There are at least five reasons why the pastors of plateaued and declining churches should master the skills of assertive leadership.
1. Plateaued churches need assertive pastors.
Plateaued churches are on a plateau for a reason. They’ve settled into habits of busyness that no longer produce meaningful spiritual results in the lives of the members. Their value system pays lip service to the mission of Jesus, but they never get around to meaningful outreach.
They have internalized a subjective norm that “unsaved people today just don’t care about spiritual things, so it’s futile to try to reach them.” While I believe this is false, they devote limited resources to the palliative care of a dying congregation. It requires assertive leadership to change those habits, values, false norms and resource allocations.
2. Assertiveness is intrinsic to leadership.
Ephesians 4:12 states the primary purpose of pastoral ministry. “For the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.” Jesus places pastors in churches so that they will furnish what the church members need to do ministry.
“Equipping” means that the pastor mends what’s broken, provides what’s missing, and restores what’s been neglected. Repairing broken church systems, providing leadership and ministry training, and restoring believers to sacrificial service all require assertive leadership. Restoring the paradigm of pastor-as-equipper and saints-as-ministers will require firm, clear direction.
Refocusing on the mission and reallocating resources to Jesus requires a strong, assertive hand at the helm.
Coupling assertiveness with creativity is mission critical for the pastor who would push back on the hierarchy, insist on directing resources to the mission, and graciously disagree with church leaders who may insist on a course of action that will have adverse consequences.
3. Assertive pastors are better leaders.
Research on the perceived leadership qualities of assertive people confirms that they are viewed as better leaders. Although assertiveness is but one component of esteemed leaders, it is essential.
Those who are “perceived as being more assertive are also perceived as being more honest and having higher integrity than those who are not.” Staff and ministry teams thrive when people feel safe in expressing differing points of view.
Pastors create that safety when they model assertiveness. In recent academic research into how people view strengths and weaknesses in their leaders, we discovered a bit of a surprise. The most commonly reported weakness was not the opposite of strength.
Rather, “assertiveness was by far the most mentioned problem. Too little assertiveness was mentioned twice as often as other perceived weaknesses. “When leaders get assertiveness wrong [either too little or too much (which I would categorize as aggression)], it’s glaring and obvious, but when they get it right, it seems to disappear.”
4. Assertive pastors are better communicators.
Church members feel the difference between a message that lacks conviction and one delivered with power and certainty. When the pastors declare the path “off the plateau,” the people respond with passion and enthusiasm. It stirs them to personal sacrifice, hard work and prayer. The same will be true of their response to the pastor’s preaching, but that’s another subject.
5. Assertive pastors experience less stress.
Our normal behaviors—the way we show up on the job—are in large part motivated by what we expect from the world, from our colleagues, and from the people we serve. The Birkman Method™, the primary tool we used in our research, identifies these expectations as our needs.
Passive pastors, intent on mitigating conflict, avoid discussing their needs and feelings. This damaging behavior creates stress. Stress produces anger. When the anger appears, it shows up as aggression.
Aggressive pastors alienate others. Staff members and congregants on the receiving end of the pastor’s aggression withdraw from the relationship to protect themselves from attack. Aggression results in a string of failed relationships and often a series of failed ministry positions by the pastor.
Assertive pastors experience less stress because they get their needs met. Their productive leadership behaviors help them avoid victimization at the hands of indifferent, aggressive, or inconsiderate church members. Because their needs are being met—a key result of their assertiveness—they are able to focus on the needs of others. Assertive pastors create stronger relationships with colleagues and congregants.