As I work with pastors and congregations, I see a need and a readiness for transformational leadership. Congregations are realizing that if they continue to do business as usual, then it is likely they will go out of business in the not too distant future. To do church in a more effective manner (i.e. accomplish the mission of the church in today’s word) means being willing to risk (step out in faith) and engage the world that is far from God in new and relevant ways. To become that kind of church, transformation is needed. I am hearing more and more congregations cry out for transformational leadership to lead them into their God ordained future.
There is a difference between normal leadership and transformational leadership. Normal leadership is making small, incremental changes that are not particularly threatening or challenging to the congregation and, therefore, have minimal impact. People go along with it because it doesn’t upset the status quo and it makes them feel like they are doing something about the congregation’s current situation. However, any change is normally minimal and doesn’t change the trajectory of the church or the lives of people outside the church. Normal leadership is designed for stable times when things are going well and minimal change is needed.
Transformational leadership is the result of the leader experiencing deep, inward change within him or herself that results in a heart, soul, and behavioral change in the leader and then in the organization. The change in the leader is visible to others and infects them in such a way that impactful change is implemented, thus changing the trajectory of the congregation and, eventually, its community.
Transformational leadership is needed in times of instability, crisis and decline. It does cause uneasiness among people who are living in denial and thinking that the future will accidentally be different from the past. This kind of change is desperately needed when a new future is desired and people are no longer willing to keep doing what they have always done just because it is familiar and comfortable.
Nehemiah is a great biblical example of a transformational leader. He was serving as cupbearer of King Artaxerxes I of Persia. His job was to drink the king’s wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. I’m not sure how many people had it in for Artaxerxes, but it sure sounds like a high risk and low return kind of job.
Nehemiah received word that his hometown (Jerusalem) was in ruins. The protective wall around the city had been destroyed and the gates burned, thus leaving the city looking and feeling like a battle zone. The physical condition of the city was an obstacle to its economic recovery and healing. Nehemiah was heartbroken about the condition of Jerusalem and knew he had to do something about it. So at the risk of his life, he shifted from being a normal leader to a transformational leader. He approached the king (which could have cost him his life), told the king about the condition of Jerusalem and how it grieved him, and then asked that he be allowed an extended leave of absence to change the trajectory of the city’s future. The king was infected with Nehemiah’s passion and was moved by what he saw deep in Nehemiah’s heart. He granted the request.
Once Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and had a chance to survey the city and get a read on the people, he mobilized the people to transform the condition of the city. He met considerable opposition from some who wanted to keep Jerusalem and its inhabitants beat down and discouraged, but he persisted. He wasn’t going to allow anything to prevent him from setting Jerusalem and its people up for a new future. He refused to be distracted or sidetracked from the assignment he believed God had given him.
The wall was rebuilt. The city gates were hung in place. The people experienced a major moral victory and Jerusalem was transformed from a burned out war zone into a bustling city filled with life and economic activity. Nehemiah was able to accomplish what many considered impossible because he was willing to let God change him at the depth of his being. That change spilled over into others and forward momentum was created that resulted in transformational change of lives, families and the extended community.
I find a current day challenge for pastors and lay leaders in this story. Many congregations are declining and struggling. Their glory years are in the past and there is a lot of fear about the future. Transformational leaders are needed who are willing to take appropriate risks and lead the church into a new future. . . a future characterized by hope and changed lives, families and communities. Being this kind of leader is not for the weak of heart. It will take everything you’ve got. But the risk and reward are well worth it.
I have the privilege of working with pastors and lay leaders who are willing to step into this transformational zone. They usually have more questions than answers and at various times wonder what they have gotten themselves into. Then they see a life changed. Then a family changed. Then multiple people in the community changed. Deep in their hearts they know God has brought about the transformation, but they celebrate getting to be part of it. They know deep in their hearts that bringing about transformational change is worth the price. I want to celebrate those pastors and lay leaders because they are making a difference for eternity. May God increase their number!