In 2009, Barna Group researchers conducted a survey-based study of “the state of mainline Protestant churches” in the United States. After extensive data-crunching, they concluded that “mainline churches have weathered the past decade better than many people feared they would, but serious challenges [threaten] continued stability. The quality of leadership—especially regarding vision, creativity, strategic thinking, and the courage to take risks—is the most critical element in determining the future health and growth of Mainline congregations” (“Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches,” December 7, 2008).
This finding was confirmed in last year’s United Church of Christ (UCC) report on “Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence.” Based on extensive surveying data gleaned from UCC congregants, the June 2015 report highlighted “four marks of ministerial excellence” that correlated most strongly to congregational vitality:
- “The ability to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith”;
- “The ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation”;
- “The ability to read the contexts of a community’s ministry and creatively lead that community through change or conflict”; and
- “The ability to frame and test a vision in community.”
Curiously, these four marks “were the lowest-rated items by congregants.” Most respondents did not think their pastor(s) were proficient in the very skills and aptitudes that contribute directly to, and are most necessary for, church vitality!
This raises an obvious question: How can authorized UCC ministers “learn” or develop these essential marks of excellence?
Or, as church consultant Sarai Rice asked in a recent Congregational Consulting Group blog post, “How do I learn what seminary didn’t teach me?” Rice advised pastors to “read relevant journal articles” and “great books” on church management, and engage in continuing education—“take classes.”
Here in the New York Conference (as throughout the UCC), authorized ministers and church leaders are strongly encouraged to take part in continuing education and lifelong learning events. This past April, a number of us gathered for a 24-hour retreat/educational experience to learn how to better conceive, frame, and articulate a vision of the church to our congregants and communities. And we are planning additional educational experiences that will focus on other marks of ministerial excellence.
There are many reasons why these educational efforts are vitally important and must continue, but I wonder…can ministers really learn entrepreneurial leadership skills, creativity, risk-taking, and vision-framing that way, through book learning and retreat-attending?
By way of analogy, political scientists and psychologists have discovered that statespersons, political decision-makers, and office holders do not engage in much learning “on the job.” They are simply too busy (see Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics [Princeton, 1976]). They may do some recreational “light reading”, but they don’t have time to learn complex new skills or ideas—not if they want to do their jobs well, stay connected with their families, and find time for sleep and self-care. This means that functionally, throughout their tenure in office, presidents, governors, and other leaders are only able to draw on the reserve of knowledge and skills that they brought with them on the day they were sworn in.
This dynamic may apply to pastors. While many authorized ministers attend graduate school or take classes in preparation for ordination while serving congregations, such academic endeavors take time and energy–and yet learning theology or church history is probably a bit easier than learning how to transform one’s pastoral leadership behavior and style!
In his book, Beyond Resistance (pp. 99-100), UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer noted pointedly that entrepreneurial leadership entails numerous specialized skills and aptitudes that require years of training to develop: “Even in their best weeks,” clergy won’t make these tasks “their highest priority”—“not as long as there are sermons and services to prepare, sick people to visit, youth programs to organize, and classes to teach.”
I don’t know if there’s a course of study that can “teach” pastors how to be innovative, entrepreneurial, and risk-taking leaders, but if there is, ministers might not want to undertake it—not if management consultant and executive coach Steve Tobak is right.
According to Tobak, “egotistical jerks” and “dysfunctional control freaks with enormous egos and bad tempers make great founders [and] entrepreneurs.” And the opposite is true: many of the most creative and innovative leaders in America today are narcissistic and self-centered. “It’s always been that way. And despite [our] talk of emotional intelligence, positive psychology and likeability, it’s still that way.” (“Like It or Not, Egotistical Jerks Make Great Entrepreneurs,” Fortune, March 25, 2016).
“Nobody who worked with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would describe them as nice guys. They were maniacal perfectionists who drove their employees hard and never suffered fools gladly. The same was true of former Intel [CEO] Andy Grove and Oracle founder Larry Ellison.”
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the same way. “Forget work-life balance” if you work for him. And “Travis Kalanick has been accused of sexism, misogyny, and bad-boy behavior since the day he co-founded Uber. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Larry Page, [and] Tesla founder Elon Musk [are not] happy-go-lucky bosses. They’re hard-driving, razor-focused on making their vision reality.”
“Nice guys are certainly capable” of becoming creative and dynamic leaders, Tobak concludes—”but for every Richard Branson, Herb Kelleher or John Mackey,” there are ten of the other kind.
Let’s all hope that Tobak is not saying that innovative and entrepreneurial business leaders have to be “egotistical jerks”—and if he is saying that, let’s hope that that is not true of pastoral leaders. Let’s hope that authorized ministers can hone their leadership skills and instincts without becoming “dysfunctional control freaks.” Because pastors and church leaders cannot run over people in order to “get the job done,” or meet a deadline, or “grow the church.” Outsized egos, perfectionistic personalities, 75-hour workweeks, and dictatorial leadership styles, are not marks of ministerial excellence, God knows, and they are not what we want to model or encourage in United Church of Christ congregations.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.