The four kinds of leader we need: part two

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by John Bowen

(Editor’s note: Last month, in part one of this series, John explored two kinds of leaders: the traditional pastor and palliative care leader. In this final installment, he focuses on turnaround and pioneer kinds of leaders, and brings it all together by answering why it all matters.)

3. The turnaround leader

The third is perhaps the most difficult of the four models of leader: the one who can help moribund congregations change from looking after their existing members to understanding they are called to participate in the mission of God.

Why is this difficult? For one reason, the changes required are pretty fundamental, in all likelihood involving their grasp of the Gospel, their understanding of church, their long-standing ministry habits and (not least) their theology.

Twenty years ago, I thought in my naivety that most struggling congregations would be willing and even excited to make this kind of change in order to thrive again: all they needed was to know how, and good leadership to help them do it.

“We have a need for leaders who can start new Christian communities (fresh expressions of church) in contexts where existing churches can never go”

Now we know that is not the case. Given the choice between changing and dying, many will weigh the options: change? death? Hmmm … and then choose death as the easier choice. Why is it easier? Because all they have to do is keep doing what they have always done.

The other reason this has proved difficult is that most “traditional pastors,” however much they might want to bring about change, simply do not know how. It requires a different skill-set. For a pastor to try to bring about that kind of change without the requisite gifts, and in the face of the inevitable resistance, is a recipe for conflict and sometimes burnout.

There are some congregations who will choose the painful road of change. They need leaders with clear vision, thick skins and stick-to-it-iveness—not to mention lots of love—to guide them through the transition. These are the turnaround pastors.

4. The pioneer leader

Finally—maybe in the long run most important—we have a need for leaders who can start new Christian communities (fresh expressions of church) in contexts where existing churches can never go: new churches which reflect the culture of their context, and which have mission in their DNA from day one.

What kind of leader can do this? One who is unusually gifted in evangelism, who is as comfortable in secular culture as in church culture, has experience of pulling innovative teams together, has a track record of starting things and has a competent grasp of orthodox theology. (The last is particularly important for church planting teams because, in the new situation, they will be the sole “bearers of the tradition”!)

In many cases, we will need to recruit such people, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Often the young people who come up through our churches’ farm system know little apart from life in the traditional congregations they come from, and which have recognised that they have gifts for … traditional ministry.

The kind of people who are gifted to pioneer new congregations have in many cases never considered ordination because their image of ministry leadership is the traditional one, and they know this is not for them. We need to persuade them that they are exactly what the church needs these days—and train them appropriately.

Why does this matter?

We need to remember why these things are important. The need for suitable leaders is not in the first place about the church or leadership, or teaching and training. At the heart of all this concern is the Gospel of God—the good news of Jesus. It is the Gospel that brings the church into being (if there were no Gospel, there would be no church), it is the Gospel that gives shape to what we mean by leadership, and it is the Gospel that directs our understanding of mission.

John Bowen is the retired Professor of Evangelism, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.