Learning to Lead

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

Can one learn to lead? How does one become a leader? Are you born a leader or is it an acquired skill set? The answer is, of course, “Yes.” Some people have natural inclinations for leadership, no doubt. Great leaders, however, are often forged by their circumstances. World War II made some incredible leaders because desperate times called for our very best. There are aspects of leadership that can be learned. This is also true of pastoral leadership.

Necessary Nine bookRecently, New England Synod Bishop Jim Hazelwood recommended a book to me. In this book, The Necessary Nine: Nine Things Effective Pastors Do Differently, Bob Farr believes there are pastoral skill sets that can be taught. Farr spent a lot of time exploring the differences between effective pastors and ineffective ones.

In seminary we were taught Greek, Hebrew, Scriptural interpretation, theology, church history, ethics, and so on. These are important subjects for every pastor. Not as much time was spent on the mechanics of running a mission-driven congregation, much less a healthy non-profit organization. The church is more than an organization, but there are organizational realities of running a congregation that are inescapable. We can either pretend they don’t exist or acknowledge them and engage them with excellence.

The Necessary Nine offers nine traits that Farr has identified as the key things pastors do differently in order to be effective leaders in their congregations. To this he adds two traits of effective congregations.

Spoiler Alert:

  • Show Up and Move In
  • Listen Up and Lead with Your Ears
  • Adopt a Bias for Action
  • Get Spiritual
  • Get Grouped and Grounded
  • Speak the Truth with Determined Patience
  • Lead Up and Manage Down
  • Preach and Worship Well
  • Have Some Fun

The list itself won’t get you where you need to go. In the pages of The Necessary Nine, Farr puts skin on the bones. Let me dip your toe in the water a bit.

Show Up and Move In
There are some pastors who dive into the community and the congregation headfirst. They don’t see their work as a job, but as a calling and a mission. They are “all in.” There is a substantive difference between punching a clock and investing your whole self. Farr explores some of these differences. It is an undeniable fact that some leaders dig deep and some do not. It’ll be pretty hard to make substantive changes in the life of a community without that high level of commitment.

Listen Up and Lead with Your Ears
This is my favorite chapter. Here Farr makes the case for leadership being about listening. He spells out what we have been pushing: tuning in to your community. No great pastoral leadership happens without listening to God, to the church, and to the community. I wish I could have said it as well as he says it here.

When a new pastor arrives, there has to, simply has to be a listening to the congregation. One-on-one, focused, intentional conversations will not only give essential information, it will build trust in relationships. The work of the church is something we do together as a team. You can’t lead a team without knowing them, what they love, what they hate, and what God has placed on their hearts.

In medium and large congregations, this means a set of small group cottage meetings, preferably in homes. These need to start the moment the pastor steps foot in the office, on their first day.

The first, basic questions should be the same in every group. Farr offers suggested questions like: “What is your name? How long have you been here? Which service do you attend? What is the ministry you like to do? What is the best thing about this church? What is the one thing you would like to change about your church? What is your hope for the future of the church? Where would you like to see the church in three years? Who are the two or three people I need to go visit right now? If you were the new pastor here, what would be the first thing you would do?”

When I began as bishop I visited every congregation. Peggy Hahn suggested three simplified the questions: What are your joys? What are your challenges? What are your hopes and dreams? The content of the questions isn’t critical. Just showing up is most of it. Coming in with a posture of listening and learning, rather than teaching and telling is important. You will learn volumes. It will affect your preaching and your visioning.

Then Farr moves to listening to the community. If you only listen to congregation members, you will have a skewed view of your mission field. You cannot reach out to a community you don’t know. Who is in the neighborhood? What do they think? What do they need? What do they care about?

Farr suggests three phases of community listening. The first is talking to the principal of the closest school, the fire chief, police chief, mayor, city council members, social service leaders, chamber of commerce leaders, leaders of other civic clubs, and so on. I would consider adding a counselor and a public defender to the list.

Questions can be: “Tell me about your organization. Who do you serve? What are the most pressing needs of the community? What do you know about the church I serve? How could the church be helpful?”

Kirbyjon Caldwell once said something that has stuck with me. We were a group of pastors. He said, “Ministry is not rocket science. Make a list of the top ten needs of God’s community, then pick a few and dream up a ministry that addresses those needs. That’s it. That’s what Jesus did. What’s your community’s leprosy?”

Second, Farr suggests talking to local businesses: “Tell me about your business. Who is your customer base? Where are your customers mostly from? What are the traffic patterns around here? What are the greatest opportunities in this community? What do you know about the church I serve? How could the church be helpful?”

You’re not letting any one person determine your ministry. You’re gathering information and building relationships. You’re also putting your congregation on the map. It will be in the preponderance of data, combined with the gifts and passions of your congregation, led by the movement of the Spirit that will make a way through the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Third, Farr talks about walking the neighborhood. Consider casually walking the neighborhood daily. It’ll be good for your health too. Strike up a conversation with anyone you see. Ask them about the area. Tell them who you are. Ask them what they know about the church you now serve. Do they have a church home? Consider handing out bottles of water. How can I pray for you?

Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Community Church by doing a more formal door-to-door survey. They knocked on doors with a clipboard. People are less open to unscheduled knocks at the door than they were years ago, so this might not work today. They asked people if they were active in a church. If the people said “yes,” they moved on. If the people said “no”, they asked if they could ask just a few questions, like: “Did you used to go? Why did you leave? Would you want to go? What kind of church would be helpful?” They used this like market research to shape a church that would reach folks in their area. Let’s face it: a lot of our church stuff is adiaphorous, that is, it doesn’t matter. Piano, organ, or guitar? Pews or chairs? If we have Jesus in Word and Sacrament, most of the rest is just for grabs.

Even if you’ve been in your congregation for a while, this kind of listening can still take place. We should always have our ear to the ground; however, every 5-6 years there should be a concerted listening effort. It can be part of a visioning process. Don’t do this alone.

Farr only asks congregations to participate in the neighborhood walks. We feel it’s important to involve the congregation in the civic and business community listening as well. They need to hear what you are hearing, or the rift of perception between pastor and people will increase.

Farr advises caution for pastors in their first 100 days though: “…don’t press people to go. I invite people. I don’t get too worried about how many come because this is very early in the relationship with the congregation. Also this is probably asking them to do something they have not previously experienced and are unsure about. You probably don’t have enough trust built up yet to convince a whole lot of people to participate.”

Let me say this as gently as possible. The vast majority of our congregations do not do this kind of deep listening out in the community. They think they know their community because they live there. Most of us, however, only see a slice, our slice, not the big picture. When we have had congregations do LEAD’s Tune In process, the participants have always been surprised at things. Laughter ensues. Sometimes shock. “Really? Wow.”

I’ve devoted most of my time to this one chapter, among nine pastoral best practices that Farr discusses, but there is a reason. I don’t think any of the others add up to much without this step. Leaders who don’t listen are out of touch. Congregations that don’t listen will march to the beat of the past. The congregation will quickly become an anachronistic entity with no ability to touch the hearts of the people who live in the church’s mission field. On the other hand, leaders and congregations that listen will do things that make a connection, sometimes without even being conscious of what they’re doing, because their listening has tuned them into cortical realities of the community and the congregation. They will make new connections and see new possibilities. There is no recipe for this. No short cut.

If you would like to be a part of a cohort of congregations that will do the Tune-In process, do a mission plan, receive coaching, and hold one another accountable, contact Peggy Hahn or me. This is what we do. We are passionate about growing Christ-centered, outwardly-focused congregations.

Thanks to Bob Farr for this excellent book. There is much, much more in this book. I’ve only spent time on one aspect. I encourage you to get this book. It’s a fairly easy read, and it will remind us all of some of the basic important practices of pastoral leadership.