d sawyer11-sA recent conversation with an experienced pastor included her frustration at not knowing what to do next in a difficult and declining congregation. She sounded like she was both angry at her congregation and at herself.

I know from my own experience that it’s built into the cultural narrative of competence that the leader is supposed to work very hard to know what to do and to get the organization to do it.

But traditionally competent leadership works best in stable, homogenous, sustainable organizations. It does not work in times of rapid change and increasing diversity in a context of declining resources. Which kind of organization or church are you leading right now?

So what is a leader supposed to do?


Here is Peterson’s paraphrase of James 1:19, 22:

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger struggle along in the rear.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! (Peterson, 2002)

An important key to listening is not-knowing. This does not mean that the minister has given up and is clueless about the congregation’s well-being, nor that the leader has settled for the status quo.

Richard Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones define not-knowing this way:

[It] means taking a humble stance toward what one knows rather than promoting or validating one’s own knowledge. It means setting aside certainty and being open to learn. Not-knowing means suspending knowledge and expertise in order to hear something new, something different, something that would not be heard if one moved forward knowingly. (Hester & Walker-Jones, 2009, p. 49)

This is a hard-learned lesson. I can count more times when I forged ahead with what I was certain I knew as leader and stumbled than times I held back and listened for the deep wisdom and soul of the congregation or organization to emerge.

Yes, the Epistle of James is about doing the Word, but it’s about listening for the moving of the Spirit first!


Hester R., & Walker-Jones, K. (2009). Know your story and lead with it, Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute.

Peterson, E. (2002). The Message: The Bible in contemporary language. Colorado Springs: NavPress.


David Sawyer is a writer, consultant, teacher, and coach, with flourishing church consultations. He offers wisdom to help make congregations healthier contributors to a better world, and specializes in leadership development, conflict utilization, strategy and planning, and vocational guidance. David is the author of Work of the Church: Getting the Job Done in Boards and Committees (Judson, 1987), and Hope in Conflict: Finding Wisdom in Congregational Difficulty (Pilgrm, 2007).

This column is made possible by the contributions to the Oates Institute through the Two Lattes Club. Join the Two Lattes Club or Make a Donation to the Oates Institute.

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