Any experienced administrator knows that leadership is situational. Different situations call for different leadership styles--particularly in volunteer organizations. For example, autocratic leadership may be the only way to deal with an unexpected "brushfire" problem, but participative leadership is more fruitful where people and teamwork are involved.

Pastors and other Christian leaders have a wide array of leadership approaches at their disposal, such as group consensus-building, one-on-one discussion, interpersonal selling, role modeling, and task delegation. A continuum of leadership styles ranges from autocratic to democratic. But determining which style to use throughout varying circumstances is not always obvious or easy.

Leadership is indeed a complex process, but two key factors are especially important in determining which style will work best in a given situation: (1) the impact the decision or leadership action likely will have on the ministry team, and (2) the extent to which team members are competent to make the decision or take action on their own.

These two factors form the axis points on the model below which portrays leadership in four arenas (styles) of action.













Our model shows four arenas. Christian leaders commonly operate in and the situational leadership style that generally works best in each arena. Administrators can use the model as a strategy guide for choosing the most effective leadership style.

The political arena. Some issues (such as ministry budget allocations and training curriculum) have a significant impact on a ministry’s team members, but they lack technical insight into background details. Team members feel they have something at stake in the decision, but they are reluctant to take action because of their limited technical knowledge.

To lead effectively in this situation, the ministry leader should make the decision unilaterally, using his or her technical expertise, and then enthusiastically sell the decision to team members. This can be done one-on-one or with the whole team, depending on the number of people involved and the amount of time available.

The leader should carefully explain the practical reasons behind the decision and the team will benefit from it. This arena is labeled political because the ministry leader acts like a politician, seeking to keep the "constituency" happy.

The bureaucratic arena. Team leaders make a number of routine decisions of minor consequence to team members (ordering supplies, writing checks, carrying out equipment maintenance, etc.) that easily can be made either in isolation or with minimal team involvement. Team members likely care little and probably know little about the matter and wouldn’t want to waste time with participation in such matters. The bureaucracy can handle such matters routinely. Participative management should be reserved for nonroutine matters that require brainstorming and consensus building.

The technical arena. In the course of their ministry, team leaders sometimes have to grapple with technical problems they know little about, such as computer glitches, accounting procedures, or theological fine points. Such problems may have only a minor effect on technically knowledgeable team members, but they are almost always eager—and even flattered—to provide advice and counsel. This approach to participative management is thus fruitful, even tough team members have only a minor interest in the issue because it creates an opportunity for rapport building.

The professional arena. Circumstances are ideal for participative management when team members are both interested in a decision-making issue and technically equipped to deal with it. "Hot" items such as goal setting and program design present a fertile opportunity for teambuilding through participative leadership.

Most Christian organizations are fortunate enough to have highly capable volunteers who know far more about certain technical ministry areas than does the paid staff. In these situations, the laissez-faire (leave them alone) style of leadership can be used to great advantage. Volunteers can be extended the freedom and flexibility to act on their own within policy guidelines set up by the team leader.


Christian leaders sometimes are their own worst enemies when they use a leadership style not tailor-made for the situation at hand. Not only does a mismatched leadership style waste scarce time and energy, but the thorny seeds of future relationship problems also are planted when a situationally inappropriate leadership style is used.

For example, the morale of idealistic volunteers is bound to sag when ministry leaders "hatch" important and consequential decisions in isolation. The head of one church’s missions committee learned this lesson the hard way when he unilaterally approved a $150 expenditure for a missions project. Even though the other members of the committee eventually agreed with the decision, they felt hurt by being "cut out" of the deliberation process.

Ministry effectiveness is sometimes unintentionally sabotaged in the opposite way when overly democratic team leaders "major on the minors" by squandering valuable time in holding team meetings for routine matters (such as filling out simple paperwork or distributing minutes from the last meeting). They carry participative management too far and trivialize its true intent.

No wonder volunteer workers (as well as paid staff) often are so apathetic about meetings. And no wonder so many Christian leaders never find the time to carry out long-range planning or follow through on ministry detail work--they’re spending too much time in low priority meetings!

In a misguided attempt to save time, ministry leaders sometimes make the mistake of handling, in a bureaucratic (isolated) manner, technical problems they know little about rather than counseling with capable team members. Even worse, the ministry leader might get into the political arena and attempt to sell technically qualified employees on an impractical or otherwise unworkable solution.

One principle is certain: when leadership style and operating circumstances don’t jibe, time and energy will be wasted and relationships frayed. This error adds up to ministry sabotage. It’s not enough for ministry leaders to take leadership action--their timing and situational tailoring must smoothly mesh.


Scenario 1: Your denomination has just acquired a new computer system for its headquarters office. You’re in charge of computerizing your church’s complete budgeting and financial record-keeping process. What will you do?

Scenario 2: As the newly appointed Sunday School director of your association, you want to schedule an associational Sunday School conference. You have particular concerns as to what the agenda of this conference should be. How will you make this decision?

Scenario 3 The charity you do volunteer work for has just launched a new fund-raising drive. You have agreed to head up the efforts of seven other volunteers in your city to visit with community leaders about providing financial gifts. What style will you use in leading the seven volunteers?

These three scenarios call for situational leadership. No single style will yield successful results in every situation. But how should you go about choosing the style most likely to work? The two simple issues introduced earlier can position the ministry leader in the right leadership-style arena:

  1. Does the issue have a relatively major or minor impact on team members?
  2. To what extent are team members technically equipped to handle the matter on their own?

In all three previous scenarios, team members can be expected to have a significant stake in the proceedings, so we know the political or professional styles of leadership will be activated. In scenario 1, staff works may or may not be technically qualified to debug budgeting software. To the extent they are computer literate, a consensus style of leadership should be employed (as indicated by arena 2, the professional arena). If, in your judgment, staff workers are relatively unfamiliar with using computers, the selling leadership style (political arena) would seem to be more appropriate.

In scenario 2, you will have to make another judgment call about the technical competence of the associational ASSIST team workers to determine whether the selling or consensus-style of leadership would work best. Likewise, in scenario 3, you will have to assess how confident and competent you feel your fellow volunteers to be at fundraising. If they are experienced, you should operate out of the professional arena using a consensus-building style of leading.

What’s your judgment call in these additional scenarios?

Scenario 4: As the youth director in your church, you are ordering devotional materials to use in your midweek Bible study. What decision-making approach should you take?

Scenario 5: It’s time to renew your church’s insurance package. What leadership style should you use to get this task accomplished?


Although there is much more to successful leadership than selecting the right style, the situational component of leadership is crucial to ministry success. The better you can gauge the impact of decisions on team members and how technically self-sufficient they are, the better you can lead.

Leadership success certainly cannot be guaranteed, but knowing when and when not to use a particular style will greatly enhance your capacity to succeed. Knowing what to do and when to do it is half the battle in successful ministry management.