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Home > Issues > 2009 > Fall > How a Mighty Church Falls

Soon after I finished my theological education, I was asked to become pastor of a congregation in Southern Illinois. This was my first great awakening to the realities of pastoral leadership, and it was an uncomfortable experience.

The skills (or gifts) that led the congregation to invite me to be their spiritual leader were probably my enthusiasm, my preaching, and my apparent ability, even as a young man, to reach out to people and make them feel cared for.

The position description called for me to report to a board of deacons who, while well-intentioned, were not highly experienced in organizational leadership. It also said that I was responsible to lead a staff that consisted of a secretary, a Christian education assistant, two day-school teachers, a part-time choir director, and a janitor.

What it didn't say was that the congregation was seriously divided and disillusioned due to an acrimonious split in which the previous pastor had persuaded a hundred people to join him in leaving the church to form a new one down the road.

It took me only a couple of months to realize that I knew very little about how to lead an organization of such size, complexity, and woundedness. At age 27, I was in over my head. Somehow I had made it all the way through seminary believing that all one had to do was become a dazzling preacher and an enthusiastic visionary and everything else about church life would fall into place. No one had told me about staffs that required direction, boards that wanted results, and congregations that needed healing.

I liken it to that discovery some young married couples have at the end of their honeymoon that, in addition to being affectionate and fun-loving, there are bills to pay, chores to share, and personality differences to resolve, all things they didn't know came along in the marital package.

Churches and marriages have something in common: they are both organizations. One had better know how to run them. I didn't.

It was in those "awakening" days that I was introduced to my first organizational leadership book: The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. It became one of the most important books I ever read. It opened me up to understand how people are empowered to attain objectives that are otherwise unreachable. That book probably delivered me from a first-round knockout in my life as a pastor.

Since that time more than 40 years ago, countless other writers have tried to improve upon Drucker's insights. In my opinion no one has succeeded quite like Jim Collins, who has given us books like Good to Great and Built to Last. I'm not sure that Collins had people like me in his crosshairs when he wrote those books, but many of us in faith-based and pastoral leadership have learned much from him.

Recently Collins and his team of researchers produced a smaller work titled, How the Mighty Fall, which he says began as an article and ended as a book. Being a preacher (and a writer), I understand that.

Collins says How the Mighty Fall was inspired by a conversation during a seminar at West Point where a few dozen leaders from the military, business, and social sectors gathered to explore themes of common interest. He had posed this question to the group: "Is America renewing its greatness, or is America dangerously on the cusp of falling from great to good?"

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

From Issue:Your Walls Talk, Fall 2009 | Posted: November 29, 2009

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