Lead Positively


Lovett H. Weems Jr., explains why leaders need to affirm the positive and assume the best of others — even when things aren’t what they ultimately need to be. Critique and judgment have their place — but not at the expense of projecting a grace-filled and hopeful attitude toward others.

Leaders sometimes are reluctant to affirm good things among those we serve because we are aware of so many weaknesses. We are tempted to say, “When this church has strong mission outreach, I will be the first to acknowledge and celebrate it.” But that’s not how change works. Leadership is always aspirational.

A Presumption of Grace

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “If only this congregation cared as much about the poor as I do, we might really be able to make a difference?” It’s very easy for leaders to give the impression to others that we think we care more about the poor, or diversity, or sharing the Gospel, or a host of other things than others do. We end up communicating more judgment than grace. And then we’re surprised to discover that our church is seen by many as a place of judgment rather than a home of grace.

Leaders must be willing to affirm progress before it becomes a completed reality. So practice saying “I’m so proud … ” or “I’m so honored …” until you really are!

This presumption of judgment surfaces frequently when debates occur regarding church actions or priorities. When it comes to a question of the use of church facilities, leaders can assume a tone that conveys that obviously we care about people, implying that those who disagree care more about property than persons to be served. “I know you care about the bricks and mortar, but I care about people and ministry.” Not good. Could we not as easily assume that others care as much as we do about the people for whom those buildings were built?

Assume the Best about People

Why, in the absence of knowing the hearts of everyone else, would we presume the worst instead of the best about them? Why would our default position be one that conveys judgment rather than one that communicates grace — when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a proclamation of grace? Assume the best until people prove you otherwise.

In addition to the theological imperative for a presumption of grace, there is also a practical need. Any time we appear to devalue people’s commitments, they cling more closely to them. They are less open to change. So if the property committee thinks that their concern to prevent damage to the buildings is devalued, they will not say, “Can you ever forgive us?” They are more likely to add more restrictions.

Assume the property committee cares as much as you do about the youth who need to use the building — unless they prove you wrong. And sometimes they will prove you wrong. If you are operating from a presumption of grace rather than judgment as your default way of relating to others, then, when there is a problem, you are in a much better position to say, “We need to talk. We have an issue to face.” In such times, leaders who have practiced a presumption of grace will be taken far more seriously than those who have not learned to lead with grace.

I’m So Proud

Pay attention to the way great leaders speak to those they serve. You will hear them regularly use phrases of affirmation: “I’m so proud to be part of a church that takes its commitment to serving the poor seriously.” “I’m so proud to be on a team that never stops until the job is done.” “I’m so proud to be the pastor of a church that welcomes everyone.”

In order for these kinds of affirmations to be helpful and credible, the attribute you are lifting up must be true to some measure. But it is also a way of reinforcing a behavior you want to see more of. Leaders must be willing to affirm progress before it becomes a completed reality. So practice saying “I’m so proud … ” or “I’m so honored …” until you really are!

Much more work is required than graceful statements, but assuming the best is a good place to start. As you see glimpses of the promised land along the way, celebrate them before you totally arrive. Critique has its place; just make sure it is not taking first place.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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