The One Secular Leadership Theory that Should Apply to Pastors

September 15, 2015

As a pastor for most of the last 30 years, I had one burning question: Am I doing this right? The reason pastors wonder about that is that (a) there are many different ways to do church these days, and (b) there are so many people telling us we’re doing it wrong.

The word "PASTOR" written in vintage metal letterpress type in a wooden drawer with dividers.

Given that leadership theory is now the dominant way of evaluating pastoral effectiveness, it’s fitting to apply the advice of  Warren Bennis, the grandfather of modern leadership theory, to pastoral ministry.

Thirty-five years ago, Bennis said, “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.”

Rather than asking “Am I doing this right?” a better question for pastors is “Am I doing the right things?”

So instead of teaching management theory or talking vision—often a code word for “new way of doing church”—let’s talk about our identity as pastors.

What are we supposed to be doing?

Here are a few ideas. See what you might add to the list.

Teach the True Gospel Prominently, Primarily, and Passionately

Most of our preaching isn’t unbiblical. In fact it’s quite helpful. We tend to preach a lot about why our church is a good one and how to make it better, or how to handle routine problems like stress or being a better parent.

Yet much of that misses the point of the gospel: people are alienated from God and each other and need to be reconciled.

Most Sundays are a far cry from Pentecost, where the Spirit enabled godly preachers to declare bold truths with passion and power.

People shouldn’t feel better after hearing our sermons; they should feel better after meeting with God. A good sermon makes the introduction.

Someone else can worry about the countdown video. Bring the Word with power, you’ll have good church.

Offer the Sacraments Frequently and with Integrity

There is power in these rituals, which is why Jesus commanded us to do them.

You have to make converts in order to baptize, so it goes without saying that leading people to a profession of faith is a “right thing” to do.

And a legitimate baptism is based on a true profession of faith. “I used to feel really bad about myself, but then I found this church and realized God is there to help me with whatever I need” is not a profession of faith. “I have repented of my sins and received forgiveness through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and now earnestly desire to live a new life” comes a bit closer.

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, most of us do it frequently enough. It’s the “with integrity” part that calls for attention. An authentic offering of the Lord’s Supper must be clearly explained, accompanied by a call to repentance, and be available to everyone. The Living Word speaks louder than the written Word and should be given time to do so.

Give attention to these things and little problems like vision leak and ministry funding will take care of themselves.

Lead People in Completing the Work of Jesus

We’re better at bringing people in than sending them out; though, thankfully, that tide is turning. Start new congregations, send missionaries across the street, serve people in the name of Jesus.

Organizational management is doing things right; missional leadership is the right thing to do.

Lovingly Discipline Members and Leaders

Somebody has to say both what’s true and what’s wrong, and that’s a pastor’s job. A church that is unwilling or unable to correct false belief or sinful behavior is not a healthy church.

We’re not talking about matters of conscience here. Think denial of the Apostles’ Creed or adultery.


Prayer is a hallmark of our ministry because it was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry and of the apostles’.

For pastors, prayer isn’t something we do for five minutes before getting down to business. It is our business.

Pray consistently, unabashedly, and with utter conviction—at worship services, board meetings, counseling sessions. This is pastoral leadership: leading people into the presence of God.

So that’s about it.

Be faithful in Word and Sacrament, and you’ll be “successful” in your work. Get some people saved, preach the truth, engage the world, and remember the sacrifice of Jesus every time you gather, and beg for the Spirit’s guidance in all you do.

Hard to see how you could fail by doing these things—even if you don’t do them very well.

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.