When I first started working as associate editor of Leadership journal, I asked editor Marshall Shelley, at that time a 15-year veteran of the magazine, what he had learned about leadership from editing Leadership. “Everything,” he said. “Reading so many manuscripts and books and interviewing hundreds of pastors has been like a doctoral program for me.” He wasn’t dismissing his seminary work or his pastoral ministry prior to joining the staff here, but he was pointing to the value of the experience of thousands of pastors shared in our pages.
Now, having read 5,000 or so manuscripts and query letters sent to our office over the past nine years, I know what he means. And as I assume new responsibilities at our publishing company, I am waxing nostalgic about I have learned while holding this position of great privilege.
This is an odd little list, not complete, but simply a few of the lessons for which I’m grateful.
1. Leadership is a craft.
I once worked for a television director who contended that journalism was a craft and anyone could learn it. “No!” the staff rebuked him. “We are artists, not tradesmen. We are gifted!” So the rebuffed boss picked the most unlikely candidate for a position and began a Pygmalion transformation. Turns out he was right.
Does the same apply to leadership? Is it a gift, as the obviously gifted might contend, or a craft that anyone can learn?
After reading the complaints of hundreds of pastors about their leadership failures, I might conclude that this high calling is better left to the obviously gifted. But if I do that, I betray the magazine itself—and the books and seminars and conferences and interviews of the past decade.
I am a better leader today than I was when I arrived here. And it’s because of what I’ve learned. Gordon MacDonald and Fred Smith and many others have convinced me of the value of life-long learning.
2. Not everyone is a quarterback.
It is those who seem to lead from an innate skill set that convince so many others they’re not cut out for leadership—particularly ministry leadership. But not everyone is a quarterback. Not every pastor is the kind of big-man-on-campus leader that women swoon over and men emulate. I’ve met some very average people who have served in significant ways, and they truly inspire me.
At the time I was called to a pastorate in New Orleans, neighboring pastor Joe McKeever drew a cartoon especially for me. The pastor is driving the church bus past a billboard welcoming “Superpastor Eric Reed.” A passenger in the back of the bus is thinking, “Lord, help us to love his Clark Kent-ness, too.”
In this decade, I have embraced my Clark Kent. In fact, Clark gets more accomplished than Superpastor, in most situations.
3. Ask the right questions, and ask them of everyone.
The church is the only organization where everyone seems to get a vote, even those who are angry, unconnected, and unqualified. Some leaders have advised against it, but I have come to believe most everyone must all be included in decision and direction process—IF we ask them the right questions. The spiritual questions.
We should not ask: “What do you think?” or “What do you want to do?” or “What’s your opinion.”
Instead, we should ask: “What is God saying to us now?” “Where does it appear God is leading us?” “Who does it appear he is including in his plan?” and “Have you thoroughly prayed about this and sought God’s opinion?”
Once when our deacons were struggling with a complex, thorny issue, I asked each of them in a meeting the “Have you prayed?” question. One said no, the only one who disagreed our group’s decision. He soon left the church.
4. Wait for the answers, then act.
I think it was Harry Truman who said he postponed his decisions as long as he could. Many situations, it turns out, would take care of themselves. I can accept his point to a point: wait for the answers. Don’t get ahead of God. But once you know the answers, act.
And don’t wait on issues of conflict. The findings of a survey we took about five years ago showed a majority of pastors regretted their delays in addressing conflicts, especially among church members. Those situations only grew worse.
Wait, but don’t wait too long.
5. Discern, discern, discern.
I knew this as a pastor in New Orleans. But I have seen its importance even more in several complicated interim pastorates in the past decade. Discern the atmosphere of the congregation. Discern the motivations of the people. And discern what the Spirit is doing.
A retired Presbyterian pastor and a nun who together ran a ministry training center in the plains states gave me the words to describe this leadership task. Good questions, Scripture, and prayer are the first steps. But more than that, a leader must understand the mind of Christ, and see the situation and the people as the Lord does. (I know you know this. And it sounds so simple as I type it, but for me, putting discerning near the top of my to-do list has made me a much better leader.)
6. Turn it the other way.
Writer and pastor Judson Edwards coined this phrase, using a stuck lugnut to explain his best ministry technique. When the nut is stuck on the tire, you often have to tighten it a little more before you can loosen it. “Turn it the other way” than you would expect.
He’s saying ministry often operates opposite the way people expect. What works in business and other areas of life often does not work in the church, especially in relationships.
Ministry leadership is not intuitive, it’s counter-intuitive. It works backwards. Get used to it. In fact, embrace it.
7. It’s what we do with people that lasts.
Standing on the balcony of the church I served in New Orleans, looking at the effects of hurricane Katrina on the facilities, I saw none of the great remodeling work we had done. And most of the congregation had left town. (Even now few have returned.)
“What’s left, Lord,” I asked with a catch in my throat. “What really matters?”
The phone calls I received from friends and church members in the months that followed my New Orleans visit answered the question. As they recalled our ministry together in New Orleans and told me where they are serving now, I realized it’s what we do with people that lasts. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me, but it served to put all my ministry work in perspective.
When the programs and lessons and buildings and evangelistic block parties are all gone, it’s what we did with the people God entrusted to us that remains.
Eric Reed has served as managing editor at Leadership journal and Leadership Weekly since 1998. Now he is assuming new responsibilities as editor-in-chief of the Consumer Media Group at Christianity Today International.