In Church Leadership, the Mission Trumps All

The man sitting across from me was one of the most important people in my life. A mentor, a friend, an elder in my church, perhaps my biggest cheerleader; he had been on the search committee that called me. He was as responsible as anyone that my office had an ocean view in this church of my dreams. He is well known for a big smile and a radiant enthusiastic appearance. He’s a dreamer, a visionary, a Barnabas if there ever was one. But he wasn’t happy at all. The smile was gone. There was a look of sad resignation. He sighed, “Tod, just tell me. Have you lost your passion for this ministry?

I shook my head, unsure if I had heard him correctly. “What?” I asked.

“Have you lost the passion for the church? You used to be such a leader, now it seems like you have lost the fire in the belly you used to have.”

Okay. That one stung. A lot. But it wasn’t the sting of truth. Not even a little bit. Yes, I was in the middle of an awkward stage of learning to lead differently than I had in the past. But I was more passionate than ever about what we were doing. What I felt was the sting of being misunderstood by someone I love. I just couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on this dear man’s face.

“Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb,” write Heifetz and Linsky. This painful truth brings us to the heart of the necessary adaptive capacity to lead transformational change in uncharted territory. Disappointing people “at a rate they can absorb” is a skill that requires nuance: Disappoint people too much and they give up on you, stop following you and may even turn on you. Don’t disappoint them enough and you’ll never lead them anywhere.

Leadership isn’t so much skillfully helping a group accomplish what they want to do (that is management). Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. Leadership, as I have defined it, is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world. It’s about challenging, encouraging and equipping people to be transformed more and more into the kind of community that God can use to accomplish his plans in a particular locale. And often the very people who called us to lead them are disappointed when we do.

Transformational leadership is always a two-front battle: On one side is the challenge of a changing world, unfamiliar terrain and the test of finding new interventions that will enable the mission to move forward in a fruitful and faithful way. On the other side is the community that resists the change necessary for its survival. If adaptive leadership is “enabling a people to grow so they can face their greatest challenges and thrive,” then it is crucial to acknowledge that a significant part of the greatest challenge is internal. Deftly handling resistance and the disappointment that comes along with it so a community of people can accomplish a goal for the greater good is the core capacity of adaptive leadership.

My friend didn’t understand that the greatest challenge and most energizing passion of my professional and pastoral life were both being played out in the room. How was I going to lead a church into a more missional, collaborative future of widespread growth, discipleship and participation in mission so we can better reach our community if every action I took made my church members question my commitment? The answer was for me—and my leaders—to develop the adaptive capacity that comes from living out a core, clarifying conviction: The mission trumps. Always. Every time. In every conflict. Not the pastor. Not the members of the church who pay the bills. Not those who scream the loudest or who are most in pain. No. In a healthy Christian ministry, the mission wins every argument.

The focused, shared, missional purpose of the church or organization will trump every other competing value. It’s more important than my preferences or personal desire. It’s more critical than my leadership style, experience or past success. It’s the grid by which we evaluate every other element in the church. It’s the criterion for determining how we will spend our money, who we will hire and fire, which ministries we will start and which ones we will shut down. It’s the tiebreaker in every argument and the principle by which we evaluate every decision we make. Denominational affiliation? Mission partnerships? Financial commitments? Staff decisions? Worship styles? The key question is: Does it further our mission? The mission trumps all.

One of my clients is the pastor of small church. Smaller churches usually don’t have the resources to hire lots of staff, so their lifeblood is the service of committed laypeople volunteering their time. And in this case the pastor’s key volunteer was a worship leader. Literally, they would not have worship on a Sunday morning if the worship leader didn’t lead it or find a replacement. Over the years the relationship between the pastor and the lay worship leader turned into a dance of power. The pastor would articulate his desires for the worship service, but the worship leader would often balk and want to shape the service to her desires, have the band sing more songs or feature a solo. In a larger church where the pastor is the “boss” of a paid worship leader, this conflict certainly occurs, but usually the boss wins.

But what does a pastor do to supervise or lead a volunteer? How does the pastor keep weekly worship planning from turning into a weekly power struggle? By having a clear, higher value that both the pastor and the worship leader agree to serve. By reframing the conversation around some shared agreements they both commit to serve, the conversation is no longer what each of them prefer, but serving the clear, shared purpose or philosophy. A mission statement serves the same purpose in a healthy organization. The one in power doesn’t win every conversation: the mission trumps.

A shared mission, when it is a matter of clear conviction, offers congregational differentiation. It allows us to affirm the wide variety of the body of Christ and still be clear about the decisions we have to make. If the mission trumps all, then a leader must develop the clarity and conviction to live out that mission no matter the circumstance, no matter whether the challenge comes from the context or the very community we serve.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory
By Tod Bolsinger (IVP, 2015)

Category: Leadership

Taken from Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. Copyright (c) 2015 by Tod Bolsinger. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

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Tod Bolsinger is the vice president for vocation and formation and assistant professor of practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives and Show Time: Living Down Hypocrisy by Living Out the Faith.

Tod Bolsinger
Tod Bolsinger

Tod Bolsinger is a speaker, executive coach, former pastor and author who serves as associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Canoeing the Mountains and the forthcoming title Tempered Resilience (both IVP).