I am a bit reluctant to articulate the characteristics of effective church leaders for fear that some may take the information and reduce it to a neat, quick-fix formula, and that others may see this approach as human-centered, denying the reality of a sovereign God. Nevertheless, in our studies of churches that are reaching people and retaining them through biblical discipleship we have seen a very clear pattern develop, especially in contrast to leaders in other churches that did not meet our criteria.

Keep in mind that it is the total and the composition of these traits that distinguish the effective leaders from other leaders. Many of the less effective leaders share some, but not all, of these traits. I will refer to these leaders as pastors, though some of the churches used other nomenclature, such as ministers.

1. Fierce biblical faithfulness. Without exception, these pastors held to the total truthfulness of God’s Word. Not only did they believe the veracity of Scripture, they passionately lived out their beliefs.

2. Longer tenure. The leaders we studied are willing and even want to have long-term ministries at one church. While longer tenure itself is not the key to effective leadership, a series of short-term pastorates rarely allows one time to establish lasting leadership in a church. In one of our national surveys of pastors, we found the average pastoral tenure to be 3.6 years. But in different studies of effective leaders, those pastors had an average tenure ranging from 11.2 to 21.6 years.

3. Confident humility. In our subjective interviews with effective church leaders across the nation, our interviewers repeatedly reported that the leaders had a clear and compelling confidence about their own leadership. But that confidence was not arrogance. To the contrary, their confidence centered more on what God was doing and less on their own inherent abilities.

4. Acceptance of responsibility. We did not hear of excuses for ineffective ministry from these effective leaders, even though many of them experienced prolonged periods of struggles. Instead, these pastors accepted the leadership responsibility that comes with their position, and they refused to blame circumstances or others when the inevitable times of conflict and challenge occur.

5. Unconditional love of the people. Ministry can be dirty and Christians can be jerks. It is often difficult to love those who complain and attack you. But these effective leaders, with no claims of perfection, still expressed an intense love for the members of their congregations. In some measure, they have learned to love as Christ loved us.

6. Persistence. Because these leaders have a long-term perspective of their ministries at the churches where they serve, they are able to lead toward progress one incremental step at a time. That is not to say they have a laissez-faire attitude; to the contrary, these pastors are incredibly persistent.

7. Outwardly-focused vision. An integral part of the lives of these effective leaders was their passion and vision to reach people who were not Christians and who were not a part of their churches. To say that these leaders are evangelistically focused would be an understatement. They are passionate about reaching the lost and unchurched, and the visions they communicated inevitably reflected this priority.

8. A desire for a lasting legacy. The ambition and drive of these leaders cannot be denied. But that ambition is not limited to their personal successes. They are ambitious for their churches to be thriving and healthy well beyond their ministries and even their lifetimes.

In the final analysis, we cannot know how much of leadership skills are innate and how much can be acquired. These leaders will tell you, however, that they have made significant strides in becoming better leaders. Such are their testimonies. And perhaps, in God’s strength, we can follow these examples and become the types of leaders God wants us to be. 

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