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Glue and Inspiration

It's so frustrating," lamented one pastor, "how my church officers can make a decision, but nothing happens." And another pastor chimed in, "My board members agree on a plan one month, then a month or two later change their minds--without any discussion!" Someone else complained about the "parking-lot powerbrokers" who run the church but are not even on a board.

These pastors greeted with suspicion my suggestion that they get help from someone who teaches management skills. "The problem with most church management books," one church leader announced, "is that they are written by 'educated outsiders' who don't know us, and don't think they need to." Knowing the people of the parish is of course the key to leadership, management and administration. But this knowledge does not automatically generate good management. Something more is required in order to develop a viable approach to church administration. Here are some management models I have seen in the field.

The Family Model: Some churches operate as extended families, and expect a family-style leadership-that is, a gathering of strong personalities who know each other so well that they already agree on the basics and can fight (yes, battle) over the little stuff. One pastor defined planning in his small church as "two hours of small talk followed by five minutes of deciding that we would do the program the way we always did." From a managerial perspective, this style is difficult for outsiders to join, but emotionally and personally satisfying for those who belong to the family.

The Formal Model: Some churches do it by the book, almost too much so. For some well-man-aged churches, planning itself is the program. They invest so much energy in making decisions that they have little left to carry out the program.

Or they sometimes put so much trust in the professional leader that they won't act without permission. One large Methodist congregation wanted to develop an educational program, but hesitated to do so without professional guidance; however, they couldn't get guidance until they made a decision to hire the professional. A Presbyterian congregation was so anxious for proper advice that they hired two consultants, who did not agree--and the committee that invited them argued for months on the merits of the two consultants and their positions. Well-managed congregations need to be prodded to move on into ministry-even if, as one church leader said, "it feels like we are building the airplane while flying."up

Ethnic Models: Many ethnic congregations take their management style from their immigrant heritage or cultural traditions, like the Herr Pastor of the German Lutheran heritage or the Preacher of the black Baptist tradition. Although their public posture is the strength of centralized authority, such pastors must quietly maintain a network of close allies and counselors, and the constant reassurance of a congregation committed to follow where they lead.

When these familial, formal and cultural/ethnic styles conflict, the result is too often frustration and alienation. Leaders with liberal educations often assume too simply that democratic procedures encourage full and equal access to decision-making. In a family or ethnic congregation, such dogmatic democracy may seem inappropriate or even offensive to the intimate and unspoken bonds that hold them together. When I encouraged one ethnic Congregation to vote on a wide variety of possible mission priorities, one church mother challenged me: "In your home, do your children vote?"

She strongly believed that church leaders, like parents, must not avoid their responsibilities to make decisions for the larger "church family."

Effective cross-cultural management often has a significant but unnoticed person working behind the scenes. My colleagues and I have called these "bridge people," who mediate from one culture to another, translating and interpreting the strengths of one style into the language of another. In one partnership between a family-style black Baptist Pentecostal congregation and a formal managerial mainline church, the treasurer translated the best of each style so that it could be understood by the other. In the overheated feelings of a small town against a pacifist congregation, the bridge was provided by a reformed alcoholic G.I. who discovered in his suffering the importance of reconciliation. These unrecognized leaders make no headlines, but without their contributions cultures could not communicate.

Even within the church, the burden of providing guidance, glue and inspiration is spread out among the organizers, socializers and saints. The organizers put the programs together and keep them running. The socializers keep the juices of gossip and good stories circulating within the church. Both scholars and members have told me with a knowing smile, "A church without gossip is not worth attending." The saints are those wonderful people who represent the church, and when they support a project, it flies. We discovered that you can change the organizers relatively easily and you can find new socializers over time when you reknit the network of their friends. But you never replace the saints. As one pastor said, "You retire their number, and their influence lives on."

Many different models of management can work, based on who and where you are. Successful leadership depends at least as much on our empathy in the community as on the administrative skills we have to offer.

January-February 1995up




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