Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

What a Leader Does

What is it, exactly, that a leader does?

We are bombarded with directives to be leaders and lead our church, and we’re told that everything rises and falls on leadership… okay, what does that actually mean?

I was once challenged to pull together a description of what being a leader actually involves on a day-in, day-out basis. I found it to be an intriguing exercise because, in truth, most leadership books talk about how to do certain leadership functions well but rarely lay out the leadership menu.

Here’s the menu:

1. Cast a Compelling Vision

This involves seeing all that could be and should be and painting that picture clearly enough for others to get there. And remember that “vision leaks” so this vision must be recast on an annual basis.

2. Draw Others In

Have you heard of something called the “art of the ask?” This is seeing someone and envisioning what they can become – imagining what they can do with their life, spotting their talents and abilities – and then asking them to put their life into play for Christ.

“I think you could be a small group leader.” “I think you could head up a building team.” “I think you could oversee a media ministry.” “I think you could help administratively.” “I think you could sing.”

These are the words a leader offers.

3. Establish and Uphold Values

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), we have ten macro values. They need to be upheld, modeled, championed, and defended. But there are also micro values.

For children’s ministry, it might be arriving on time or calling in if you can’t make it. For a small group leader, it might be the “empty chair,” meaning that there is always a place – and a desire – for someone new to join. For someone in student ministry, it might be never letting a kid be excluded from the group.

When it comes to values, a leader must establish them, model them, and then uphold them.

Let’s say I ask you to build relationships with the unchurched. If I don’t do it myself, I have no credibility. You never lead from title or position but from moral authority. There’s an old line I’m sure you’ve heard: “Speed of the leader, speed of the pack.” It’s true.

And after you establish the values through word and deed, you have to uphold them. This means you catch people living by them, and you praise them and make them an example to others.

4. Bring Everything into Alignment

This is often talked about in business circles but less so in church circles. Alignment is translating values, purpose, mission and goals into the very fabric of what you are trying to do on a day-in, day-out basis. It’s having what you do line up with what you say you’re trying to do.

It’s having every little decision informed by the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. Alignment is what lets a leader make a decision – to know what to say “yes” or “no” to.

It helps us think creatively about what to start, what to stop, what to create, what to change, what to continue, and where we need to experiment or innovate.

5. Let Others Play in the Game

At the most basic level, this is just learning how to delegate, which surprisingly few people ever really learn to do. The key to delegation is simple: Do only what you can do. Delegate everything else.

That’s hard for people. Whether it’s due to fear that it won’t be done right, inhibition about imposing on someone, being controlling, or enjoying manifesting a martyr complex, we hold on to things and will die in a pile doing them.

But even harder than delegation is letting others play on the team.

Delegation is letting someone serve you while you play and do your thing, and we all need to do that. But beyond that is bringing others in and letting them actually play in the game – and score!

6. Influence

Leaders should motivate, inspire, and encourage.

To motivate means to get people going, to make them want to achieve more and go further. Motivation is having fire and then having everyone else catch fire with you.

To inspire someone is different – it is calling them out to be more than they are. It is helping them want to live differently, to give their lives to something more. Think of it this way: I can be around someone who motivates me to use my time better, manage my money better, or stay in shape better – all motivational issues – but it takes something else to have me walk away wanting to love more, care more and serve more.

But then a leader throws in the third ingredient: encouragement. One of the biggest truths is that what gets recognized, what gets praised, and what gets encouraged is what gets done. In fact, studies have found that verbal affirmation is more valuable to people than money.

7. Develop Other Leaders

Effective leaders create a leadership culture that develops those around them. As you build your teams, you should be singling out a small group of people from within that team that you are grooming and equipping for leadership.

The more leaders you develop, the more leaders you unleash.

The more leaders are unleashed, the more the church reaches its full redemptive potential.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Available on Amazon

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite


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