Leadership For Non-Dummies

Understanding your leadership capacity

Leadership //

Leadership is undoubtedly one of the most prolific topics studied in the last fifty years. Countless articles and books have been written in addition to conferences, college courses, graduate and doctoral programs on theme. I owned over 700 books on leadership until donating them to a seminary. I’m responsible for authoring seven of those and well over 100 articles. So it would seem that our culture’s obsession with leading would result in everyone becoming a leader, but it hasn’t. The reason is that God has not wired everyone to lead. Why would He? Leadership is the unique role of assisting the rest of us to use our gifts together toward a common vision. If everyone led, we’d have chaos. I’ve not seen a stitch of research that suggests everyone can learn to lead, nor have I seen it the last six years as we’ve created the world’s first executive caliber leadership training curriculum for preteens called KidLead. Yet, I’m just as convinced that everyone should know how leadership works and that children’s pastors, regardless of how they’re wired, can tap into the leadership power of leaders in their midst. That’s what smart people do.

Let’s say you’re out of milk. In the old days, you might go out to the barn and put the squeeze on Ol’ Bossy. If you don’t have a cow, which few of us do these days, you drive down to the grocery store and pick up a gallon or two from a giant cooler filled with milk products. You don’t beat yourself up for not having a cow or even knowing how to milk one. Likewise, to get things done in a ministry as important and sizable as yours, you need to know where you can get influence.

Defining Leadership

Just because people use the same word, doesn’t mean they’re talking about the same thing. This is definitely true with the word “leadership.” Most children’s and youth ministries confuse discipleship, ministry involvement, and serving with leadership development. These are not the same concepts. Leadership is more than good citizenship, character, self-esteem, and personal responsibility. We want all people to exhibit these qualities—leader or not. Leadership is the process of helping people accomplish together what they would not as individuals. Leaders are individuals who get leadership going.

Based on this definition, you’d be hard pressed to prove that everyone can or even wants to be a leader. Barna suggests that less than 10 percent of pastors acknowledge leadership in their gift mix. I think he’s right. That’s been my sense in over 25 years of interacting with pastors and which is why at midlife, I turned my energies toward identifying and developing leaders while they’re moldable. The same is probably true of children’s pastors. Most of them are teachers, nurturers, managers, and moms, who someone tapped on the shoulder and said, “Psst, how’d you like to run our children’s ministry?”

That doesn’t mean you aren’t influential, but not all influence is leadership. You might be what we call a “situational leader.” These are people who have learned how to run things and supervise people, but who are not necessarily in their sweet spot when they’re doing that. Obviously, some children’s ministry directors are sublime leaders, more gifted at leading than their supervisors and lead pastors. Regardless, here are some best practice techniques that will help you take your personal leadership ability to the next level.

Leadership Styles

There are a variety of styles leaders exude. Here are the four most common, similar to temperaments, but reflective of how people lead.

Director. This is the stereotypical leader style, typically using direct communication. The upside of this style is vision casting and taking charge. The downside is appearing bossy and alienating others in the process.

Strategist. This style considers the complexity of problems as well as the best options for solutions. The upside of this style is thoroughness and depth. The downside is being controlling and negativity.

Inspirer. This approach to leading motivates people to get on board. The upside is team building and creating excitement. The downside is a lack of planning and systems thinking.

Collaborator. This style coordinates various gifts and personalities to work well together. The upside is reduced conflict and performing well under pressure. The downside is a lack of risk taking and slower rate of progress.

Understanding leadership styles helps you recognize leaders who may not exhibit yours, as well as appreciate the strengths of their styles while guarding against the weaknesses of yours.

Leadership Capacity

Starbucks has five sizes of drink containers: Short (really small), Tall (small), Grande (medium), Venti (large), and now a Trenta (very large, but for cold drinks only). Each vessel has a different capacity. When you’re paying that much for a drink, you want a full cup, but a full Venti contains more coffee than a full Short. People possess varying capacities for leading. Moses learned that in Exodus 18.  He looked for some who could lead 1000, others 100, some 50 and many 10. Jesus refers to the varying abilities of stewards in his Parable of the Talents. One was given one talent, another two, and a third five. Scripture says that each was given talents “according to his ability.”

What is your leadership capacity? Are you a Short, Tall, Grande, Venti, or Trenta? If you’re a Venti, living like a Short, you’re not being a good leader. But if you’re a Short, thinking you’re a Trenta, chances are people around you won’t respect you as you like and the span of your ministry will dwindle. Self-awareness is a critical part of ministry effectiveness.

Leading Up, Down, and Laterally

One of the most important things you can do to improve the leadership quality of your children’s ministry is to tap the influence of other people. In other words, if you’re a Short leader, create relationships with the Ventis and Trentas in your church. If they’re not ready for spiritual leadership, disciple them. DWJD: Do What Jesus Did. When they’re discipled, unleash them. They’ll raise your ministry to new heights because you tapped into their capacity. Right now, you have people in your church with gifts of influence who are not living up to their ministry capacity. Some of them run large organizations during the week, only to come to church on Sundays and be asked to hand out bulletins. Most children’s ministry directors think that the only people in their ministry should be those who like or are good with kids—big mistake. Some of your best work horses are not the front line doers, but those who can wield their power with the lead pastor, the board, and colleagues who possess valuable resources (money, time, equipment, contacts, talent, and influence). Your ability to tap into the influence of those with greater leadership influence than you (personal or positional) is called leading up. The old joke, “Men are the head of the house, women are the neck, and the neck turns the head,” is true of leadership.  People with less influence can tap into the leadership capacity of others by creating friendships, alliances, and intentional collaboration.

Many kidmin directors complain that they don’t have bigger budgets, more attention from the platform, and greater priority in the overall church. Perhaps the main reason for this is that they’ve not led up well. They’ve failed to identify those with greater influence in the church and gained them as allies.

Leading laterally has to do with tapping the influence of colleagues, whether friends, fellow staff members, or even other children’s pastors. Smart leaders know that building ties with these people benefits their ministries when people are competing for scarce resources (rooms, bulletin space, money, talent).

When all you do is focus on leading down, trying to recruit and organize people who report to you, you’re overlooking huge leadership potential that you can tap for the sake of your ministry. Harvesting this latent talent is a big part of what savvy leaders do, regardless of their personal capacity.

Defining leadership, understanding leadership styles, and knowing your capacity along with those in your church, can significantly improve your ministry. Leadership is God’s gift to humanity, helping us coordinate our gifts toward a common cause. It’s a beautiful thing when Christ’s body functions as it is designed. There is no ministry more important in your church than children. That’s why you can’t afford not to raise the level of leadership in your ministry, regardless of your personal ability to lead.





About the Author

Alan E. Nelson, EdD is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and founder of KidLead Inc., ( He lives in Monterey, CA with his family and has pastored for over 20 years.