The One Thing Every Pastor Should Know about Leadership

September 11, 2019

By Margaret Marcuson.

Here’s something I learned about church leadership: It’s not about changing others. This was a hard-won lesson for me. What is church leadership, then, you may ask. Isn’t that what I’m here for? Isn’t that my call? 

Well, no. If people change, they do it themselves in partnership with the Holy Spirit. We can help create conditions that make it more likely. And the truth is one of those conditions is that we aren’t in their faces all the time. Typically, that has the opposite effect!

You may wonder, What am I supposed to do instead? Here’s the job of pastoral leadership:

1. Work on yourself and your own clarity. Know who you are. Know what you believe about God’s call. Be yourself in your ministry—your best self, not your cranky need-a-snack self. Pay attention to your own growth and put to work what you are learning.

2. Connect. Show up and be present. Stay in relationship with key people in your congregation. You connect with people for their own sake, not simply to convince them to come along with you. 

Over time, you do develop allies. But it starts with simple connection. Who are the key leaders and influencers? Have coffee with them. Connect, in person, in a way that works for them. Ask them questions. Listen and be pastoral. Remember, you are in a years-long process. 

3. Stay calm. When change happens, people get upset. If people react to where you want to lead, it’s a sign you are on to something. Don’t take it personally. Rabbi Edwin Friedman used to say “Don’t get reactive to the reactivity.” Recognize that this is part of the natural process of leadership. If you react, step back and think it through. 

As you face people’s reactions, you can repeat #1 and #2. Ask yourself: 1) “What do I think? What principles are at work here? What is my call?” Then 2) “Where can I connect? Whom do I need to talk to?” That doesn’t mean you need to process endlessly with someone who is upset. But don’t avoid them, either. Make sure to connect with those who give you energy, too.

Then, repeat #1, #2 and #3. Over and over. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s tiring. However, remember to pay attention to what is right, what is working, what are the small achievements. 

Like you, I so want things to be different, better, easier. I have to remember that all change takes time. While vision is important, I don’t ultimately know what is best. I have to trust God is in the process.  The key part is how I manage myself. This little upset won’t matter in a year, or ten years -- or in heaven. My job is to pay attention to myself.

All clergy should memorize and put to work these words of Warren Bennis, a business leadership expert (in On Becoming a Leader, p. 9): “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.” 

Many pastors struggle with feeling like everyone wants a piece of them. Rev. Margaret Marcuson offers a way they can bring their best to their ministry without giving it all away, so they can have a greater impact and find more satisfaction. Find out more at

Margaret Marcuson, author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry and Money and Your Ministry

Get Six Ways to Last in Ministry:
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Leadership Development