In more than a quarter century of issues, Preaching magazine has dealt with a variety of issues of concern to pastors and church leaders, but one of the most significant has been the relationship of preaching to pastoral leadership.
The topic of leadership has been addressed frequently in interviews with outstanding preachers. For example, two different interviews with John Maxwell addressed the issue—no wonder, given Maxwell’s profile as a leadership guru.
The relationship between preaching and leadership is a natural one, Maxwell explained in an interview in the January-February 1998 issue:
“All great leaders are effective communicators,” Maxwell asserted. “It is the vehicle for the vision. For me to know where I want to take a group of people and not have the ability to cast that dream, preach that message, communicate that heart, makes the dream impossible. The vision won’t be accomplished.
“One of the reasons I have committed so much time, not only in teaching leadership but communication, is I think they are so compatible. You show me a great leader, and I’ll show you a person who became a great leader because of his or her ability to communicate effectively. You can be a good preacher and not a good leader, but you cannot be a good leader without being a good preacher or a good communicator. You have to be able to communicate the vision. What I love about it is they all do it differently—there is not a certain style or a certain method; they all have the ability to get their hearts into the hearts of their people. That always is done through preaching and through communication.”
For Maxwell, one of the keys to successful preaching and leading is the recognition that one must be an effective communicator. He observed, “As I look at communicators with different styles, different methods, they all have one thing in common. I’ve seen this; I’ve watched it; I’ve observed it. All great communicators have the ability to connect. They can connect with their audiences. You know, when I was a kid, I used to love to go down to the railroad tracks and watch the workers switch train cars. They’d back the engine up and bang the cars so they’d have a little ripple effect if there were seven or eight cars. I learned early just because you banged the car didn’t mean you coupled with it. You could bang a car and that old engine could pull out without it; you had to couple it.
“A lot of preaching is banging with the people. You’re banging them and hitting them. A lot of pastors think when they have done that, they have communicated: ‘I’ve told them, I’ve told them.’ But they never connected with the message. They never had that relational, emotional, spiritual connection. All great communicators, regardless of style or method, understand the connecting principle; they have the ability to connect with people, know where they are and connect there.”
In a second interview—this one appeared in the July-August 2004 issue of Preaching—Maxwell spoke more specifically about the place of change in pastoral leadership. He said, “Thirty years ago when I taught leadership, I would have said wrongly by saying leaders like change and are out there paving the way and that followers dislike change and are the drag and resistance to change. I no longer think that. I think most leaders dislike change as much as followers do, unless it’s their idea. In fact, I think when change does not occur in an organization or church, it is not because the followers resist change but because leaders resist change.
“Followers by and large have no influence and pretty much fall in line with what everyone else is going to do anyway. That’s why we call them followers. So when change does not occur, it’s almost always sabotaged. There is a leader who sabotages change, not followers. The pastor does not need to worry about the people. The pastor needs to have an honest date with himself. When churches don’t change, it is not the followers’ problem; it’s a leader’s problem almost always.
“Now that being said, I want to be very careful to say I do not advocate or admire change in itself. I know a lot of people just want change because they get restless. I don’t think that’s a good change. I think growth—true, legitimate growth—necessitates change. You can’t grow in a period of time without making major changes. So I think growth means change. I don’t think change means growth.
“Somebody says, ‘Well I’m making some changes,’ and I am saying, ‘That doesn’t make it better.’ I know people who have made changes and got worse. So let’s not glorify change. Let’s glorify growth. If growth occurs, a person will change; what I have discovered is when growth occurs, change is received much more positively. My challenge is not to change churches or pastors; my challenge is to grow churches and grow pastors. If I truly get them on a growth pattern, they’ll have momentum to make the changes they need to have.”
Another Preaching interview that focused significant attention on leadership was our visit with James Emery White, founding pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations. White talked about how preaching serves as one of his key leadership tools as he said, “The most powerful tool in a church leader’s arsenal is the podium, the pulpit. We say: ‘Here’s your preaching class,’ then, ‘Here’s your leadership class.’ Wait a minute. They ought to be the same in some ways, because that’s the way you lead a church most effectively—largely through teaching and through vision casting, through upholding values.
“Don’t get me wrong. There’s a management level to that; there’s an administrative dynamic to that; and there’s a leadership level one on one with staff and so forth. But when I am best able to lead this church optimally and influentially is when I get up there and address the church, when I speak to it.
“That’s why we have—once or twice a year—what we call a ‘Vision Night’ where it’s 100 percent pure leadership vision casting. It’s woven through a lot of series and a lot of talks—upholding a value, upholding a particular way of living, addressing a particular issue. It’s leadership all the way through.”
White also observed the hardest leadership challenge he faces is the issue of self-leadership: “The danger of ministry leadership is that people afford you an enormously high level of spirituality that you really didn’t learn. So those of us who are pastors or leaders often are treated like the fourth member of the Trinity. The truth of the matter is they have no idea if I’ve had a quiet time of any significance in the last six weeks.
“They have no idea what my prayer life is like. They have no idea what I’ve downloaded from the Internet in terms of pornography. They have no idea whether I treat my wife with dignity. They have no idea whether I’m in a good or bad relationship with my children. They have no idea, but I’m awarded this level of spirituality.
“The danger of this role is that we could begin to believe our press reports and take other peoples’ perceived assessment of our spirituality as the truth of where we are, then begin to feast on it. That’s how so many good men end up in ditches, and everybody says, ‘Shock!’ Well, no, they’ve been going that way a long time. They were like a cut flower. It was just a matter of time. Nobody’s going to own my spiritual life except me. So I have to own that. I’ve got to be diligent on that, and it’s from that that I have the moral authority then to try to lead others.”
Our interview with Andy Stanley in the July-August 2004 issue was done after the recent publication of his book The Next Generation Leader, and that topic took up much of the conversation. He specifically addressed the need for pastors to have courage in their roles as leaders and preachers:
“Speaking from my limited view, I feel like so much of the problem with pastors is they are just scared to death. They’re scared of their people; they’re scared of deacons; they’re scared, they’re scared, they’re scared. You know, if you’re scared of someone, you can’t lead them; you hardly can influence them. Here’s the pastor who’s been hired—I tell our business guys all the time, ‘You’d never go to work for an organization where the customers can hire and fire the president of the company they bought products from.’ But that’s the church world. The people hire the leader and say, ‘We’ll follow you unless we don’t like the way you’re leading us, then we’ll get another leader.’ In what other organization can the clients and the customers hire and fire the leader?
“So the church is set up upside-down. It’s an environment that is not conducive to leadership in some ways. Consequently, to lead a church you just have to have a lot of courage because the group to which you’re saying ‘follow me’ can get together after you leave and fire you. Well, that’s just the way it is. That’s not going to change, but it requires a lot of courage; otherwise we start bending toward the people who hired us, and we’re in trouble.
“The irony is we stand up and talk about Daniel in the lion’s den, then we won’t confront elders. All these Bible heroes— David vs. Goliath—and we love to preach those sermons and draw these parallels; yet we’re scared to confront people. I think that dynamic alone is a big part of why the church is where it is. The leadership—or lack of leadership—is just so much fear of people. I don’t know where that comes from.”
Stanley observed, “When I see pastors who are scared, I want to tell them, ‘Just lead. If they fire you and you don’t think God will take care of you, then you have no message for your people anyway, because we get up every Sunday and say God’s grace is sufficient. He’s going to take care of you. He’ll meet your every need, and you’ll never see the righteous go hungry.’ It’s what we preach; but if our lack of faith in those practical things causes us to not to be able to lead, then what’s our message anyway?
“It’s easy for me to say that sitting here; but when I started this church, it was not easy for me to say because I had to face that whole issue of leaving my dad’s church to do something on my own. There were no guarantees; there were no promises. You walk through that wall of fire a couple of times, and you realize it’s not so bad. God’s grace is sufficient. He does show up.”