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How is Ministry Leadership Unlike Business Leadership?
by Tom Goodman
November 13, 2008

I learn a lot from journals and books that focus on business leadership, but it requires a bit of translation.  Ministry leadership isn't exactly like business leadership.  Bill Hybels explains why in this 2007 column from Leadership Journal.


Leader's Insight: Yes, Ministry Leadership Is Complex
by Bill Hybels

My friend runs a company with about 3,000 employees.  He says he wants to relax after retirement and lead a church.  He said, "It doesn't have to be a Willow Creek-sized church.  Maybe just 7,000 or 8,000 with some growth potential."  I told him that leading a church would ruin his retirement, because the church demands a higher and more complex form of leadership than business does.  In fact, I believe the church is the most leadership-intensive enterprise in society.

I've been on both sides.  Running a business is challenging, but the leader of a company has a clearly defined playing field and enormous leverage with his or her employees.  The business leader delivers a product or service through paid staff who either get it done or get replaced.

Church leadership is far more complex than that.  The redeeming and rebuilding of human lives is exceedingly more difficult than building widgets or delivering predictable services.  Here's why:

  1. Every life requires a custom mold.

    You don't stop the line in a factory every time a product comes down it.  In church work, we're developing individual, custom-made lives.  We stop the line for every life.

    I've read books about Napoleon, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton.  They were all the great military leaders.  I don't want to minimize their capabilities or the courage it takes to charge a hill in time of battle, but I've wondered, What would it be like for some of those leaders to have to work it out with deacons before they charged up a hill?  How well would they do if they had to subject their plans to a vote involving the very people they're going to lead up the hill?  How would the whole military system work if you took away the leadership leverage of the court-martial?

    Anyone could build a church with that kind of leverage!  I can hear the generals now:  "Teach a Sunday school class or go to the brig."  "You call that an offering?  Give me fifty push-ups right now."  That's leverage!
  2. The church is utterly voluntary.

    But in the final analysis, we have little or no leverage, no real power over anybody we lead.  At Willow Creek we've had people attend our services week after week, create trouble throughout the church, and tap every resource we have.  Then, when they cross one too many lines and the elders bring correction or discipline, they bail out of the church or even sue.

    To mobilize an utterly volunteer organization requires the highest kind of leadership.  We cannot compel people; we must call them.  One great writer about leadership says, "Most people are just waiting for someone to call them out so they can rise above their petty preoccupations."

    I used to play on a park district touch football team led by Don Cousins, my associate pastor for 17 years.  We played against construction workers who came after work, semi-inebriated, with the sole purpose of hurting people.  In one game, my job was to try to sack the quarterback; I lined up across from a guy who was supposed to prevent me from doing that.  I thought, I'm going to run right over the top of you.  I was breathing hard, getting all pumped, when I looked up.  This guy's eyes were bloodshot, and he was drooling.  I thought, Maybe I'll just drop back in case the quarterback passes this time.

    We were smaller than most of our opponents, but we won almost every game we played.  Don Cousins led that team.  At the end of the season, if we had said, "Anybody want to play next season under the leadership of Don Cousins?" every person in the league would have signed on.
  3. The church is utterly altruistic.

    When leading a business, you can hire a bright, energetic, young employee and say, "Here's our vision.  Here's your part in it.  Here's your salary, your perks, your car, your phone, your fax, your computer, your secretary, your office, your vacation plan.  If you work hard, in five or eight years we're going to make you a partner or invite you into the profit-sharing plan.  Down the road, you'll probably make big money.  There will be more perks, more time off.  And when we sell this place in fifteen or twenty years, we're all going to walk away transcendently wealthy.  Are you interested?"

    Who wouldn't be?

    But as church leaders, what do we tell prospective church members?  "You're a depraved, degenerate sinner who's in trouble for all eternity unless you get squared away with Christ."  (And that's the good news.  We call it the gospel.)

    Then we say, "We're going to ask you to commit five or six hours a week to service and two or three additional hours for training and discipleship.  We're going to ask you to get in a small group where your character flaws are going to get exposed and chiseled at.  We're going to ask you to come under the authority of the elders of the church and give a minimum of 10 percent of your money.  Oh, yeah, you get no parking place, no reserved seats, no special privileges, no voting rights, no vacation or retirement program.  You serve till you die.  But trust us:  God's going to make it right in eternity."

    In church work, people must be motivated internally.  The Scripture says unless the Lord builds the house, unless people have an internal want-to, leaders have no power, no leverage, no buttons to push.

    When business people in our churches give free advice -- how we should be doing it right -- we need to say, with no malice, "It's not that easy, and it's not the same.  It's apples and oranges."
  4. The church has the highest calling.

    We can no longer afford to leave people leaderless in the arena of the church.  For the church ever to reach its redemptive, life-giving potential, it must be well led.  It must be powerfully envisioned, strategically focused, and internally aligned.  Members must be motivated; values must be established and enforced.  Resources need to be leveraged.

    May the church be the one place where people who come out of leaderless homes and schools and jobs and athletic teams discover, maybe for the first time in their lives, the excitement of being valued, of being included, of being told that they are indispensable for the achievement of a common vision.

    These things are the business of leaders.  Which is why Paul cried out in Romans 12:8, "Men and women, if you've been given the gift of leadership, for God's sake, lead."  For the world's sake, lead.  For the sake of lost people, lead.

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