A pastor went into a church and started making changes quickly. They were good changes. All of them, in my opinion. Genius a few of them. I was impressed.
But, he didn’t last two years in that church. He was run out of town. Dismissed. Sent packing with barely a severance check. A few of the leaders in the church, some he didn’t even know were leaders, decided they didn’t like the changes. And, soon they no longer liked him.
Heartbroken and discouraged he asked for my opinion on what went wrong.
Now that’s a true story, but it’s not just one pastor’s story. It’s a dozen pastor’s story. I’ve heard it so many times I can’t remember them all. I am not saying I agree with those churches who responded to a new pastor that way. I don’t. Not at all. Or, not in the way they went about things. The controlling, afraid to change mindset usually keeps churches from growing and moving forward.
There were probably better solutions to the problem. Maybe a mediator. Maybe some humility. For both the church and the pastor. Maybe a smarter approach. Maybe a little better change management. Maybe a little more grace. Maybe a church takeover. (Just kidding on the last one. Mostly.)
But it helps us understand something else about leadership.
In watching new leaders in a church or organization, I’ve noticed a sometimes fatal error occur.
They forgot to establish their authority before making major changes.
Here’s the principle to remember…this is the gold of this post learned by experience:
You have to establish authority before you exhibit authority.
Positional authority is what this pastor used. By definition, this kind of power comes with the position. He was the pastor. So he made the pastor-like decisions. You’ll need positional authority at times. Many times. Don’t be afraid to use it when necessary. You need it when protecting the vision. Or in times of crisis. And, it is especially helpful in honeymoon situations, which is what this pastor used.
But, positional authority is limited in effectiveness. This pastor abused his positional authority. People may do what you say, because of your position, but they will not always do it with as much passion. And, eventually, if not handled well, people will rebel against that kind of authority; especially when it is the only authority exhibited.
What’s the alternative?
Relational authority is far more effective. As the title indicates, relational authority is part of a relationship. It develops with trust and respect. It develops over time and experience. It develops as those you attempt to lead get to know you and learn that you are the leader and person you claim to be.
I would have advised this leader to be more intentional. More strategic. There were probably times to use positional authority. Times to get some quick “wins”. Things that were less controversial and easier to change. Things that built momentum. Things that clearly got in the way of accomplishing the vision.
But, I would have advised him to develop more relational authority before he changed the controversial issues…the sacred cows. Many times these are small issues, but they hold big sentimental and traditional values. In the end, many of these issues don’t matter. You’d love them changed, but if it takes a year…or two years…that’s okay. In the meantime, you can develop your relational authority.
Before you exhibit too much authority, make sure you’ve established your authority. The proper authority. Especially relational authority. That takes time, and the privilege is great, but it is so incredibly powerful.
Have you seen a leader try to exhibit authority before establishing authority? How’d that go?