June 2002
Best Practices of Ministry

Characteristics of Effective Congregational Leader

The issues of leadership that were often raised in the Zacchaeus Project discussions led to initiation of the Emmaus Project. Named for the man who got up in a tree to get a better view of Jesus, the Zacchaeus Project involved focus groups at over 250 congregations, including about 2000 participants in nine diverse dioceses.

The Emmaus Project picks up on the biblical theme that “we have met Jesus on the road,” and that encounter has turned us in a new direction. That direction examines leadership practices in congregations in four additional judicatories, seeking to learn more about what makes for effective leaders and teamwork in carrying out the mission of the church.

A clear sense of mission
The first thing we have found is the importance of a clear sense of mission or vocation, a shared sense of being called by God to some form of service or ministry. Local leaders take the initiative, articulate
issues, and invite open discussion of them.

When the matter was ambiguous or not clearly defined in the minds of those who cared about it, a phase of group discernment and clarification was necessary. “We reflected together and prayed about what was facing us, what gifts we had to use, who we are, and what was God calling us to do and be,” explained one respondent. Drawing upon such considerations, they came to agree on a shared vocation, purpose or mission that set forth their intentions for the future.

No superficial conclusions
When differences in values and intentions arose, effective leaders facilitated thoughtful adaptive work on them by the group rather than settling for easy and superficial conclusions. Later success depended on making sure all views were heard and respected and that the concluding statement of mission was acceptable and motivating to all.

Tasks follow defined mission
With a sense of shared mission in place, teams moved to identify the particular tasks needed to be done to accomplish their intentions. “We set out what we wanted to accomplish and what evidence of success would look like,” explained another respondent. “Then we set clear work assignments and timetables, based on the various talents and gifts of participants. There were some gaps, so we knew we would have to recruit other volunteers to join us.”

Specifying tasks, allocating them to people for implementation, and devising ways to coordinate efforts and communicate progress are essential components for effective action. Effective leaders made sure that everyone understood what was expected, how the work made use of their gifts, and how they linked to the group’s overall vocation, goals and commitments.

Differentiating lay and clergy roles
Often these groups had worked on differentiating lay and clergy roles to ensure that responsibilities and expectations were understood by all. In many cases, the sense of organizational structure was horizontal or collegial, rather than vertical, with clergy and judicatory leaders seen as expert resources rather than controllers.

Recognizing they also needed resources from beyond themselves, many developed networks of relationships with a variety of sources, from judicatory staff and leaders of other congregations to national para-church organizations (such as the Alban Institute, Listening Hearts Ministries, the Alpha program, the Willow Creek Association, Stephen Ministry, Total Ministry Development, Cursillo, and others). Learning materials, program ideas, speakers, and mutual support and encouragement were among the resources exchanged in these networks.

Taking problems back to the group
As implementation of their work proceeded, leaders maintained regular contact with all participants. They looked for ways to recognize and celebrate successes. Recognizing that movement and change often can provoke anxiety, leaders listened appreciatively to concerns and supported initiative, creativity and innovation in dealing with challenges.

And rather than trying to fix the inevitable problems along the way, good leaders took them back to the group for prayerful consideration and for exploration of mutually acceptable solutions. This helped avoid slipping into blaming or scapegoating individuals when things got difficult.

Leaders are renewed
Along the way, leaders monitored the impacts of the projects with the intended beneficiaries as well as upon the group itself. They helped their teams grow in effectiveness by identifying successes and barriers, gaps needing attention, and possible steps for improving their efforts. And in the course of these tasks, they found renewed commitment to their work, recognizing themselves and others as living out their gifts and valuesthrough their ministry, being connected to their religious community, deepening spiritually, and evoking the gifts and ministries of others.

“At its core,” reflected one senior respondent, “learning to lead is a shared process of formation. It includes attending to the development of others’ skills and spirituality as well as our own, understanding their motivations and concerns, empowering them, encouraging them to stretch, take risks, stay faithful to the mission, and learn from attending to the results of our efforts together.”

Thomas P. Holland, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Work and Director of the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Georgia. A member and former warden of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens, Georgia, he is the author of Building Effective Boards for Religious Organizations: A Handbook for Trustees, Presidents and Church Leaders (Jossey-Bass, 2000) and numerous other publications.

This article is part of the June 2002 Vestry Papers issue on Best Practices of Ministry