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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

July 9, 2017

The warning signs of leadership problems

The late Norman Shawchuck was both a leader who ministered in church conflict and a deeply spiritual man in the contemplative tradition. His writings reflect both callings. The Upper Room Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God excerpts one of his essays on leadership like this:

God treats all leaders equally. God requires civility, honesty and fidelity of all leaders. God wants humane, honest, capable leaders in all places [both in the church and in the world]. Leaders are called by God and will be accountable to God.

The question is: Is this person a good leader or an injurious leader?

I have spent the majority of my life in churches with pastors whose personal problems and ambitions eventually led to disastrous consequences for their congregations. I’m still trying to figure out whether this was part of God’s will for me, bad luck, or poor decisionmaking on my part about where to put down roots. One thing I can say in all cases is that the leadership problems were not glaringly obvious at first. Then came long periods of creeping doubt that something was wrong, followed by collapses, spectacular and otherwise.

I’ve come to believe that what I’ve seen up close in church also applies to other leadership situations—in local civic organizations, the workplace, and the political sphere at all levels.

Based on my experience, I now believe that there are telltale signs when things have the potential to or actually are going wrong with leaders. I did not put two and two together when I observed them firsthand. Yet, upon reflection in hindsight they seem fairly obvious. I’d like to share them with you so that you can be alert and aware to them in your own situation. If things are going downhill, you can then make an informed choice as to whether you want to leave the organization behind, or (as I always did) stay and attempt to fight for integrity. I will not tell you what is right for you to do; there are good and bad things to be said about either strategy.

I speak here in terms of church leadership. However, I believe the questions apply in many types of settings. I also will default to the term “pastor,” but the person or people in question could be anyone high-ranking in the organization.

* * * * *
The leader’s character and issues
Some religious leaders’ personal issues overwhelm their ability to provide sound spiritual leadership. Others are able to maintain personal mental, spiritual and physical health while ministering to others.

  • Does the leader have a good personal character?
  • Does the leader have a sound grasp of reality?
  • Can the leader make good, thoughtful decisions?
  • Does the leader have an appropriate work ethic, neither overly driven nor procrastinating?
  • Is the leader emotionally stable?
  • Does the leader appear to be battling personal demons of any kind which influence their decisionmaking or interactions with others?
  • Does the leader accept advice and critique, or do they feel they have all the ideas and answers, and that their perspective is the only correct one?
  • Is the leader susceptible to bribes or blackmail?

The leader’s agenda
Most pastors have an idea of where they would like to take the church. In the best cases, they have identified areas where the congregation could grow, or needs in the community the church could help meet. But sometimes the agenda is rooted more in the pastor’s own needs. There are several things to consider when the pastor advocates for his or her agenda.

  • What is the nature of the leader’s ideas? Who do they benefit? Who do they hurt?
  • How transparent are they about their motivations for the actions, risks and directions in which they want to take the church?
  • Is there any indication the leader’s agenda is being heavily influenced by groups, individuals, movements, philosophies to which the leader holds allegiance? If so, are these outside influences consistent with the gospel and Christ’s teachings?

The leader’s relationship with those he or she leads
A lot can be inferred by who surrounds the leader, who is attracted to the leader, and who leaves the organization because of the leader.

  • What kinds of people come into the organization because of the leader? What do they find compelling about the leader?
  • What sorts of people leave the organization because of the leader? What are their issues with the leader?
  • What is the character of the people in the inner circle, who surround the leader as trusted advisors?
  • If people are removed from the organization (either staff or members), are the reasons valid?

The leader’s relationship with the congregation
How the leader interacts with the members of the congregation is telling.

  • What does the leader expect of the congregation as a whole? Is it reasonable? Is it appropriate?
  • Is the leader available to, or remote from the members of the congregation? Does he or she genuinely seem to like them? Is caring for and about them something the leader sees as a major part of their ministry or something that they believe keeps them from their "real" ministry?
  • Are people actually following the leader? If so, what are their motivations for doing so?
  • Do not underestimate the blessing of having a boringly stable pastor. Such a period of calm for the church can allow people in the congregation to discover ministry gifts, try lay-inspired projects, and so on. The leader does not have to be the driver of all activity.

The leader’s supervisors
These may be denominational officials, or in the case of non-denominational churches, peers or leaders the pastor considers mentors or friends—persons with whom he or she commiserates and from whom he or she seeks advice.

  • Who is supervising, overseeing or advising the leader? Are they of good character themselves? Do they have sound agendas?
  • Are these people paying attention? Do they have at least a general objective idea of the health of the organization (one that is independent of what the pastor tells them)?
  • Do they actually care about the leader? Can the leader confide in them and expect sound advice?
  • Are they both willing and able to intervene in a meaningful way, with integrity, should the situation warrant it?

These are some of the big questions to start pondering when you sense something is going wrong. How you answer them, and what you do as a result, can make a big differene for your personal life and your community.


Is this person a good leader, or an injurous leader?