Seven barriers to effective leadership and how to overcome them


Over the last eight years my work has given me the opportunity and privilege of meeting church leaders all over the UK and Ireland. It is encouraging to see their passion for the gospel and commitment to seeing local churches grow. However, it is equally sad to see the occasional presence of limiting factors, or 'brakes', on their leadership. I've identified some of these brakes and offered a challenge for them to be released.

1. The brake of unapplied vision

If vision is a central component of leadership responsibility, then that must include not just its discernment but also its dissemination. And it is here that I see some leaders inadvertently leaving the brakes on! Much thought, prayer and passion is given to the challenge of vision discernment. However, in the weeks and months that follow, brakes are too often unintentionally reapplied by the failure to define, communicate and implement what has been discerned.

Vision has been described as 'setting the compass in the right direction'. In which case, strategy (the implementation of vision) could be described as drawing the 'route-map'. And it is with regard to drawing this map and plotting a route that some leaders fail to follow through. "We are called to minister to young families" discerns the church leader (in collaboration with others). The crunch question is how are we going to do that – who is going to do what, and what are the next steps?

Too many leaders leave the brakes on by leaving those questions unanswered. And even worse, they then consider it the fault of church members when the vision is not realised.

2. The brake of 'peripherals'

The challenge to leaders of 'keeping the main thing the main thing' is as much about personal leadership as it is about everyone else. For example, in the last few years I have met dozens of church leaders who would claim that their main ministry is preaching/teaching but whose diary would not support the claim. There are others who believe that shared leadership is key but fail to give time to intentionally nurture and develop new leaders. The reason? All too often it's because they have been side-tracked by a whole range of seemingly valuable distractions.

If I may be a little blunt simply to make the point... Jesus told us to 'make disciples' not to 'run churches'. From my own experience of 18 years in local church ministry I know how challenging it is to stay focused on the essentials. But I also know what a brake it is to the growth of the church when leaders allow themselves to be continually side-tracked by peripherals.

3. The brake of self-disorganisation

Imagine a visit to your GP in which the GP turns up late, cannot find your notes, makes no record of your discussion and cannot find a prescription pad. But then, let's be honest, don't we as leaders too all too often forget to take our diaries to meetings, let emails build up before we get round to replying, turn up late too often and fail to do what we promised. All of this undermines both our capacity to lead and the confidence of others in our leadership. Efficient self-organisation is not an optional extra, it is an an essential if we want to grow in our leadership. If this is something you find difficult – can I encourage you to stop making excuses and ask for some help!

4. The brake of 'non-learning'

Every Christian leader should be able to answer two questions: 'What have I learned about God in the last 12 months?', and 'What have I learned about myself/my leadership in the last 12 months?' The inability to answer either of these questions suggests that we have (at least temporarily) stopped learning and therefore growing. All of us who are involved in Christian leadership need to be continually learning – in matters of faith and self-understanding.

Because we all have very different learning styles, the means by which we learn will obviously be varied. This may include reading books, following blogs, listening to sermons online or sharing in learning groups/communities. The challenge is to be intentional in seeking out the means by which and the time in which we can be stretched and grown.

5. The brake of 'non-example'

Jesus' leadership was at its heart leadership by example. And so when he issued the Great Commission it had authority and credibility because he had already been preaching the Kingdom, releasing the captives and showing his love for the lost in word and deed. For those of us who are paid to preach and teach, there is a real challenge here to practise mission before we preach it. If we cannot or do not get around to praying for our non-Christian neighbours and friends, inviting them to appropriate gospel events and to sharing our faith with them, then we are inadvertently putting a brake on the church growth that we would love to see.

6. The brake of 'poorly formed questions'

One of the unexpected brakes on Christian leadership is the inability to form and ask good questions. In preparing a sermon, the competent preacher asks sharp questions about the verses under study and about the people who will be listening to the finished sermon. In prayer ministry, the experienced individual will ask open questions (eg "What do you sense is going on?") but also much sharper/focused questions (eg "Is there a single word or phrase that describes what you think God is saying to you right now?"). The leader trying to sort out why Sunday School attendance is falling will need to craft sensitive and yet searching questions to discover reasons for the downward trend.

Good questions are the hallmark of good leadership. To not ask good questions restricts the leadership of mission and ministry in churches, Christian organisations and other settings.

7. The brake of self-dependence

I remember John Wimber describing how he came to a milestone in his ministry at which he felt God was saying to him "John – you have shown me your ministry. Now let me show you mine." As good evangelicals we preach the pentecostal realities of Acts 2 and the sufficiency of God's grace ("My strength made perfect in weaknes" 2 Corinthians 12:9). But – and I speak for myself – this often remains more of an aspiration than a reality. We leave the 'brake' of self-dependence firmly on.

I pray that those of us reading this short article might commit to praying that God would show us His ministry and that, to use eschatological language, we might see more of the 'now' (as against 'not yet') as we learn daily to submit to and rely more on his inbreaking presence.

Can I invite you to choose one of the above brakes and to pray / work to see it released in your leadership – for His sake and the sake of His kingdom?

John Dunnett is General Director of CPAS, an Anglican evangelical mission agency.