Lazy Leadership?

With thanks for responses from the BUV Ordinands’ Retreat, February 2000

Effective pastoral leadership can be demonstrated in as many ways as there are the pastors who respond to the divine call to serve a congregation.  But there is one congregational perception which is extremely hard to put to rest without a great deal of hard work on the part of the pastor: it is the suspicion of pastoral laziness.  

In part this can stem from a misplaced expectation that pastors should be permanently and overtly busy doing many things for the sake of the Kingdom. There is also the quiet, unseen work of prayer, reading and reflection not to mention the hours which can be spent in confidential conversation with hurting people that simply cannot be trumpeted in next week’s bulletin.

Surprisingly, though, some pastors do leave themselves open to the perception of laziness through:

  • being demonstrably poor managers of their time 
  • an apparent lack of basic organisational skills (shown, for example, by consistent late arrivals at meetings)
  • the preaching of sermons which too often appear to lack thought and preparation (most congregations will let you lay an egg now and then!)  
  • developing a love affair with technology (and this can soak up hours of time) at the expense of building relationships with people 
  • a total lack of interest in visiting those with special needs (yes, it does happen)
  • being frequently inaccessible for no apparent reason
  • there being no understood lines of accountability (a sound provision which some pastors actively resist)

However, there are other less obvious symptoms which signal that the responsibility of pastoral leadership is not being seriously pursued.  Even those with a devoted heart beating away with genuine fervour need to be alert to these.  In some cases these symptoms may be the result of outright incompetence and a lack of the necessary leadership gifts; in some it amounts to negligence.

  1. It may be personal organisational laziness which places essential spiritual disciplines on the back burner 
  • For example, is time being preserved for the practice of prayer, reflection and Bible study?   Without such a structure, the day can make whatever claims it wants with strategic disciplines being sacrificed easily and almost nonchalantly.  
  • The heart of our spiritual life can become negotiable according to whatever appears to be currently pressing.  Each day requires a still point which is not up for grabs.  It is the foundation on which we fashion the many practical expressions of pastoral calling.
  1. A close relative is the inability to establish and preserve a basic order to life thereby confusing personal, family and ministry concerns and pursuits.  

This often arises from: 

  • a lack of clarity about direction both personally and congregationally
  • an absence of goals in key areas of life and how these relate to each other
  • the common reality of needing to work from home which can create many distractions
  • a desire to meet all needs which surface without regard to their relative importance and this usually leads to….
  • a significant wastage of time and/or….
  • commitments which cannot possibly be met 

It is ironic that the failure to organise can be a very effective short cut to being permanently exhausted 

  1. The failure to follow up obvious needs and contact leads either directly or through other trusted people in the congregation could be laziness in another guise.  
  • There is the ever-present struggle between the “busy” tasks of ministry and the needs of people.  
  • It is remarkable how many pastors seem to overlook or otherwise ignore opportunities for offering the personal touch which is so actively appreciated by others.  
  • Pastoral care cannot be adequately exercised in the office or study.  Creative ways to meet people on their territory (including those in the church and those outside it) are essential.  
  • Too often we expect people to come to us!  This is hardly in keeping with a biblical understanding of mission, of going into the world to be the Good News.
  1. The inability to express appreciation 
  • A pastor’s failure to show gratitude to those who contribute to the life of the church in one way or another is really a combination of laziness and a lack of courtesy – it is certainly counter productive.  
  • Some pastors appear to function on a “divine right” principle and expect others to assist as their duty altogether forgetting that people who do serve out of a good heart and love for Christ are real treasures and deserve to be thanked.  
  • While most people do not serve just to be acknowledged, it is easy for them to feel that they are being taken for granted. “Thank you” is one of the strongest motivational terms available.
  1. The tendency to be dismissive of other points of view or emphases in ministry can be simply a mental and spiritual laziness.  
  • It is essential to understand where others are coming from: people within the church and those outside it.  
  • A scant disregard of alternative approaches to worship, witness and ministry generally is laziness – we basically cannot be bothered listening to the concerns of others.  
  • While we must maintain the right to agree to disagree, we need the stimulus of different minds and life experiences.  
  • A closed mind is a liability and quickly leads to being arrogant, critical, self-righteous and judgmental. 
  • It is important to stay tuned to other voices and to be as open as possible in our responses to them.   Dogmatism is a sign that personal growth has ground to a halt.
  1. Resisting the opportunity of trying fresh approaches to being and doing church might also qualify as a subtle laziness.
  • Any change in congregational functioning will meet opposition of one sort or another.  While some embrace change willingly, most do not.  
  • It is a tough assignment to lead a church through substantial change in a way which is pastorally sensitive and patient. 
  • It is much easier to reinforce the particular tradition and heritage of a church than alter it, even in small ways.  
  • It takes courage and great wisdom to press ahead with significant change as a goal especially when there are many long-term attendees in the membership (who are happy to recall the “good old days”).  
  • But the church resistant to ongoing adaptation of its ministry is opting for a soul deadening blandness especially suited for nurturing the comatose.  
  • It is crucial to be alert to the wind changes of the Spirit and be adjusting the congregational sails accordingly.  To do otherwise is to offer palliative care to the congregation.
  1. Any attempt to implement a ministry strategy seen to be successful in another culture/setting without assessing its appropriateness for the local situation could also be seen as lazy and lacking in discernment.
  • It is very tempting to take what is essentially a short cut to achieve effective ministry outcomes (even if it does have the good of the church in mind).  
  • Every church functions uniquely with its own peculiar nuances and foibles.  Granted that there is much to be learned from the experience of the church globally but there is still the hard work of interpreting the general principles of ministry into a given situation.  Too often this is simply not done.  
  • Further, if the imported initiative does not work, it is assumed that it was somehow defective.  
  • More likely the truth is that the strategy was not adequately assessed and locally shaped to be really useful and helpful.  In essence it was fatally flawed by a lack of effort to contextualise it.  
  • A solely programmatic approach to ministry side steps the more searching and demanding task of wrestling with the underlying theology of what we should be about in our leadership and church life.  
  1. It is lazy to preach only on those favourite themes, books of the Bible and topics where the pastor is “at home.”  
  • Not only does the preaching come to be very predictable but it is a short step from the congregation beginning to sense that the sermons have a certain sameness about them although the text from week to week may be different.  
  • It is vital to tackle new territory in new ways.  This requires a healthy reading regimen, study in untouched areas, the tackling of fresh ideas and a broadening and enriching of one’s theological equipment.  It is hard work and can be genuinely threatening as the horizons are stretched in unexpected ways.
  1. While there has been a proper and timely emphasis on the importance of leaders delegating, this can actually represent – in some situations – a subtle laziness, a refusal to get in among the troops and deal with the hard stuff.
  • We need to be making room for our people to be exercising their gifts in service.
  • But there are times when the pastor has to bite the bullet and act directly without being tempted to pass responsibility on to others.  
  • If there is a need for the confronting of a difficult relational issue, for example, the pastor should be thinking twice about delegating this to others.  It may be convenient to do so but it might also be a soft option, an easy way out of a tricky dilemma.  
  • The pastor who describes their role as one of “equipping the people of God for ministry” but who then fails to lead by example is happily self-deluded.  This is delegation of the wrong kind.  In the end no one will be doing anything really constructive.   

It is highly unlikely that a pastor will set out to be intentionally lazy.  

  • Far from it.  The fact is that the very nature of ministry opens up many avenues for the expenditure of misguided energy, the uneconomical use of time and a sanctified style of busyness which may give the appearance of sincere dedication but be accomplishing little of real spiritual value.  
  • There is always a need to be engaging in a serious review of what our call to ministry is really about, of attending to our own spiritual health and of pondering constantly the practical implications of being Jesus to our people. 
  • Further, the shaping of a shared spirituality with our people in an environment of trust diminishes the dangers of solo endeavours in Christian service.   This does not mean that we should be casually wearing our hearts on our sleeves or happily passing confidences on to some inner circle.   
  • It is simply the recognition that we are called to a journey with God’s people and we miss the blessings of mutual fellowship if we quarantine ourselves with our God in some distant, private corner.

The invitation to pastoral leadership embraces high endeavour and adventure along with many privileges.  It is not a ticket to Easy Street where near enough is good enough; where half-hearted efforts are made to pass for genuine devotion and sacrifice; where polished style hides a poverty of substance.  This is hardly the way of the cross!

Rev John Simpson