and what a group might need from them at any given time. For 9 years we gave these leaders sound theory and practice, and watched so many of them grow and do wonderful and effective work in congregations.
The Agent Leader
I also found that there were clergy who were unteachable on the other end of the scale from instinctive folks. These clergy did not function well in most any leadership role. We started sending these for evaluation at the Clergy Career Development Center in Fort Worth. They were often anxious that they would be told they shouldn’t be priest, but this never happened. What did happen for most was that they came to understand that they worked best in a structured environment that provided strong and clear organization roles for them. Several of these went into chaplaincy in medical institutions and schools. They were happy to take communion to the sick or lead a school devotional service. I call them Agent Leaders because they loved carrying out many of the tasks of priesthood, but had trouble handling the leadership role demanded of them in the open ended and precarious world of parish ministry. Sometimes these folks ended up on the staff of larger congregations, but again their job carried definite structural boundaries. One could hardly doubt their dedication and spirituality, and once finding the right environment, they flourished.
Why Seminaries Cannot Teach Leadership
What I did come to understand clearly during that time was that most of us come out of a seminary environment where the model of leadership is that of “knowledge leader.” This is what our professors were, well most of them. They honestly believed that the task of clergy is to deliver scripture, theology, church history or whatever and our knowledge will win trust, impress our laity, and have them willing to follow us as their “ordained” leader. Most of us learned quickly that this model just does not translate into the community of the Church and our parishes. We often learned this painfully. Sometimes the pain of this initial learning causes clergy to withdraw and lose confidence in the abilities and potential they do have. They get stuck. This is why dysfunctional congregations make such a poor context for young clergy to learn and grow. All the learnings are negative.
I know what you are thinking. Then why don’t we teach folks leadership in Seminary? My answer may make some of you mad, but I have come to understand that one learns leadership in the field and by attempting to lead. We learn it by taking initiative and learning from experience. Good leadership theory helps, but leading is learned in a community because leadership is both relational and behavioral. It is not an office or title, and it is certainly not something as simple as “the ten characteristics of a great leader.”
I say it this way. Developing leaders is the work of the Church. It cannot be delegated to seminaries. I am not saying that seminary education isn’t important. I believe strongly that to be an effective parish priest requires learning in these areas.
So what kind of clergy leadership do I find helpful? I like Leaders who think and pray through what needs to be done while interacting with the key lay leaders of their churches. Then they take initiative, and have the ability to stop periodically and ask a profound question, “Is what is happening, what I intended.” Then they ask, “How do I need to adjust or enhance my leadership to be more effective? Leadership is not about good or bad leadership. Leadership is about effectiveness.
What kind of leadership is often ineffective? Those leaders who do everything instinctually and with little self-awareness are sometimes great in the right situation. However, some times they are dangerous. I’ve found some who have a sense of entitlement and this can be very damaging to their congregations and ultimately to themselves. Ineffective also are those leaders who are so introspective (I did not say introverted, the majority of clergy are introverts) that they are unable to act. They are much too analytical or self-critical to be able to take initiative and stay with it long enough to have it work. A good leader cannot ever have all the facts, nor can one wait to “feel” good about making a decision because most important decisions have some inherent risk in them.
If you are called to ordained leadership accept that with this comes a commitment to life-long learning. Along the way you will also find that having good mentors and honest colleagues will help you become the leader God and your people need you to be.