Why church leadership should not be a solo act:

Five purposeful leadership practices for churches

Jimmy Arthur Atkins, DSL, is the senior pastor of the True Worship Christian Fellowship nondenominational church, Cary, North Carolina, United States.

One of the greatest gifts God gave Moses was his father-in-law, Jethro. The priest of Midian, Jethro had “heard all that God had done for Moses and for his people” ((Exod. 18:1, ISV) in delivering them from slavery in Egypt. As a seasoned priest, Jethro understood the pressures that ministry often places on those called to shepherd God’s people. Preaching by itself is a full-time responsibility, not to mention providing soul care, counseling, and walking with people during moments of loss and transition.

In the early days of Moses’ calling, Jethro observed that his son-in-law’s approach to leadership would likely cause him and the people to burn out. Moses had created a system in which the people came to him for everything, and he decided on all matters, large and small. In response, Jethro advised Moses that “ ‘what you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone’ ” (Exod. 18:17, 18, NRSV). Pastoral leadership often mirrors that of Moses—rarely good and often ineffective. Church members assume that the pastor will be fully involved in ministry at all levels. That includes leading and planning worship, preaching, conducting Bible studies, counseling married couples, baptizing new believers, and managing church finances and facilities, to name just a few. Moreover, the pastor is also expected to maintain a healthy marriage and be above reproach in leading his or her family according to 1 Timothy 3:5. Unfortunately, it causes too much of ministry, as Jethro warned Moses, to revolve around the sole personality of the leader.

Shared leadership

However, the demands of ministry require a shared leadership approach that leverages the gifts and talents of all parishioners. Shared leadership is about engaging teams and sharing the responsibility of leadership with others to maximize the success of the organization.1 Furthermore, shared leadership embraces the idea that leadership is a role and not a position assigned to one person. Journalist and part-time pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald advocates the need for such a leadership model. “When congregations transition to part-time ministry, their success depends largely on mobilizing laypeople to share the mantle of pastoral responsibility. . . . That involves tapping latent gifts that laypeople haven’t had the chance to use but will flourish more fully when they do.”2

Jethro’s counsel to Moses included creating a shared leadership model and a team-based approach to caring for the concerns of the people. For example, Jethro advised Moses to choose trustworthy and honorable individuals and set them over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. It would allow Moses to deal with only the most important matters while the people themselves could manage more minor issues.

A lack of such organizational structure can lead members to completely bypass com­munication channels and go directly to the pastor when problems arise. Lewis Parks laments the absence of order in small churches and its impact on purposefulness. “You can tell when a small church is in trouble as an organization . . . policies and regulations are casually ignored, channels of communication are skewed, [and] the work is conspicuously unevenly distributed.”3

Purposeful practices

The experience of Moses suggests five purposeful leadership practices that pastors should follow. First, understand that leadership is not a solo performance but rather an ensemble of gifts and talents that work in concert with each other. In his first letter to the believers at Corinth, the apostle Paul observes that while the church is one body, it has many parts (1 Cor. 12:12). Moreover, God has given the church such spiritual gifts as helps, teaching, and administration.

Second, leaders must create environments that will unleash human potential and creativity. If gifts are truly to accomplish their purpose, leaders must be willing to put their egos and insecurities aside for the good of the church. Israel’s first king, Saul was a insecure leader who employed threats of violence and even consulted a witch in a last-ditch effort to hold onto power.

Third, leaders should trust the team that God surrounded them with and delegate authority when necessary. Jesus put a great deal of confidence in His disciples, even though He was often disappointed by their level of faith. Nonetheless, He delegated responsibility to the disciples, which helped them grow and ultimately lead the movement He created. Proverbs 27:17 states that “iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (NRSVA).

Fourth, pastors must be receptive to feedback and willing to adapt ministries to meet the needs of the congregation and not vice versa. To this end, pastors need to demonstrate more humility when plans do not come together as anticipated.

Last, but certainly not least, leaders must attend to their own emotional, physical, and mental well-being. According to a study by the Barna Group, only one in three pastors is considered healthy in terms of well-being.4 When Moses struck the rock in frustration, it precluded him from not being able to lead the people into the Promised Land (Numbers 20). To paraphrase the words of the apostle Paul, pastors must discipline themselves so that they will not become disqualified from the eternal prize they preach about
(1 Cor. 9:27).

Unlock the potential

All in all, leading the church can be challenging but very rewarding at the same time. Congregational dynamics will allow pastors to build authentic relationships with members and foster communities of care. Shared leadership unlocks the potential of others that is often hiding in plain sight. Ultimately, when pastors have time to rest and renew themselves, they will then build strong and thriving congregations that can impact the community and the Kingdom.

  1. Steven McShane and Mary Ann Von Glinow, Organizational Behavior: Emerging Knowledge Global Reality (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2024).
  2. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2020), 51.
  3. Lewis A. Parks, Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2017), 65.
  4. “38 percent of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year,” Barna, November 16, 2021, barna.com/research/pastors-well-bing/.

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Jimmy Arthur Atkins, DSL, is the senior pastor of the True Worship Christian Fellowship nondenominational church, Cary, North Carolina, United States.

July 2024

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