How to Become Your Church’s Leader

Sergeant Ernie Savage embodied the qualities that pastors need to become leaders in their churches.

A scene from the film We Were Soldiers shows Savage, portrayed by Ryan Hurst, looking after his platoon during a taxing training exercise. When the company stops to rest, Savage moves quietly through his platoon to encourage each one. He also exhorts them to put on dry socks to spare them from peeling skin and athlete’s foot.

It was a small gesture that revealed his leadership potential. As a platoon sergeant, he led by walking alongside the troops. He cared for those in his charge.

A few months later, his leadership skills emerged in the crucible of war.

Following his commanding officer’s orders, Savage and his platoon walked into an ambush. The officer and the platoon’s two highest ranking sergeants were killed within minutes. Savage took command.

Despite being pinned down, and cut off from the rest of the unit, Savage led his men to withstand and survive an against-all-odds nighttime attack by enemy troops. Not a single American life was lost under Savage’s command.

We can’t press the metaphor too far, but it represents a reality of pastoral leadership. The troops don’t see the solo pastor as the leader. To them, his job is to keep those in his charge safe and provide the care they need.

New pastors aren’t seen as leaders

“Leadership” may have been in the formal job description. It might even have come up during the candidating process. In most cases, these are aspirational rather than actual values. Church folks say those things in good conscience, but, like me and you, there is a gap between what they say they want and what they really want. Like my friend and colleague Dr. Gordon Penfold says, “Every church claims they want a leader, until they get one.”

Small (one or two key families) and medium sized (75 to 150 members) churches don’t really want the pastor to lead. They expect their pastor to avoid a lot of upheaval. They want you to keep things on an even keel, to represent the church’s values, and provide spiritual care. In his book, The Solo Pastor, Gary McIntosh states it this way.

“[In churches with solo pastors] the highest values are love, care, and acceptance. The key people are the children and the elderly. People want, safety, security, and peace…. A solo pastor’s faithfulness is regularly, judged by the way they care for these vulnerable members.”

How do you become the leader?

This is reality. It’s the way things really are in the vast majority of small and medium sized churches. It’s a source of great frustration for pastors, especially those whom God has gifted with powerful leadership ability.

So what’s a pastor to do? How do we ease our way into actual leadership in these churches? Here are four steps that will help you move into that role.

1. Gain influence

All leadership boils down to the exertion of personal influence. In some settings, think business and military, that influence may flow from being in a position of authority over others. But in most of life, personal influence is gained by cultivating personal relationships.

Solo pastors should invest a great deal of time cultivating relationships during the early years of their ministry in a given church.

  • When you start at a church, block out at least three times for meeting with people in the church. One evening meal a week, one morning coffee, and perhaps a lunch. These aren’t group meetings, these are one-on-one with your members.

    I’m constantly amazed that more pastors don’t do this. I recall one godly woman, a member of a church I served, who told me, “In forty years of following Jesus and attending church, you’re the first pastor who has ever asked me my opinion about anything.” I about fell out of my chair.
  • Once a month host a meal in your home for six to eight people. Work through the membership list so that in your first year there, everyone has had an opportunity to meet your family, visit your home, and enjoy a meal together.
  • When you do hospital or in home visitation, always take someone whom you’re training for spiritual leadership in the church. Over the course of that first year, you should have time to train two or three men on how to do such visitations. You will earn great influence with them, and they will extend your influence once they start going out on their own.

2. Be patient

Just as it takes time, hard work, and diligent service to rise up through the leadership ranks in business and in the military, you’re going to be walking the long path, pastor. Conventional wisdom born of experience and research all settle on one cold fact: it takes five to seven years for the average pastor to become the leader of a congregation.

Don’t fight against this. Embrace it. If it helps you cope, establish a set of metrics that help you go judge your progress over the course of several years. Keep track of the things you’re doing to gain influence and move into leadership.

And look to the Holy Spirit’s fruit in your life for the patience you’re going to need.

Oh, and never decide to quit on a Monday.

3. Don’t pull rank

If you have to pull rank to get your way, there’s an even chance that you’re done. You may prevail in the moment, but your long term survival is in jeopardy.

Instead of playing your “I’m the pastor” authority card, which is a weak move in any case, instead play the long game.

Use the pulpit to gain and solidify legitimate and well-earned authority. The first three years of your preaching calendar should revolve around one thing: teach the Bible’s narrative arc about God’s mission in the world, the church’s role in that mission, and their individual roles in supporting the church’s obedience to God. Feel free to chop that up and mix it up in any fashion you want, but if you don’t get this message across, they’re never going to unite behind you as you lead them off to storm the gates of hell.

4. Be in constant prayer

You will be battling spiritual forces of apathy, indifference, and self-interest in the church. In time, when you have earned the right to lead, you will be marching with them into spiritual warfare against the evil powers in the world that keep people enslaved in sin and death.

Do you think it might be a good idea to be a prayerful pastor?

Plot your course, then stay the course. In time, you will arrive at a position of genuine pastoral leadership because you will have earned it.