Self-Efficacy in Church Leadership: The Difference It Makes

[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.]


One of the indicators of clergy effectiveness that our research has identified is self-efficacy, a fundamental belief that you can succeed in a particular situation. We saw signs of strong self-efficacy in many of the most effective clergy we interviewed, including the Rev. Tim Pearson, an Episcopal priest serving in the Midwest.

Psychologists believe that self-efficacy starts to develop in early childhood but continues to grow and evolve through life experiences. One story told by Pearson suggests he had strong self-efficacy when he began seminary.

Pearson realized that the seminary he attended provided no formal training about working with alcoholics and issues of alcoholism. As someone in recovery himself, he recognized this as a problem—most of his peers would need to provide pastoral care or counseling for individuals addicted to alcohol at some point.

“I talked to the administration—to the people that are in charge of such things— and said, ‘Could we do something?’” Pearson recalled. “And they said ‘Well, we don’t have the resources. You want to do something?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’

“So I put together a day-long program that involved people from Al-Anon but also people from the big [local rehabilitation center], … and [I] put together a day-long program, which they then said, ‘Okay, you can get some credit for this if you go and do it.’ And we had tremendous turnout for it; it was a good day.”

3316624350 - CopyThis “can-do,” entrepreneurial spirit demonstrates a strong sense of self-efficacy. Instead of treating the lack of alcoholism training as a permanent flaw or failing of the seminary, Pearson approached the situation as an opportunity for growth.

“People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided,” wrote Albert Bandura, the psychologist known for defining the term self-efficacy.

Not all religious environments are so supportive of individuals with high levels of initiative and self-efficacy. During Pearson’s Transition into Ministry residency program following seminary, he clashed with his supervising priest over issues of authority.

The incident started with a connection that Pearson made with a young married woman in his TiM congregation. She wished more young adults were active in the church, and she and Pearson spontaneously started brainstorming what a young adult ministry might look like, who might support it, and where they would advertise it. Pearson got as far as discussing the idea with local businesses—without having the plan thoroughly vetted by his supervisor.

“I got called on the carpet for not consulting effectively with my boss about this before making any real plans,” he said. “And I felt that it was an ego thing more—that her response had more to do with my not respecting her authority to ask her, and maybe she was sensing the fact that I had some trouble in other ways respecting her…. Anyway, she said, ‘You know, you didn’t ask me about this. You can’t do this—this is not appropriate. I don’t want the church spending its time and effort to do this. I don’t think it’s going to work. Don’t do it.’”


For Your Consideration

  • How would you respond in this situation, with a leader who reacted this way to your efforts?


Pearson admits that he had difficulty respecting this supervisor, a “deeply conflict-avoidant priest” who refused to take on tasks she found challenging and uncomfortable, such as making fundraising appeals.

“There were times when I would go outside of the channels and (maybe this is what got me in trouble) look to … the leadership of the church itself, but also leaders who were members of the church,” he said, explaining that the TiM residency was set up as a program in which not just the supervisor but the whole congregation was mentoring him.

While Pearson states that his TiM supervisor wasn’t ideal, he also emphasizes what he learned from the experience—and he recovered quickly. This is another aspect of self-efficacy: the ability to recover from setbacks and disappointments.

“I learned that you need to talk to your boss,” he said, later adding, “I think I learned how important it is to take risks for me, and that not being allowed to do that helped me to make the decision that it was going to be time to leave before too long. I really wanted to be able to make my own mistakes, and I’d had that freedom in my field education placement as a seminarian. Here I was, an ordained priest, and I was not being allowed to screw up on my own.”

Pearson praised his field education supervisor for the way she encouraged him and the other seminarians that she supervised:

“When I started, she said, ‘You know, I want you to make your own mistakes. The only thing I expect is that if you screw up, you let me know—you don’t hide it, you don’t try to sweep it under the rug, just say “I messed up,” and we’ll work through it….’ She encouraged us to step outside our comfort zones.”

In our research, we have found that clergy with stronger self-efficacy are less likely to consider leaving congregation-based ministry for another venue and form of Christian ministry. They are also less likely to consider leaving ordained ministry altogether.

Today Pearson’s strong sense of self-efficacy is infectious, permeating the way he serves his own church and manages his staff, striving to nurture self-confidence and creativity in others.

“I encourage innovation in my staff; I encourage innovation and rethinking in my vestry and other leadership,” he said. “I want to be a coach, and I want to be an encourager and a supporter. I don’t want to be a micro-manager.”


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Creativity and Change Management in the Church—One Pastor’s Approach

[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. Chris McKinney knows that sometimes you have to be creative to get your congregation’s attention. Like setting snack chips on fire during your sermon.

“It was during Lent, and I was giving up chips for Lent,” he recalls, “and we were talking about offering sacrifices to God. And I was talking about it … and the whole time I was putting lighter fluid on this bowl of chips while I was talking, and then I threw a match in there.

Lit candles 2 - Alight“People still talk about it. When people invite their friends to church, they say, ‘You never know what he’s going to do. Sometimes he’ll start a fire.’ So, you know, there are things that probably aren’t risky in other churches, but to our church, it feels different. It feels like a risk, but they end up enjoying it most of the time.”

In the three years he’s been at Hope Baptist Church, Pastor McKinney has found ways to be strategic about making changes to the worship that are bigger than just spicing up the sermon. Considering the Midwest church’s very traditional worship style, he came to the conclusion that offering an alternative service might help the congregation to grow.

“Instead of turning our 8:30 service into a contemporary worship service, I started one on Sunday night that was in addition— [I] didn’t change anything in the morning, because I knew the people that came at 8:30 would crucify me if I did. And I knew it was too soon. … And so I did something that didn’t affect them. It happened alongside them. So, it was a risk, but it was also mainly a risk to my own health, not to the church.”


Adding a Contemporary Worship Service

McKinney asked a colleague at the local college to recommend a student with outstanding skills as a worship leader. That student was paid a stipend to lead the Sunday night service, with his band providing music, and to promote it to college students via social media. More than 100 people attended the launch of the new worship service.

Unfortunately, the only church members who regularly came on Sunday evening were people who had long been complaining about the lack of a contemporary service. McKinney had explained to them that this effort wasn’t about them getting what they wanted—it was about welcoming a new demographic of people into the church.

Vintage Faith Church - Vintage 130 - Copy“They got it for about a month,” he said. “And then they started griping about everything. Everything. It was never about reaching out for them. It was never about celebrating the good of what was happening.”

At the end of the year, when the time came to evaluate the evening service, attendance was averaging out around several dozen people—enough for McKinney to consider it a success. Yet the additional workload and the stress of continually dealing with the negativity of the disgruntled group were taking their toll. He decided to discontinue the Sunday evening service in order to have more time and energy to give to the rest of the congregation and to his family.

McKinney doesn’t seem discouraged by this: “I knew it was a little bit of a risk. I knew it could fail … but it wasn’t a failure, because we tried it. We experienced it. We learned from it.”

One thing the congregation learned was that a real need for college ministry existed in their community. After his student worship leader left, McKinney used the funding from that position to hire a part-time college ministry coordinator, who successfully organized weekly worship, Bible studies, and simple dinners for undergraduate students.


Managing the Risks of Making a Change

McKinney takes an experimental approach to ministry and outreach, trying new things without being overly attached to an expected outcome; he understands that it’s possible to encourage innovation while still treating the congregation’s values, culture, and traditions with respect. He says that many of the church’s lay leaders seem surprised about how many changes have been made in the past few years, and how few serious missteps or conflicts there have been.

He describes his methods of change management this way:

“You get the people that need to buy in to buy into it. You get them on board. You have the one-on-one conversations you need to have. You get the influencers involved that everybody looks up to. You weigh the real issue, which is people’s experience of loss … people really get upset when they feel like they’re losing something.

“So, people don’t get upset when you start a new worship service. They get upset when you take their worship service away. People don’t get upset when you start small groups. They get upset when you take their small groups away. People don’t get upset when you bring in a new staff person. They get upset when you fire their staff, when their staff person has to go away because of that.”

Some of these same insights underlie a change management strategy called parallel development. It suggests that, when a church or other organization is split between those who are excited about new possibilities and those who feel threatened by them, leaders may need to hold the two in tension for a time. If an innovation is life-giving, it will usually grow and gain support; if a past tradition has become stale or irrelevant, it may naturally fade away in time.1

McKinney says that when something new really takes off and energizes the congregation, then the members won’t mind if something less effective gets eliminated later.

When he arrived at Hope Baptist Church, he found a “shotgun approach to mission”—lots of minor mission partnerships with no unified focus. Instead of eliminating the ones he considered less vital, he helped the congregation identify a couple of things they wanted to focus on. As time passed, they began to focus more and more on those things and build their congregational identity around them.

“Now, you know, a few years in, they’re looking at those other things that they were just throwing money at,” he said, “and they’re going, ‘Well, why should we keep throwing money at that when this is the thing we’re really passionate about, and we could do more over here if we stopped throwing money at that and gave it over here?’ So, those things begin to die away. …

“So maybe I’m not as much of a risk-taker. I think I take very calculated risks.”



For Your Consideration

  • What kinds of risk do you think are beneficial for churches to take?
  • What kinds of risk do congregations expect their pastors or priests to take? What kinds of risk are off limits?
  • When you are deciding whether or not to take a particular risk, what factors do you weigh?


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1 Arlin J. Rothauge, Parallel Development: A Pathway for Exploring Change and a New Future in Congregational Life (New York: Congregational Development Services, Episcopal Church Center, [199-]),