The biggest leadership distraction

distractionFollowers can bring distractions to leaders.

A few years ago, I received a phone call I’ll never forget. It was someone telling me a prominent and faithful church member had died suddenly. He was a doctor and well-respected in the community. The town was already talking about his passing. We huddled together as a staff. We prayed. We began to grieve. We ordered flowers. Then, we called his office to find out how we could serve them:

“We’re praying for you all during this time.”

“Uh, thanks, it’s real busy today. Flu season is in full swing.”

“Is there something we can do?”

“You could get your flu shots.”

“Well, what about the doc?”

“He already has his flu shot.”

“Umm… we’re sorry about the loss.”

“What loss?”

“You know, the doc.”

“Well, I’m not sure what you mean, but if you want to talk to the doc, then he’s right here. Do you want me to put him on the line?”

It wasn’t quite a resurrection, but it felt a bit like it. Whoever decided the doc was dead, we’ll never know. It was a half-day distraction; but, given the doc’s prognosis, we weren’t all that angry.

Much has been written about how leaders can reduce distractions from followers. Leaders must discern these time-wasters. Pastors especially can get sucked into the black hole of distractions. For example, I’ve learned I don’t need a key to the church thermostat. I’ve been on the roof of the church far too many times resetting the air-conditioning. It was a giant red lever. I’m not even sure what it did, but it worked. Some things are good to delegate.

You can get swept into these distractions if you’re not careful. But a more glaring — and far more damaging — distraction exists. Most leaders don’t even realize it.

The biggest leadership distraction is the one caused by the leader. I’ve been guilty of throwing out a few red herrings in my congregation. Everyone talks about them. Everyone looks at them. They stink. They are nasty distractions. Once out there, it’s difficult to take them back.

What forms do these distractions take? How do leaders generate them?

That one phrase in the sermon. On more than one occasion, I’ve let the wrong words fly out my mouth. I was tempted to snatch at the air as if I could grab them and cram them back into my pie hole. The wrong phrase at the wrong time can not only distract the congregation from your sermon, but it might keep them talking for weeks.

Camping on the wrong issue with the wrong crowd. I love to argue and debate. But, the wrong debate at the wrong time with the wrong crowd is like a giant car wreck. Everyone who passes by is looking, listening and paying attention. When followers start rubbernecking, then they’re not looking at the greater vision in front of them. Conversation carnage leaves casualties. Don’t wreck your leadership just to win a meaningless debate.

Using explosive terms. A random person in your church might get away with calling someone the south end of a north bound mule, but you won’t.

Not knowing hot issues in the local culture. A good way to eat your words is to start spouting off opinions on a subject that’s a hot topic in the community while having little knowledge of the issue.

Chasing strays. People will argue the most asinine points if you lead them down that road. If you’re a leader, then watch out for stray — or irrelevant — discussions, especially with your staff. It’s perhaps the most memorable conversation death spiral I’ve ever had.

I once spent an entire staff meeting (a couple hours) discussing the merits of circle versus square tables at an event. Such a hot debate occurred among the staff, I believe a yelling match arose between the worship pastor and the student pastor. It was a women’s event. They weren’t even attending. The event didn’t happen. And, I dislike square tables to this day.

Sam_Rainer_HeadshotsFEA lot gets said about followers that create distractions. Those distractions exist. And, they can be great time-wasters. The greater distraction, however, is the one created by the leader.

Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (, a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog,, where this blog post originally



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