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Openness and trust in congregational and synodical leadership.

This article is based primarily on insights from the behavioral sciences. Seminal research by two psychologists, initially reported in the Harvard Business Review in 1958, demonstrated that specific leadership styles may result in distinguishable effects on the behavior of followers. (1) The leadership style of a pastor or a bishop, for example, may have a discernible effect on a congregation or a group within a congregation. In this essay a number of discernible factors are identified, with particular focus on the trust level. We recognize, of course, that the gospel, and not management skills, is ultimately responsible for the reform of the church.

Our attention here is not on congregations or synods where trust is already severely broken, where conflict has become bitter and deeply disruptive, or where antagonists have organized against the leadership. Such conditions may necessitate a different approach than is proposed here. However, it is important to note that conflict is always present to some degree within both congregations and synods.

Here we have in mind situations that are reasonably healthy--where pastor, bishop, and people are working relatively well together--yet things could be much better. We focus on change that could tilt the church toward a greater sense of community, increased commitment to the church's mission, and a more lively outreach, while lessening the presence or possibility of disruptive conflict. In short, the goal is to raise the trust level among all the people and to experience not just good congregations but great congregations, not just good synods but great synods. In the long run, our concern is to change the culture of congregations and of synods toward a higher level of mutual trust.

While we focus on the congregation, specifically relations between pastor/church leaders and the people, we concurrently reflect on relations between bishops and pastors, synods, and congregations. The one affects the other. Indeed, this subject and approach have crossovers to various organizations, including the family, specifically parent-child relations. Some may find insight that transfers to relationships in the secular work place.

A systems approach

An organization like a congregation, synod, or family can be viewed as a holistic unit, a system. The multiplicity of human relationships in an organization are interrelated; they are best illustrated by a circle with identifiable entry points. We work here with four entry points: (1) leaders/personnel; (2) structure; (3) feeling tone; (4) purpose/reason for being.

When observing a congregation from these entry points, one can first look at a "hard side," then a "soft side."

Hard side (published, publicly stated):

1. Leaders: the called or elected personnel.

2. Structure: the constitution; organizational charts.

3. Feeling tone: "a friendly church," a "congregation with heart," etc.

4. Purpose: theological stance, stated goals, approved objectives.

Soft side (not publicly stated; subtle yet real):

1. Leaders: nonelected persons to whom special groups look for direction in certain circumstances.

2. Structure: underground networks of persons on the phone to others when a sensitive subject is before the congregation.

3. Feeling tone: what is said (in the parking lot, at coffee hour, to friends and neighbors) that identifies your church or its leadership: "cold," "lots of conflict," "I don't trust them," "We really are a family at St. John's."

4. Purpose: reasons expressed to others for belonging to the church. Example: "My family has long attended here."

Analysis. The closer the hard and soft sides are to each other, the more likely you have a healthy congregation/organization. The more distant the two sides are from each other, the more likely you are in conflict or likely to experience serious strife. Where openness and trust are relatively high, generally the hard and soft sides are close together. Where distrust and a lack of openness prevail, be cautious!

When one begins to tamper with a major change in one of these entry points, one may expect to find consequences in other parts of the organization. For instance, when things are not going well, some within the church may seek to remove the pastor as a solution to a parish problem. If they succeed in that effort, they may discover that they have created a deep and often lasting bitterness (feeling tone) among a significant number of members that will disrupt the congregation for years.

Leadership styles and their effects (2)

Entry points for this article are primarily feeling tone (the level of openness and trust) and leaders (pastors, bishops, dominant groups) that we assume are the keys to initiating a change in the level of trust within congregations and synods. The primary entry point for altering the feeling tone (trust) lies with the leadership. This may or may not be the called/elected/appointed leadership, but one generally hopes it is. In a congregation, the initial focus is generally on the pastor, and the dominant group is usually the congregation council.

One window for observation is the relationship between pastor and congregation council. What happens there, especially under stress, often is reflected throughout the congregation. In a synod, such a window is the relationship of the bishop and staff to a congregation in the call process. The call process raises a lot of anxiety. Not least is the fear that the bishop does not really know us and we will therefore be saddled with a poor pastoral match for years. Or a congregation may be very anxious about what is going to happen when a pastor has been charged with some inappropriate behavior. The interventions by bishop and staff in both instances will significantly shape the congregations's trust level and likely flavor the quality of the congregation's relations to the synod.

People respond to a leader's style based on their perceptions, not on how the leader defines her role or leadership. A pastor and council or a bishop and staff may collectively develop a leadership style that becomes clearly perceived by a follower group quite differently than any self-perception. We can discern four recognizable leadership styles and their resulting effects on followers: coercive authoritarian, benevolent authoritarian, consultative, and collaborative. A style of leadership generally becomes locked in the minds of followers not in times of ease but in times of stress, especially through interaction around conflicted opinions.

Coercive authoritarian leadership uses force to maintain control. Examples include slandering persons with whom the leader has differences, betraying confidences, intimidating, and not speaking truthfully. This invariably leads to fear and distrust and congregational discord.

Rensis Likert's research has demonstrated that followers judge the vast majority of leaders as benevolent authoritarians. Those who have struggled with their pastor over sharply different viewpoints will tend to identify their leader as controlling, and this perception may over time permeate the whole congregation. We expect our leaders to be strong persons when placed in charge of an organization. Leaders often assume that "out there" are some disagreeing, disagreeable people (generally true). Therefore, leaders tend to be on guard and project an image of strength. Leaders also assume that they are to lead in spite of opposition.

We may see our situation as "us versus them" especially on conflicted issues. We need to take our stand against them since they are against us. The benevolent authoritarian cares for people but is caught between caring and being threatened by opposition, especially as differences develop. Very simply, many of us pastors are perceived as being controlling, even manipulative, when caught in a conflicted situation. Leaders are then seen to be closed-minded, resulting in a lowering or loss of trust.

One reason that even "liberal" clergy may be perceived as controlling is expectation. Conservative persons will generally not speak of themselves as being open-minded, while, among more liberal persons, if not stated it is assumed one is open-minded. However, among most of us (self-assumed) liberal clergy or (self-assumed) open-minded clergy, sharp differences often arise between our assumed open-mindedness and a congregation or a group that opposes us.

Most of us pastors carry into our office extensive training in biblical, historical, and pastoral theology. In conflicted situations, we may convey an apparently absolute authority on matters beyond the Office of the Keys--at least as perceived by those who may disagree with us. Frustration rises: How can I argue with my pastor? Look at his degrees. Again, many of us pastors would like to sidestep this, but it has become clear that a self-assumed "liberal clergy person" in interactive relations will often appear as rigid in her positions as a "conservative clergy person." The sin of rigidness appears to be distributed equally.

Consultative is generally understood as a one-on-one relationship. When a pastor or bishop engages others as equals with whom there is disagreement, when the follower genuinely perceives that the leader is relating as a peer, a different feeling tone will likely be registered. Among those who have learned this skill, it engenders a higher level of trust where they are serving. It is important, however, to sustain this practice with all and not just a few.

My own inclination has often been to avoid sitting down for a one-on-one conversation with the person with whom I know I have strong differences. And when I have engaged in such conversations, my approach has often been to show the other how wrong he is and how right I am. Of course, I make myself appear to be listening, but I am not really; as the person talks, I am already organizing my response. Yes, I know better. I have been around long enough to know that if I can discipline myself and genuinely listen, better relations result, and we can move ahead more easily. To do this I must make sure we are meeting at a time that is conducive for both of us to talk freely and listen carefully--not in the church narthex following the service or in a council meeting.

Council meetings require careful and skillful listening of many voices, which is difficult. However, when a conflicted issue is on the agenda it may be possible to shape perspectives in a healthier direction. The chair who "controls" the meeting (an aptitude we often favor to get the meeting done on time) may put down the opposition: "We don't have time for that here." Can the chair of the council, in the heat of debate, avoid the tendency to put down opposition and instead honor the right of dissent and even insist that a dissenting voice be heard? The dissenter must be honored with a platform from which to speak freely, assuming she is not merely being obstreperous. The chair need not give strength to the opponent's position but should give strength to the opponent's right to speak and provide the time needed to be heard. The chair may suggest that the vote be delayed to the next meeting and assure the dissenter that someone will sit with him to gain an understanding of this position so that it can be reported back at the next meeting.


Can leaders use their power in reverse order--to turn the power often used to control or limit discussion as power for free and open conversation? To do this, the chair and the council must work at getting the meeting's priorities in right order: spend limited time on what is noncontroversial and more time on delicate matters either as a group or in one-on-one conversation.

When an opposing point of view is given fairness in deliberations, its advocates are less likely to simmer with anger behind the scene, negatively affecting others. Leaders need to feel the negative emotions when a minority perceives the tyranny of the majority. While this awareness ought not to discourage decisions by the majority, it does suggest the necessity to give honor to the minority, to the dissenter. The dissenter may have an original insight, ultimately of significant value to the group.

While consultative leadership is one on one, collaborative leadership assumes that it is a group that is moving toward a decision. In being collaborative, all work toward consensus. The key word is toward. While an absolute consensus on a controversial issue is seldom achievable, this ought not to discourage every effort to achieve such in a group's struggle with a crucial matter. In the end, a vote usually must be taken.

In an authoritarian style, one assumes that correct knowledge and wisdom reside in the person of the leader where major decisions should be made (an assumption of the leader, often supported by some or even many of the followers). In the consultative style, there is the assumption that important information and wisdom are to be found in individuals beyond the leader in addition to the leader. The input of others is necessary before making decisions. Competence and insight are genuinely recognized in others as well as in oneself.

Collaboration should not become just a technique by which one gets a group to agree or accept a leader's or a council's plan. It must be an authentic effort to search the mind of the congregation to creatively bring insight and resolution to a problem or an opportunity. It is time consuming and ought to be approached selectively and the process well planned.

How does one know what issues or subjects need to be processed through collaboration, or, for that matter, when to consult? Let us be clear: A leader should be free a great deal of the time to proceed unilaterally. However, it is the genius of a great leader to know when to act unilaterally, when to consult, and when to collaborate. When in doubt on how to proceed, consult with persons related to the issue--and be sure to consult various viewpoints.

A few years ago, while I was serving as an interim pastor, the congregation council felt strongly that the parsonage should be sold. They had carefully studied the matter and obtained a responsible engineer's review of the building and several realtor reports. However, they also knew that there was a sizeable group within the congregation who were against the sale. With the annual congregation meeting approaching, it was proposed that they call for a resolution for its sale anyway and bite the bitter bullet.

Then another voice was heard: Why not use the annual meeting to share the fact that the council had serious thoughts about selling the property and a special meeting be called to decide this question a month later? In the meantime, all the information obtained by the council would be available to the membership, and on several Sundays following worship the parsonage would be open for an inspection by all.

This plan was approved. At the special meeting there was informed discussion from all sides; then the motion was called, and a vote approved it 70 to 30. Though there were losers, no one seemed to leave the meeting bitter. Had it been pushed through at the annual meeting, it may have passed--but with a narrower margin, and many would likely have left very unhappy.

A collaborative leadership style is never laissez-faire, as though the leader need not lead. Nor does it deprive the pastor of having a strong position on an issue. It takes courage to allow a position to be openly tested in an arena of free-flowing viewpoints. It places the leader in a vulnerable, risky position, exposed to the possibility of being shown to be wrong. But if the leader is willing to listen and to learn from others, and then willing to change her position when new insights are obtained, the group also is often willing to change. The opposite is just as true--a group is less likely to change if it perceives the leader as obstinate.

In any stressful meeting, the chair or moderator must exercise extreme fairness in the deliberation. Ground rules for fairness by all parties must be clearly understood. A person who chairs fairly is more likely to be empowered by the group to rule out of order those who are beyond the rules of agreement.

Let us consider several issues and see how they are handled in the various leadership styles just described.

How are communications handled?

Authoritarian: Opinions, information, and instruction flow from top down. Preaching may be experienced as a monologue. There is little or no encouragement for response from followers, especially on sensitive issues. In my first parish, I once stepped before the choir in rehearsal and informed them that I did not wish them to use a choral piece that I felt was inappropriate. After making my statement, I quickly headed for the door. I was afraid and did not want to become entangled in their emotional response.

Consultative: Pastor and people communicate freely and openly one on one on information and insight relative to church business and mission. In church publications, officers are identified to whom one should speak about a conflicted issue facing the council. People are encouraged to speak up and know to whom to direct their concerns, avoiding gossip and griping. Preaching is experienced as a mutual conversation or at least as an invitation to a conversation.

Collaborative: Communication moves openly and freely in many directions. Leaders encourage feedback and give evidence of acting upon feedback. In fact, there is an empowering of people to share their insights and feelings about hot-button issues. It is one thing to say, Let me know what you think. It is another to provide a feedback instrument with which people can easily and clearly express themselves.

We leaders need to brace ourselves for frank expressions that are insightful but may leave us uncomfortable. We may learn things we did not expect but are better off knowing. And it is better that the concerns are directed to us as leaders than to others about us and our work in parking-lot conversations. It should be known throughout the congregation that we genuinely want to hear from any disturbed or concerned member. However, it should be clear that unsigned letters regarding our ministry are unacceptable.

Once in a while a member or group within the church proposes a survey or, worse, undertakes a survey of the congregation without formal approval. Generally these are loaded questions about the pastor's leadership. Every effort should be made to forbid such from taking place. Surveys proposed with an intent to prove a point should be seen differently from objective surveys designed to gather considered opinions in the interest of all. When a group or a person is pushing for a survey, we might well step back and ask: Is this a sign of profound frustration that open discussion has not been occurring? In my experience this is most likely to happen where there is no functioning Mutual Ministry Committee in which concerns about the leadership can be discussed openly. While such a committee must function with confidentiality, its presence can assure the congregation and concerned individuals that specific requests are being addressed and that frank and open exchange does take place.

Central to collaborative leadership is feedback, a significant form of intragroup communication. It may be offered in conversation or in print. In a survey of a group or the whole membership, one ought not to expect to sign one's name. Anonymity simply makes for a more honest response. However, unless one genuinely requests feedback and is personally conditioned to receive and internalize what comes back, and willing to share the results with those who participated, it is of little value. A leader needs to convey an open and sincere invitation for feedback, not see it as a threat to leadership.

One of the sensitive issues in church life where feedback is badly needed is in the call process. This is a delicate matter involving the bishop's office, the call committee, the congregation council, and the whole congregation. Because so much is at stake for the church at large, the congregation, and pastors themselves, every effort should be made to provide appropriate feedback through surveys, focus groups, and impartial interviewing of participants. In fact, I would hope that synod offices would lead the way in inviting feedback on their own role and in helping congregations to assess how they themselves functioned in this transitional process.

How do leaders identify themselves?

Authoritarian leaders speak frequently in the first person: "I." They refer to the followers as "they" and often speak of "my" congregation or "my" synod. Under such leadership, people speak of the congregation or synod as "they," indicating a sense of distance.

Collaborative leaders and people identify themselves as "We."

Where is unity to be found?

In the authoritarian leadership style, the unity ultimately lies with the leader, the pastor who is expected to have the knowledge that gives meaning and purpose to the church. Thus, members are expected to stand with their pastor.

There is worthwhile tradition here. In the history of the church, the bishop became the public sign and symbol of the church's unity. In the best Lutheran understanding of this sign and symbol, the bishop expresses publicly the apostolic tradition of the church. The bishop is the one who proclaims publicly and clearly the gospel. The office of bishop is a teaching office. Is not the pastor of the congregation the official spokesperson of the same apostolic tradition? Also, to the bishop/pastor God has given the Office of the Keys, to forgive sins to the penitent and withhold forgiveness of the unrepentant; that is, to preach both law and gospel.

Good! Keep that in our churches, but what is the pastor's and bishop's authority in other matters, and how should that authority to be managed? I think I was within my authority in my first church when I objected to a choral piece that was an inappropriate expression of the faith. My failure was the manner in which I objected to its use. I made no effort to explain my point or to invite the opinion of the choir members. Nor did I have a prior discussion with the choir director.

There are gray areas in the pastor's and bishop's authority even with regard to theology. Though bishop and pastor rightfully occupy the public teaching office of the church, their theology is never infallible; here certainly they need to be open to critical theological concerns of other clergy and laity. As we teach and preach the gospel, we need to be open and listening. Can others help me? Indeed, they can help me hold forth more clearly the cross of Christ, which truly unifies the church..

How does one initiate new programs or new ideas?

Authoritarian leaders assume that the pastor must be the "mover," must initiate and promote programs. When members make proposals, it may be seen as a threat to their leadership.

Collaborative leadership encourages widespread participation in the initiation and promotion of programs and the stimulation of people's ideas and imagination for mission and ministry. There are established processes for review, affirmation, and support for various ministries initiated by persons or groups within the congregation.

Pastors and lay leaders often complain that "they," the congregation, are lethargic. "They" are so difficult to arouse to action. Adult Bible studies draw only a few, calls for work projects attract the same volunteers year after year, and efforts for an every-member visitation are abandoned because an inadequate number volunteer as visitors. Attendance at worship may be good, but an audit of the biblical and confessional knowledge of the membership would reveal considerable ignorance.

In educational circles, they say that the expectation of the teacher regarding the competence level of the students will significantly determinate the level of achievement in a given year. Thus, the teacher who assumes that her students are below level in ability will teach accordingly. If the teacher genuinely believes her students are capable of achieving higher levels, the results will be considerably different, even though the students in both classes are of equal ability.

The pastor or leader who concludes that the membership is lethargic will discover that the people respond accordingly. This is a typical leadership pattern representative of the benevolent authoritarian. With a different mindset, a different paradigm, in which the leadership genuinely concludes that all are together in mission, that all are both capable and committed to grow in a multiplicity of ways, results may be different. In other words, authoritarian leadership results in a lack of initiative, certainly less initiative among the people, while a movement toward a culture of collaboration will generally result in far greater self-initiative throughout the congregation.

Authoritarian leadership breeds a dependency relationship of the people to the leader. The pastor knows the Bible; we will simply continue to listen to him (until, that is, she or he takes a position with which we are uncomfortable). The culture in the collaborative congregation simply insists that we need to support each other, and we all need to be as eager to learn about and witness to the faith. We are all capable of learning and serving. A significant key lies with the attitude of the leadership toward the people. This is crucial in initiating change, even if the congregation has been conditioned over many years to sit back and let others do the work. To alter the culture may take a considerable period of time, but it is possible.

To whom and to what is conflict directed?

In authoritarian leadership, conflict generally focuses on the leader/pastor; it is person-centered, difficult to manage, and often destructive. One simple reason to move authentically beyond authoritarian leadership is that pastors and their families often cannot endure the conflict when it centers upon them.

In collaborative leadership conflict focuses on issues, less on persons, and it can be energizing. As a group matures in its collaborative abilities, the group will (one hopes and prays) protect leaders from unfair attacks. The congregation needs to be nurtured in this skill and commitment.


"Servant leadership" is a major topic in management literature today, but criticism of this slogan in secular management theory often asks how one gets motivated to become such a leader. For the Christian, there is a specific but often forgotten approach. To move beyond self-interest and toward others--does it not begin in the morning with the washing of our face, recalling our baptism as Luther suggested, being cleansed by the Word and strengthened for service? Luther so clearly spelled the Christian life: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." Faith calls for daily and sustained movement beyond benevolent authoritarian leadership toward a more open and inclusive ministry.

Presently the bible of corporate executives is a book by Jim Collins titled Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001). It is a result of major research that compiled and analyzed financial data that identifies the major "good" companies and those that are clearly seen, in distinction, as "great" companies, and how some "good" companies became "great" companies. The study, insists Collins, did not initially intend to deal with CEOs, that is, with the character and the management styles of those running these organizations. However, once the data were assembled and the staff gathered to analyze their material, an unexpected distinction between the CEOs in the two groups became clearly evident. Says Collins: Those leading the "great" companies were persons who "channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company." It is not that these "leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious--but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves" (p. 21). He compares the insistence on "'we' [spoken by "great" leaders] in contrast to the very 'I' centric styles of those in comparison [good] leaders." He also says: "Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy--these leaders--are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar" (p. 13).

Pastors will benefit from reading the first two chapters of this book. These important chapters pertaining to leadership say a lot about the need to move beyond being merely a benevolent authoritarian, merely a "good pastor," toward something greater--and always in Christ.

Paul F. Goetting

Worcester, Massachusetts

1. The authors, Warren H. Schmidt and Robert Tannenbaum, were clinical psychologists. Schmidt, a graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, with a Ph. D. from Washington University, spent most of his career on the faculty at UCLA, teaching and providing services to corporate management. He maintained his clergy status in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod until the mid-1970s. He won a Hollywood Oscar for his script Is It Always Right to Be Right? He lives in retirement in the Los Angeles area.

2. For further information see Rensis Likert, The Patterns of Management (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), and New Ways of Managing Conflict (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).
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Author:Goetting, Paul F.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
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