I belong to a clergy group that meets two times a month for fellowship, encouragement and the sharing of ideas. In a recent gathering we found ourselves discussing technology in worship, and I was amazed at the conversation. Some clergy were very tech savvy and took an active role in choosing software, creating Power Points and using video in sermon preparation. Several others loved using media but were content to leave it to the experts and had no interest in knowing how everything works. A few clergy hardly used technology at all. Yet each one was a gifted pastor who could grow churches. My conviction was reinforced that clergy (and most people) flourish when we have the opportunity to “play to our strengths” and rely on others to fill in the gaps where we have neither the passion nor the skills.
I was part of a church once that had declined to the point where full-time ministry could not be sustained. Knowing that the congregation needed to reinvent itself in order to survive, church leaders engaged in a strategic planning process. Rather than attempt to shore up the weak areas of its ministry, the congregation decided to build on its assets and strengths. Excellent music, a location next to three schools, a child care center, a commitment to be a “green” congregation, and a desire to broaden hospitality became the focus of a plan. Within a year, a strong partnership with the elementary school, the hosting of a high school jazz band concert, a waiting list for the child care center, and new systems for communication and welcoming guests have renewed the life of this congregation.
How do we grow, improve and move to the next level of excellence? The general rule of leadership today is to focus on our strengths. Traditionally, organizations have asked employees to work on their weaknesses, to pull themselves upward by chipping away at their worst qualities. However, evidence does not support this theory as a way to grow a company, non-profit organization or a church. Today we are asked to identify our strengths and make them even stronger.
Jack Zenger, bestselling author who writes about leadership development, says, “The supporting evidence and logic behind the development of strengths is based on several factors. Research by Joe Folkman on 24,657 leaders who participated in 360-degree feedback assessments and who each had at least seven respondents showed that regardless of how much effort they spent on correcting weaknesses, their efforts would only bring them to the midpoint on the overall bell-shaped curve of effectiveness.
“Correcting weaknesses would bring those at the lower end of the bell-shaped curve upwards to the middle, but never propelled them to the upper half of the curve. Similarly, being generally good on many competencies did not place someone in the top half of the distribution. Rather, when someone excelled at three to five competencies – defined as being at the 90th percentile or above – they were highly likely to be one of any organization’s top-tier leaders.”
What does strength-based leadership mean for the church?
There is a symbiotic relationship between pastor, staff and congregation. The importance of the bishop and cabinet knowing the strengths of their clergy in relation to the needs of the churches to which they are appointed cannot be underestimated. When a new pastor is appointed, the first year is spent discerning how the pastor’s greatest strengths can further the mission and vision of the congregation. Freeing the clergy to improve their strengths has been shown to result in greater effectiveness, which affects every aspect of church life.
Staffing may need to change depending on what gaps need to be filled so that pastors can focus on their greatest gifts rather than obsess about their weaknesses. If a pastor does not care for hospital or nursing home visitation, lay staff or trained volunteers can provide significant pastoral care. If a pastor is not musically inclined, staff or volunteer musicians may pick hymns or contemporary songs in collaboration with a worship design team. If a congregation engages in a capital campaign and the pastor is not a gifted fundraiser, laity may need to step up or the church might contract with an outside fundraising organization.
Some weaknesses are fatal flaws and cannot be ignored because they are basic to effective ministry. Steve Jobs is often used as the poster child of an entrepreneur whose vision and creativity far outweighed his often brusque manner and demeaning treatment of others. While other high level executives were able to compensate for Job’s relational challenges, he likely would not have been as successful had he been working in the church. Certain character traits are necessary for effective clergy, such as emotional intelligence, a desire to share ministry with the laity, a grace-filled presence, and a willingness to be the “executive officer” of the church.
A pastor I know was so introverted that he would disappear to his office after worship and never greet his parishioners at coffee hour. Because it was a significant detriment to his ministry, he was given coaching to learn how to interact with people in a large group setting. Another pastor made it clear to her congregation that she just wanted to do pastoral care. She never conducted a finance campaign in the fall, nor did she ever meet with the Trustees. She, too, needed to be reminded that even though laity are also called to lead, she had overall responsibility for the life of the congregation.
A third clergy stumbled over his sermon notes week after week, and parishioners complained that they were not being spiritually fed. Eventually, the pastor admitted that he did not like preaching and put little time into preparation. One-on-one mentoring helped him to improve his preaching to the minimum needed to pastor a church effectively.
Very few of us can accurately see our own strengths and weaknesses. Continual feedback is essential for a leader. The only way we can see ourselves clearly is through the collective eyes of the people we lead. In a United Methodist church, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee functions as the eyes and ears of the congregation. Their role is to affirm the strengths that clergy do not always claim for themselves as well as help clergy acknowledge their weak areas with grace and gentleness.
Often, too much emphasis on problems and “opportunities for improvement” demoralizes the spirit of clergy and staff and prevents them from using their best qualities to soar. Only by working together can clergy and laity build a partnership that uses everyone’s strengths in furthering the mission and vision of the congregation.
Clergy and congregations can best engage in the sacred dance of ministry when we take the time to discern our respective strengths and go from good to great in specific areas. Research is clear that focusing on a few profound strengths creates far better results than trying to be good at everything. Admittedly, this is a challenge for clergy, who are usually called to be generalists rather than specialists and are expected to be skilled in a variety of areas. However, even if we bring mediocre skills up a notch, we will never go from good to great.
We have much to learn from new church starts, who need to decide at the very beginning what their DNA will be. The core group of a new church has the opportunity to shape its future by the way it is organized and the ministries it offers. A long established congregation has a greater challenge because deeply entrenched programs may appear at first glance to be strengths but are not really contributing to the growth of the congregation in numbers, grace, and spiritual depth. Every congregation should regularly engage in an evaluation of its ministries, where sacred cows do not carry any more weight than new initiatives that may better reach the current needs of its community.
A church I admire greatly decided to focus on two strengths: their significant property and a history of actively serving their community. Under the leadership of Pastor Andy, who excelled in cultivating community relationships, the congregation built baseball and soccer fields and a skate park on their property. They also organized youth leagues and built a concession stand. In addition, they opened a Free Store in town in cooperation with other area churches. Today this United Methodist congregation is known throughout the area as the church that cares about everyone. Why? Because by playing to their strengths, they are inviting others to play and serve together.
How are you playing to your strengths?