Friday, July 17, 2009

Looking for a Savior

A common statement that the lay leaders of a church in crisis often make is, “If we can just get the right pastor, we can pull out of this slump.” In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins points out that it is not unusual for an organization that has started on the road to decline to “grasp for a leader as savior.” The organization “responds to threats and setbacks by searching for a charismatic leader and/or outside savior.”

Certainly the “right” leader can make a difference, but only if he or she does the “right” things. What can a leader do in a situation where the church or organization is already in decline?

First, we need to remember that the basic definition of a leader is “one who has followers.” Key people need to commit to work with the leader to address the situation. If church leadership expects the new pastor to solve all their problems single-handed, they set the pastor up for failure. Those who have a stake in the situation need to make a commitment to make the sacrifices possible for the pastor (and the church) to turn around the situation.

Second, the new leader must consider the context. In a church, a new pastor needs some time to get settled and really understand what is going on. This is where an intentional interim pastor can help a church. Rather than rushing to find a new pastor to “fix” the problem, a competent intentional interim can help the church assess its situation and pass this information on to the new pastor. This may include clarifying the church’s understanding of its context, mission, demographics, history, or community. In fact, this type of information can assist the pastor search process to make a more informed choice of pastoral candidates.

Third, the new leader has to build a team. A leader can fail on his or her own, but a leader needs the support of others to succeed. Leadership is not a task done in isolation. As Collins comments, getting the “right people on the bus” is always important, but in a church the riders may already be there and are not getting off. The riders include both lay leaders and staff members. The new pastor has to deal with both. He or she must build rapport with lay leaders while molding current staff into a team of which the pastor is an integral part. This can be difficult, intentional work.

Fourth, the new leader must build consensus around a renewed vision for the church or organization. Such a vision must be realistic but challenging. A new pastor must help the church see that there is hope for the future but bringing that hope to fruition will require sacrifice and hard work.

Fifth, the new leader must lead the organization to act. Visioning, strategic planning, and other efforts to refocus the church are inspiring, but the church must ultimately take action on these plans. When it comes time to act, the pastor will find out if the situation has been realistically assessed, if the team (lay and staff) is on board, and if there is consensus that will support action.

Collins points out that the leaders of one turnaround company understood that “rebuilding greatness requires a series of intelligent, well-executed actions that add up one on top of another. . . . Most ‘overnight success’ stories are about twenty years in the making.” Maybe “patience” is the sixth step!

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