It’s Not All About You: The Benefits of Shared Leadership

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


“I think I have a capacity to sort of suss out the atmosphere and determine pretty quickly what’s healthy and what’s not, and be attentive to what’s not and … address things when they need to be addressed,” explains the Rev. Tim Pearson.

What was unhealthy became obvious soon after Pearson became the rector at Christ Episcopal Church in the Rocky Mountain region. A couple of individuals were souring the weekly coffee hour for the whole congregation and effectively driving away newcomers. Dealing with them would be a challenge, but it would teach the recently ordained priest a lot about shared leadership.

Each Sunday the two men complained loudly about how terribly the church was going downhill. They seemed to want the congregation’s social hour to become something like The McLaughlin Group, Pearson surmises—they wanted people to argue with them, they wanted people to agree with them, but mostly they wanted attention.

“These folks were cornering [new people] as they were arriving and … putting them on the spot to say essentially, what side are you on? … Are you a good traditionalist who’s going to help keep the church where it’s supposed to be, or are you like the rector, one of these progressives who’s … dragging the whole church down and, you know, making the church [go to] hell in a handbasket? So [it was] very clear to me that this was killing our growth potential.”

The new rector approached the two men individually, explaining that certain standards of behavior were expected of members of the church. After that, both men refused to speak to him.

“I called them both one day on my cell phone, and one hung up on me, and the other said ‘There’s nothing to talk about.’ So, I knew that I didn’t know enough.”

Instead of giving up, he reached out to people he trusted in the congregation, asking for their advice. They pointed out a problem with Pearson trying to handle the situation alone: as long as the exchanges between him and the two disgruntled men took place in private, the malcontents—and others in the congregation—could dismiss the conflict as just a personality clash. He needed to involve more of the church community.

“They said, ‘It can’t just be you and them one-on-one,’” Pearson recalled. “They said, ‘You need to have the community—the leadership of the community—own this. And they need to understand what the issues are and then they need to do it…. The leadership of the community needs to help you move this forward, because otherwise it can split your community.’”

Conversation - Simon Blackley

Pearson followed his confidants’ advice and brought the matter to the church’s vestry (governing body of elected lay members). He explained the problem and what was at stake. The members of the vestry were immediately responsive; many of them shared stories of their own frustration with the two men. The group seemed empowered to take action by the fact that he had turned to them.

The vestry decided to send the disgruntled members a firm letter, confirming the church’s behavioral expectations and telling them they would need to meet with Pearson before they would be allowed to return to the church. All the members of the vestry signed the letters.

In the end, both men moved to a different church, an outcome that disappointed Pearson. Still, the problem of their acting as a church’s unofficial gatekeepers was resolved, and he was pleased that the situation had brought out something new in the vestry.

“I thought that I had the relationship skills initially to work with these two individuals and then they cut off communication, so that was a surprise. I thought that I had the ability to communicate clearly the issues to the vestry. … what really captured my excitement was to see them become excited and to see them see that they had a voice and that they had a role and that they could resolve this on their own.”

Before this experience, Pearson’s usual approach to a problem was to assess the situation on his own and then recruit a few key people to help him quickly identify the best solution. Now he sees the value in taking the time to sit down and discuss the issue with a lot of different people, really listening to their perspectives.

He says the resolution of the situation at Christ Church changed the way he thinks about conflict: “I learned that there is opportunity in conflict that I hadn’t understood before.… perhaps one of the places of greatest potential is where there is conflict. And so I learned not to be afraid of conflict, but I also learned that the church is a place where folks will go an extra mile to walk away from a conflict rather than just be honest and engage it directly.”


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Reaching Out Toward the Future: What a Highly Effective Minister Looked For in His Next Church

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


The Rev. Tim Pearson was excited by what he discovered during his interview visit to All Saints Episcopal Church, a large parish with a dwindling congregation where he soon came to be rector. Recalling his interview, he said, “[The church] had begun a process of forward-looking and imaging what the future is going to be like in a pretty realistic way…. They had hired a futurist to come. [He] talked to them about what the Episcopal Church is going to be like in the future, and they realized that [their own] current … situation was not fully sustainable.”

In response, the church leadership had taken a close look at possible scenarios for not only their parish but three other Episcopal churches in the area. A conversation emerged between these four congregations, exploring how they might confront their future together.

St Peters Lutheran Church

Pearson explained, “At least some of the people were talking about all of the four churches in the conversation getting rid of their buildings and starting something new. That struck me as missionally centered, as being intentional about reaching out to the future with open arms rather than in fear. That was very exciting.”

This was one of the most important things about All Saints that led Pearson to accept the congregation’s call to become its new rector. In our interview with him seven months later, he said that this and other qualities of the members of the congregation were important factors in his decision to come.

Unlike his previous congregation, in which many people had seemed depressed and uncertain of themselves, All Saints was a congregation with confidence: “Here we have a community of leaders who just are leaders in their lives, and they’re used to running projects and being able to take the ball and run with it. [They] don’t need to be encouraged to be able to do that work … they’re already there.”

Our previous research indicates that more effective clergy tend to be drawn to congregations by intrinsic interests, such as opportunities for growth, and challenges that match their skills.1 More effective clergy also form more positive initial impressions about the qualities of the people in the congregations they are called to serve.

In contrast, less effective or struggling clergy focus more on extrinsic interests: geographical location, for example, or financial stability. They also form more negative initial impressions about the qualities of the people in the congregations they currently serve.

Of course, little in ministry goes exactly as expected or planned. On assuming the role of rector at All Saints, Pearson quickly launched an ambitious plan to obtain an accurate assessment of the congregation’s sense of itself:

“I called the vestry to do a vestry retreat within a month of my arriving … and I taught them the community organizing technique of one-on-one’s. [I] organized them to do one-on-one’s with each member of the congregation—each active member of the congregation—with the thought that they would … bring back to the vestry the passions, the interests, the concerns of the congregation. And based on that, we would have clear understanding of where issues were and also where we’re called to go moving forward.”

Pearson was the first to admit that this effort was only a “middling success”; apparently the vestry (the church’s governing body of elected lay members) was not as committed to the plan as he was, and many of the members did not complete their assigned interviews.

Still, he didn’t seem overly discouraged by this, or by his discovery that the church was in worse financial shape than he was originally told. By the end of his first seven months, he had initiated the first serious stewardship campaign at All Saints that anyone could remember, and he was nurturing the budding relationships that had already begun with the three neighboring churches.

“We started making the conversation between the four churches a living, breathing reality rather than just a dialogue … at the highest levels of leadership,” he said. “We’ve been talking with all the parishes and we’ve been publicizing each other’s events, but [All Saints and one other church] have actually been doing things together. We held two joint services … where both congregations came together on a Sunday at the beginning of the summer and then one at the end of the summer. We are doing a confirmation program together with [them] that’s going to be a … two-year confirmation program. We just got back from a retreat last weekend with kids from the two churches.”

Pearson demonstrates the value of positive initial impressions—and how, even after some initial disappointment, a continuing positive outlook and high expectations regarding a congregation makes a difference in the trajectory of ministry, leadership, and mission.



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1 John Dreibelbis and David Gortner, “Markers of Strong and Effective Clergy Leadership: Preliminary Findings” (research report presented at the 2002 Conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, New Orleans, LA, February–March 2002). Effective clergy mentioned twice as many positive initial impressions about their congregations as negative, while struggling clergy mentioned nearly twice as many negative initial impressions about their congregations as positive.