Effective Church Leaders Do Not Treat Everyone Equally

equalEffective leaders always seek wise advice and counsel.

In Small Churches, there’s a huge temptation for pastors to treat everyone’s advice as though it has equal value.

We’re often told that getting everyone’s input is the only fair way to do things. Some Small Churches even require congregational votes on almost every decision.

It’s hard for me to imagine a policy that will stifle a church’s health and effectiveness more permanently than the pursuit of false fairness. It must be resisted if our leadership is to be effective.

Yes, everyone has equal value in God’s eyes and they should in our eyes, too. But when it comes to who should have input into how the church should be run, not everyone’s opinion has equal value.

In my 30+ years of ministry, I’ve recognized three types of people whose opinions merit a greater say in how church events and programs should be run. I feel so strongly about these, that I teach them in every new members class. It cuts down on the complaints later, when I don’t give everyone’s opinion equal weight.

These may not be the best criteria for you, your leadership style and your church. It’s just what works for me.

But even if you don’t use this list, I encourage you to make one of your own. Decide in advance whose voices should merit the greatest weight. Otherwise the loudest voices will win out and your ministry will be all reactive instead of proactive. 

 

1. Mature Believers

Riding a pew for twenty or thirty years does not automatically make someone a mature believer, just an old believer.

Yes, I should and do respect people who’ve been around a while. But someone who’s been actively growing in their faith for three years carries greater credibility with me than someone who has done nothing but show up Sunday after Sunday for 30 years.

Thankfully, those aren’t my only options. There are also some great saints who have been serving Jesus and his church, while growing daily in their faith for decades. They carry the greatest weight with me. But the priority is given to their spiritual growth first, their years in the church second.

 

2. Those Involved In a Ministry

I tell my new members that I have a simple rule. Do you want to be a leader? Start by being a follower. A worker. A volunteer. A servant.

Get involved in something. If you need help getting started, I have a list.

It seems to me that people on the worship team should have a greater say in the purchase of new worship software than those volunteering in the nursery.

Likewise, those volunteering in the nursery are taken more seriously about what color the nursery walls should be painted than someone who can’t find the nursery on a site map of the church building.

 

3. Those Affected By a Ministry

We didn’t take a poll of our church members about the design of our church website and logo, or about what our door-greeter policies should be. But we did take the pulse of first-time guests and even some people who hadn’t been to the church at all.

Why? Because the website, logo and greeters have a huge effect on people’s first impression of the church. People who’ve been in the church for years aren’t going to leave because they don’t like the church’s website design. And if they would leave over something that petty, well, maybe they should.

As another example, we pay close attention to the opinions of the parents of the kids in our children’s ministry. Even the ones who aren’t volunteering (although those who also volunteer get even more of a voice), because they are affected by the ministry we do with their kids.

Or take the church building, for example. In our church’s recent upgrade, we added more ramps than are required by the ADA. Why? Because people in our church who use wheelchairs and walkers pointed out the need to us. They’re the ones affected, so they have a greater say.

It only makes sense to take the pulse of people who are affected by a ministry. It’s the only way to know if you’re really having the impact you’re hoping for.

 

Who’s Not On the Priority List?

You may have noticed some of the usual suspects are not on my list. Here are a few and why they didn’t make the cut.

 

  • The Chronically Needy

People with needs matter a great deal to us. But that doesn’t give their opinions about how to run the church a higher priority.

When I started in ministry, I spent too much time reacting to every needy person (real or imagined) and I allowed the chronically needy to suck me dry.

I believe this at least some of what Jesus was referring to when he told the disciples “the poor you will always have with you”. It wasn’t about ignoring people with real needs. It was a reminder that some needs will never go away this side of heaven, so we have to prioritize how we respond to those needs in order to make sure the right things get done. Including, as Jesus taught us, prioritizing worship.

 

  • The Whiners

The volume and frequency of a person’s complaints does not give their opinion greater credibility. In fact, if we give in to the whiners, we teach people that whining works.

 

  • People with Titles or Positions

People with titles and/or positions actually do have a some significant say in my church. But I don’t give their opinion greater weight because they have a title. They earned the title because their opinion has greater weight.

In our church, people don’t earn positions by seniority or politics. They earn positions of authority because they fit the #1 and #2 criteria on the above list – they’re mature, involved leaders.

If you’re dealing with people who believe their opinion matters because of their title, you may have to adapt to and work around some difficult situations. Pastors who have recently inherited dysfunctional churches often have a huge battle to fight in this arena.

Hold the meetings you’re required to hold. Listen to the people you’re required to listen to. Then find truly wise counsel to help you start changing the atmosphere of the church and its leadership paradigm.

Titles and wisdom don’t always go hand-in-hand.

 

Wisdom + Endurance = Effectiveness

Seeking wise counsel is a biblical mandate. But the key word in that is “wise”.

Effective leaders will learn (sometimes the hard way, like I did) who to learn from, who to invest in and who to ignore. Yes, ignore. Not ignore their personhood, but their whining.

Shortly after I arrived at my church over 21 years ago, one of the truly mature believers in the church pulled me aside and implored me, “Pastor, I know this is not an easy church to pastor. But please stay long enough so that the people who have come to this church after you outnumber the ones who were here before you. Build your own team. It may take a while, but if you outlast them, you can pastor this church well for a long time.”

He was right.

It took a long time. It wasn’t always easy. But the changes did come.

And it has been worth it.

 

So what do you think? What standards do you use to determine whose opinion should be given greater weight?

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(Oddball photo from Nina Matthews • Flickr • Creative Commons)

7 thoughts on “Effective Church Leaders Do Not Treat Everyone Equally”

  1. Karl, This post was a great. Coming into my first Pastorate of a rural church with a rich history dating back to the early 1900’s, I am learning who to listen to and who to smile and just nod at when being given “advice.” I am blessed with a great staff and leaders, but there are still some… Anyway, thank you for the encouragement and I appreciate all the posts to the many like myself in great small churches still making a difference in small communities.

  2. Malcolm Stevens

    Excellent thoughts. Whilst what you say is also applicable in large churches, it is in small churches that we rub shoulders personally with all these types. We have to become mult-skilled in developing inter-personal relationships that differ and can affect us personally

    1. You’re right, Malcolm. These principles apply in churches of all sizes, but the temptation to consider everyone’s opinion of equal value tends to be stronger in smaller ones for the very reason you mentioned.

  3. I was taught (by wise counsel and by a few bruises) that you don’t count votes, you “weigh” them. In particular, you want to pay attention to the “votes” of the early adapters and the influencers in the congregation. If you capture their imagination and fire their passions, they’ll lead the rest of the group in the way it needs to go (assuming that you, as the pastor, are correct on the issue in question).

    Keep up the good work, Karl. I wanna be like you when I grow up.

    1. That last sentence made me laugh, Bud. Thanks.

      That’s some wise counsel you received. And “you don’t count votes, you ‘weigh’ them” is a great way to phrase it.

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