By Dan Rieland
If you have served as a local church leader for any length of time, pressure is no stranger to you. You can’t escape it. Pressure comes if you are successful. Pressure comes if you fail. Pressure comes even if you coast. Pressure and leadership is something like calories and doughnuts, they always go together.
These economic times dish up plenty of pressure. Many of my XP (Executive Pastor) colleagues have talked with me about the difficulties they face due to shortfalls in income. They have cut ministry budgets, leaned out all expenses, and always the most difficult, they have let staff go. That is pressure.
You may be experiencing relational pressure. Perhaps you and a board member or a staff member do not see eye to eye. Or you may be facing a general unrest of the congregation over the style of worship, support of a missionary, or what you do and don’t do in your choices of ministries. That is pressure.
Some of the greatest pressure comes connected to the overall direction of the church. What is the vision? Where are you headed? Why? How will you get there? Hey, churches split over this kind of stuff. That is pressure.
Pressure can come in the spiritual realm. First there is the obvious – spiritual warfare itself. There is an enemy, and he’s not happy about your Kingdom progress. In fact, the more ground you take, the more attention you get from the forces of evil that come against any Christian leader who is serious about the redemption of souls. When you are on mission, in the name of Jesus, and for the sake of His Kingdom, your ministry will not be calm or easy.
We can all agree in general with Ephesians 6:11-12: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
The stakes are large and the pressure is huge. There is another form of spiritual pressure. It’s much more positive but nonetheless pressure. It involves the aspect of correctly discerning the voice of God to lead your people well. It might be a sermon, a discipleship process or a leadership lesson. Whatever the case, your ability to have the confidence that it’s more Holy Spirit than human spirit (yours) is a big deal. That is pressure.
How you deal with pressure as a leader really matters. This topic is very subjective. Your personality is a factor, each situation is a factor, and there is no one right way to handle pressure every time. However, there are ways of responding to pressure that are poor choices. I have described three of these for you. I will also offer another set of three that are mirrored choices of a similar nature but reflect the positive and productive way to handle pressure.
1. Withdraw and hope it goes away
Whatever the situation is, this leader withdraws, and perhaps prays, (a good thing,) but that’s it. “Jesus, you know the situation, please just take care of it.” That is a legitimate prayer, but rarely does God allow us to lead by asking Him to wave a magic wand and we do nothing. Withdraw to pray, that’s good. Jesus modeled it. But He also got right back in the mix of things. I believe that’s what a leader does. When a leader withdraws and hopes things just get better, or that someone else handles it, things usually get worse and thereby increasing the pressure.
If you are uncertain of what to do or how to handle the situation, always pray first and seek wise counsel, but take action. Retreating from the pressure of a difficult situation only makes it worse.
2. Get aggressive and conquer
Aggression often wins the battle, but also loses the war. You may power over people and they bow to your position or personality, or even surrender out of loyalty and relationship. But when you resolve a situation like that, people are hurt and their memories are long.
Even in the most difficult situations aggressive behavior usually doesn’t help. For example, let’s go back to the financial pressures that churches are facing. There are several ways to cut budgets, but no budget-cutting method is popular. There will be resistance, if not out-right opposition. If you win your way through outright forcefulness, even if you truly believe your solution is in the best interest of the church, you have lost influence with many who follow you. The problem gets bigger and the corresponding pressure increases.
3. Secure social-political alliances to support you and reduce pressure
This option is simply the process of gathering people around you who agree with your point of view and support you in a way that helps you shut down resistance and or get what you want. This method of handling pressure seems like a smart idea, feels relationally acceptable, and often gains the quickest short term relief. But over the long haul it’s a bad idea. Whenever you take short cuts in leadership, it’s easier in the moment but backfires on you in time.
Positive and productive options:
1. The art of ignoring
I talked about the negative counter-part of the art of ignoring (withdrawal). The leader that chooses that option pretends the issue doesn’t exist, and therefore the pressure isn’t real or felt. This is a strange, but not so uncommon leadership behavior. I suspect that if you think about some government leaders, both past and present, you could quickly come up with a few examples. The same thing happens in the local church.
There is, however, a positive and productive side. I call it the art of ignoring. As a leader, you can’t respond to every complaint or fix every issue that comes up. You can’t emotionally keep up with the pressure that comes with attempting to do everything or even crazier, trying to make everyone happy. Even though the noise is loud and the pressure mounts, there are some things you need to ignore. The art is about making the right choice about what to ignore. Those choices make the difference between a successful leader and one who is soon looking for another church.
When you choose what to tend to and therefore what to ignore, go with the things that align closest to your vision, the things that produce momentum, and the things that create a positive culture. (A positive culture is not the same as making everyone happy.) If you tend to those three things many of the problems and corresponding pressures take care of themselves. And what is left probably doesn’t matter.
2. Power-up with purpose
On rare occasion you have no choice but to add some emotional fuel and force of personality to the mix. There is a right and a wrong way to do this. It’s not unlike parenting. There are times when Mom or Dad needs to speak up with authority and say “This is how it’s going to be.” If however, mom or dad does that in anger, even starts yelling, most of the positive and productive influence is lost. Even if the child complies, they are often only doing so on the outside. They are just waiting for the chance to behave against your leadership.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that you are the parent and your congregation consists of children. That is not the case. But it is a good illustration. So on those rare occasions when you must be strong, here are some things to remember. Make sure you’ve prayed first, don’t power-up in anger, do know how your decision aligns with the vision, be truly convinced it’s in the best interest of the people, and be willing to take full responsibility for your decision.
3. Develop team alignment and strategic vision support
The negative counterpart is political and short term in nature. This option is strategic and reflects long-term thinking. They can look alike to the rookie leader, but they are very different.
They both gather people for support, but the former gathers only fans and this option gathers strong leaders who love and support you but will speak up and tell you the truth. They will say no if they need to. The best leaders will also provide other options for you.
They both seek a certain agenda, but the former will sacrifice the long term win for a short term gain, and this option insists on the discipline of the long term vision.
They both prefer harmony but the former will accept peace over productivity and this option will embrace conflict if it serves the higher good of the overall vision.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. Not so much to remove pressure, because frankly, that will never happen. But in hopes of offering positive and productive ways for you to deal with problems and the pressure that comes with them.
“This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland’s free monthly e-newsletter, “The Pastor’s Coach,” available at http://www.INJOY.com.”
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