Effective church leadership is the most glamourless, thankless, and frustrating job on the planet.

I make that emphatic statement based on two observations. First, I’m unaware of any other sector, profit or non-profit, that is seeing 85 percent of all operation centers facing serious decline – and the leaders of course are shouldered with the blame. And second, coupled with that, I know of no other organization where the majority of the constituents are willing to sacrifice the organization’s future and to throw their leaders under the proverbial bus for the sake of their personal comfort and preferences.

With that in mind, being a local church leader generally sucks. And in our experience, because it is such a glamourless, thankless, and frustrating job, many … if not most … church leaders abdicate their leadership responsibility. It’s so much easier to be a church pastor committed to church harmony than it is to be a church leader who makes the hard decisions that turn decline into growth. But if you’re committed to being an effective church leader who’s willing to do whatever it takes to reach the lost sheep, even if it’s unpopular with the ninety-nice, then here are the three most difficult decisions you’ll have to face on a day-to-day basis.

1. Deciding What’s Mission Critical

Perhaps the most difficult decisions that a church leader has to make is deciding which programs, ministries, and events are missionally important enough to continue doing and which ones need to be adjusted or cancelled altogether. And cancelling the annual Women’s Christmas Bazaar isn’t going to win you any popularity awards.

Most churches do too much. They have limited resources including limited people, limited funding, limited facilities, and limited time. But most churches still want to “do it all” anyway.

  • They want a stirring worship experience.
  • They want a comprehensive Christian Education ministry for all ages.
  • They want excellent youth programming.
  • They want excellent children’s programming.
  • They want life-changing local outreach ministries.
  • They want fabulous fellowship events.
  • They want gold-standard, on-demand membership care.

The reality is, very few churches have the resources to do more than one or two things with excellence. Instead, everything is done just “good enough” to appease the most vocal members. Mediocrity In Everything is most churches’ unspoken motto.

The other side of trying to do everything is when a church really does something excellently but it doesn’t help the church fulfill its mission. You’re probably familiar with some churches that are “famous” for their annual garage sale or fish fry or bake sale. And though these church might try to justify their activities as “outreach,” it’s a rare church that can point to any conversion baptisms that came as a result of a fund raiser.

One of the most difficult tasks for an effective church leader is to look at every single thing a church is doing and then make a decision about whether or not they’re mission critical. And once they decide what’s critical, the next is to figure out what one mission-critical ministry gets the lion’s share of the resources to that ONE THING is done with such excellence that the community not only knows about it, but that it becomes the primary attraction to the church.

And making those decisions is going to tick a lot of people off. Like I said, cancelling the Christmas Bazaar isn’t going to make you any friends. But churches that focus on one mission-critical ministry and do it with excellence are the churches that have the best chance of achieving their mission.

2. Deciding Who is Missionally Aligned

I teach pastoral leadership for the Center for Ministry and one of the assignments is to prioritize the desirable characteristics of a church finance chair candidate.

  • Ability to manage money
  • Passion for the position
  • Ability to be a leader rather than a doer
  • Conspicuous spiritual maturity
  • Commitment to the church’s mission

What order would you put them in if you were looking for a replacement finance chair?

Here’s the answer and an explanation …

  1. Conspicuous spiritual maturity.
    This is always number one. If you put someone in a church leadership position, especially in finance, who isn’t a spiritual giant, well … you deserve what you get. Don’t forget, this is a church position, not a banking position! 
  2. Commitment to the church’s mission and vision. 
    If the finance chair isn’t committed to the church’s mission then you’re going to spend a lot of time trying to convince him/her that marketing is more important than pew cushions.

The order of the others isn’t important for this article (if you’re really curious, take the course!). The point is, it’s critical that your key leaders be (1) solid, practicing, faithful Christians; and (2) committed to the church’s mission and vision and values.

What that means is that most churches need to do some weeding out of their leadership garden. And that’s not going to make you very popular either. I mean, how do you tell your nominating committee that Mr. Greene can’t serve for the fourteenth year on the property committee because he’s also the church bully? And suggesting the church matriarch can’t serve in the church moderator’s position because she treats the church as a members-only club isn’t going to prolong your first-year honeymoon. And firing the veteran church secretary because she’s snarky to unchurched people may even get you fired.

I’ve known pastors who have been accused of trying to fill the board with “their supporters.” And though there is good reason to do just that, the ones I coach are careful to avoid cronyism. On the other hand, I strongly recommend the pastor do his or her best to remove people from leadership, including from the board, who don’t meet the top two criteria in the list above. It’s not that we want Yes! men and women on the board, but we must refuse to try and lead people who try to steer the board in any direction than the church mission to make disciples and the congregationally accepted vision.

3. Making Decisions that are Best for the Congregation … but May Cause Conflict

It’s tough challenging the church to only do what is mission-critical.

It’s tougher still to insist on missional minded leaders.

But arguably the most difficult leadership decisions you’ll have to make are the ones that put the good of the congregation over the good of any one person or even any one group.

A church leader’s primary responsibility is to make the hard decisions for the sake of the church. But that means you will sometimes, as in most of the time, have to make decisions that some one or some ones are going to be angry about.

In our collective experience here at The Effective Church Group we’ve notice that the majority of church leaders, professional and lay, have what we call a “High Mercy Gift.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a high mercy gift. In fact, it’s a gift from God. But if you happen to have that gift and you’re a church leader in today’s church, then you’re going to discover that effective leadership is difficult at best, and for many church leaders today, it’s simply impossible for them to make the hard decisions that must be made for the well-being of the church.

There are some common traits we’ve found in people who have the gift of mercy.

  • They are conflict averse.
  • They value harmonious relationships above all.
  • They try to make everyone happy.
  • They want everyone to like them (okay … who doesn’t?!).
  • They find it difficult or impossible to let or encourage unhappy people to leave.
  • They put other’s feelings and desires above their own … and above the needs of the church.
  • When faced with a difficult choice, they put off a decision as long as possible, using any number of excuses such as “Gathering more information” or “Not rushing into anything.”
  • And when they’ve made a difficult decision, they beat themselves up over it, they lose sleep, and they second and third and fourth guess themselves – no matter how sound the decision was.

The fact is, if you have a high mercy gift, leading a church into a sustainable future may not be the job for you.

Today’s Church Leadership Reality 101

If you’re a church leader, whether you’re the pastor, on staff, the board chair, or serving on a committee, then the following applies to you:

Your top, #1 priority is to make decisions based on what’s best for the Church. And although you might be thinking “But peace and harmony is what’s best for the church” we both know that most churches have to face the reality that what they’ve been doing in the past has contributed to the church’s decline (or dysfunctions, or conflict, etc.). That means you’ll have to institute change. And if you lead change, there will be those who object. And then you’ll be left with a horrible reality: If change is needed, peace and harmony are simply not possible. That means, you’ll have to decide to maintain the status quo, which will allow the Church to remain harmonious while it continues to decline, or you’ll have to make changes for the sake of the Church and risk disharmony and disunity. 

That means there are times when conflict is unavoidable. Bullies will come out of the woodwork. Naysayers will be as plentiful as champaign bubbles. And you’re going to be vilified as the devil incarnate by some. And you will still need to maintain the decision.

But it gets harder yet when you discover that the decision brings down the ire or one group or another … not just one or two people. You’ll want to reverse your decision because there are too many loud voices clamoring against you and the change.

No matter what, if the decision is the right one for the Church, then you must stick to your guns. Even if it costs you. Even if it costs the church.

But know you’ll be in good company … and you’ll be faithful to the Jesus of the Bible, though perhaps not so much to the Jesus of the church.

The Jesus of the church is that meek, mild, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth, loves the little children this I know, peace and harmony, wouldn’t harm a fly, gentle shepherd. This Jesus had a very high mercy gift.

The Jesus of the Bible is that guy who called the Pharisees some very vile names, trashed the Temple’s courtyard, called his best friend “Satan” to his face, told his followers that he didn’t come to bring peace – but a sword, told his would-be followers that they had to abandon their families and everything they owned in order to be faithful (no exceptions), left his flock completely unattended to chase after one lost sheep, and even killed a fig tree to make a point. This is the Jesus who, if he had a high mercy gift at all, put it in the back seat so he could do and say what was ultimately best for the Church.

The Jesus of the Bible made difficult decision that ended both his livelihood and his life. This is the guy who at one time had a congregation of over 5000 members, but was satisfied to grow it down to 11 leaders and 109 faithful followers (Acts 1:15) who would then take the gospel to the whole world.

If you’re called to be a church leader, you’re the one who will face making some very difficult decisions. But that’s the job. If you’re not up for that, then really … you’ll be happier and the church will be healthier if you decide to do something else. There are many ministry jobs out there that need people with high mercy gifts and a gentle touch. It’s just not leading a church from decline or dysfunction into a faithful, effective, sustainable future.


If you’re a church leader, conflict will be your constant companion. To help with that, we’ve created the Conflict CPR Training Course (Conflict Prevention and Reconciliation).

Two Disks, 17 sessions, on how to develop a conflict reconciliation plan based on New Testament principles.

Used by hundreds of churches nationwide.