When you first felt called to ministry, your dreams of future opportunities were probably big, bold, and courageous. I doubt your goal was to maintain the status quo— it was probably to innovate and break barriers. Over time, though, after you’ve seen enough members walk away, the fear of people leaving the church can kill your courage, and you become a manager instead of a leader
You might assume the churches with the most to lose play it the safest, but it’s’ usually the opposite— the churches with most to lose experiment the most. They understand that leaders who are afraid of subtraction never experience multiplication. If you’re willing to be a courageous leader, being led by the Holy Spirit in spite of what might go wrong or who may leave, you will take new ground, reach new people, and seize new opportunities.
Leaders who are afraid of subtraction never experience multiplication.
Every courageous pastor I know exhibits these four characteristics:
1. Don’t apologize for vision
Every conference and leadership book you read talks about vision, but there’s a reason; it’s the most important characteristic of a leader. People want to follow a leader with a vision. Vision is the desired destination, and even though you will be excited about the destination, you need to know not everyone will agree with you. Often the greatest resistance to change will come from those who were on the cutting edge of innovation in a previous generation. They traded imagination for memories, and change threatens their current position or influence.
Make sure you have a vision and not a version of a vision. Over the years I tried to tell my church I had a vision when the truth was I had a version of a vision I was copying from another church. It’s okay to be inspired by other churches and ministries, but God has a unique vision for your church. Sure, it may resemble another church—there are only so many ways to conduct a church service—but is your vision authentic? Does it look, smell, and feel like your God-given DNA? If you’re not sure if your vision is unique, it’s not. If you’re unclear on what your vision is, your team and congregation are confused as well. When you begin conversations about making changes in your church people are going to want to know why, and you better have an answer stronger than, “because I think it would be cool.” Or “because I saw it at another church.” You don’t owe everyone an explanation for every decision, but the bigger the change, the larger the pressure to explain why. Your vision is your why.
2. Have the hard conversation
What separates the best leaders from everyone else is their willingness to have tough conversations. While other leaders dodge or avoid painful meetings, courageous leaders confront it, because they know issues left unresolved don’t go away; they only get worse. Your church is probably two difficult conversations away from breaking through a growth barrier.
Your church is probably two difficult conversations away from breaking through a growth barrier.
After reading the last sentence, you immediately had a person come to your mind because you’ve known for a long time you need to have a difficult conversation with them, but you’ve avoided it out of fear they would be hurt, leave the church, or even influence other people to leave. Is someone still singing who shouldn’t be? Is someone still in leadership because their family has been at the church the longest? Is someone still on staff because they have relatives in the church? You will not grow around the elephant in the room. Change requires hard conversations. That’s what separates leaders from managers; leaders have hard conversations and managers avoid them. It won’t be fun, but it will be fruitful.
3. Pull the Trigger
Sometimes the hardest thing to do after your vision is clear is to pull the trigger. When I say “pull the trigger,” I mean start, press go, move! There always comes a moment of absolute terror before life’s most important and courageous decisions, “Am I making the right decision? Will this work? Will anyone follow me?” The longer you wait, the stronger the voices of doubt become.
Do you need to start an additional worship service? Do you need to hire a new staff member? Do you need to launch a building campaign? Rest assured, starting new ideas ruffles old feathers— I don’t mean old as in age, I mean old as in mindset— but every time you pull the trigger on something new, you’re learning lessons, gaining experience, and building your faith muscle. After all, it was God who said, “I am doing a new thing.”
4. Pull the Plug
Leaders love to share a vision and start new things, but starting something new usually means ending something old, and that’s not fun. You can think of something in your church right now that has lost its effectiveness and is draining resources, but to pull the plug would upset someone and you don’t want to risk it.
I’m embarrassed to share this story, but when I first started pastoring, we made the decision to end Sunday School and move to an in-home small-group model. Almost everyone was on board with the idea, except a few elderly members who loved their Sunday School class. In an attempt to be diplomatic and keep everyone happy I allowed them to continue meeting. Over the next few weeks and months, as we made more changes in the church, the teacher of the class grew unhappy. He didn’t like the young pastor making changes to his church and began sharing his frustrations with the class. When I confronted him about it, he got mad and left the church.
Here’s the embarrassing part, after a few weeks without a teacher the members of the class approached me and asked if the former teacher could come back and continue teaching the class. There was a catch though; he wasn’t going to attend the church, he was just going to teach the Sunday School class, and then leave to attend another church down the street. To recap, a disgruntled member, who did not like me or the vision of the church wanted to teach a class and then leave to attend church elsewhere. No leader in their right mind would agree to that, except me. I said, “yes” because I was afraid of telling the senior adult class no. As you might expect, it was a disaster. Eventually, we had to shut down the class anyway, but everything could have been handled so much more effectively if I had made the courageous decision to lead with vision and pull the plug at the beginning when I knew it was the right decision.
What is the decision you need to make, but you’ve been putting it off because you’re afraid of who it will upset? What program, ministry, or event needs to end, but you’re afraid it will cause people to leave the church? Pull the plug! Yes, people will be upset, some may even leave, but the people who will stay and the people God wants you to reach need courageous leadership.