Courageous or Compliant

Pierre Quinn

You should get to know Seth Godin.

Seth is a NY Times bestselling author who has written 18 books. He is also an entrepreneur and speaker who gives talks on leadership, business, and success.

In a conversation about leadership here’s what Seth said, “You think you’re being a leader but you’re probably being a manager. Managers figure out what they want done and get people to do it. Managers try to get people to do what they did yesterday, but a little faster, a little cheaper and with less defects. Leadership is about finding the right people, agreeing on where you want to go and getting out of the way.”

Seth Godin is a business leader, not a pastor. Yet his insights might provide a perspective on pastoral ministry that we have not considered. What if our pastoral training prepares us to be managers instead of leaders? What if the culture of pastoral ministry is to ask pastors to be courageous but systematizes them into compliance?

Think of it this way.

If you were hired to be the manager of a fast food restaurant or a clothing store you would have four main objectives. These would include the oversight of staff, tracking products, stewardship of supplies and servicing customers. You are in most cases what John Maxwell defines as a level one leader. People listen to you because of your position. People listen to you because of your responsibilities. That’s the beginning and end of your influence.

When I worked as manager in a clothing store I was hardly regarded as a leader. I was hired to organize schedules, maintain clothing displays, disseminate the supplies needed to run the store and help with customer transactions. No one was asking me to lead; only manage. That was fine. Nothing about the hiring process or the culture demanded anything else. The people who have autonomy actually led the company. They were free to make decisions, implement changes and guide the direction of the company. They set the standards that the managers followed.

There are biblical characters that we hold up as standards of leadership because of what they did. While King Saul was managing troop morale, David took the field against Goliath. Saul the apostle started his own international ministry that was later respected by the brethren. Nehemiah didn’t just pray, he worked to rebuild a city. The list goes on and on of people who chose courage instead of compliance.

What if we were training pastors to be compliant instead of courageous?

In conversations with other pastors a common grievance is the tension between expectations. They are torn between what they feel called to do, what their congregations want them to do and what their conferences want them to do. Many are frustrated with the demands of managing; especially after being told upon hiring that they need to be leaders where they are assigned to serve. Their autonomy is paralyzed and their leadership is assaulted each time a disgruntled member makes a phone call to the conference office. They don’t feel supported in their efforts to make key decisions, implement changes and guide the direction of their churches. A pastor once echoed what she was told, “the key is keeping the people happy so there are no hiccups when it’s time to move you to larger church.” Sounds a bit like compliance to me.

The energy it takes for a pastor to help spread the gospel is often spent on managing the franchise. Let’s consider evangelism for example. Effective evangelism requires that a pastor have the freedom to be creative and courageous. Maybe that’s why we’re considered successful if we outsource the evangelism and take credit for the baptisms. The guest evangelist gets to lead the efforts and everyone falls in love with them. They can afford to be creative, generous and innovative. They don’t have the pressures of management. The local pastor does that.

Then we point the finger at local pastors and say why can’t you do that? Why can’t you lead amazing evangelistic efforts without the support, resources and autonomy of an evangelist? Your argument could be that some are doing it and doing it well. My retort is that it should be the norm not the exception. Why is it the exception?

In larger churches this model also rings true. The senior pastor can take a role as an innovator, an evangelist or a visionary while the rest of the pastoral staff oversees the management of the church. This is one of the reasons why many see pastoring large churches as the Holy Grail.

In evangelistic preaching class one of my seminary professors said, “Many of you in this room are much better preachers than I am. The difference is that you don’t have my system.” What he was referring to was his budget, his team of bible workers and the backing he had to be free to run evangelistic campaigns the way he saw fit. He’s right. Autonomy, resources and support make a big difference. Imagine what it would look like if every pastor had autonomy, resources and support. Now imagine what it would look like if only a few pastors had all three and the rest had none. Even worse imagine what it would look like if one of the unwritten rules of pastoral ministry was to be compliant and one day if you’re lucky you might get an opportunity to be one of the few. Some have spent their entire ministry career following this dangling carrot.

How can we change the culture of ministry preparation? How can we support the effort of pastors on all levels to be creative, generous and innovative?  How can we give pastors the autonomy they need to make the leadership decisions necessary for their churches to grow? How can we call all pastors to be courageous instead of compliant?

Jesus aligns with Seth Godin’s definition of leadership. Jesus picked his disciples, he set the direction of their mission and then he got out of the way. He literally left them and trusted them to carry out the work. He set them up to lead.

If we can’t (or won’t) change our ministry culture then we might need to reevaluate what we mean when we say pastoral leadership. We might be better off using the term pastoral management instead.

Pierre Quinn
Pierre Quinn


Pierre Quinn currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the Breath of Life Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. He recently published his second book Re:Vision: Receiving What Happens Next, A 21-Day Devotional Guide in which readers are challenged to dream, imagine, and plan again like it was the first time. He and his family reside in Laurel, Maryland.

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