One of the key factors in Christian ministry leadership (in the church or otherwise) has to do with what is commonly spoken of as a “good fit.” More often than not, this is the expression that comes up in the common assessment of why some ministries seem to enjoy a reasonable sense of success for a long time and why others struggle with consecutive stalls or have a series of short leadership stints. It is also a primary reason why those chosen to lead are often not successful. It has to do with what can only be regarded, in any particular case, as a match that is less than an ideal. There may be many good reasons and positive factors for the choice of any particular person for a leadership role, but in the end, if it isn’t a really good fit, the church or ministry will struggle.
It is not unusual for churches to struggle with the best fit in their primary leadership roles. Common symptoms of the problem have to do with various expressions of dissatisfaction with the nature of the ministry in general and perhaps the leader in particular. Further symptoms are a loss of morale among the regular staff and a weakening sense of support to the point of less popular engagement. Depending on how long it takes for the Board to identify the real issues, breakdown may become increasingly negative involving resignations and departures of more and more individuals. Sometimes the response of leaders in these circumstances is that they are careless of the losses, justifying them in the name of what they try to convince others of as being a call to a higher standard or commitment.
Another way of dealing with a breakdown in leader success is to look for spiritual reasons as to why it isn’t working. One often finds that answers for a loss of support are given in spiritual terms, such as, the need for more prayer, more spiritual and practical support for the leader, more patience, and more Christian grace. Since it is true that even the best leaders are always faced with some measure of disagreement and unpopularity these are not illegitimate defences. As a matter of principle it is important for the Board, staff, and constituency to work hard at extending Christian grace to those who lead. In fact, this attitude should be monitored closely and encouraged in every way possible. Hebrews 13:7, and 17 are important principles and commands for God’s people to keep in mind at all times.
On the other hand, there is a time to conclude, in the words of Hans Christian Andersen, “that the emperor has no clothes.” There is a time to concede that something is not working in the leader-constituency relationship. Without making rash character judgments, there comes a time when the Board may have to conclude that “it’s just not working.” There are too many differences, too many discrepancies, too many leadership blunders to see things move forward. It’s a little like the coach of a professional ball team having to decide that a particular pitcher or other player is no longer successful. In the words of one proverb (Ecclesiastes 10:10), since a dull ax requires great strength, sharpen the blade. That’s the value of wisdom; it helps you succeed.
This is a difficult conclusion for Boards and their leaders to realize because it means conceding failure in one way or another. But individual leaders and Boards shouldn’t avoid this conclusion at times out of fear of what people might think or of doing something immoral. Sometimes the way forward is to acknowledge failure to one extent or another. Christians especially are often too polite to be honest about these things. These are difficult conversations and they ought not to be entered into lightly or without much prayer and spiritual discernment. But ministries shouldn’t be allowed to drift simply because no one wants to talk about it. A good deal of grief may be avoided both for ministries and their leaders if there is a willingness to deal with issues honestly and forthrightly.
In any case, that is why much care should be taken to ensure, as much as possible, that the best leader chosen for any particular ministry and time. Too often, people are engaged in leadership because someone has a relationship or emotional connection with someone whom they think will fit. God can use a particular voice in this process but it is very important that sufficient time and objective study be taken before the leader is hired in order to ensure as good a fit as possible.
The search itself should not be undertaken until there is a good understanding by the Board about the essential nature of the ministry. It is important to do a thorough study of the history and real purpose of the particular church or ministry first. No doubt this will involve some research — checking historical records, interviewing long-standing members, listening to the aspirations and interests of current members and adherents, conducting a survey and so on. The purpose in all of this is to get a good understanding of the general culture (hidden values) of the ministry. Too often leaders are chosen for ministry because someone thinks so-and-so is a good preacher, or has been successful in another context. The selection in such a case may be successful but if so, it will only be because the person has the strength and ability to adapt to the new situation.
A good search then begins with a good description of the current ministry’s culture as well as of the kind of person who will be required to fill it. Much care needs to be taken in truly knowing the church or mission’s sense of vision. The search for the best leader needs to be conducted from the perspective of what will truly be needed for the ministry to succeed in the future. It is important to agree on the exact type of leader that will be needed before the church begins. This too should be more than a general description of the person’s spiritual life and character, or of the person’s biblical knowledge or theological perspective. While these latter matters will be important, the Board will also need to consider the person’s age, experience, personality characteristics, administrative skill, relational skills, and general communication skill. There are many variables. Not every person will fit equally well in every situation.
The important thing in all of this is for the Board to truly do its homework — to conduct the search in as godly and objective way as possible. This more thoughtful approach won’t guarantee a successful search or fit every time, but it is more likely to ensure greater satisfaction in the end, not only for the ministry, but also for the leader.