Linking leadership and successful pastoring: An investigation

A study indicating specific leadership qualities and practices that make good leaders

Skip Bell, D. Min., is professor of church leadership and administration, as well as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
Roger Dudley, Ed.D., is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Do leadership practices correlate with successful pastoral ministry? We ask this question because we frequently notice that, while programs and resources vary and change, progress seems to be a constant with certain pastors.

What empowers these church leaders to continue with unusual success, even when their ministry context or emphasis changes? The question becomes more complex when we consider that people equally devoted to Jesus, seem to experience differing levels of success; thus suggesting that it is difficult to conclude that spiritual commitment alone is the factor that predicts pastoral success as we customarily define it.

Is leadership practice, rather than particular programs or resources, the "constant" that accompanies pastoral success?

Success criteria for pastoral ministry

Such questions require agreement regarding the criteria composing pastoral success. Achieving such agreement is an ambitious pursuit. The conversations and perspectives of varied constituencies of the church must be assimilated, objective analysis provided, and a set of criteria put forward.

We have identified a set of criteria for qualifying success in pastoral ministry through interviews with pastors, members, and church administrators, a focus group composed of ministerial secretaries, a survey of 62 members of eight conference executive committees in various regions of the North American Division, and a review of church-growth literature. Thirty-four of the respondents to the aforementioned 62-person conference executive committee survey, were not church employees or ministry professionals, 11 were pastors, 17 were administrators.

Analysis of the above-mentioned research steps1 led us to establish the following set of criteria for measuring pastoral success:

1. The growth of the church.

2. The motivation and development of members in ministry.

3. Effective communication of the Word of God.

4. Effective soul-winning ministry.

5. A compelling, well-communicated, inspiring vision for growth.

6. Inspiring worship services.

7. Spiritual strength in personal and family life.

8. A ministry that contributes to unity in the church.

9. A ministry that builds trust among constituents.

10. A ministry that multiplies loving relationships in the church.

11. Attendance increases.

12. Giving patterns that are improving.

13. The ability of the church to sustain healthy growth.

A framework of leadership practices

The opening questions, identified above, also require that a cluster, or "framework," of leadership practices be defined. A practice is a recurring pattern of behavior predictable within a person in response to a certain environment. In the case of pastoral leadership practices, it is the dominant way a person thinks, feels, or acts in an environment that evokes pastoral leadership behaviors.

Innumerable systems exist for the construction of a leadership practice framework. We referenced a framework with five practices applicable to church leadership the research from TCP/Learning Systems founded by Jim Kouzes and Tom Peters.

Five key leadership practices make up the Kouzes-Posner leadership framework: challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, and encouraging the heart. 2 This leadership frame-work has been assessed in numerous studies with an instrument known as the Leadership Practices Inventory, which has been used in several studies of church organizations.3

The research samples

To investigate possible correlation between leadership practices and successful pastoral ministry, we had to secure two sample groups of pastors distinguished by this set of criteria, one group representing distinctive success and the other a more average norm. To achieve this in our study, we selected a purposive sample of 23 conferences in the NAD. We sent a list of the pastoral success criteria to the ministerial secretary of each of these conferences. Each of them was asked to list five pastors in that conference who significantly fitted the success criteria, and randomly select five pastors who would represent an average performance under this standard.

Sixteen conferences responded, sending 66 names for those recommended as meeting the success criteria, and 56 as representing the average. We then examined conference directories and identified congregational leadership lists for each congregation served by a pastor named on either list. From these we selected three lay leaders from each congregation. We mailed the assessment tool, the 30-item Leadership Practices Inventory for "Observers," to each lay leader along with a letter including these instructions: "Your pastor has been selected to be part of a research project of leadership practices among Seventh-day Adventist pastors across North America.

"As a leader in your local congregation, your help is needed for this project. Included in this envelope you will find a Leadership Practices Inventory survey called 'Observer' with instructions on the front cover ... as well as a self-addressed, postage-paid, return envelope. We are asking that you simply fill out the survey according to the instructions and return it in the envelope provided."

The lay member was also informed that "all responses are anonymous and highly confidential, so please do not discuss this survey with anyone." Thus, the pastors were not aware that lay leaders were rating them.


We received 199 usable surveys, evaluating 109 pastors.4 These data consist of 120 responses on 62 pastors from the "success" group, and 79 responses on 47 in the "average" group. Each pastor received a score on the five leadership practices, with a maximum score of 60. These data were analyzed using the Statistical Packages for the Social Sciences (SPSS) program for the difference between two independent means. An average score for each group of pastors on each of the five leadership practices is shown in Table 1. The percentage next to the average score is that of the average score compared to the total possible score of 60. The average scores for the combined five practices are also shown.

In every case the mean score of the "successful" pastors is significantly higher than the mean score of the "average" group. Statisticians generally accept the .05 level or lower as indicating a significant difference between two groups. This indicates that there are fewer than five chances in a hundred that these differences could be obtained if there were no real differences in the population group (all NAD pastors) from which these samples were drawn.

In four of the five differences the level is .001. This indicates that only one chance in a thousand exists that these groups are not really different. The one exception is in the "Modeling the Way" category. Even here the .013 level indicates that only about thirteen chances in a thousand could yield these results if no difference actually existed.

Furthermore, if we combine all the practices into one super-leadership scale, we find an average mean of about 228 for the "success" group of pastors and only about 190 for the "average" group. Adventist pastors who meet the success criteria adopted are significantly more likely (.001 level) to be rated higher on leadership skills than pastors whose performance is considered average.

On each of the five leadership practices (Challenging the Process, Inspiring a Shared Vision, Enabling Others to Act, Modeling the Way, and Encouraging the Heart) the pastors who qualified under the "success" criteria were significantly higher than the pastors who formed the "average" group. This was also true when all five practices were combined into a "super-leadership-practice" scale.

While this relationship does not prove that one causes the other, it seems that applying superior leader ship practices enables pastors to be more successful. This study has demonstrated a strong correlation between the two.

The priority of leadership development

One subjective observation seems evident: Investment in leadership development must become a priority. Leadership development itself is frequently misunderstood. While it is beyond the limitation of this report to prescribe a leadership development process, we must define the terms of this observation.

While there are by all means indefinable, subjective elements that underlie the persona of successful leaders, professionals who devote their careers to adult professional education in the field of leadership describe the process on at least three levels: (1) personal identification and formation, which certainly incorporates spiritual formation; (2) under standing and developing leadership practices, often cast as traits; and (3) skill formation, including administrative competencies.

Leadership development is an ongoing, intentional, and enduring process. It is not communicated in seminars alone, nor in occasional inspirational messages. The encouraging reality is that leadership practices can be developed and can grow out of significant personal and spiritual transformation.

Thus, it would not only be wise but imperative to devote considerable attention in graduate ministerial education and in lifelong continuing education to develop and inculcate effective leadership practices within the members of our pastoral family at large.

1 See Andrews University Seminary Studies, Volume 40, number 2, Fall 2002, for a technical report and complete data.

2 The framework, published in The Leadership Challenge, has been validated consistently in over ten years of research (James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995]).

3 One such notable work is the Ph.D. dissertation of T. D. Zook, "An Examination of Leadership Practices in Large Protestant Congregations" (Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 1993).

4 in addition to the 199 "usable" surveys, we also received eight that were discarded due to various problems, three that were returned with a refusal to participate, 14 that were returned as undeliverable, and two that arrived after the cut-off date. There were 122 congregations identified, with the survey being sent to three lay members per church or 366 total surveys. If we eliminate the 14 "undeliverables," 352 are presumed to have reached their destination. If we add the 199 usable surveys, the eight with problems, and the two that were late, the total of returned surveys equals 209. This represents 59 percent of the 352 that were presumably delivered.



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Skip Bell, D. Min., is professor of church leadership and administration, as well as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
Roger Dudley, Ed.D., is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

August 2003

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