New leader + old mistakes = trouble

The congregation of which I am a part has had a rough go of it over the past couple of years. We chewed up a pastor heralded as a “change agent” by the search committee that found him. In the process, we lost nearly a third of our membership, including many of our strongest givers.

We’re a forlorn flock in need of a shepherd, and well aware that we’re not the easiest of sheep to tend.  We’ve achieved a truce, of sorts, but it doesn’t take much for tempers to flare. Hurt, suspicion, even paranoia lurk just behind the Sunday morning smiles.

In other words, church as usual these days – or so say the folks in the know.

As reported by the research team over at Faith Communities Today, “at any given time it seems that about one fifth of congregations have active conflict.” Similarly, The U.S. Congregational Life Survey tells us that

Eight in ten pastors (79%) report that their congregation faced conflict in the past two years. In most cases the conflict didn’t escalate beyond minor (56% of pastors report minor conflict). Yet one-quarter of pastors serve congregations where the discord grew and was termed “major”—sometimes so severe that a church leader or worshipers left. This pattern remains about the same regardless of church size or faith group.

In other words, leadership as usual these days — or so say I based on my experience with faith-based nonprofits.

Which makes “Three mistakes leaders make when starting a new job” applicable to clergy on the move as well as the corporate types for whom the article is addressed. Heads of faith-based nonprofits and those who care about them can benefit as well.

I encourage you to check out the article for yourself. In the meantime, here’s the short version of what to avoid, whether you’re the new guy or gal in the corner office or the pulpit.

Mistake #1: Shaking things up without considering the consequences

Remember, “if you pick up one end of a stick, never forget you’re also picking up the other end’. Making structural changes impacts the whole system, from the culture and behaviours that exist, to the vision, values, mindsets and attitudes. You need to take a broad, whole-system view, and that can be hard to do quickly.”

Mistake #2: Trying too hard

According to career strategist Brian Gardner, the managing director of Donington Victoria, “The mistake many people make is they come in and work as hard as they can. That doesn’t give them anywhere to go but down. When you come in, work at 90% initially while you’re not sure where you’re going. Use your honeymoon period to gain your bearings. Don’t over commit.”

Mistake #3: Preconceptions

The biggest mistake new leaders make is coming in with false preconceptions about a business. This can sabotage everything from the strategy they plan to the people they convince.“If you come in from outside the business, it can be hard to know who the right stakeholders are for any particular thing,” says Gardner.

What would you add to the list? I’m eager to hear from newcomers to ministry leadership and/or those who are supporting a new leader in his or her beginnings.


  1. I would definitely add “Don’t fix it if it’s not broken”!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Annie, What do you say, however, to Jim Collins’ assertion that “good is the enemy of great”? Even if it — an organization or a church — isn’t broken, there is always room for improvement. By side-stepping the three mistakes identified in this post, a new leader can bring about change in the direction of even greater effectiveness. Easier said than done probably, but my hope springs eternal.

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