Leader's Insight: Yes, Ministry Leadership Is Complex
My friend runs a company with about 3,000 employees. He says he wants to relax after retirement and lead a church. He said, "It doesn't have to be a Willow Creek-sized church. Maybe just 7,000 or 8,000 with some growth potential." I told him that leading a church would ruin his retirement, because the church demands a higher and more complex form of leadership than business does. In fact, I believe the church is the most leadership-intensive enterprise in society.
I've been on both sides. Running a business is challenging, but the leader of a company has a clearly defined playing field and enormous leverage with his or her employees. The business leader delivers a product or service through paid staff who either get it done or get replaced.
Church leadership is far more complex than that. The redeeming and rebuilding of human lives is exceedingly more difficult than building widgets or delivering predictable services. Here's why:
1. Every life requires a custom mold.
You don't stop the line in a factory every time a product comes down it. In church work, we're developing individual, custom-made lives. We stop the line for every life.
I've read books about Napoleon, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton. They were all the great military leaders. I don't want to minimize their capabilities or the courage it takes to charge a hill in time of battle, but I've wondered, What would it be like for some of those leaders to have to work it out with deacons before they charged up a hill? How well would they do if they had to subject their plans to a vote involving the very people they're going to lead up the hill? How would the whole military system work if you took away the leadership leverage of the court-martial?
Anyone could build a church with that kind of leverage! I can hear the generals now: "Teach a Sunday school class or go to the brig." "You call that an offering? Give me fifty push-ups right now." That's leverage!
2. The church is utterly voluntary.
But in the final analysis, we have little or no leverage, no real power over anybody we lead. At Willow Creek we've had people attend our services week after week, create trouble throughout the church, and tap every resource we have. Then, when they cross one too many lines and the elders bring correction or discipline, they bail out of the church or even sue.
To mobilize an utterly volunteer organization requires the highest kind of leadership. We cannot compel people; we must call them. One great writer about leadership says, "Most people are just waiting for someone to call them out so they can rise above their petty preoccupations."
I used to play on a park district touch football team led by Don Cousins, my associate pastor for 17 years. We played against construction workers who came after work, semi-inebriated, with the sole purpose of hurting people. In one game, my job was to try to sack the quarterback; I lined up across from a guy who was supposed to prevent me from doing that. I thought, I'm going to run right over the top of you. I was breathing hard, getting all pumped, when I looked up. This guy's eyes were bloodshot, and he was drooling. I thought, Maybe I'll just drop back in case the quarterback passes this time.
Bill Hybels is pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and creator of the Global Leadership Summit