What are the challenges and joys of leadership?

Last year, Alan Wilson invited me to contribute to his Leadership Journey podcast. Alan is from Northern Ireland, and has been in pastoral ministry for many years, much of that time in Switzerland. He started interviewing leaders as part of his research for a DMin degree, and the podcast has now become a really useful resource. His interest is expressed on the About page of his blog:

If leaders are unlikely to drop from the sky, fully equipped with all the skills and character attributes necessary for the task of leadership, what kinds of things shape them to make them the leaders they eventually become?

I was happy to contribute, in part because I find myself discovering what I think by talking to others and answering their questions, but also because of an interview experience some years ago. I was asked ‘What kind of leader are you?’ and was given about three minutes to answer it, and it is a question I keep returning to, since there is so much to say about different aspects of leadership. (I didn’t get the job…!).

I found talking to Alan a very interesting experience, and was surprised at some of the themes that emerged so clearly.

In the discussion we covered some biographical material, so you might learn more about me and my life journey (if that is of interest to you…!). But other key issues emerge:

  • The double dynamic in my coming to faith—that Christian faith made sense of life and the world, but that it was mediated through encountering relationships with people who cared.
  • Understanding our own journey as we reflect on it and share it with others.
  • Other people can often see our gifts and callings more clearly that we can—so we need to listen to them, but conversely we need to help others see their gifts and callings too.
  • We grow in leadership as others invest time and energy in us—which also means that, as we grow in leadership, we need to take time to invest in others, and especially in those who are younger than us.
  • Leadership is always shared, always plural, in scripture, so we need to exercise our leadership in a context of teamwork and mutual accountability.
  • Vision is important; leaders need to see where God is calling us, and what the future might look like, but that always needs to be checked with others.
  • A vital quality for leaders is moral courage. We need to be willing to stand up and be counted, to take the risk of saying unpopular things at the right time, and to be honest with others.
  • Feedback is essential for growth in ministry and leadership. Learning to give good feedback, and give it well, is essential if we are to nurture others. And as leaders we can never move beyond the need to hear feedback from others, including those who are younger and less experienced than we are.
  • Christian leaders need to have a passion for reading, learning from, and encouraging others to read Scripture.
  • We all need to learn from the mistakes and experiences of others. But there is no substitute for making our own mistakes, however painful that is, and learning from it. The pain of failure and disappointment are often—perhaps always?—the times when we learn most.
  • I have had a number of experiences of serious disappointment. I am not sure I would ever have chosen any of them—and yet they are the things that God has used more powerfully than anything to teach me and lead me to grow.
  • A key lesson of leadership is patience when things are delayed.
  • Church growth is organic, and plants grow exponentially—growth usually comes as a proportion of what is already there. That means that (for plants and for churches) the earlier growth looks painfully slow, but it is worth waiting.
  • ‘Never trust a boxing coach who does not have a broken nose’.
  • A key aspect of helping people to engage with faith is lowering the unnecessary cultural barriers to their engagement.
  • I believe that all-age worship can be done, and done well—providing it is genuinely about all ages, and not just a time when we focus on children. We need to make things concrete, tangible and with practical application—and when we do that, it is often (older) men who appreciate it, a group which the church often finds it hard to engage with.
  • Living in community is a key aspect of Christian leadership.
  • God has guided me in a range of different ways. But about seven times in my life it has been through a very direct word, in an unmediated way. God has said things to me! So we need to be in a constant readiness to listen, even if this kind of direct word does not come very often.
  • One of the ways that people learn from Scripture and hear God speaking is by being confronted with difficult texts. If we make out that scripture is always easy and straightforward, we are shortchanging them.


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3 thoughts on “What are the challenges and joys of leadership?”

  1. This is all good stuff.

    The most important thing I have learnt about leadership is that if you are too big to be led – you are too little to lead.

  2. I wholly concur that “this is all good stuff”; the reason being that (this) Alan Wilson quietly yet thoroughly embodies all that he teaches.

  3. “Leadership is always shared, always plural, in scripture, so we need to exercise our leadership in a context of teamwork and mutual accountability.
    Vision is important; leaders need to see where God is calling us, and what the future might look like, but that always needs to be checked with others.”

    Thank you… In retirement I’ve worked with three churches who were (one way or another) in some kind of difficulty and this has sharpened up the importance of these questions for me. That’s along with the admission that I’m still learning from my own mistakes made when in stipendiary ministry.

    Is it that the ordained leader shares his/her leadership with others… as in the sharing initiated by the Bishop sharing his cure of souls or is that model wrong foundationally? How does this relate to local leadership (especially a pcc) and what’s the advisability or consequences of locating leadership elsewhere?

    If leadership is practised in a deeply team way what is it that churches are looking for when they change their vicar? Is the cleric merely a member of the team or important in some fundamental leadership way? Job descriptions often describe a Messiah or Saviour…

    I suspect that, in practice, many church leadership teams are the paid staff. “Vision” is assumed to arise there (by them, and others) and the church family looked to only to live that “vision” out rather to be part of shaping it in the first place. The latter takes longer and carries many risks but maybe has better outcomes and fewer casualties?

    Leadership can be a minefield but (mea culpa) sometimes as leaders we plant our own mines.


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