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Both the pastor and the congregation share responsibility for helping the church to be what God calls it to be.

Whose job it is to give congregational leadership? That’s a question many pastors and congregations are struggling with these days. The struggles vary depending upon the congregation and pastor, but in many cases, each thinks that the other is ultimately responsible for congregational leadership. Congregations expect their pastor to take the lead, and pastors expect the congregation to do so.

In situations like this, pastors usually argue that the council or elders must take responsibility for the congregation’s vision and direction. For many pastors, it’s a matter of theological conviction about the nature of pastoral ministry and Reformed polity. Pastors, they say, must perform pastoral functions—preach God’s Word, shepherd God’s people, conduct weddings and funerals, evangelize, teach, and model Christian living. They firmly believe that setting the congregation’s vision and implementing congregational goals that come out of that vision are the responsibility of the council, elders, or other designated leaders—not the pastor.

Congregations, on the other hand, are crying out for help. They know they need a deeply shared congregational vision and direction, and they want more help from the pastor than they’re getting. Many are in a period of malaise—they’re losing members and finding themselves avoiding the difficult conversations around sensitive issues that are necessary to move forward.

Reciprocal Leadership

At one level, this dilemma is not as difficult as it may seem. If we were to rephrase the question as “Who will help our congregation be what God calls it to be?” (a fairly simple and biblical way to define leadership) most pastors and congregations would agree that both have crucial roles. Pastors hope that everything they do helps their congregation to be what God calls it to be. And congregations understand that they can’t shove off on the pastor the responsibility for the church being the church. It’s really not that complicated. In the congregational context, both the pastor and the congregation share responsibility for helping the church to be what God calls it to be. Together they should be able to say, “This is our project.”

The New Testament and Reformed church polity are pretty clear about the mutual, reciprocal nature of ministry and leadership. The New Testament image of the church as a body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12) and the teaching that God has given gifts to all the members so that the body of Christ may be built up (see especially Ephesians 4) argue strongly for a “both/and” answer to the question of who leads. Christ is the head of the body—not the pastor and not the congregation. All members of the body are organically united with Christ and have responsibility to serve, lead, and follow Christ.

In this reciprocal understanding of leadership, pastors, council, and elders all have particular and strategic leadership roles to play in helping a congregation to be everything God intends it to be. The Christian Reformed Church Order fleshes out some of those roles. When understood not simply as a book of rules, but as a book of wisdom, the Church Order actually offers a pretty brilliant blueprint for reciprocal leadership.

Unfortunately, both pastors and congregations can agree on all of this and still hold firm in their opinion that the other is not doing the job. Here are some suggestions for each.

A Word to Pastors

Three things can help pastors as they try to figure out their leadership responsibility in a congregation.

First, get rid of the distinction between “congregational leadership” and “pastoral functions.” The fact is that pastors lead their congregations in everything they do. Leadership is not some optional organizational function tacked onto the pastor’s otherwise spiritual job. If congregational leadership means helping the church be the church, then every minute of the pastor’s work is congregational leadership. In his book 360-Degree Leadership: Preaching to Transform Congregations, Michael Quicke argues eloquently that preaching is where the pastor most centrally exercises leadership responsibility. In the same way, pastors give critical congregational leadership in their worship leadership, pastoral care, discipling, and evangelizing.

Second, don’t confuse being a leader with being an organization builder. Don Cousins argues that every pastor is a leader, but not every pastor is an organization builder. In his book Experiencing LeaderShift: Letting Go of Leadership Heresies, Cousins writes that only 8 percent of pastors have the spiritual gift of leadership referred to in Romans 12:8. Cousins calls people with this gift “organization builders” and defines the gift as “the divine enablement to cast vision, motivate, and direct people to harmoniously accomplish the purposes of God.” Organization builders have the special abilities to present a big picture that has organizational traction, motivate others, and align an organization’s vision, values, and ministries.

It’s possible to quibble over Cousins’ percentages and even over his exegesis of Romans 12:8, but his overall point seems fairly obvious: when it comes to leadership style and gifts, pastors are wired differently and are not helped by trying to be something they are not. If every pastor tries to be an organization builder, Cousins maintains, the vast majority will be frustrated because that’s not who they are. Their congregations will also be frustrated because the pastor isn’t effective, and the people within those congregations who actually do have the spiritual gift of leadership will be displaced or under-utilized. Most pastors who resist the idea of being a leader are really resisting the expectation that they be an organization builder. So pastors need to discern their own spiritual gifts and lead from those gifts.

Third, accept the fact that you are a leader. To put it another way, you have responsibility for helping the congregation you serve to find its way. You may not be an organization builder, but your calling as pastor still entails helping the congregation you serve to be the church God calls it to be. The New Testament doesn’t separate pastoral functions from the tasks of leading and equipping the body of Christ. Indeed, everything pastors (and all the members) do is “so that the body of Christmay be built upuntil we all reach unityin the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of Godand become mature,attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).

This is difficult because pastors are trained mostly to perform particular pastoral functions. They’re trained to think about what they do in terms of the sermons they write, the people they visit, the neighbors they reach out to, and the meetings they run. Even the form for ordination used in the Christian Reformed Church is task-oriented. As a result, many pastors are uncertain about what congregational leadership from the pastor actually entails.

Add to that uncertainty the fact that many congregations are highly resistant even to effective leadership, and it’s understandable that pastors want to stay out of the crossfire and just fulfill certain clearly defined pastoral functions. But leadership simply is not optional for pastors. In reality, central to the pastor’s calling is helping a particular congregation to flourish.

A Word to Congregations

Three things can help congregations as they try to work creatively with their pastor in being the church:

First, don’t expect the pastor to be an organization builder if she is not one. A leader? Yes. But not every pastor has the more specialized gift of building organizations. If the congregation tries to make the pastor into a Bill Hybels, everyone loses.

Instead, believe that within the congregation as a whole are the gifts needed to be a healthy body. How often have congregations over-relied on pastors only to be frustrated by their pastor’s poor performance—a pastor, by the way, who was probably trying to serve outside of his or her area of giftedness—and in the process underused the gifts of others in the congregation?

The greatest shift in the North American church over the last 50 years has been moving from what Jackson Carroll has called a clerical orientation to an ecclesial orientation. A congregation used to describe its ministry primarily in terms of what the pastor did. Today, the focus is not on clerical functions—worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, catechesis—but on the gifts and ministries of the body as a whole. Flourishing congregations are embracing this shift. Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 require it. Your pastor needs to be a leader for this shift to take place, but you can’t assume that your pastor is an organization builder.

Second, realize the important role of the congregation in healthy leadership. Sometimes pastors are not resisting their leadership responsibility but are simply holding a congregation accountable for its leadership responsibility and for addressing the dysfunctions that may exist in the congregation. Dysfunctional congregational culture is extremely difficult to change. Congregations have a way of refusing to confront dysfunctional behaviors in powerful members or deal with long-standing personnel problems or make crucial decisions. Congregations often blame the pastor for not giving strong-enough leadership when the issue isn’t primarily pastoral leadership at all. The congregation simply refuses to take responsibility for its own life and to make some hard decisions. Staying in old dysfunctional ruts is easier.

Third, don’t quickly link your congregation’s health or lack of health to your pastor. Blessed is the congregation that can talk a long time about its strengths and weaknesses without referring to its pastor. Mature congregations realize that, of course, their pastor has strengths and weaknesses, but those are distinct from the strengths and weaknesses of the congregation. Mature congregations focus more on things the congregation must work on than on things the pastor has to work on.

We’re in This Together

This article addresses one particular leadership challenge—the challenge of pastors and congregations who think that the other has ultimate leadership responsibility for the congregation. The opposite challenge is pastors and congregations who think they themselves—not the other—have ultimate leadership responsibility. But the answer to both of these situations is the same: We’re in this together!

Congregations and other organizations that are effective and healthy have usually succeeded, to some degree, in helping people discover and work from their areas of strength and giftedness—and that applies to church members, leaders, and pastors. It’s hard to capture this truth more eloquently than Paul does in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The good news is that this is exactly what God wants for churches and pastors, so efforts in this direction are likely to succeed as the Holy Spirit leads the church.

Digging Deeper

Don Cousins, Experiencing LeaderShift: Letting Go of Leadership Heresies, David C. Cook, 2008.

This book exposes the “heresy” that all pastors are equally gifted in leadership; it proposes biblical approaches to spiritual gifts and shared congregational leadership that guide and encourage pastors and congregations.

Bill Hybels, Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, Zondervan, 2008.

Hybels distills into 67 axioms the wisdom he has gained through 30 years of leadership at Willow Creek Church. Each axiom is both practical and deep. Hybels is honest and vulnerable in sharing his own leadership failures. Together the axioms communicate a biblical understanding of the essential nature of the church and of shared leadership.

Tod E. Bolsinger, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives, Brazos Press, 2004.

Questions about leadership always engage Christians in the deeper question “What is the church?” Bolsinger offers a deep but accessible vision of the church, an ecclesiology rooted in the triune God that is biblical, beautiful, and compelling as Christians seek to embody the life of the triune God in their local church.

Effective Leadership in the Church, Sustaining Pastoral Excellence in the Christian Reformed Church of North America, 2005.

This booklet, created by collaboration among CRC leaders nearly 10 years ago, addresses the difficult questions of who leads the church and articulates a reciprocal, adaptive understanding of leadership and change. This booklet is an excellent resource and study guide for congregational leaders seeking to learn together about their roles.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change, Crossroad, 2004.

This former leader of the Reformed Church of America offers a vision of leadership interwoven with Christian spirituality and argues that significant leadership reflection invariably drives us to deep questions about God, personal identity, values, and the larger purposes our leadership serves.

Leadership Journal: Real Ministry in a Complex World,

This online journal produced by Christianity Today offers a mix of practical and theological articles on leadership. Divided into three major categories—Soul, Skills, and Culture—the journal includes resources for pastors and laypersons who seek to build biblically grounded and healthy congregations.




Web Questions

  1. Kelderman states that often pastors and councils look to each other to take the bull by the horns and exert some leadership. Argue this as best you can from both sides.
  2. Kelderman defines church leadership as “help(ing) our congregation to be what God wants it to be.” Do you agree with that definition? Do you find it helpful? Does it offer a way of resolving the dilemma about who should provide leadership to the congregation?
  3. If church leadership needs to be reciprocal and mutual, then what role should the pastor play? What role should the council play? What role should other church leaders and the congregation itself play?
  4. Give some concrete examples of Kelderman’s claim that “pastors lead congregations in everything they do.”
  5. Does a pastor need to be an “organization builder”? If the pastor doesn’t have that gift, who should be playing that role?
  6. What suggestions can you make with respect to leadership that would allow your congregation to better become what God wants it to be? What can you and your group to do to make that happen?

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