Pastors, what do you do if they don’t want to follow you?

Today, I am writing you a long letter. Usually I try to keep things concise because I know how busy you are, but here’s the thing–this challenge is one of the biggest that leaders face. It’s one almost all of my coaching clients have grappled with. And it’s an important conversation to have. So please, give yourself these next few minutes with this letter. I’d appreciate it, and I know your congregation will too.

So, I know that every pastor has had this experience: You know the direction you want to go, whether it’s big or small. You float the idea in a conversation, in a board meeting, or in a sermon. You get one or more of the following responses:

  1. Their eyes glaze over.
  2. They respond with some version of “no.” Sometimes they say, “It would never work here,” or, “We tried that and it wasn’t successful” or even, “Over my dead body.”
  3. They say “yes” but then…nothing ever happens.

It’s frustrating.
It’s discouraging.
And sometimes, it’s infuriating.

What’s a leader to do? After years of having this experience myself, and then coaching leaders and even boards through this, I’ve come up with four steps to take.

First, calm down. Remember, this is part of the inevitable process that happens when leaders move forward. It’s not about you personally. It’s not about how well you made your case. It is not about whether they like you or not. It does not mean they don’t value you. You’re won’t minimize the resistance by talking longer or louder. Consider yourself in good company with every other leader.  They make a move, and someone opposes it, actively or passively.

As you get calmer, do all you can to let go of the outcome. This doesn’t mean you don’t want what you want. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the ministry. What it means is that you can be freer. See how close you can get to thinking you can handle it whether they say yes or no. Paradoxically, that gives more emotional space for people to hear you and over time to come along.

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Second, get clearer. Go back and re-think what you are proposing.
What do you want?
What are you really asking?
Are you setting goals for others they don’t have for themselves?
(That’s the classic burnout position.)

Clarify for yourself what you can control and what you can’t. What decisions can you make, and what do others need to make. Then write down some “I” statements (remember those?) about what’s important to you, and what you are going to do (and in some cases, not do).

Third, connect. The knee-jerk reaction here is to withdraw or withhold. I get it, but it doesn’t serve you or the relationship. So as much as it may feel like climbing Mt. Everest, make sure you stay in touch with people. Connect in general and about the issue at hand. Pay extra attention to pastoral care. Stay interested in people and cultivate connection with them as individuals and as leaders and members of the congregation.

Then, have conversations with key individuals about the topic at hand.  Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, speaking at the Ecumenical Stewardship Center Generosity Now Conference recently shared a brilliant question: “Who are the people without whom this will not happen?” He recommended you have conversations with those people, whether or not they are in formal leadership positions or not.

The purpose of these conversations is not to convince them of your position, but to briefly share some of your thinking and to truly hear their perspective on this issue. In many cases they know the congregation better than you. If you respectfully ask their opinion and deeply listen, you will more likely enlist their support later. Don’t try to convince them of anything in this conversation. Use your pastoral skills and listen.

Finally, keep going. Ministry is all about the long game. You may decide, after further thinking and listening that now is not the time for this initiative. That’s OK. You don’t want to waste your effort. Come back again later. Or you, may decide, in consultation with others, that now is the time. You will have to be prepared for further resistance, but  now you will have enough allies to make it possible. Persistence is essential in leadership. But remember, you’re not leading if no one is following you.

Now, having said all this, when have you faced resistance? How have you handled it? What worked for you to enlist support for ministry ideas? I’d love to hear from you. Take a moment to reflect on how you’ve grown through these speed bumps and comment below, or email me your stories.


P.S. I’m going to add something new to complement this blog—live video! On most Mondays at noon PT I’ll be doing a brief Facebook live video on the topic of the week, whether it’s. I’ll share my initial thoughts on the topic, then will look for your input so I can make Thursday’s article as relevant as possible.

Make sure you friend me on Facebook so you’ll see when I go live. And let me know what questions you have about these ministry topics: leadership, money, relationships, productivity, personal growth or communication. What do you struggle with? What do you want to know?

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