Today is President’s Day. It is the day we honor the 43 men who have served as the head of state and chief executive for our nation.
Throughout our history, we have seen a wide variety of individuals occupy the office. We’ve had military leaders, former athletes, some who struggled with family and personal issues, leaders of high ethics, leaders of limited morality, and an actor to name a few. Each president has added something to the office and to our understanding of leadership.
As a pastor, I also believe we can learn something about effective and vital leadership through expressions of leadership given by the presidents. A president leads in a vacuum and must serve, through many challenges and obstacles, with the hope of bringing the nation closer to an intended good. As pastors, we too seek to lead our people, though many challenges and obstacles, to what it means to be holy as God calls us to be and to serve the world in response to God’s love. The ways we see the presidents lead can help us, as leaders in the church, serve God and our communities.
Here are five practical tools of leadership pastors can discern from the presidents.
1) Every leadership position comes with challenges. Every president has faced challenges during their terms. For President Obama, it has been the ongoing recession and the lack of sustainable economic growth. For President Kennedy, it was the threat of nuclear war with Russia. For President Lincoln, it was the secession of southern states and the Civil War. All presidents enter the White House with an understanding that there will be challenges.
Pastors often enter their ministries without this understanding. We sometimes expect ministry to come easy, because we are doing the work God has called us to do. However, every leadership position comes with its own set of challenges. Pastors would do well to accept that ministry, and leadership in general, is difficult and challenges will happen that will test our leadership abilities.
2) Pastors need a good set of advisers. President Washington had a difficult task in 1789. He was taking on the new role of president and had to lead the young nation into the unknown. It was to Washington’s credit that he had several key voices to help him in this effort. These key voices, which included Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Knox as Secretary of War, formed the basis of what would be known as The Cabinet. Members of the Cabinet are trusted leaders and advisers who assist the president in making key decisions and establishing important policies.
Pastors need people who they can trust to offer advice about the decisions they have to make. They need strong lay leaders who will help to carry forward the church’s mission and vision. At the same time, pastors need reliable voices who will “speak the truth in love” about various issues. No pastor can serve in isolation. We need people who will walk beside us in our ministries.
3) Communication is important to lead effectively. Presidents are communicators. Every president must communicate their plans and intent to the nation. Because of this, presidents must use various communication tools to interact with people on their staffs and throughout the nation about various issues. The presidents who have succeeded in communicating their message have often been the ones who have excelled in their leadership. This is because they were able to say what they were doing and got people on board.
Pastors must lead by being effective communicators. This is more than just being able to preach a challenging and engaging sermon. Pastors must clearly and articulately communicate a church’s vision and purpose to the various groups within the church and community. At the same time, pastors must use effective means of communication to build consensus for different plans, encourage members, and help foster unity and connection within the church. A pastor who communicates well is often one who will better be able to see their church working together toward a common vision.
4) Leaders make mistakes. No president has been free of mistakes. Even great presidents made mistakes. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Act to silence his critics. President Lincoln did away with the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to stack the Supreme Court in order to gain more control over the court. If all presidents will make some mistakes, the mark of an effective president, then, might be how a president overcomes the challenges produced by these mistakes. In other words, great leaders rebound from their mistakes and lead with a new resolve.
The same can be said of pastors. Every pastor will make mistakes. I have yet to meet a pastor, myself included, who has not made a mistake in their ministries. We will say the wrong thing. We will upset someone. We will fail to call someone who needed a call. The mark of a good pastor, like that of a good president, is how we respond to our mistakes. How will we grow from these moments and become better leaders? That is what helps define an effective pastoral leader.
5) Leaders must work with different groups. In our modern political climate, a president must work with various political groups who often are on the extremes of each other. Over the last sixty years, we have seen different presidents work with this polarized climate in different ways. However, even before the advent of our polarized political process, we can see examples of presidents who worked with various groups in order to pass needed policies and to help promote the nation’s good.
Pastors, too, must be able to work with the various groups that exist within our churches and communities. Every church is filled with different subgroups that range in difference economically or in leadership capacity. An effective pastor cannot work only with their favorite group of people. They must be willing to connect with all people and help bring the various generations and subgroups together. This is a difficult task. However, the fruit of this labor can be seen in churches that are vibrant and work together in the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
There are other leadership tips we can take from the presidents. These are just some that, I believe, are most important for today’s pastor. May all pastors and leaders continue to grow in their leadership abilities, so we can lead our churches in the mission field.