What Abraham Lincoln Teaches Pastors About Leadership

Abraham Lincoln is the country’s greatest president. His achievements in four years in office are many. To name a few, Lincoln guided the Union to victory in the Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and guided the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage in Congress.

Lincoln is an important leader to study and understand. This is especially true for pastors who are interested in improving how they lead their respective churches. Lincoln offers a great case study for pastors wanting to effectively and gracefully lead their communities.

Here are five key leadership attributes pastors can learn from studying Lincoln.

Lincoln did not compromise who he was. Lincoln was a storyteller. He had an anecdote for every situation. The stories had a purpose. They helped to articulate Lincoln’s position on various issues, such as how to prosecute the end of the war. That doesn’t mean that they were always appreciated. Lincoln’s stories were sometimes met with disdain by members of his cabinet. They felt Lincoln’s storytelling was undignified, but Lincoln never stopped telling stories. He remained true to who he was.

That is an important lesson for a pastor. Many pastors get caught up in “being” like someone else. So much so that we forget to “be” the person and leader God desires us to be. True leadership must be authentic for it to inspire others. For instance, I am a writer. If I was to stop writing and focus my abilities on artistic expressions of faith, which I am not gifted to do, I would not be true to myself. I would suffer, because I am not doing something God has called me to do, and my church would suffer because they are not being authentically led. Pastors should learn from others, but it must not keep us from using the gifts God has given us.

Lincoln did not allow obstacles to become permanent. From what we can learn of Lincoln’s childhood, Lincoln faced difficult circumstances. His father put him to work for others. His mother died at an early age. He had a limited formal education. The obstacles continued as Lincoln became an attorney and politician. He incurred debt from a business deal. He was removed from an important case in Cincinnati and had his counsel ignored by Edwin Stanton, who was one of the case’s key attorneys. He was defeated by Stephen Douglas to represent Illinois in the Senate.

With each obstacle, Lincoln never lost his focus or ambition. He educated himself. He paid off his debt. He learned from other lawyers. He kept active in politics. Each obstacle provided Lincoln an opportunity to learn and grow. Lincoln never allowed these moments to become permanent distractions.

Pastors can get caught up in their own obstacles. There are many obstacles in a pastor’s life that range from the personal to the pastoral. Pastors have a tendency to make these obstacles a crippling millstone. These obstacles end up harming our ministries and cripple our effectiveness to lead. Pastors must be willing to learn from the difficult moments that impact our lives. An effective pastor does not allow obstacles to become defining attributes.

Lincoln was not afraid to place strong leaders in major roles. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he faced the problem of being relatively unknown. He was also not seen as the leader of his own party. That position was held by William Seward, whom Lincoln defeated for the Republican Party nomination. Recognizing his weaknesses and the need for capable leaders in his cabinet, Lincoln appointed his rivals to key positions in his administration. Seward became his Secretary of State. Salmon Chase, who never lost sight of his own presidential ambition, was named Secretary of Treasury. Edward Bates would be Lincoln’s Attorney General and Montgomery Blair would serve as the Postmaster General. Lincoln even named Stanton, the same person who refused to accept his counsel, as Secretary of War. Each of these men could have been president in their own right, but came to appreciate Lincoln’s leadership strength.

In appointing his rivals to important cabinet posts, Lincoln showed confidence and humility. Lincoln knew who he was, both in his strengths and weaknesses. He was confident enough to appoint others who were perceived to be more capable. Lincoln was not easily intimated or influenced by the views and opinions of others. At the same time, Lincoln showed great humility. He knew he had weaknesses and needed the help of others to lead the country.

Every pastor should have confidence and humility. Pastors should have confidence in their talents and be willing to share leadership with others who are gifted and talented. This doesn’t mean that pastors skirt from their responsibilities, but that they allow others to participate in leading the church. Pastors should also be humble enough to recognize their weaknesses. Often, pastors will try to lead in every area and not ask for help. This is the cause of burnout for many pastors. Pastors must be able to step aside and give opportunities to people who are more suited for a given task.

Lincoln took time to make a decision. During his four years in office, Lincoln faced several difficult decisions. Most important was the decision Lincoln had to make about slavery. When he entered office, Lincoln’s main concern was the preservation of the Union. That was his main goal, but he was also concerned about slavery and wanted it to end.

Lincoln waited a year before fully addressing the issue of slavery. He had to think through his own views about ending slavery and had to wait for the right time to make a decision. The radical base of his party felt Lincoln was too slow in addressing slavery, while others felt he shouldn’t address it. When Lincoln announced his desire to end slavery and sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he did not waver. The decision defined his presidency and the Civil War.

Pastors today believe quick action is the sign of an effective leader. This is perhaps in keeping with our fast-paced culture. If a decision is not made immediately, we believe people will doubt our leadership or say we are not moving fast enough. Leadership patience is not a virtue many pastors have. Pastors would be wise to take time to think through a given issue. This leaves room for a pastor to spend time in prayer and to hear God’s desires.

Lincoln was always learning. Lincoln had a deep passion for education. He always wanting to learn and to grow in his knowledge of different topics. This included learning about military strategy and theology.

Lincoln’s education in these two areas served him well. His military self-education on helped him to realize that many of his generals were failing to understand the Confederate army. He became an active commander-in-chief primarily because of his own understanding of the military. Lincoln also grew in his faith throughout his presidency. Prior to his election, Lincoln had faith in God but had serious doubts and questions about faith. These questions guided him to learn more about theology and faith. This time of study helped him to craft a Second Inauguration Address that set the tone for reconciliation between the North and South.

Pastors must be leaders who learn. This education must go beyond sermon preparation. Learning must include personal growth in our faith in Christ and learning about different theological topics. At the same time, pastors must learn about the issues that our communities face. For instance, we cannot lead through a time of economic crisis if we are not willing to learn about what caused the current crisis.

Lincoln is an important American figure and leader. He has inspired generations through his words that defined the Civil War as not just a battle between North and South, but a battle between right and wrong. Lincoln’s leadership qualities, those listed and not listed, should be studied by anyone in leadership, especially pastors who seek to effectively lead their churches and communities of faith.

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