Why I Study the Presidents

When I was a child, my favorite volume of the World Book Encyclopedia was “P.” It was not because I was fascinated with that letter or that I felt I need to study the platypus. I was drawn to that particular volume because it was there that all the presidents, at least through our mid-1960s version, were listed and discussed.

In that volume, I could see what presidents like Buchanan and Chester A. Arthur looked like. (As an aside, I was never tempted to grow muttonchops like Arthur, but he did make them his own.) I learned about the presidency and how it had evolved through the years.

I was fascinated with the presidency, and that fascination has only grown through the years. Many of my friends know that Election Day, to me, is bigger than Super Bowl Sunday. I will sit back and watch the returns and analyze what may or may not happen. As well, my favorite books to read are histories and biographies on the presidents and the time they served. For my money, you cannot go wrong with Ronald White, Jr.’s “A. Lincoln” or David McCullough’s “John Adams.”

My fascination with the presidency has intensified as I have lived out my calling as a pastor and leader. The reason for this is that, I believe, there are few jobs in America that have as much in common, especially in regards to the demands of the position, to a pastor as the presidency. Of course, a president and pastor deal with different contexts and situations (one leads a nation and the other leads a congregation and community). The similarities, though, are enough to make me wonder what a pastor can learn from the presidents.

For one, pastors should be able to appreciate that different times call for different leadership styles. Pastors can get caught up in the idea that there is a preferred leadership style. If one knows that leadership style, we often believe, then they will be fruitful. But, a quick study of our presidents shows us that different situations demand different styles of leadership (and sometimes within the same administration). For instance in the 1950s when stability was needed after World War II and the Korean War, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership style to make sure everything ran well was needed and successful. Yet, times when the nation questioned who it was yielded to more visionary leadership style, whether from George Washington or a John F. Kennedy. There is not one style of leadership that connects Washington to Obama. Each president was true to himself and used their leadership traits to lead (or not lead, as the case was for some). Pastors would be wise to be true to themselves and the leadership style that God has blessed them with.

Another thing we see from the presidents is that pastors should not be afraid to embrace conflict. In fact, conflict is healthy and can lead to times of fruit and productivity. The presidents who embraced conflict are the presidents we often claim as our most successful. The best example of this is Abraham Lincoln. After years of presidents punting on the issue of slavery, Lincoln embraced the struggles and the conflict of the time. His visionary leadership during the Civil War enabled the country to be redefined and to see the end to slavery in the United States. Conflict in our churches can be times where we see God use us for some important and necessary work. Going through the conflict is never easy or pleasant, but the experience often leads to growth and a deeper understanding of who we are in God’s love.

Finally, the presidency teaches pastors we must be willing to take time off. This might seem like an interesting observation to make of the presidency, especially in our polarized times today. One of the constant partisan lines of attack on the presidency, by both sides, is to criticize the president for being out of the White House and on vacation (whether it was George W. Bush’s ranch visits or Barrack Obama’s rounds of golf). Partisans count these trips, and wonder what work gets done during these times. Pastors, as well, face the pressures to never be away from the office or to never take time off. Yet, the presidency (which offers the same demands that pastors feel of the 24-7 lifestyle) shows a history of presidents being willing to get away. There is a recognition that getting away is good for the presidency and the nation. Work still gets done (no president is ever truly off), but there is time for rest. Pastors must take time for rest, family, and time away from their churches. When they take this time, pastors will find that their ministries and lives are better for it.

The presidency is the foremost leadership position in our nation. It is a place where leaders have risen to monumental stature, and the place where leaders have fallen under the weight of the office’s demands. Pastors who face the 24-7 demands of ministry, of wrestling with a changing culture, and leading communities to understand more deeply who God is and what it means to follow the Lord would be wise to pick up a few leadership tips from our presidents and apply what we learn to our ministries and lives.


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