Please forgive the Napoleon Dynamite reference there. Hopefully, unlike Napoleon’s sorrowful appraisal of his desirability to girls, churches don’t want pastors with nunchuck skills and computer hacking skills.
Several years ago I was grateful and privileged to receive a Religious Leaders grant from the Louisville Seminary; I wanted to address several questions about good approaches to parish work, and especially to disseminate my discoveries in a way that could help laity and pastors. 
The other day, I watched a show in the series “Classic Albums” on VH1. This episode concerned Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Early in their career, the band had attempted to compose music for the movie “Zabriskie Point,” but the director was never satisfied with any of their efforts. Band members thought the director couldn’t make up his mind because he wanted to be in control. As it turns out, Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for the movie became, four years later, the moving song “Us and Them” for the “Dark Side” album.
This show made me think about issues of control, empowerment, and leadership. A book that I love is Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). They tell this story on page 189:
“We are at the time of this writing consulting in a congregation of 900 members, with five pastors. The communication between the pastors and the board could hardly be worse. Yet one pastor told us that during his seven years there as a pastor he has been invited to meet with the board only three times. The board complains that this pastor isn’t doing a good job. But how would they know? They have never observed his work firsthand, they have never talked with him about his work, they have never provided him any training in the areas of his suspected weaknesses. So if this pastor is doing a poor job, who is to blame? First, the senior pastor, who doesn’t want any other pastors to attend the board sessions, and who has provided his staff no training. Second, the governing board, who has allowed this foolish waste of human ability to go on year after year without calling the senior pastor to accountability.”
Many organizations in addition to churches have unhelpful structures of power: certain people in authority retain power while expecting others to exercise leadership, in effect setting them up for disapproval and/or failure. It’s a foolish waste of effort and ability, as Shawchuck and Heuser write, but very common. (A biblical example would be Saul and Samuel: Saul was king, but Samuel never trusted and empowered him.) Any leader does well to identify and address these kinds of dynamics—and address them before too much time passes.
Another kind of story from another book that I love, What Ministers Can’t Learn in Seminary: A Survival Manual for the Parish Ministry by R. Robert Cueni (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988). Cueni writes about a married couple, Darryl and Marie, both clergy who came to the same church. They discussed their approach of a “team ministry” with the board, which approved them. “Eight months after their arrival, Darryl and Marie resigned. The congregation was told of a ‘clergy team,’ but many did not understand the significance of the term. Some said they always thought of the minister’s wife as part of the ‘team,’ but they did not understand why she should preach on Sunday morning or conduct funerals.” The congregation had no women in positions of leadership, but the couple mistook this fact as a lack of empowerment, and so Marie preached a sermon on the femininity of God. But the congregation’s women enforced the leadership roles in the congregation, not the men. Marie’s well-intentioned and caring efforts were off-putting. The couple misunderstood the power dynamics in the congregation and, unfortunately, had a painfully short pastorate.
Again: the congregation had structures of power, but the couple did not recognize how power was distributed in the congregation. Congregation members exercised power by withholding permission for Marie to lead. Ironically, the couple had sought to empower and give permission to the laity to serve—exactly the goal that church-growth pundits like William Easum espouse (for instance, in his books about permission-giving churches, Dancing with Dinosaurs and Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers). Simply to give people permission to do ministry–to “get out of their [the laity’s] way,” as one pastor I met put the matter–is not nearly enough, though.
Still another book that I love: R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Sysems Approach to Congregational Leadership (The Alban Institute, 1993). As Stevens and Collins put it, leadership is “L=(L, F, S),” or “leadership equals the function of the leader, the followers, and the situation” (p. 9). Although the pastor exhibits the kind of spiritual authority that gains people’s confidence, the pastor really derives his or her leadership from the congregation.
Not just a pastor but any leader needs to know the organization very well in order to understand where power structures lie. Organizations are complex collections of power issues, old loyalties, people with control needs, traditions, community values, and others. I just read a summary of some ideas from a new book by Marc Brown, Kathy Ashby Merry, and John Briggs, Does Your Church Have a Prayer? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2009). The authors describe different, unhelpful “tribes” that describe congregations: the Tribes of the “Good Old Days” (people are stuck in the past), “Forgetting the Past” (people neglect the church’s history), “Control” (people want to “run” the church), “Spiritual Elitism” (people judge others by their own faith-values), “Business Values” (the church’s health is judged solely or predominantly by economic/business values), and “Apathy” (people are detached and unconcerned). The authors call people to be “remembering encouragers.” Resources like this one can help leaders identify types of organizational behaviors and determine goals towards which to lead the people.
Unfortunately, even very good leaders might struggle in an organizational environment because he or she (either through naivety, inexperience, misinterpreted cues, or a lack of psychic ability) did not grasp the complexity of motivations, traditions, emotions, and values at work in that organization. That is one reason why, I’m sure, even very good leaders shine in some circumstances and not in others. There are famous examples: Winston Churchill comes to mind as one, also President and later Chief Justice William H. Taft.
On one hand, church leadership is a human effort in which skill, experience, resourcefulness, persuasion, and an avoidance of major missteps are crucial. A pastor can be an excellent preacher, leader, care-giver, and pray-er, but if s/he steps on the wrong toes, or makes an unintentional leadership mistake, s/he may have some big problems to address.
And yet… none of us would want to be Pelagian and place human efforts on at a strong level along with God’s grace; God’s grace is the most important thing of all, that which makes our service possible! As the joke goes, the Apostle Paul’s resume would be declined by most search committees: Paul wasn’t an impressive speaker, he had a repellant illness, he could alienate people, and he had done time! Many churches would not tolerate such serious liabilities in their pastors, but obviously Paul’s limitations didn’t matter because God used him mightily. Upholding God’s providence and grace for the pastoral role while acknowledging the importance of human skills and efforts can be a tricky balance.
One potential solution is the insight that pastoral leadership is based on one’s theology. I was pleased when I discovered, for instance, Kennon Callahan’s distinguishing of models of pastoral leadership: the top-down-thinking boss, the manager, the (passive) enabler, and the apocalyptic inspirer. Many of us have known (or been) pastors who are one of these types. But actually, says Callahan, these types are all based on a weak theology! You could be, or seem to be, a strong leader if you fit some of these types. But in the long run, pastor leadership which is “tough,” “demanding,” and “hierarchical” is actually ineffective! Instead, a sound theology of ministry is inclusive, dynamic, and missional, and good leadership results from this theologically-strong basis. 
Pastors lead best when they can help people (whether staff or laity) grow to their potential. For a time in the 1990s, the “equipper” style of pastoral leadership was popular in some of the professional leadership. Perhaps it still is. The problem with this style is that it may be mistaken for weak leadership. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, Stevens and Collins, and Shawchuck and Heuser, describe a “systems approach” wherein the pastor shifts attention from specific program tasks to the strengths, peculiarities, traditions, power structures, and potentials of the congregation.
“Change agency” is also a major theme in the professional literature. Shawchuck and Heuser write that “The only congregations that will thrive in the coming decades will be those whose leaders have learned to respond to change, not resist or ignore it” (p. 167, authors’ emphasis).
But there are pitfalls to change. Those authors note that change cannot happen without a satisfactory leadership team in the pastoral staff, governing board, or groups of lay leaders, and the pastor has a responsibility to work with staff and boards to create reciprocal accountability and excellent communication. Once I chatted with a pastor (someone I knew casually) who was frustrated that he had no associate pastor at the moment. “I’m a control freak, Paul,” he said cheerfully, “I like to know what’s going on.” I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s why you don’t have an associate pastor!” The earlier quotation from Shawchuck and Heuser implied, pastors don’t always take the time to develop an excellent staff, and instead rely upon them in a very top-down, self-centered way. But change happens best when the overall leadership functions well as a group.
More broadly: change agency is difficult! I could imagine a pastor, faithful in her or his desire to serve a congregation, who treads into parish “landmines” just because—well, landmines aren’t visible till it’s too late. James O’Toole offers no fewer than 33 hypotheses to account for resistance to change. Many of them can be summed up by the group’s collective assumptions and their ability to suppress or deny information that leads to change.  An older leadership model, Total Quality Management, is one which is helpful for dealing with resistance to change. 
I become discouraged when pastors overuse a scolding style in their preaching and communication. I’ve experienced this style over the years. There is definitely a large place in parish life for challenging people; a sizable portion of Paul’s letters, after all, are gentle or forceful reminders to live the Gospel. But to me, if a pastor overuses confrontation, he or she falls into the trap of trying to force change through criticism of people’s failings–whatever those failings may be, such as not contributing sufficiently or not volunteering.
I like O’Toole’s description of the “feminine” style of leadership which “is more effective in modern organizations in which everyone’s best efforts are needed–that is, in any organization that requires employee initiative, self-motivation, innovation, and willingness to take the extra step to serve customers or to meet competitive changes” Importantly, ‘feminine’ leadership does not mean weak leadership–nor does it mean that only women can and do practice it (p. 139). As examples, he cites leadership authorities like W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters, James MacGregor Burns, as well as leaders such as Dr. King, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as examples.
If a pastor too frequently challenges or scolds people, s/he risks ignoring people’s faith stories. But people’s stories are significant for both personal and congregational identity. Howard Gardner writes that “Leaders achieve their effectiveness through the stories they relate,” that is, people’s perspectives and visions related to one’s identity. Stories are important because “those leaders who presume to bring about major alterations across a significant population must in some way help their audience members think through who they are” (p. 62) .
Thus–to pick up on my earlier points–the leadership skill of the pastor is more than just issues of power, group dynamics, and charisma but also has to do with their interactions with others and their abilities to communicate her own story in a compelling way to shape the stories and identity of the congregation.
One of the enormous problems I see in effective pastoral leadership today is the need for congregations to be in good financial shape. A recent article, “Religious Life Won’t Be the Same After Downturn” by Rachel Zoll of AP, discusses the major financial needs facing churches and denominations today.  Unfortunately, congregational change takes time and patience, with no guarantee of success, and the pace of change that a particular congregation requires may be slower than the congregation’s revenue needs.
All the more reason to affirm that any congregational leader, clergy or lay, must finally depend not upon skills but upon God’s grace and help!
At the moment, I’m updating some of my older research concerning parish leadership after I’ve focused on other topics for the past few years. Is the systems approach still as apropos and potential-filled as it has seemed to me? How are contemporary pastors finding the dilemmas of parish leadership now that, for instance, churches and denominations are still struggling, perhaps even more than the 1990s, with dwindling numbers and revenue? Among the books I’m currently reading is an excellent study by Dan R. Dick, Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2007).
Even if pastoral efforts falter at one congregation…. Well, the late Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for “Zabriskie Point” failed to please in one context but transformed into something even greater, later on. Leadership can be like that, too! Not only that, we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit that God brings us to circumstances where the leader and the people truly “sync” and amazing things start to happen.
 Some of this material is based on my review essay, “Leadership, Change, and the Parish,” in the now-defunct Quarterly Review, Summer 1996, pp. 203-219, which contains a long set of endnotes citing numerous books on this subject. I also wrote on parish leadership issues in chapter 5, “Church Places” in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006). These writings were based on my Louisville Institute grant work.
 Kennon L. Callahan, Effective Church Leadership: Building on the Twelve Keys. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
 James O’Toole, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom. San Francisco: Josses-Bass, Inc., 1995.
 Although the idea of “quality” wasn’t really new by the time of Ezra Earl Jones’ Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1993), Jones expands its implications to show how the goal of quality can bring about positive change in churches.
 Howard Gardner, with the collaboration of Emma Laskin, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books, 1995.