Reluctant Leadership


Congregations often struggle to fill vital ministry roles because new leaders are reluctant to step forward. Lewis Center director Doug Powe names three critical factors in overcoming this reluctance — clarifying the function of each role, clearly defining the required time commitment, and allaying fears about the potential for controversy.

Congregations often face a leadership dilemma. No one wants to step up and assume necessary leadership positions. Many congregations struggle to fill positions and often are begging people to take on necessary positions so the congregation can function. There are some deeper issues that need addressing that cannot be covered in this article, especially related to what it means for living out our baptismal vows. Yet, a practical question remains for many congregations, “How do we encourage individuals to fill leadership positions and move beyond reluctance?”

Individuals are often reluctant to take on leadership positions for several reasons like unclear expectations, fear of time commitment, and avoidance of controversy.

Getting people to step into positions of leadership can be exacerbating for nominating or leadership development committees. Individuals are often reluctant to take on leadership positions for several reasons like unclear expectations, fear of time commitment, and avoidance of controversy. Certainly, individuals need to demonstrate gifts and leadership qualities before stepping into any position, but here are three quick pointers to address the aforementioned objections.

1. Clearly describe the way the role functions at your congregation

We often give potential leaders generic job descriptions that while true do not help them to understand the role they will be playing. For example, a generic description for trustees typically focuses on being the stewards of the property. While this makes sense at a certain level it does not clearly define the role a person will play. It is helpful to share clear expectations for what a person will do like making sure all legal documents related to the church are in order, making sure the grounds are well kept, and being responsible for use of the building. The goal is not to define everything a person will do, but to help a person better understand the role they are expected to play. The reality is that often even those who have been members of a church for a while are not clear what some roles entail.

2. Time Commitments

Many of us have more on our plate than we can handle. The idea of adding one more thing, especially something that seems burdensome, is not appealing. It is important to clearly define the time commitment for any position. For example, the finance meeting is the second Monday of every month for one hour. The finance chair is also responsible for developing the agenda and running the meeting, and the term of service is three years. This helps individuals understand the commitment they are making and that it will end at some point in time.

3. Fear of controversy

Most people do not like controversy. The last thing individuals want is to get stuck in the middle of controversy. This is especially true at church where we are seeking spiritual wholeness. It may not be possible to completely avoid controversy, but a couple of things can help. First, have clear policies in place for things like weddings, funerals, and building use. Otherwise, the pastor or someone else will make up policies as they go along, and this will not be helpful because there will be no consistency. Second, make sure you adhere to the policies. Issues often arise because we feel that someone else is getting preferential treatment. By following the policies that are in place, all individuals will be treated alike according to the policies. It may be that a policy needs revisiting, but this is a different issue than not adhering to the policy. The key is ensuring that individuals are treated equitably and that favoritism is not being shown to some.

Encouraging individuals to fill positions can be challenging. There are individuals willing to be in leadership, but they want to know what role they will be playing and for how long and that, after serving, they will still be in love with their church. It can help to clearly state expectations and time commitments and to address the fear of controversy. Taking these simple steps can help your congregation to better fill leadership positions.

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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.

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