What empowering leaders know

In some congregations, everyone knows who’s the boss: maybe it’s the pastor, who has to approve everything; or the director of music, whose favorite hymns are drilled into everyone’s brain; or the person with access to the kitchen and the coffee pot.

But congregations that are successful have figured out ways to empower leaders — to help ordinary people from the congregation figure out what their gifts for service and ministry might be, and make them want to get involved.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey, a representative survey of more than 2,000 congregations from more than 50 faith groups, identified key factors in empowering leadership. Among them:

  • The congregation’s leader (perhaps the minister, rabbi or priest) takes into account the ideas of the worshipers so that what people in the pews think really matters.
  • There’s a good match between the congregation and its top leader, rather than significant conflict. The leader’s style fits the congregation.
  • The leader encourages others to get involved and take charge. As a result, the vision for where the congregation is going is a shared vision, with a lot of people buying in.
  • A significant number of people — 41 percent in the average congregation, more in those excelling in this area — feel they’re encouraged to discover and use their gifts for ministry. They feel welcome to participate and are helped to figure out what their gifts might be, whether it’s helping settle refugee families or teaching Sunday school or organizing meals for someone having chemotherapy. Unfortunately, about one in four worshippers say they haven’t been encouraged to discover their spiritual gifts, or aren’t sure if they have been — a clear sign their talents aren’t being used and they don’t know where they fit in.

The research also found that congregations that do an especially good job of empowering leaders tend to be places where people experience meaningful worship, where they share a clear vision for the congregation’s future, and where they’re involved in the community.

And small congregations — those with fewer than 100 in worship — tend to do better than bigger congregations at identifying and nurturing leaders. Smaller congregations may be places where people feel they’re known, where they feel they’re a real part of what’s going on and can play a significant role in determining where the congregation will go.

Another finding: conservative Protestant churches and congregations in historically black denominations score higher than average on empowering leaders. Mainline Protestant churches and Catholic congregations tend not to do as well.

But there does not seem to be any direct correlation between congregations that do a good job empowering leaders and congregations experiencing numerical growth.

Beyond-the-ordinary congregations also get people involved beyond worship. They manage to communicate that spiritual growth comes from being a player and participant in the life of the congregation, not just a spectator.

In the typical congregation, four out of five people attend worship at least once a week. Two out of three are involved in a small group, such as a Sunday school class or Bible study. Six of 10 regularly give at least 5 percent of their net income to the congregation. A little more than half have at least one leadership role, but only one in three often participate in making important decisions for the congregation.

And what about that old adage that 20 percent of the people in a congregation do almost all of the work? Not true, the research shows. Half the people in a typical congregation participate in three or more significant ways. But it may feel like people do more work today — many congregations are smaller than they used to be, but there’s as much work as ever that needs to be done.