Episode 24: “Leadership Lessons from Lovett Weems”

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 24: "Leadership Lessons from Lovett Weems"

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Looking for practical strategies to more effectively engage others and lead change? Listen as leadership expert Lovett H. Weems Jr. shares some of his sage advice on the attitudes and practices that can help church leaders thrive.

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Intro: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter at www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas. Looking for practical strategies to more effectively engage others and lead change? Listen as leadership expert Lovett H. Weems Jr. shares some of his sage advice on the attitudes and practices that can help church leaders thrive.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary. I’m editor of Leading Ideas E-newsletter and I’m pleased to be the host of this Leading Idea’s Talks podcast where we’re speaking with Dr. Lovett H. Weems Jr. Lovett doesn’t need any introduction, I think, for a lot of our listeners, long time director, founding directory of our Lewis Center for Church Leadership. He’s recently stepped out of that position, but is continuing to serve at the Lewis Center as a Senior Consultant. Prior to that, Lovett served for 20 years as the president of Saint Paul Theological Seminary in the Kansas City area. And before that, a pastor for 20 years in Mississippi. So, it’s an honor to get to talk with him today. Lovett, welcome to you.

Lovett Weems: I’m happy to be with you.

Ann Michel: So I’ve had the incredible privilege, over many years, of working with Lovett and often being in the classroom with him as he worked with groups of church leaders and pastors on strategies to improve their leadership and I’ve learned so much, but I’ve also seen the evidence of how helpful some of his advice has been to those leaders. And so, I though today, what we could do is just cover some of those areas where I know that Lovett has some really sage and practical advice to give to people. And I wanted to start with how we lead others. One of the most important points in the beginning of Lovett’s book, Church Leadership, is that leadership is always about a group, it’s not about an individual. And, I think, I know that Lovett has some really practical advice on how it’s best to engage other people.

Lovett Weems: Well, there are thousands of things about leadership that we don’t know. But there are a few things we do know. And one is, leadership’s always about a group. It’s not about the leader. I think about the group being those that God has given us. And I also like the definition of leadership that Scott Cormode has done, “Leadership is helping God’s people take the next faithful step.” One of the reasons I like that definition is that it reminds us that leadership is always about a group of people, not about the leader. Leadership is helping God’s people take the next faithful step. So it’s always about a group. For example, a pastor might serve at a congregation for five or six years, preach very good sermons, do pastoral care very well, make sure administration is done well. In fact, be a very skilled professional pastor. Everyone in the congregation is pleased to have this pastor. But, when this pastor leaves, after a number of years, the congregation as a whole, has not taken their next faithful step. So, leadership is about more than doing your job well. It’s obviously better to do your job well than to do it poorly, but you can do all the technical aspects of your leadership, you can get all the tasks checked off and do them well and people can be pleased with it. And yet, the people God has given you have not taken that next faithful step. The same would be true for a youth worker, or a Sunday school teacher, or anyone else. So it means that you begin by saying “in this leadership role, who are the people God has given me?” For a youth director, it certainly would be the youth. But it’s also the parents of the youth, and, in a sense, the congregation as a whole. So the starting point is not with me, as the leader, what are my values, what are my goals, what do I think we should be doing, but it’s beginning with the people God has given us and trying to discern what that next faithful step might be.

Ann Michel: Yeah, thank you for sharing that definition. I think it is so important. From there, I’d like to talk about some of the specific tools and strategies for helping people take the next faithful step. So let me toss this phrase out, “I’m so proud.”

Lovett Weems: Well, Amy, a student who’s been in one of my classes has learned that phrase and the companion, “I’m so honored.” it is the the thing that my students, behind my back, make most fun of, but it’s what they continue to do because it works. I talk about our needing a presumption of grace and leadership, so a presumption of grace is, you begin with the assumption that other people are as committed and concerned as you are, or anyone else. You assume the best, until people prove you otherwise. So, the way you make that practical, is in using phrases such as “I’m so proud”, or “I’m so honored.” You use those phrases and you add to them something that is both true, and you’d like to see more of. For instance, if it’s a congregation that’s not very welcoming, a pastor might say “You know, if this congregation moves from being cold, uncaring, unwelcoming, to showing radical hospitality, then I will be the first one to name it and celebrate it.” That’s not how it works. You have to name something before it becomes a reality. And so, what you do, for instance, if you’re the pastor in a congregation that is not very hospitable, but just by accident, one Sunday, some visitors come in and sit by people who are gracious to them, and the next week, you get a note from those people, saying how warmly they were received, you take that and say “I am so proud to be the pastor of a church where people come in who know no one here and they are welcomed and they are received” and I would hold up that note card and I would say “I am so proud to be a pastor of this kind of church.” It’s true, you want to see more of it. You have to name it before hand.

Ann Michel: So it’s about affirming the positive, it’s about buying some credibility with people by assuming the best of them as opposed to being critical of them all the time. That’s what a presumption of judgment would be, that you know better than they do.

Lovett Weems: Absolutely. For example, when I was a pastor in Mississippi, sometimes I would say “I am so honored to be a pastor of a church where every person is welcoming.” Knowing that I would have trouble proving that scientifically if I had to, and sometimes people would remind me that God had not revealed God’s wisdom to them in the same way, but yet, it was a way of assuming the best instead of starting out, assuming the worst. Make your mistakes on presuming grace.

Ann Michel: Yeah. Thank you for that. Let me mention another catchphrase that I’ve heard you use, in thinking about how leaders can affirm and motivate others in their group, “leaders make heroes of others”.

Lovett Weems: Well. That goes back to something that I learned from someone who’s considered one of the pioneers of veterinary medicine in the United States. And he and his father before him had developed products to help animals, science dye was the brand name for that, and his father’s philosophy was, we want to make heroes out of the veterinarians. Someone comes to a veterinarian with an animal that they love, if they can recommend a product that we make, that will make that animal healthier, better, live longer, that veterinarian has become a hero in the eyes of those people and we’ll be fine. So how do you find ways to make heroes of others? How do you identify and name things that are done that represent values that you want to see more of? You can connect that with the “I’m so proud”, “I’m so honored.” But also, you can lift up things that people are doing. It may be a, one of the church circles that changes their meeting time so that the after-school program for children can use a particular space. You want to make heroes out of the people and what you have done is, you’ve lifted up to everyone, we are a church that cares about children. We have this program, this is what’s most important. Now, sometimes people are reluctant to name people because of showing preference, for example. Here’s the way I think about that. If someone is recognized if this circle is recognized or a particular class is recognized, or if the trustees are recognized for something, you want it to be so obvious that this is an example of your church’s mission and values, and it’s so obvious why this is being done. You don’t want people sitting in the pews saying “why am I not up there?” Why am I not being recognized?” You want people immediately to know “I know why my circle is not being recognized.” or “I know why I’m not there in connection with this new building we just built.” So it needs to be obvious, but it also needs to be an occasion to lift up your values, lift up your vision, lift up your mission.

Ann Michel: So both of these are really tools that leaders can use to frame situations in a way that communicates the importance of what’s involved and the role that people play in helping to affirm those things as well.

Lovett Weems: Absolutely. The leader has to take initiative in re-framing. Re-framing everything in light of the mission and vision and values of a congregation. That’s why, I like to say that leaders are the chief communication officers and they need to see themselves in that fashion. This doesn’t mean that the leader is the only communication officer, but is the chief communication officer. And it’s not just when announcements are made, and it’s not just in a newsletter message and it’s not just a sermon. Leaders, lay leadership and clergy, need to be thinking about themselves as chief communication officer, the chief story teller, why we’re here. What we are about. And so, if, for example, the newsletter editor expects a pastor’s message every week, instead of seeing that as “my goodness, I’ve got to come up with something.” You see that as another opportunity to tell the story. Now it’s a different verse, but it’s the same tune. Otherwise, your efforts get scattered. It’s not a matter of control, it’s a matter of alignment. You’re not trying to control everything that’s communicated. You are trying to help it align with where we are trying to go as a church. And remember, as these various announcements, pamphlets, website pages, go out, they’re not going out from, people don’t see them coming out from this committee, or that, they see it coming from the church. And you can easily send mixed signals if you’re not helping people see how this connects with everything else.

Ann Michel: Related to that point of a leader being the chief story teller, or the chief communication officer, I’ve often heard you speak about the importance of a leader being able to master the history of a church or an institution. Can you explain why knowing the history is so important to that role of story teller and communication officer?

Lovett Weems: It’s essential. It gives you the material for your story telling. And it gives you the basis of your communication credibility. You need to learn the story. Whether it’s doing a history timeline, whether it’s talking to the elders of the church, reading whatever you can read, you’ve got to know the story. Now, often times, especially among pastors, there’s a tendency to act as if God arrived when you arrived. And so, you’ll notice that every time they do any statistics or anything, it always happens to start with the year they arrived, when the church may have been around 150 or 200 years. But before, no, you’ve got to go back and capture that to understand that you’re a part of a story that was going before you and will continue, God willing, after you. And you have to learn the story. That is not a conventional story that people tell. Usually people will want to talk to you about the church when it was in its hay-day and when King David was their pastor. And I’ve discovered every church has had a King David for a pastor, and I was never the King David. So they’ll want to talk about the 1950s or 1960s, what they had when they were kids that they could deal with. And you want to be in a position to say “Oh, you know, that’s right. But let me tell you about the 1850s.” And usually their eyes will glaze over and that’ll be the end of that. But you really ought to know the story. How many locations have they been in, what happened during the great depression, what happened during this era and that era because, then you can draw from that, as you need to, for what’s needed today. For example, it may put you in the position to say “you know, when our church started looking into this new outreach ministry, and I realized that no other church in this county was doing it, I had some questions. Is this really what a church should be about? But you know, then I remembered and I’m sure some of you know the story much better than I do, that during the Great Depression, our church was the only church in the county to open it’s doors to government programs and poor. And when I remembered that, I said ‘you know, that’s just who we are. We are always the first to reach out when it’s about helping someone.'” Or it may be you’re facing a great challenge. And you’re able to think back to when the church relocated or when it built a building. And I said “you know what that would have cost today? My Goodness, what faith that took.” And you’re able to connect. You see, the last thing that will lead change is to say “Folks, you know the way we’ve always done things here, the way we worship, the way we make decisions, we’re not going to do that anymore. Aren’t you excited about this new future?” They wont be. You want to say “You know what our forefathers and foremothers prayed for before there was even a church here? What they worked for, what they longed for? That’s what we’re going to be more of.”

Ann Michel: Yeah, I’ve had several students, when I’ve asked them to write about the history of their church, tell the story of, in the 19th century, the church being moved on log rollers, their building, six miles, moved on log rollers in order to get closer to the center of town. And I think, my goodness, if a congregation had been willing to drag their building six miles on log rollers in order to get to where the people were, what an amazing story that is in relation to the mission that they have now.

Lovett Weems: That’s right. And that’s another case where you can make heroes out of someone.

Ann Michel: And being more of what we’ve always been. I’ve heard you use that phrase.

Lovett Weems: Yes, that’s right. Being more of what we’ve always been. But selectively, you see, a lot of times, it’s again, this presumption of judgment, people will say “oh, you don’t know my church, we’ve got some bad things in our history and we have some dysfunction, and we’ve got some passive aggressive folks and we’ve got a lot of problems, so we can’t be more of something.” Well it’s selective. You don’t choose everything, it’s like, if we think about our extended family. There’s some people we talk about more than others, but we want that next generation to take the best of that DNA and then go where we’ve not gone before. So, you can have some benign neglect on some of the things that aren’t that great, but focus on what is positive, what is it that we can build on?

Ann Michel: So pulling those positive strands out of the history of a church to give them the basis on which to take that next faithful step. Still on this subject of leader as communicator, I’ve also heard you talk about the concept of inside out thinking in relation to communication. Can you describe what it means to talk about an issue from an inside out perspective?

Lovett Weems: Well, it’s one of the most important frames of mind. In the church, we almost always do our work thinking from inside out. That is, if we have, if we’re teaching a lesson, we want to think about what it is I want to say. And then we say it. A sermon, what is this passage say? What do I want to communicate, and then I communicate it. We plan a Lenten study, and then we promote it. And so, we think of things to do and then we promote them, so it’s inside out. Here’s the idea I want you to hear it, I want you to believe it, I want you to participate. Whereas, leadership requires this outside in way of thinking. So, the starting point is not what I want to say, but who are the people I want to reach? And who are the people who will be listening?

Ann Michel: Yeah. So another way of saying it would be it’s about a stance in communication where you start, not with here’s what I want to tell you, but you start from the perspective of “what is it that you need to hear?”

Lovett Weems: That’s right, absolutely, and how will they most likely hear it? And if it starts with them. Also, part of that re-framing is almost everything needs to be connected to your mission, vision, and values. So, one of the best places to practice outside-in thinking is with church announcements. Because they’re almost always inside out. This group will meet. Youth are offering this. We’ve got this rummage sale coming up, all those things. But just think about it. Here’s someone who shows up at church, looking for a change in their lives. Looking for hope. And the first think they hear is that the youth will have a car wash this Saturday from 2-4 in the church parking lot. And they say “I came looking for Jesus and they’re into car washing!” You know. Well the church is not in the car washing business, we’re in the God business. It doesn’t mean you don’t make an announcement, but somehow you’ve got to connect it. It may be you say “would you like to be a blessing to a poor family in Appalachia this week?” You say “sure, but I’ve got to go to school, I’ve got to go to work.” Well we understand. But you know, for 20 years, the youth of our church have gone every summer to help poor people in Appalachia. It’s just who we are, it’s just the way we’ve brought our kids up here. Now, they do things to raise money and one is a car wash next Saturday. But you know, if you want to help a poor family in Appalachia, even if you don’t have a dirty car, there are ways you can do it. So all of a sudden people know we’re not in the car-wash business. We’re in helping poor people business.

Ann Michel: Right. I sometimes talk about that as the importance of why. But it’s really getting back to that how you frame things so that people understand why we’re doing the things that we do. I think part of the inside-out mentality is that we assume everyone understands the why and we have to keep reminding them of that. That’s a wonderful example.

Lovett Weems: That’s right. You know, one of the things we’ve discovered at many churches is that churches have many many ministries going on for the poor, for the homeless, but there is no unity to it. No language that captures that. It’s almost like every ministry is a stand alone. But think, if you saw that as you have a way of framing all of this, and then each of these ministries becomes another stanza of the song. And so people know immediately, “oh, our church is doing this. And there are a lot of different ways that it does it.”

Ann Michel: Right. And I think sometimes only, it’s only the leader who really has the broader perspective to be able to connect all those dots and help people see how the different programmatic ministries of the church connect to the church’s overarching purpose and mission. And that is an important communication task.

Lovett Weems: Absolutely, because the people who are working in one ministry, they can get so close to that ministry that somebody else has to be able to want to, be able to re-frame that to show how this is one of hundreds of ways that our church is able to make a difference in this community.

Ann Michel: I want to draw this to a close and I thought it would be interesting to hear your perspective, you’ve had such a long and distinguished career, and helping pastors and congregations think about what it means to be more effective in leadership. And I wanted to ask this, as you think about the leadership climate, across the church. What gives you hope and what gives you concern? As you think broadly about some of the challenges that congregations are facing and how they’re addressing them?

Lovett Weems: Well, the concern, I think is that how so many attend to be looking so inward. As if there’s not an expectation that God has a new frontier for us. That God has a next faithful step. It’s almost how do we hold what we have? And any time you start trying to save your life you’re likely to lose your life. So, the more hopeful is that God is doing new things in new ways and that the vision that God has for us is not going to come, I think, from any one denomination, or one leader, or one theological tradition. But I think it’s going to come from some synergy of many things going on that start coming together. And they don’t fit the traditional lines that have tended to separate people. And, so that’s my hope. That God is able to do something that’s far greater than we can plan or orchestrate out of our own ingenuity.

Ann Michel: Yeah, that somehow the Spirit is still active amid all the things.

Lovett Weems: And we can spot it, even if it doesn’t happen on our timeline, or through our structures.

Ann Michel: Right. Well Lovett, I have learned so much from you as I know have so many others who’ve had the benefit of learning from you, whether it’s in the classroom or through your books, or your work at the Leadership Center, and I’m so grateful that we have your voice to help us think more constructively about the leadership challenges that we face. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and our listeners today.

Lovett Weems: I’m very honored to have this conversation with you.

Ann Michel: Thank you Lovett.

Outro: Leading Ideas Talks has been brought to you by the Discovering God’s Future for Your Church. This turnkey video toolkit helps your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for your church’s next faithful steps. Discovering God’s Future for your Church is available on download and DVD at churchleadership.com/shop. Leading Ideas Talks is available on ITunes, the Google Play Store, and Stitcher. Subscribe today! Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at Churchleadership.com/leadingideas.


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

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

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.