It’s not politically correct these days, but the old adage, “Too many chiefs and not enough indians” points to a larger problem in the church today.

Yes, there’s a leadership vacuum in most churches today, but not for the reasons most people think. It’s not that there aren’t potential leaders there in the church, there are. But too often they don’t get a chance to lead because the leadership positions are filled with the right people doing the wrong job.

Jim Collins made the bus metaphor the dominant image for the CEO, and in our case, for the pastor. The number one job of a leader is to get the right people in the right seats on the bus (Good to Great). The problem in many churches is that the wrong people are in the seats … and they are convinced they own those seats.

In any organization there are at least three kinds of people.

  1. There are the spectators who are perfectly willing to watch from the seats and be served – and they’re supportive of it all.
  2. There are doers. They’re the backbone of every organization. They sacrifice their time and talents and skills to get the job done. Every church is built on the blood, sweat, and tears of these people.
  3. There are leaders. They’re the ones who see the big picture, who cast an inspiring vision that compels the doers, the hands and feet of Jesus, to get the job done.

All is well when the right people are in the right seats.

Leaders Lead

Doers Do

Spectators Support

But problems come when good-hearted Doers and Spectators inadvisedly find themselves sitting on the nominating or HR teams … because few Doers and Spectators understand that good leaders lead, they don’t do.

Let me share two real-world examples.

  1. Betty loved to cook. She was one of those rare talented people who could both bake a cake that rose to the heavens and whip up a gourmet meal with yesterday’s leftovers. Betty was in the Church Women United organization and she was quick to volunteer for bereavement dinners and to cook for Wednesday evening fellowship suppers. Then the seventy-three year-old kitchen manager fell and broke her hip, so she resigned. Pretty much everyone turned to Betty an asked her to take over, and the nominating team made it official. She was flattered, but she was also pressured, so she said yes.

Betty loved to cook, but she was not a leader. She could convince volunteers to help, but coordination wasn’t one of her strengths, so she compensated by trying to do pretty much everything else. She went to Costco to buy the paper plates. She developed the menus for Wednesday night fellowships. She was the chief chef and bottle-washer on top of it all. To her credit, she kept it all going for years, but it cost her her joy. Over time, she became less patient with those who didn’t do it “her way,” and she became possessive of the kitchen – heaven help you if you didn’t put the spatula in the far-left-drawer-but-one. She earned the reputation of being a strong worker with a short temper.

Betty was on the right bus … but she was in the wrong seat. Doers do – and they do it well. But put a Doer in a leadership position, and they’ll either fail completely or they’ll own it completely. And in the end, the job will own them.

  1. Hector was hired as the Youth Director. He replaced Gary who had left the position to attend seminary six months earlier. Gary was one of the “beloved” Youth Leaders. He was young, hip, spoke the language of the kids, and was the life of the youth group. Gary had been hired to be the youth’s leader, but more important, to be their best adult friend. On the other hand, Hector was hired to grow the youth group. There had never been more than a dozen youth, even though the church had been in a growth spurt for five years.

    When Hector stepped into the position, the adult youth sponsors thought they’d turn over the youth group to him. Instead, Hector met with the sponsors and asked them to continue leading. He began formally meeting with these leaders every month, but he also sought them out every week or so. Hector implemented some changes in the curriculum, in the schedule, and in the youth activities. Instead of focusing on pizza, Coke, and fun he worked with the leaders to introduce the youth to meaningful hands-on ministry in the community. He guided the leaders in shifting the weekly “Youth Bible Study” to a time of prayer, reflection, and accountability for personal discipleship practices. In just a few months, the group began to grow as the youth began inviting their friends to join them in making a difference in the community.

    But there was rising tension by the church’s spectators over Hector’s position. Some of these vocal congregational members complained that Hector wasn’t hanging out with the youth. He didn’t lead the Youth Sunday School Class or the Wednesday Evening Youth Group. As far as they were concerned, Hector wasn’t “leading” the youth.

    Hector was a leader, not a doer and in too many churches, that’s a problem. Congregations have become so used to hiring staff to “do” ministry, that they’ve lost sight of the biblical model for church leadership: church leaders equip the saints to do ministry (Ephesians 4:11–13) as modeled in Acts 6:1–4. Hector was leading the youth ministry and he was doing it well as evidenced by the growth, but he was challenging the church’s understanding of leadership.

In the book Effective Staffing for Vital Churches, Bill Easum and I go into more detail about the role of effective church leaders and church staff in today’s church. In the book we even write about how to transition willing and able doers who are in leadership positions into effective leaders, no small feat for churches today.

The bottom line is that it’s time for churches to come to grips with the difference between doers and leaders. Every congregation needs lots of doers who give generously of their time, skills, and talents. It’s these faithful members that get ‘er done in church. In addition, every congregation needs effective leaders who have the skills to lead the church in a faithful, effective, and sustainable direction. And every church needs both. To paraphrase Jim Collins’ metaphor, let’s get the right people on the right bus and sitting in the right seats so that the bus can leave the station and take our churches to the Promised Land.