Leadership: Creating a Culture for Mission to Thrive

Leadership Blog




A member of a congregation which was served by a long-term pastorate once said to their pastor, “After all these years, we are more like you than you are.”

The longer a pastor serves a congregation, the more like the pastor the congregation becomes.

Leadership shapes a congregation. An important question for leaders to ask, “Am I leading in a way that creates an environment where mission can thrive?”

If a congregation is to engage in mission, it is necessary for the congregation to have a CULTURE for mission.

Leaders set the culture for mission. In this series of blogs on leadership, the qualities of a leader and the practices of the leader that shape a culture for mission are explored.

Here are the qualities we will explore over the next months and a brief description of each.1 Leaders:

Share the Story of Redemption and Restoration

People in congregations tell many stories about their church. Each story tells others what the church was and what it has become. While having stories is common from church to church, each church has unique stories—from when they were founded to what they do each week. There is, however, a story that all congregations hold in common. The story they hold in common is the story of the One who brought them into being. The church is brought into being through the Word of God—God’s story of Jesus redeeming and restoring the world. Leaders in congregations create an environment where mission can thrive when they retell the story of Jesus and how he redeems and restores the world. If the church does not set its foundation on that story, the other stories told will be in vain–and told not in the spirit of faithfulness and humility but in hubris. To create an environment where mission can thrive, leaders ground their congregation’s story in the mercy and faithfulness of God.


Embody Christian Character

It is commonly believed that good deeds make good character. In the Lutheran tradition, we reverse deeds and character. Attributed to Martin Luther, we hear, “It is not good deeds that make a good person, but a good person does good deeds.” A Christian is given the character of Christ, from which good deeds come. Christian character comes from an encounter with the Divine. This encounter with the Divine comes through Word and Sacrament—in worship, where God is revealed, and people encounter God. In an age where the larger-than-life personality is seen as the one who can turn an organization around, in the church it is the leader with Christian character that creates an environment where mission can thrive.


Balance Productivity and Compassion

In task groups in the congregation, there are 2 primary tasks. The first task is to get the work done for which the group is held accountable. The second task is to care for and support one another during that process. A leader will be able to balance the two tasks in any group. At times, focus needs to be on getting the job done. At other times, the focus shifts from getting the job done to caring for one another. This means that work gets done and relationships are built and strengthened. When that balance is maintained, an environment is created where mission can thrive.


Demonstrate Authenticity

A leader listens to the stories of others for the sake of learning about that person and building a relationship. A leader also appropriately shares their personal stories in a way that makes them approachable, vulnerable, and sincere. Authentic leaders who listen and share help establish an environment where mission can thrive.


Discern Status

The common misnomer is that leaders have high status and those who follow the leaders have low status. Indeed, in many secular and sacred settings, this plays out. In the church, however, a leader moves between high and low status. At times the leader is up front, directive, and the center of attention. At other times, the leader steps back and allows attention to be on others and allows others to demonstrate their interests and skills. Leaders can discern which is needed in which moment. Leaders who can do that are leaders that create an environment where mission can thrive.2


Understand the Importance of Good Process

For some reason, it is commonly held that leaders are the ones that make all the decisions. Indeed, leaders who are hungry for power and control will do so. There is another approach. A leader guarantees that a process is in place where good decisions can be made by those best able to make those decisions and by those who are held accountable for those decisions.


Address Conflict

There is no situation in which something bad will never happen. The question is not how to prevent bad things from happening. The question is, “When something bad happens, will the leader make it worse or make it better.” Conflict is unavoidable. A leader who has the capacity to function in a healthy way during conflict and make the situation better is a leader who will create an environment where mission can thrive.


Demonstrate Good Communication Skills

A wise pastor once said, “Show me how a person preaches, and I can tell you how they lead.” A preacher’s presence, non-verbal communication, micro-messages, vocabulary, and shaping of the message are a sure sign of how well that person will lead. Communication is more than a person’s choice of words—although a good vocabulary will take a leader far. Communication includes the words, but also how the words are spoken, the non-verbals that accompany the use of the words, the messages sent without words (commonly called microaggressions or microaffirmations), and the capacity to listen. Leaders are good communicators. That makes for a good environment for mission to thrive.


Discern Context

Once upon a time, a congregation learned that a senior community was to be built around the corner from their church. In addition to the seniors moving into the new community, the congregation itself had many senior members. The temptation was to invite the new residents to worship at the church. The problem was that the church was not accessible for those with disabilities, had Sunday services that were early in the morning, and used a hymnal that was too heavy for seniors to hold—let alone see the text. Instead, the church avoided the temptation and engaged with the leaders of the new senior community. They started a Saturday-late afternoon service at the senior community–which was fully accessible. They used large print bulletins and printed the hymns in the bulletins. They even bought choir chimes which were lighter than handbells and started a chime choir for seniors that played at the Saturday afternoon service. The congregation and its leaders discerned its context and shaped its ministry around the context. That is one way that leaders create an environment where mission can thrive.


Shape Other Leaders

A seminary president once said, “As soon as I see the pastor of a congregation, I will know if that congregation will be sending anyone to seminary to study to become a rostered leader.” This observation is based on a concept that writers on leadership like John Maxwell have outlined. Maxwell states, “It takes a leader to know a leader, grow a leader, and show a leader.”3 Even more succinctly put, “leaders make leaders.” Leaders who recognize the capacity of others, honor their integrity, give them what they need to grow, and challenge them will raise up other leaders. When leaders are raising leaders, a congregation has an environment where mission can thrive.


Make Decisions on What Is Best, not Likes and Dislikes

There is a time and place for making decisions based on likes and dislikes. Eating at a restaurant is one of those places. In those settings, people can choose the restaurant they like, drink what they like, and eat what they like. Yet, there is a place where making decisions based on likes and dislikes is not beneficial. That place is in the congregation. Leaders in congregations are called to a self-awareness that helps them recognize their tendency to make decisions based on likes and dislikes. Aware of those tendencies, leaders are called to set aside preferences to answer the question, “What is in the best interest of the congregation?” In congregations where self-awareness among leaders and asking the “best interest” question are at work are congregations where mission can thrive.


A leader’s capacity to share the story of redemption; embody Christian character; balance productivity and compassion, to demonstrate authenticity; to discern status; to understand the importance of good process; to lead in the midst of conflict; to demonstrate good communication skills; to discern context; to shape other leaders; and to make decisions based on the best interest of the congregation can create an environment in which others can be honored and be fruitful. This environment is safe, allows creativity, takes an honest look at issues, tests each other’s assumptions, and honors the integrity of others. A congregation that has this type of environment can faithfully take on the challenge of mission by creating an environment where mission can thrive.


1 These qualities are discussed in the thesis, Finding Meaning in Organized Religion: A Practical Theology for the Church’s Mission with Millennials, 2020, by Rev. Dr. Timothy A. Mentzer.

2 For additional reading on status, please see Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, 2004, by Samuel Wells.

3 Maxwell, John C., Developing the Leaders around You, 1995. Injoy, Inc. USA.