Leading From the Pulpit

My education at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky was one of the highlights of my life; truly a season of significant spiritual formation. Like many Asbury grads, I love that place. I have many great memories about my courses, professors and classmates. One series of classes I benefited from involved learning to craft and deliver a sermon. I was no Billy Graham, but made great progress. What I didn't learn was how to lead from the pulpit. It's likely that much of that was my lack of understanding the difference between preaching and leading from the pulpit. That difference was the topic of the last edition of The Pastor's Coach.

In reflection of my 13 years at Skyline Church, my leadership from the pulpit was largely by accident. In a few dozen sermons to the entire congregation, and hundreds of Sunday School lessons to a class of over 200, I was, for the most part, just preaching. I stated in the last article that preaching the Word of God is paramount to the mission, but if we are truly dedicated to the mission, then we will want to reach more people and that requires leadership from the pulpit.

Now that I am at Crossroads Community Church, I find myself reflecting back upon six years on the road. In doing so, I can see just how good John Maxwell was at leading from the pulpit. If only I had been a better student then! I feel like I'm making up for lost time, and my passion about this topic is not only for myself, but for you as well. The following thoughts will serve you well if you share this passion to lead more effectively.

Keep your heart connected to the present, and your mind focused on the future.

Preachers think Sunday is coming and focus their efforts to prepare the message. Leader's think Jesus is coming and invest their efforts to prepare the people. We've all been there; it's Thursday, Friday, even Saturday and the paper is blank. We pray, "God, you wrote the Ten Commandments for Moses with your mighty finger, won't you just write one little sermon for me!" Have you noticed how we tend get more spiritual the later it goes in the week if our message isn't prepared?

Leaders run out in front of the pack. It's the nature of what leaders do. But if you, as a leader, run too far out in front, you will dance with the danger of becoming emotionally disconnected from the people. If this happens you can no longer lead effectively. If you lose touch with the hearts of the people, you lose touch as a leader. It's imperative that you stay connected to the hearts of your congregation.

At the same time, you need to focus on the future. In other words, you have a strong grasp on the heartbeat of your congregation today, but you have a clear picture of where you are leading them for the future. Another way of saying this is that you never preach without connecting to them in the present and simultaneously pointing to the future.

Face Reality

Max DePree says that the primary responsibility of a leader is to define reality. That is a great truth. It is also true that the leader is responsible to communicate the reality. Remember when President Bush came on TV immediately after the September 11th tragedy? He faced reality and told us about it. He didn't say "everything is fine" because it wasn't. He didn't say there was no further danger because there was. And he didn't say it would be all taken care of with little effort because the reality is that we will be in a war against terror for a very long time.

Your congregation deserves and wants to know how things stand with the church. Don't hide the real condition of the church. I have consulted with far too many "downtown tall steeple" churches, as well as country rural churches and even a few churches in the burbs that are in danger of extinction. But the pastors act as if everything is fine. They preach message after message as if the church is strong, healthy and growing. They are paying the bills and the roof doesn't leak, so all is well. The reality is in less than 20 years, (and, in some cases, much less) the doors will be closed.

Leaders face reality and tell the truth. They don't slam the congregation or blame them. Rather, they inspire their people to share a vision that brings health, growth and vitality.

Intentionally cultivate trust

You can lead only to the degree that people trust you. One of the primary ways to cultivate that trust from the pulpit is your own honesty and vulnerability as a person. Our senior pastor, Kevin Myers, is amazingly transparent from the pulpit. Recently, we concluded a marriage series titled Married on Purpose. (really good stuff!) Throughout the series, Kevin has been extremely candid about his own marriage with Marcia. When a congregation knows that they are connecting and listening to the real deal, or as my mom used to say, warts and all, it cultivates trust. I delivered one of the sermons in this series and was equally transparent, not just for intentional impact during the message, but to cultivate trust with the people. Let them know you, the real you.

Be quick to take responsibility for failure and share the fame for success

Some of the most transformational moments for a congregation are those when the leader stands up and says, "I blew it," or "I made a mistake and I'm sorry." The majority of the time, the people already know you messed up, so why not stand up and own it? John Maxwell tells the story of how, while at Skyline Church, he made the mistake of making too many big changes in too small a period of time. He stood up and said, "I blew it." Now, don't miss this next part. Most of the changes were changes that we as a staff wanted, but John stood up and said, "I blew it." He could have easily and subtly blamed the staff, but he didn't. He was a leader and took responsibility. Conversely, John always, and I mean always, gave the credit away whenever we achieved any kind of success.

Pay attention to the atmosphere

Preachers are focused on what it takes for the message to land well. Leaders are focused on whatever it takes for the people to connect with the environment the message is delivered in.

The atmosphere is comprised of a number of things such as the overall morale of the church, growth momentum, the felt presence of the Holy Spirit during the service, attentiveness to God's voice, evangelistic energy, the esprit de' corps of the staff and key leaders, openness and receptivity to first time guests. The list goes on. You can have the most finely crafted message in the world, but if the atmosphere is dead, so is the message.

Understand how preaching and leading from the pulpit blend together

I've said that both preaching the Word of God and leading from the pulpit are important. I have attempted to show the difference as well as boost your leadership quotient from the pulpit. We also know that preaching and leading merge. Obviously, one person must accomplish both. That being true, I believe there are at least three connectors that bridge preaching and leading from the pulpit.

First is hope. Leaders are merchants of hope in general and preachers must deliver the hope of the gospel. In other words, you must do both. Leaders deal with the visionary aspects of hope and preachers explain how our hope of living out what Christ asks of us resides in the power of the Holy Spirit. As a spiritual leader, you must bridge the two knowing that the only true hope of future is found in the saving message of Jesus.

Second is love. Servant leaders love their people and put their own agendas second to the people they lead. A wise pastor will tell his people every Sunday, in one way or another, how much he loves them.

Third is the principle of challenge and change. Both leaders and preachers must challenge the people. Pressing forward toward life change is the bottom line, and that doesn't happen without strong leadership as well as clear communication of the Word of God. A spiritual leader without the Word of God is powerless and a preacher without leadership skills will ultimately be preaching to an empty room.

In closing, let me encourage you to continue to devour everything you can get your hands on that will help you grow as a leader. Right now, I'm reading Good To Great by Jim Collins. If you haven't read it, get a copy and devour it.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at www.injoy.com. I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.