Three Potentially Lethal Leadership Mistakes

In 1 Peter 5, the elders are exhorted to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (v. 2). Shepherding implies leadership. Being a pastor means that you are leading people. There is no way around it. If you are a pastor, you are also a leader. When I arrived at my most recent church, a member of the pastor search team presented me with a shepherd’s staff. Attached to the staff was a tag that simply said, “Lead on!”

Another member of the pastor search committee, a physician, wrote me a prescription that simply read, “Don’t mess this up.” It was an inside joke based on something my father-in-law had said during the search process, but I put it in a frame and set it on my desk because I know that I will make mistakes. As leaders we do the best we can, but sometimes we get it wrong. Often those mistakes are inconsequential. Occasionally they are potentially lethal. Here are three potentially lethal leadership mistakes that I have made:

Failing to define reality. Max DePree said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” The leader who doesn’t understand reality and define that reality for the people he is leading, is in grave danger. I once met with a group of deacons in a church before being presented to the entire church “in view of a call.” I was asked about leadership and change. Specifically, about the pace of change. Here was my response: “If I am doing my job well, you will not even notice when change occurs.” Saying stupid things could actually be its own lethal leadership mistake, but this foolish answer was the result of not knowing the reality for that church.

I knew that they had lost a significant number of church members in the previous two years due to conflict. What I did not know at the time was that they were actually in the midst of a fifty-year decline! Had I done my homework better, I would not have stated that change could happen subtly. Like a patient with an aggressive illness, the church needed aggressive action to change its trajectory.

Had I understood and defined reality on the front end, the church could have been better prepared for the change that was necessary. Instead, when changes were made, I was confronted with the dreaded response, “But you said…”  Be careful what you say. Understand reality and define reality before you do anything else.

Failing to establish accountability. As a leader I need someone to hold me personally and spiritually accountable, but I also need an officially recognized group of leaders within the church to hold me accountable for performing the responsibilities of my employment. I once heard a football coach’s wife express her frustration over listening to the people sitting around her in the stands who thought they knew how to do her husband’s job better than he did. I shared her pain! Everyone in the church has an opinion about what the pastor should or should not do. Unfortunately, those opinions are often at odds with each other. It is true, “Where two or three Baptists are together, there are at least four or five opinions.” Often those opinions involve criticism, and without an official accountability system the pastor may be defenseless.

In my most successful pastorate, I had a very good system of accountability. As I recall, it involved the immediate past deacon chairman, the current deacon chairman, current deacon vice chairman (who was also chairman-elect), as well as the personnel committee chair and vice-chair. This ensured continuity from one year to the next while also providing a means to have fresh insights. We met three or four times during the year to review my job description and talk about my performance. These were times of prayer and encouragement. During our summer meeting, they conducted an official evaluation based on my job description.

This entire process was incredibly valuable to me as I navigated the responsibilities of the job and expectations of our members. These men and women helped me identify opportunities for improvement and growth. Like everyone, I have blind spots. I can also get wrapped up in doing the things that I enjoy to the neglect of things that I don’t. I need accountability.

These men and women also came to my defense against unwarranted criticism. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 reminds us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” I have found this to be true in my ministry. When I have an accountability system, there is someone to pick me up. And when I don’t, I am alone. Failing to establish accountability is often a lethal leadership mistake.

Failing to develop vision carriers. I am thankful to Dan Reiland for articulating this need in a recent article. Vision carriers are the members of your church who have bought in to what you are doing. They are serving. They are giving. They are also speaking up for the vision, the ministries, and the overall direction of the church. They are cheerleaders. Earlier in this article I mentioned the football coach’s wife who had to listen to criticism about her husband. I also heard his critics and was able to speak a positive word on his behalf. My son played for him. I bought in to what he was trying to do. I became a vision carrier. So did about fifty other sets of parents. We were the coach’s cheerleaders, his champions. We didn’t change everyone’s opinions about his ability to coach, but we did change a few.

Coaches need champions in the stands. Pastors need champions in the pews – people who have bought in to the vision and help carry the message to others.  My third church was located in the same county where I grew up, and my mother still lived in my hometown. She also had friends who were members of the church I served. Shortly after we arrived, I told my mother that she should not pay much attention to anything she heard about me from my church members, whether it was good or bad. I had already learned that when leaders lead, someone will love what you do and someone else will hate it.  When you take the time to develop vision carriers, there is someone to speak a positive word. There is someone to address the critics and perhaps even change a few opinions.

Developing relationships and clearly and consistently casting vision on a relational level makes leadership rewarding. Failing to develop vision carriers can be a lethal leadership mistake.

I am sure I have made other leadership mistakes over the past thirty years, but these are three that have been costly for my own ministry. Leaders, what other mistakes have you made?

If you would like help from an imperfect pastor and church consultant who absolutely loves the local church, let me hear from you.  Shoot me an email to [email protected]

Here are two books from Dan Reiland that can help pastors to lead well and church members to follow well:

Amplified Leadership: 5 Practices to Establish Influence, Build People, and Impact Others for a Lifetime

Shoulder to Shoulder: Strengthening Your Church by Supporting Your Pastor