5 Steps to Identifying a Pastor’s Leadership Style

Dr. Matt Sanders
Executive Pastor, Beth-El Fellowship

You know the importance of understanding your church before beginning the search for a pastor. You know the importance of a pastor’s leadership style. But is there a way of knowing a candidate’s leadership style through the pastor search process?

The answer is “No.” You cannot with 100% certainty know what a candidate’s leadership style is or if he has multiple leadership styles or how effective he is with any of the styles. However, all is not lost. While 100% certainty is impossible, you can collect enough data to have confidence in your understanding of the candidate’s leadership style.

Pastor search committee’s must be intentional in emphasizing leadership. Many churches think it is enough if a candidate preaches well and seems like a good Christian. Scripture gives qualifications for a pastor, but leadership style is not addressed directly. Some people might argue that pastors should follow Jesus’ servant leadership style. If they mean that pastors should have the same spirit or follow similar principles, they would be correct. But what does that look like?

With Jesus, it always looked different. The same Jesus who turned over temple tables and confronted hypocritical Jewish leaders quietly went to his death. The same Jesus who welcomed little children rebuked his own disciple Peter. At times, he communicated truth clearly and plainly and at others he spoke in puzzling parables. Jesus did not heal every sick person or bring every dead person back from the dead or calm every storm. But he did for some. We cannot retreat to a simplistic “What would Jesus do?” approach. Churches must be intentional about leadership style.

Here are some steps to help:

1. Understanding leadership styles – Everything begins here. Scripture is helpful, especially through the example of Jesus and the specific instructions to church leaders. Other sources can be helpful, provided that they do not contradict Scripture. For example, what makes a good Army officer or office manager or school teacher? These can help inform and direct.

2. Investigation – This involves speaking with members in previous churches and people at other work places. These interviews must be more than just asking general questions about the candidate’s character or professionalism. Present different scenarios: “How did this candidate handle crises?” “How did he counsel or mediate or teach?” “How does he react to people who are succeeding or failing or grieving or hurting?” The objective is to learn as much as you can about how the candidate responded in different situations.

3. Observation – This sometimes is not possible. But whenever possible do it. If the candidate is at another church, observe him in action. Watch him conduct a business meeting. Look at how he interacts with hurting people or children or the elderly or the teenager. Watch how he interacts with his wife and children. How does he reprimand? Is he overly harsh? Preoccupied? Or does he pass the situation off to his wife?

4. Asking – Ask questions in the interview process that are directly related to leadership style. It is difficult for a candidate to say exactly how he will react to a situation, but he should be able to say what leadership style is most appropriate. Is the candidate even aware of different leadership styles? Does he have a one-size-fits-all approach?

5. Examination - Every candidate should be presented with a series of scenarios (“How would you handle … ?”) that deal with situations calling for different leadership styles. This can even (and maybe should be) done in writing. How the candidate answers the question as much as what he actually says will tell you a lot. Does the candidate work out of principles or is he just reacting to situations? If principled, are his principles consistent with Scripture?

Remember that the objective is not to elevate or denigrate leadership styles. You are looking for a match. The more authoritarian style might be exactly what a church needs, at least temporarily. But when a consensus builder is needed, the “shoot first ask questions later” approach is wrong.

The only style that would necessarily be wrong is one that the candidate uses poorly or one that is always ineffective. These are often related, but this is a topic for another article.