What To Do with a Popular but Not Respected Leader

By August 21, 2012Church, Leadership

What do you do with a leader who is popular with the people, but not respected as a leader? 

Recently I received this question from a deacon chairman of a church. He is in a dilemma in his current position, watching the staff become a revolving door with constant turnover, the church is in steady decline, and yet the church loves their pastor. He has prayed about the situation, talked to others in leadership, and the consensus is that he needs to address the situation, but isn’t sure what to do, since the pastor is so popular. He said every deacon chair before him in recent years has faced the same dilemma, but he wants to address the issue.

I have observed this dilemma personally and answered this question so often, that I thought I’d address it here. I realize this is not an easy answer and some will be offended at my bluntness, but I decided when I started this blog I’d be transparent, so I’m sharing the answer I gave this deacon. (This post is not addressing issues of the call to a position. I’ve addressed that in other posts.)

Dear Deacon Chair: 

You are not alone in your situation. I work mostly with church staffs and I’ve talked with so many staff members of churches who like their pastor, but they don’t respect him as a leader. The volunteer leadership of the church often feels the same way. They know, for example, that the church needs a better leader, or maybe a better preacher, but they know the pastor is well-liked by the congregation, so they fear making the changes needed.

I’ve learned that many pastors have very hard working staffs, but what’s missing is a respectable leader who will drive the vision forward. Eventually, potential leaders end up leaving under a liked but not respected leader.

Being liked is accomplished by “getting along”, compromising, settling for what everyone agrees with, and never pushing the boundaries. It’s being a friend more than being a leader. You become popular, but not respected.

Being respected is accomplished by doing the right things for the right reasons, regardless of the popularity it does or doesn’t bring. It’s being genuine, honest and moral in all the leader does.

Being liked can be easily achieved. Say nothing, do nothing, and move in no direction that will cause an uproar or disrupt people from the norm. Being respected is hard, messy, and uncomfortable for the leader at times, because it takes people where they need to go, and may even want to go, but may be afraid or don’t know how to get there.

What do you do when a leader is popular, but not respected?

Well, in my opinion, you have three basic options:

Remove the leader – This wouldn’t be my first choice and it won’t be easy, because of the leader’s popularity, but it may be needed if the church is to be healthy again.

Live with it – You can do nothing and live with status quo. That’s frankly what most churches do. I don’t recommend it, but it’s the easier option.

Challenge the leader to improve – Some leaders want to improve, they simply don’t know how or can’t bring themselves to do it on their own. They need someone to challenge them, coach them, and give them the courage to make hard decisions…which may not help them to be liked, but will gain them the respect a leader needs to be successful. (In fairness, I’ve learned that many ineffective pastors want this type of help, but are simply afraid or embarrassed to ask for it.)

These are hard choices, but this may be why they need you to lead at this time. Pray. Seek wise counsel. Then, make the wisest decision you can and trust God for the outcome.

The way you respond during this time will likely impact whether you are liked or respected as a leader also. I’m praying for you now with the weight of decisions you have before you.


Have you ever faced this dilemma? What advice would you give to this deacon chairman? 

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Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • […] question. I previously answered this from the church laity perspective (Read that HERE) , but received questions relative to the staff perspective. I wish there were easy answers. My […]

  • kmac4him

    Very will said. Thank you! Yes, I was the secretary for a pastor just like that. The senior pastor confronted it honestly. Called him into account and accountability. Said you are doing this well, you need to really "step up" here. He laid out a plan and they met for six months, within that time, the Senior Pastor equipped him and then inspected what was expected and he did step up in responsibility and respect.

  • Bryankr

    I have discovered that I am to be the challange for my leader. Not always fun, as I sometimes choose the wrong words to do it with! There is movement forward, albeit slow. The challanges are what he actually does want! I was really surprised; I thought for sure he would balk at every turn! When I started, it was just trying to get someone to understand the basic need for personal Evangelism, it turned into a set of challenges, that he thought were personal attacks, to define the difference between proclamation and evangelism. From there it is has grown, and through (much) prayer, we are serving together on a search committee.

  • TC Avey

    Great post. I'm so glad I've never had to be in a position like this. However, I have been a member of a congregation who had a popular preacher who lacked some leadership skills. I know I wasn't the only one in the congregation who saw it because many talked about it in hushed tones.
    I often wondered why the pastoral staff didn't address this. Your post brings great insight into that situation and the challenges they faced. Thanks.

  • Ben says:

    It's also hard with staff members who are popular. I'm a pastor in a growing church but I have a staff member who was raised in our church and is very well liked. At the same time, he is very lazy and incompetent for the position. It's like having a big anchor strapped around your neck. It is by far the most stressful thing in my life. He is really holding us back and he has been vocally opposed to our growth but he also is determined to spend his life in this church.

  • Good answers Ron. The last answer is what we would all like to see happen! But ,oat chur he's will choose to do nothing. Removal is usually a difficult and lengthy process. This is complicated by the probability that their popularity fills the pews and the coffers.

    The answer lies in who can speak truth into this person's life. If there is a relationship, then speak truth. Or, and you are interested in having theastor stay, as well as seeing them grow as a human being, then it is time to start cultivating such a relationship.

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