By Alberto Valenzuela
I have been involved in church work all my adult life. I was a taskforce worker. As an intern in Southern California, I ran a VBS and day camp for an entire summer without having conducted either one before. I worked briefly as an associate pastor and as a pastor. I’ve worked in communication and public relations at all levels of the church.
And I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with many leaders, both inside and outside the church: GC presidents, division, union, and conference presidents, department directors, hospital presidents, school principals, teachers, pastors, Community Services directors, church elders, as well as community leaders. Through the years I have had the opportunity to observe many in leadership positions. I have also listened to my colleagues and church members as they shared their praise or frustrations regarding leadership attitudes and styles within the church.
I began working for the church in the late 1970s, and much has changed since. I have changed. But have our leadership styles changed? We’ve moved from the typewriter to the iPad, the desk phone to the smartphone, but are we still using the same strategies, the same methods, the same leadership style from last century? Are we changing continually as a church and yet somehow ignoring that and remaining the same in the way we lead?
I’ve noticed three things as I have worked for the church and interacted with leaders at various levels:
First: Having been placed in a leadership position, I need to be led by the Lord in order to be a more effective and worthy leader.
Second: Regardless of their leadership styles and attitudes, there is always something to learn by observing other leaders. This includes qualities worthy of emulation as well as behaviors to be avoided.
Third: We are God’s hands and feet. My colleague likes to share the story of a man showing his garden to his friend. The friend remarked on how wonderfully God’s creation was displayed in the garden, to which the man replied, “Yes, but you should had seen it when God was working on it
by Himself!” Yes, we need God’s guidance, but our study, preparation, and dedication in leadership will turn the wilderness into a garden!
John Maxwell was right when he pointed out, “There is a very large void in leadership that exists in the church.” This blunt statement calls on all of us to examine ourselves regarding the quality of our leadership.
George Barna writes, “Leadership continues to be one of the greatest needs of the church. People are willing to follow the divine vision but too often have not been exposed to such a vision or true leadership.” He then declares that, "having been researching for fifteen years in the world around me, I have come to several conclusions regarding the future of the Christian church in America. The main conclusion is that the American church is dying because of a lack of leadership.”
Fortune and Time magazine have listed some remarkable modern leaders. Among my favorites:
Angela Merkel, former chancellor of Germany, considered by many to be the most successful national hero in the world; Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, native of Myanmar, chair of the National League for Democracy; Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; Luis Manuel Otero, performance artist and leader for democracy within modern Cuba; Attorney Ben Crump, who stands up to help the helpless and defend the oppressed during these trying times; Olimpia Coral Melo Cruz, the Mexican women’s rights activist. And the list goes on and on.
I have always been fascinated by history and the great world leaders, particularly those who have led nations in times of war. Though he’s not one of my favorites among the generals of the Second World War, I appreciate Great Britain’s Montgomery’s definition of leadership: “The ability and willingness to motivate men and women to a common target, and character that inspires confidence.”
Other interesting definitions of leadership can be found in the writings of individuals such as John R. Mott (1865-1955) and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966). Mott was the founder of the World Council of Churches. He held that a leader is “a person who knows the way, who can move forward, and who carries others with him.” Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II, emphasized that leadership is that “quality that inspires sufficient confidence in subordinates to be willing to accept their views and carry out their orders.”
Regardless of their leadership styles and attitudes, there is always something to learn by observing other leaders. This includes qualities worthy of emulation as well as behaviors to be avoided.
Harry S. Truman became president of the U.S. at a time (1945-1953) when a leader among leaders was needed. He had to make some dramatic decisions that continue to affect us in a practical way even today. His was perhaps one of the clearest and most succinct definitions of leadership. For him, a leader was “a person who has the ability to make others do what they don't want to do and like it.”
Such definitions of leadership require you to ask yourself about the kind of leader you are as an individual and the type of leadership we have in the church. There are also the following questions:
- Do we live up to the definition of leadership? Are we "real leaders"—men and women who can truly influence others, both within and outside our church?
- Do we have the ability to project a spiritual picture of what needs to be done?
- Do we have the ability to make others passionate about the vision of the church and follow our leadership—without having to resort to dubious methods?
Kendra Cherry provides 10 Tips for Becoming a Better Leader:
- Understand your leadership style. What are your strengths? Which areas need some improvement?
- Encourage creativity. Offer new challenges, with ample support. Followers need to be encouraged to express their creativity.
- Serve as a role model. We need to exemplify the behavior and characteristics that we encourage in our followers.
- Be passionate. Great leaders have a genuine enthusiasm for the projects they work on.
- Listen and communicate effectively. Leaders communicate their vision to followers, who then feel inspired and motivated by this vision. They also listen.
- Have a positive attitude. Maintain a sense of optimism and hope in the face of challenges.
- Encourage people to make contributions. Be open to the ideas of others and encourage group members to take an active role in coming up with plans.
- Motivate your followers. Encouraging others doesn’t mean being preachy. Instead, help them feel included and offer praise for their accomplishments.
- Offer rewards and recognition. Offering the right recognition and rewards is a good way to help followers feel appreciated.
- Keep trying new things. Pay attention to the things that have been effective in the past and always be on the lookout for new ways to inspire, motivate, and reward group members.1
And, may I add, don’t take yourself too seriously. A. E. Norrish, a missionary in India, is credited with saying, "I have never met a leader without a sense of humor; this ability to place oneself outside of oneself and one's circumstances, to see things in perspective and laugh, is a great escape valve. You will never be able to lead others without having the joy of the Lord and his constant sense of humor.”
If we are to be relevant in today’s world—if we are to be considered by those around us, in our community, in our society—we must show true leadership. We must show the leadership that goes beyond our beliefs and boundaries and offer the leadership that is appreciated and emulated by others. When we, as a church, are emulated by society, we will have certainly made an impact.
The God who called Abraham when He wanted to establish a nation calls us to be today’s leaders. The God who called Moses when He wanted to deliver His people calls us to make a difference in our society. The God who called Joshua to lead His people to the Promised Land calls us to be true spiritual leaders.
Alberto Valenzuela is the associate director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference and editor of the Recorder.