Walk with the People

I once worked with a church that had been the same size for a long time. They faced the classic and predictable obstacles consistent with congregations that plateau at that size, so when the pastor left, the leaders were determined to get a minister who had experience working in a larger congregation…

After a while they found their guy. He was young, talented, and passionate… But this young man made a huge mistake that ultimately led to a short tenure at this church. He didn’t understand the importance of relationships.

For all the weaknesses of the previous pastor, one of his greatest strengths was that he was a wonderful shepherd. He cared for the people, and they knew it. But the new pastor led the church as if he were the pastor of a megachurch. He would not see people without an appointment. He worked with his door closed and rarely had time for hospital visits. And, even though the church only had a few staff members, he insisted on communicating by memo or email rather than face-to-face. He was either too foolish or too afraid to actually connect with people... Needless to say, he didn’t last long.

Changing the culture of an existing church is an emotional pursuit, and part of the way you navigate it is through relationships. You must authentically invest in people if you are going to influence them. People want to believe you care not just for God, but also for the church and for them as individuals.

Relationships are at the core of the New Testament. Jesus summarized obedience in two commands—love God and love people. When He sent out the disciples for the first time, He didn’t send them as individuals. He sent them out in pairs. And in the book of Acts, we don’t read about any lone rangers. We read about teams of people who took the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the world.

In addition, almost all of the Epistles have heavy relational components. They include direct teachings, greetings, salutations, and words of encouragement. They use phrases like “brothers and sisters,” “my dear children,” “my true son,” “friend,” “companion,” and “fellow workers.” They talk about households, holy kisses, and hospitality. They challenge people to love, forgive, and walk in unity. Over 50 times we read exhortations associated with the phrase “one another.”

Still, even though the New Testament is all about relationships, it’s easy for us to reduce the church to titles, positions, and impersonal truth. We can be tempted to flex our muscles and tell people what they are supposed to do and believe, rather than walking alongside them. But if we do this, we are limiting our ability to influence culture.

Trying to instill new values and getting people to think differently are not just intellectual exercises; they are emotional investments. Many times, people resist because they are scared or they don’t grasp why change is necessary. Furthermore, studies show that over 75% of adults are middle or later adopters. This means they are hesitant to embrace new ideas. Their personality and nature are resistant to and skeptical of the new. It takes time for most people to process and buy in, but when people have relationships with others they trust, they are more likely to get on board even when they are unsure. The reason: relationships almost always trump information.

In a video called Head Games on the Leadership Network website (leadnet.org), Carl George speaks about the importance of leading the church from a position of influence rather than from a title. He notes that founding pastors of a church have built-in authority and that people generally follow them without much concern. Yet when a pastor goes to an existing congregation, that pastor must earn credibility and, therefore, be granted the permission to lead. George says the best way to earn trust is to love the people and to be true to your values:

As a pastoral leader you must differentiate yourself from your congregation. The way you differentiate is by articulating your values and goals. If they are derived from Christ, are biblically based, and if they proceed from your values, sooner or later they will accept your headship. 

But the key in this process is that just as a head must stay connected to the body, you must stay connected to the people. Even in the face of reluctance, pushback, criticism, and even slander, you must stay connected to the people.

You do this by remaining patient, loving, and kind, even through periods of resistance. When the people see that the pastor truly cares for them and has their best interest at heart, they usually come to respect him as a person. Once they respect him, they are then likely to embrace the pastor’s views, values, and goals. But you must stay connected with the people emotionally and by modeling lots of love. When you do this, headship becomes leadership.

In other words, the people of an existing congregation follow and give the pastor permission to lead not because of a title, but out of respect for who the pastor is and because they believe he sincerely cares for them. It takes persistence, prayer, and lots of grace because it takes time to gain permission. But once you have it, your values are respected, and they become contagious.

--from Chapter 12 of Dirt Matters: The Foundation for a Healthy, Vibrant, and Effective Congregation