Pastoral Leadership: Who You Are and Why it Matters

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It goes without saying that pastors are leaders, they have to be. If a pastor doesn’t want to be a leader he really should change careers. In local churches the pastor has to be a leader with others: elders, deacons, or other pastoral staff, who are also leaders. Many church conflicts come about because of clashes in leadership style and unfortunately, many pastors are either unaware or unable to deal properly with these differences.

When I consult with churches I often do workshops with leaders about “leadership style.” As Oscar Wilde notes, “Know Thyself was written over the portal of the antique world,” and that remains good advice. If a pastor does not understand his own leadership style (which is entirely separate from the Biblical qualifications and general principles for leaders) which is unfortunately quite common, and of those working with him, which is even more common, conflicts are inevitable and separation, such as what happened with Paul and Barnabus, is the likely result.

Some Christian leaders are dismissive or even hostile to such examinations. They feel that Christians should, if they are properly spiritual, rise above such issues. While that’s a nice millennial idea, it’s naïve in real life; in fact, nothing in the New Testament or church history give reason to think these types of normal conflicts won’t happen in ministry. Some methodologies certainly “resolve” the immediate conflict, they often don’t address why the conflicts arose in the first place. One church I worked with lamented that they were going through the “same sort of problems for the third time” even though all of the people involved had changed over the years.

Robert Dale wrote a helpful book, Pastoral Leadership, and over the years I’ve taken his basic categories, tinkered with them base on my own experience and research, and present them here for your consideration. Dale identified four basic types of pastoral leaders:

Leaderoverview

This graphic does not represent a “quality” relationship of the leadership types. There is, in my opinion, no one style that is inherently best, or even better, all of them exist within the larger sphere of leadership. You could spin the wheel and have any of the four at the “top” and nothing would change. All have strengths and weaknesses, all of them are prone to certain types of failure; however, any of them can thrive in certain environments. All of these types can be what Jim Collins calls, “Level Five” leaders.

However, I have intentionally placed them, as we will see, in apposition. The styles opposite each other are usually the most prone to conflict. In other words, if a pastor is an Encourager, he will more readily conflict with a Commander rather than a Catalyst or a Hermit. These opposites also represent the opposing ends of a pendulum swing. Churches, whether they recognize it or not, when calling a new pastor often swing from one type to the opposite side (often with disastrous consequences) because they have grown tired of the bad traits of their former pastor (the same principle often applies to presidential and gubernatorial politics and football coaches).

I want to examine the four types individually. Perhaps this will be a mirror into which you will see yourself or a reflection of others on your leadership team. My observation over the years has been that if you understand yourself and are able to recognize the leadership traits in others, the depth of conflict or misunderstandings can be reduced and a functional leadership team can be more easily formed and maintained.

Again, remember these are in no particular order but we have to begin somewhere, so first of all:

The Catalyst
Key Word: “WE”

Catalyst 

Overview: The Catalyst leader is defined by balance in terms of the two main issues of leadership: Task and People. The Catalyst wants to help church members grow individually while keeping focused on task. He works hard to balance the needs of the church and its mission with the individual needs of the members. He actively seeks participants and more than anything seeks consensus. He thrives when there is harmony and balance between tasks and people.

Strengths: The Catalyst leader can take a church that has had disruptions and help build consensus and consistency. The Catalyst leader is generally patient. Given the time people will see that he cares not only for individuals and their input but he also remains alert to the task or overall mission of the institution. At their best Catalyst is a good, honorable, and with the right support staff, they can be an outwardly effective leader. A Catalyst will rarely move a ministry to new heights of influence, but they can create a stable foundation for a long-term ministry.

Weaknesses: While the Catalyst may appear to have the ideal balance that all should seek to emulate, his is not the perfect model. As Margaret Thatcher commented, “Consensus is the negation of leadership.” The key flaw of most Catalyst leaders, an often-fatal flaw, is the inability to deal effectively and decisively in a time of crisis. There are times in a church where there is neither time nor ability to build consensus; the situation requires robust and innovative individual leadership. They also tend to have a low risk tolerance and divided counsel from others can paralyze them. At their worst they can appear to be manipulative, playing people off against each other. However, that’s generally not true of a Catalyst, what they are doing is often just making mutually exclusive promises.

While the Catalyst is good (or at least adequate) in both task and relationship, he’s often not great in either area. He is the broad generalist type of leader and needs an Encourager and a Commander on his team to supplement his leadership. However, a Hermit leader on his team will almost always result in disaster as the Hermit wants to be left alone and a Catalyst will invariably try to force him to work with the team. Conflicts will often frustrate Catalyst and pushed too far they can be prone to inexplicable or uncharacteristically rash decisions with predictably disastrous results.

The Commander
Key Word:       “ME”

Commander

Overview: The Commander is the most dynamic of the leadership types and often the both the most admired and the most despised. They are task oriented and almost always have more trust in themselves than others on their team. They impose their will and personality on the organization to accomplish the mission. They are not diplomatic nor any care to be, it’s not that they are mean-spirited towards people, they just don’t want to waste time as they work towards the goal. They tend to be impetuous and can be given to outbursts (usually private) when frustrated, but the outbursts rarely mean anything lasting.

However, in that regard they are often misunderstood, it is more proper to say they have little care for relationships as a plural, but singularly they often have the deepest relationship with a select few. Hermits are often the right hand men of Commanders and good Commanders will have a Catalyst as their left hand man. However, as already noted, keeping Commanders and Encouragers away from each other is always a good idea, they will simply infuriate one another.

Strengths: The Commander is the man of action and drive; he often accomplishes objectives by the sheer force of personality. There is simply no task that cannot be attempted. While they have a high tolerance for risk, they are rarely foolish or wasteful. Two military examples come to mind. General George S. Patton and General William T. Sherman. While Patton was known as “old blood and guts” he personally hated that description and despite his reputation his commands always had amongst the lowest causality rates. Sherman, called the first general of the “modern era of warfare” conceived of the concept of “total war.” After leveling Atlanta, his “March to the Sea” effectively destroyed the Southern Confederacy. However, Sherman also had exceptionally low casualty rates, especially for the Civil War.[1] While Commanders often can do more with less and are loathe to abandon a task, they are rarely wasteful of either people or resources. While they usually have few friends, they are immensely loyal and deep friends.

Weaknesses: Commanders often have tremendous egos and feel that there is no mission they cannot accomplish, and they often have past achievements to support their opinions. However, they often want to take credit for every idea and no idea is good unless it originated with them. They are not cruel, but they are hard on personnel and can be intolerant of those who don’t share their ideals for accomplishing the goal. They are not politicians and have no use for internal intrigues of an organization. If others know how to work with Commanders, they can often suggest something, know it will be rejected, and then some time later the same idea (perhaps with a tweak or two) will be presented later as the Commanders own idea. As a rule Commanders cannot stand idleness or routine, both will bring out the worst in them.

The Commander is the person to get the job done and will generally shine in the worst situations. However, they can bore easily and require new challenges on a regular basis. With the proper staff they can last longer in one place, but often Commanders are not good long-term leaders. They can often bring out the best in Catalysts and Hermits, both who whom generally have no ego-driven need for credit. In leadership swings, especially in churches, the swing is often from a Commander type to an Encourager type and vice versa. If you have both types on your leadership team just realize one of them may need to move on, they can almost never work together for any length of time.

The Encourager
Key Word:       “THEE”

Encourager

Overview: The opposite of the Commander is the Encourager. This is a leader that builds a team, builds people, and builds disciples. They believe in the now old-fashioned concepts of “personnel,” and rather abhor the concept of “human resources.” They are often indifferent to tasks and assignments and organizational charts. They can easily infuriate other leaders in their organization with an “open door policy” where seemingly anyone can by-pass them and “go to the top.” As long as people are happy and there is some semblance of order and growth, they are happy. They are often called a “country club leader.”

Strengths: The Encourager will often see ability in people that others don’t. They work hard and long at making friendships, deep friendships. They will know everyone and something about everyone in the church. They are exceptionally patient, usually patient to a fault. Their preaching will often follow this trend, they want to help people, encourage people, and build up people.  Encouragers will not generally engage in theological or detailed exegetically based preaching.  It’s not that they can’t, they just want to reach the most people within his congregation and will often aim for the lowest median. Individual growth is more important that the corporate growth to them. They don’t totally distain corporate growth, but they will tell you that the corporate will grow as individuals grow. Whereas a Commander will exhort for the good of the program, an Encourager will exhort for the good of the personnel.

Weaknesses: Encouragers can be slow, often too slow, to respond to problems and issues of discipline. They are not weak leaders, although they can give that perception, they are just loathe to moving too quickly when it involves dealing with people. They will often go to unreasonable lengths to avoid conflict or confrontation. As I noted above they can alienate important team leaders by negating their decisions. By nature they view the accomplishment of tasks as only secondary. The tasks or mission of the organization are viewed as either a nuisance or a necessary evil. Their preaching, will often be viewed as “not feeding” the more mature believers in the congregation.  Ideally, this deficiency is dealt with by Sunday School and Bible Study groups, but if those leaders are also the Encourager type, church members who want more than the basics will become frustrated and leave.  Because of their overwhelming impulse to be liked, having anyone, even an opponent mad at them can drive them to despair and they will often make inexplicable allowances to avoid confrontation.

If an Encourager will keep someone on his team that will keep the organization details handled, they can thrive. They are often successful if they have a good Hermit somewhere dealing with the details or a Catalyst who can help keep things balanced. But they will conflict with a Commander, often with disastrous results. In churches a pastoral staff can usually avoid this problem, but where an Encourager pastor has one or two Commander type board members, you have a ticking time bomb.

The Hermit
Key Word:       “FLEE”

Hermit

Overview: It would seem that the Hermit is the least like and least desirable kind of leader. In many ways that’s true, but there are far more Hermit leaders than one might think. They often have the ability to convince people that they are a different type of leader (they often believe that themselves). The Hermit wants to flee, that is they simply want to do what they want to do when they want to do it; however, they are often very good at it. They tend to have a very limited range of interests and so they often make very good “stay at home pastors” and churches that have suffered from a pastor who seemingly was always somewhere rather than at the church, will often seize upon a Hermit.

Strengths: Hermits are generally bright, dedicated and can be incredibly focused. They can lock themselves away and create sermons, books, and ideas; they are often good speakers and/or good writers. But they lack an emotional attachment to either their people or their tasks, but in some cases or on some teams that can be a good thing. They can be dispassionate in their work and won’t take personalities into consideration; ideally they are the NT model of not being a “respecter of persons.” They don’t require the affirmation a Commander does (although like anyone they enjoy hearing how brilliant, etc., they are) and will allow them to implement his schemes. They are happy that the Encourager can handle the people; like the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I have my books . . .to protect me.”

Weaknesses: Hermits have no real use for people and aren’t really interested in the tasks. They are the task; relationships are simply useful tools to help them live the life they want. They are not good team members or team leaders if interaction and dialogue are the goals.  If they are a leader, presentations will generally be a one-way with an unbalanced discussion/question ratio. They will either meet questions with incredulity, begin to talk about something else entirely, or cut off discussion entirely (watch a Bill Belichick press conference for a good example of this). They often have an unbalanced view of God’s sovereignty and their own place within the God’s plan. At their very best they are socially inept, but at their worst Hermits are manipulative and destructive, in short they are almost always narcissists. Hermits will often create structures that protect themselves from any real emotional connection to people or tasks and resist hearing bad news.

Hermits and Catalysts will simply make each other crazy and often will plot against each other. A Hermit always will need an Encourager to help with people and a Commander as the “front man” but often the Hermit will go through team members faster than any other type of leader.

Observations and Conclusion

Ignoring the basics of leadership personality leads to more conflict and problems in local churches than preaching and theology (by a wide margin). Understanding the issues, anticipating them, and if necessary preëmptively dealing with them, will make for a much more effective overall ministry.

In my opinion, based on experience and research, the senior pastor simply must have control over their staff (pastoral and support) if they are going to build a functional team. On the other hand they can’t (and shouldn’t) have control over who is on their boards (elder, deacon, or whatever structure your church uses). Additionally, every leader needs someone who can look them in the eye and tell them the truth with no fear of reprisal.

Understanding and taking ownership of the type of leader you are will help in understanding why you may be having conflicts with other leaders.[2] Simply calling conflicts “sin” is often an inadequate response (interestingly in the story of the separation of Paul and Barnabus, “sin” is never mentioned). When building a staff a pastor needs to remember “who people are” is much more important than “what they can do.” Hopefully, the basics in this essay will help in both staff building and conflict resolution.

 

 

Notes:

[1] In the March to the Sea and then the turn north to Virginia, starting with an army of about 65,000 Sherman lost less than 700 men. This was a remarkable accomplishment when you consider than in the Civil War there are often battles with thousands of casualties occurring within hours.

[2] One note here is important. Since none of these “types” is more or less good or Biblical, don’t pretend to be a different type of leader than you are. This is not only dishonest to yourself, it will always lead to problems and negatively affect your ability to lead.

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Dennis Swanson

About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master’s Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master’s Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.