Navigating the leadership culture

By Paul Clark

I recently hired a young man who will be entering his first experience in vocational church ministry. He will be assuming the role of day-to-day operations for our church, overseeing administration, finances and facilities. He’s a sharp young guy with a great graduate education and all the tools to be successful in church management. But he lacks one thing: seasoning. He is inexperienced in navigating the leadership culture of a large church. He can easily master the spreadsheets and policy manuals, but can he make the momentary soft decisions that sometimes make the difference between success and failure?

To help him reduce the learning curve, I spent some time with him going over a list of leadership axioms that are important at Fairhaven Church. These are qualities or principles that we look for from our lead staff. They help us to have a clear set of behavioral expectations that make it easier to trust each other and work well together. Below is a partial list of what we’ve been discussing.

No surprises. Don’t let leadership be surprised by something that they should have been forewarned about. If you suspect an issue, problem or looming decision might be important for leadership to be aware of, err on the side of caution and communicate up the ladder. That even applies to good news! No leader likes to be surprised by something significant happening in their own organization.

Bad news never gets better with age. Share it quickly. Finances, cash flow, personnel, facilities problems – anything negative needs to be communicated quickly, especially anything from a legal or community reputation perspective. Get mistakes out in the open quickly.

Avoid raising contentious issues in a public setting. Do not raise critical issues in public, i.e. a staff meeting or a lead team meeting, before you have discussed it with leadership in private. As the staff gets bigger, public debate on an issue gets more problematic.

Do not communicate with board members, except through the lead pastor. Don’t e-mail or call board members without first discussing it or getting permission from leadership. The lead pastor needs to be the funnel for communicating with board members and is justifiably protective of that role and his relationship with them. The need for communicating with “one voice” is essential to good leadership and that “voice” should be the lead pastor.

Use data and facts, not feelings. Communicate your ideas with objectivity, data and facts. Leadership does not respond well to subjective feelings or second- or third-person information. Never default to the old, “people are saying” rationale for an idea. People who use feelings, impressions or “people are saying” anecdotal information lose their credibility on an issue because they haven’t taken the time to think through an objective rationale.

Precision and great execution make us tick. Whatever you do, do it with excellence. No matter what you are producing or accomplishing, give it your best effort toward professionalism.

“Precedent” is vital. Always think about the precedent you are setting. Whenever you are asked to do something that is outside of a policy or in some kind of “grey” area, pause and think about the precedent. Any action you take must translate to everyone. In a church of 8,000 people, policies and practices have to be applicable for everyone – or you’ll drive yourself insane trying to evaluate each unique situation and you’ll hurt your own reputation.

Own decisions. Always take ownership of leadership decisions. Even if you did not agree, present the decision to staff and congregants as if you are fully onboard. Never communicate issues or decisions by saying, “The Pastor decided…” or “They decided…”

Paul Clark is pastor of ministry environments/operations at Fairhaven Church, Centerville, OH. He has served in the areas of church administration and operations for 18 years. His passion is to translate great vision into organizational reality, sharing his thoughts and ideas at and @paultclark Twitter account.


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