The following column originally appeared June 25, 2007 on LeadershipJournal.net.
Ministry Gone Stale: Do leaders have a shelf life?
Andrew was a well-respected senior pastor at a highly esteemed church of 2,500. But when I met him, he had just decided to leave his position. At the time, he didn’t have another job offer and wasn’t sure what he was going to do next. But he realized he was not the leader his church needed for the next stage in its lifespan.
“I used to say my next stop will be my last one,” Andrew told me, “but I just don’t say that anymore, because I no longer think I’m supposed to stay in one place forever.”
Andrew had come to a realization that I have been observing over the last few years: some leaders have a shelf life.
The old paradigm assumed that a pastor should ideally make a commitment to the church ’til death do them part. But I don’t believe that is realistic or ideal in today’s culture. In fact, many churches would be better served to realize that it’s perfectly acceptable that some leaders’ effectiveness will expire after a certain point.
The office of pastor requires not just shepherding and preaching skills, but also leadership skills. The church of today, no matter its size, is a complex organization. As it matures, it will require different kinds of leadership. Some leaders do well at adapting to and enjoying each stage, but others are best suited and gifted for a more time-limited role.
For example, Steve is a serial church planter. The quintessential entrepreneur, Steve has realized that he is most effective at planning, planting, and growing a new church, then handing the reins over to a new pastor. He is neither skilled at nor energized by leading an established church.
Bob, on the other hand, is a turnaround artist. He describes his as a “ministry of renewal,” bringing life to dying congregations and giving them a vision for the future that begins a new chapter of growth in that church. He has done this in at least four churches, and counting.
While Bob helps churches find new life, my friend Rick does the opposite: he helps dying churches end well. His is the work of a chaplain, loving the people and helping them work through the grieving as they give their church a proper funeral and burial.
And then there are the scores of pastors who are uniquely suited for leading churches of a particular size or from one level to the next or maybe two levels, but not beyond. For example, they may be able to help a church grow from 100 to 400 people, but may not be skilled at the complexities or specialization necessary to lead a church over 1,000. Some can do it, but many can’t.
Most organizations, however, assume that if you succeeded in one situation, you will succeed at the challenges of the next level. But past performance is no guarantee of future results. As a sports fan, I observe this all the time in the coaching world. A highly successful college coach will think he’s ready to make the jump to the professional level. But the demands and culture of professional sports are very different from the world of college athletics. Some succeed in making the transition, but many do not.
Having a shelf life is not the same as bailing out every time ministry gets tough. Quite the opposite, leaders who know their shelf life may often relish the challenges that come with a particular stage of ministry.
So, how do you know your shelf life, or whether you have one? Unfortunately, unlike milk and bread, leaders are not stamped with a “sell-by” date after which we go sour or stale and possibly taint the products around us. Still, there are signs that your ministry may be going soft.
The more obvious signs are passion and energy, which are tied to your individual strengths. If you find yourself dreading the majority of your job, you may have drifted too far from your leadership sweet spot.
You can also look at your ministry history. Do you see any patterns in your leadership effectiveness? But you also need to ask yourself hard questions about your current situation. If your church’s effectiveness has plateaued, you must be willing to consider whether your leadership ability, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons.
Once you realize your own shelf life, you have several options. One is that you can work to extend it. A commitment to lifelong learning will help you stay “fresh” much longer. Or you may realize that you just need to move to a different shelf. If this is the case, it does not mean that you no longer love the people. It does mean that it is crucial for you to leave well. That means being honest and forthright about your limitations and reasons for making a change. At the same time, churches must be able to release others whose sell-by dates have expired, without judging them for recognized their shelf life.
The more confident you are of your unique gifts and calling as a leader, the less you will be tempted to make a change because you assume that bigger is automatically better; or, just as bad, to stay beyond your shelf life because it’s comfortable for you, even while it’s detrimental to your church.
Recognizing your shelf life is one way to extend it to a lifetime of effective leadership.