THIS is the most important leaders trying to lead church revitalization can say:

“This is what needs to be done. It is your job to do it, and I expect to see it completed in the next two weeks.”


Our study of the unique characteristics of “natural” turnaround pastors tells us that this is how effective turnaround leaders roll.

Turnaround pastors are verbally assertive leaders

Our recently published research identifies “verbal dominance” as one of five hallmark behaviors of effective turnaround pastors. It measures the degree to which pastors assert themselves by clear, direct, and unmistakable verbal communication. It pinpoints their comfort (or discomfort) in saying, “I told you that staff meetings would start at 8. Why are you late?”

The most effective turnaround pastors are still gracious, caring, and appropriate when providing verbal leadership. But when they speak, they lead. They are clear. Others know exactly what is expected of them.

Pastors can learn to be assertive leaders

Approximately 10 percent of all pastors exhibit these verbal behaviors “naturally.” The other 90 percent need to acquire these behaviors, but do so in ways that fit with their personalities. Fortunately, we have found that, with skillful mentoring, all pastors can become adept at best practices that result in greater degrees of verbal assertiveness.

Pastor Mike learns assertiveness

Mike’s personality profile matches three of the five hallmarks of turnaround leaders, but his verbal dominance was significantly lower. An opportunity to work on this presented itself during a recent mentoring session when Mike asked for guidance on dealing with Carl.

Carl, recently retired, had been a highly accomplished executive with a Fortune 100 company. His expertise lay in the area of turning unprofitable factories around to productivity and profitability. As the church Treasurer, Carl worked his magic on the church finances. Thanks in part to Carl’s expertise, long delayed (and much needed) capital development projects could be undertaken.

But there was a problem. Carl habitually wandered over the line between leadership and management. In this church policy was determined by the governing board (the Treasurer is not a board position), and decisions that implemented policy were the lead pastor’s responsibility. Staff members (paid and unpaid) implemented the pastor’s decisions. Carl, in his role as Treasurer, was an unpaid staff member.

The issue reached critical mass when Carl injected himself into a decision to upgrade the church’s lobby and exterior facade to make it more inviting. Mike informed Carl about the decision. He asked him to tap a large reserve fund for the several hundred thousand dollars that would be required.

At that point Carl once again crossed the line by indicating that he didn’t think the improvements were needed. He told Mike that he would consult with a number of others in the congregation to get their read on the situation.

Mike was flummoxed.

In our mentoring session we reviewed the church’s governance structure with Mike. After clarifying what Mike would like to see happen, he developed a strategy about how he would approach Carl. They would meet in private, Mike would review the governance structure, he would remind Carl about the scope of his management role, and insist that Carl comply with the decision to identify and release the funds.


At our next mentoring session Mike was elated.

Before the “big meeting” he had consulted with another trusted advisor (someone outside the church) who confirmed his plan for dealing with Carl. (Another important distinction of effective turnaround leaders is that they seek wise counsel from accomplished advisors).

Carl was resistant at first. But, when Mike graciously and firmly explained the way things worked and insisted that Carl confine himself to implementation and stay out of policy and decisions, they finally reached a mutually agreeable conclusion. Carl left that encounter feeling appreciated as a valued member of the staff. He was also clear on what Mike expected, and said he’d follow thru immediately.

“I felt empowered,” Mike reported when we next met. “It felt so good to finally deal with that problem and bring it to a successful resolution.”

That is what turnaround leadership looks like. Verbal communications are gracious and expectations are crystal clear.

Want to be an effective turnaround pastor?

Every pastor will need personal and personalized coaching to develop greater degrees of verbal assertiveness. Because of the complexity of human personality, there is no “one size fits all” prescription. Each pastor will need a path toward developing the best practices of verbal leadership that integrates with his or her unique personality.

But there are a few suggestions that are suitable for most pastors.

  • Before meeting with someone who needs your leadership, think about how that person will likely react to your direction. Think through that person’s previous experience, how he or she responds to you and to others in leadership positions. Identify any “hot buttons” that might derail the meeting so that you can plan to work around those.
  • Prior to meeting with staff, a ministry team, or the governing board, evaluate the agenda. Note the “action items” or “decision items” to identify how each item should be handled.
  • What decisions or actions do you want to see come out of any given encounter? Plan your message and then speak boldly and assertively.

Concluding thoughts

Plateaued and declining churches must do things differently if they want to turnaround to become vibrant, life-giving congregations. The first person who must change is the pastor. And one of the most important changes the pastor can make is the way that he or she provides verbal leadership to the church.

By developing the best practices of verbal assertiveness in a turnaround context, the pastor will move in the direction of effective turnaround leadership. It may not be easy, and these practices may feel unnatural at first, but it can be done.

Remember, the most important asset for a church turnaround sits in the desk that’s in the office that has a placard on the door that says, “Pastor.”


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