Good Administration is Good Leadership


Bishop Will Willimon says competent, efficient, hands-on administration is just as important as the “big picture” leadership skills of inspiring a vision and nurturing theological purpose. Good management increases a church’s capacity to implement change and move forward.

Many leadership books play off management against leadership, lamenting a preponderance of bean-counter managers and paper-shuffling administrators when what we need are bold, visionary leaders. Leadership sounds noble and courageous; management smacks of small-mindedness.

Pastors can’t afford to choose between being a leader and a manager. We must be good at “big picture” leadership tasks that help a congregation know where it ought to go and also be good at the daily, hands-on administrative tasks that move us in that direction. If we can’t adequately perform both tasks, then it’s our obligation to seek help from those whom God has equipped for these essential ministries. Gil Rendle says that while good leaders must find opportunities to climb out of the day-to-day grind of congregational life in order to take the long view, good managers accompany the organization into the threatening chaos that change requires: “Managers help organizations do things right: leaders help organizations do right things.”

New pastors often complain that seminary gave them many good ideas but little training on how to transform those ideas into concrete reality. “I know what to do but haven’t a clue how to do it,” said one young pastor. That statement is usually a commentary on a lack of administrative expertise. While there are strong links between preaching and leading, it’s important to note that the leadership responsibilities of teaching, rethinking, and adapting are not the sole leadership tasks of the pastor. There must be movement from good intentions to fitting goals to the practical work that must occur to fulfill those intentions. Pastors lead not only by articulating a vision, reframing the congregation’s problems, and nurturing the theological purpose of the church and its ministry; we lead also through competent, efficient, hands-on administration.

John Kotter’s seminal book, Leading Change, warns that strong leadership without good management gets an organization nowhere, contending that leadership and management are two “distinctive and complementary systems of action.”

Leadership is about vision, overall direction, goals and ends. It’s necessary for organizational transformation. However, management is required for effective operation and execution. Kotter defines management as “coping with complexity.” Churches, even relatively small congregations, can be surprisingly complex organizations with many different, often competing components. Somebody has to be the glue that holds things together, the person who is not overwhelmed by the complexity, and the one who says, “First, let’s do this; next, ….”

An organization moves forward by means of more than high vision and good intentions; at some point someone must take responsibility for seeing that things get done. Good management increases an organization’s capacity to move forward by developing necessary structures, evaluating and planning events and processes, getting the right staff in place, holding people accountable, rewarding people who contribute, and exiting those from leadership who detract from an institution’s forward movement.

Leadership helps people move in the same direction by talking — motivating and inspiring. Management does the face-to-face, nitty-gritty work to engage in the difficult conversations required and the oversight of execution of ideas that enable an inspiring vision to become an operational reality. Managers push people through mechanisms of oversight and control. Leaders inspire people by energetically playing to people’s basic need for achievement, a sense of belonging, recognition by others, and the power to live up to their highest ideals. Management values control and minimizes risk; leadership requires energy and, therefore, inspiration (literally “filled with spirit”).

“No grand vision is achieved”, says Kotter, “without a burst of energy.” Thus, good leaders tend to be inspiring motivators; they know how to assess people’s highest values and enhance those values. They invite others into decision, without being captive to their opinions, and give them a sense that they have some control over their destiny. Yet they also make sure that inspired people don’t become frustrated because nothing happens. Pastors don’t have to be good at both leadership and management, but they must be good at finding others in the congregation who are.

Excerpted from Leading with the Sermon: Preaching as Leadership (Fortress Press, 2020) by William H. Willimon. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

William Willimon became Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Duke Divinity School after retiring as bishop in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is author of over 70 books and is an editor-at-large for The Christian Century. He previously served as Duke Divinity professor and the dean of Duke Chapel.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.