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Inspiring leadership

The Presbyterian motto “decently and in order” may reinforce the status quo instead of pushing the boundaries. How does our denomination develop leaders, Aaron Neff wonders?

Who is a leader? Is it just the person in charge? I think leadership should be more than that. Just because someone has a title (like “pastor” or “session member”) doesn’t make them a leader. Just because someone has a seat at the table where decisions are made does not make them a leader. A person with a title might be really inept at delegating decision-making. A person with a seat at the table might make unwise decisions. I would think such a person should hardly be considered a leader.

What about a person in charge of a group who often makes good decisions? I’m not sure a decisive person with authority is automatically a leader. I find drawing a distinction between a manager and a leader to be helpful. So what’s the difference?

I agree with many experts who define leadership as influence. Everyone has some amount of influence over other people in their lives, and that means everyone has some measure of leadership. Everyone also has some capacity to grow their influence. That’s why the hallmark of great leadership is gaining followers (i.e., growing influence). People want to follow great leaders. That is, by definition, what makes them great leaders.

Managers, like all people, have some amount of influence over others. What separates leaders from managers is their capacity to grow their influence. Managers are great at maintaining systems and processes. Leaders are great at influencing the thoughts and behaviors of people. Managers are great at achieving a specific and controlled outcome. Leaders are great at creating innovative solutions to common and unpredicted challenges. Managers react to change by giving people directions. Leaders create change by empowering other people to become leaders on their own.

In the context of a church, managers are great at setting agendas for and moderating meetings, populating a church calendar with the right number of events (not too many, not too few), making sure we follow proper parliamentary procedure, checking items off a to-do list, and retaining institutional memory. Great leaders have a vision bigger than the current realities in our churches that inspires hope and action. They desire to rally people around that vision and then empower them to make it a reality. They desire to add value to other people’s lives and know when our current church programs and ministries are no longer adding value effectively. They know that, for people to follow them, they must lead by example.

When we look around our churches, do we see more managers than leaders?

When we look around our churches, do we see more managers than leaders? To be clear, we need both. However, I find that the Presbyterian motto “decently and in order” reinforces a manager’s mindset rather than inspiring leadership. If all we have are managers, we are doomed to stay within our familiar systems and models of ministry, whether they work or not.

If we want to empower future leaders, we first need to become leaders ourselves. That may be overly simplistic, but I think you get my point. If you are a teaching elder or a ruling elder and you don’t see many leaders around you, there is a very simple solution.

It starts with you. Today. Right now. Decide that you will begin your journey of growing your influence and becoming a greater leader. Spend time in prayer. Ask God to help you imagine a future for the church that inspires you and brings hope to the world. Then, ask God for the words, images, and ideas to communicate that vision to your church.


The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here

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