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When You’re The Pastor, But They Won’t Let You Lead

A talk with a 25 year old pastor helped develop this post. He was frustrated with the church where he served. He was brought to the church because they wanted him to help the church grow again – or so the search committee convinced him – but they continually saw him as too young to make decisions on his own.

They wouldn’t take his suggestions and regularly voted them down at business meetings.

They consistently undermined his attempts to lead.

They expected him to speak each week and visit the sick, but they wouldn’t let him make any changes he felt needed to be made.

It made for a very miserable situation and he felt helpless to do anything about it. He was ready to quit when we talked. The situation was negatively impacting every other area of his life; his marriage, his health, and his outlook towards people and ministry.

It wasn’t the first time I have heard a story such as this. I hear it frequently from young leaders in churches and the business world. I didn’t want to be the one to tell him, but I didn’t want to mislead him either. The bottom line in this young pastor’s situation:

He is the pastor of the church, but not the leader.

(Of course I’ll get kickback from those who want to remind me Jesus is the leader of the church. I couldn’t agree more, but He does use people to lead His work and this pastor is not the one.)

Perhaps you share this young leader’s dilemma. If no one is following your attempt to lead it could be because:

You haven’t been given authority to lead.
You haven’t assumed the responsibility you’ve been given.
No one is leading in the organization and no one wants anyone to – because that would mean change has to occur.

If this is your situation, you have a few options, as I see it:

  • You can live with the power structure in place and complete the role within the authority you’ve been given. And, probably be miserable.
  • You can fight the power structure, lining up supporters, building a coalition in your corner – and be prepared to win or lose.
  • You can figure out how to “lead up” — build a consensus for leadership, confront where needed, win influence and the right to lead — even sometimes learning to lead people who don’t want to be led. (Read THIS POST on how to lead people older than you.)
  • You can leave.

Think through these options and see which feels best in your situation. Every situation is unique and this post is not an attempt to solve your problem — perhaps if anything it can help identify what the problem is in your unique circumstance. You will have to own your response to this information. Obviously, you should spend consistent time in prayer.

And let me add a few other thoughts. If you know God has you there then you must endure until He releases you. He always has a plan. But, I believe God often gives tremendous latitude in the call. Our call is to Him and to obedience. And, most likely, there are thousands of places where God could use your talents and abilities. As I read about the Apostle Paul, for example, there seemed to be more opportunities than Paul’s time would allow. I suspect the same may be true for most pastors today. The potential harvest is plentiful. 

With this in mind, I would say if you are miserable now and things are not improving you shouldn’t wait long without doing something. Life is short and many have left the ministry because of situations like this. Don’t be a casualty. Address the problem!

I would also say – and as hard as this is to hear you need to hear it – you will learn from this season. You may even learn more in this season than in a future season where everything appears wonderful and the church easily follows your leadership. Attempt to soak up wisdom now, which you will use later, rather than become bitter. You must protect your soul and the reality of your calling to Christ.

One final thought, don’t handle a situation like this alone. Reach out to someone you trust, probably outside the church or organization; someone who has more experience in situations like this than you have. And, don’t let the stress from this destroy your family or personal health.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were given the responsibility to lead without the power to do so? What did you do?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 33 Comments

  • Paul says:

    Wow — what a great word for ANY pastor. I’m 57 and have been in pastoral ministry for over 35 years. The syndrome you wrote about describes my journey, but I didn’t realize it until about 10 years ago. The past ten years have been spent trying to get my two churches to see the situation honestly. The past two months have been close to a nightmare for me, because I thought my current church was going to be different. But I did all the things you recommended here, so I want to validate your wisdom because I’m still battling to turn the ship around. I confided in trusted pastor friends, I went to a Christian counselor, I sought counsel from godly people (both in my church and outside), I read two great books on the subject, and I’ve regained control of my spirit and soul — thanks be to God. Your piece would have been eerily insightful had I read it at the beginning of this awful period, but looking back now all I can say is that God has confirmed every word of your admonition. I hope all pastors, but especially young ones, will read and heed. Thank you, my brother!

  • Bob says:

    Many years ago,I was in a similar situation when I was given the responsibility but not the ability to lead a large technical department. A micro-managing, more senior executive still demanded to make all the critical decisions. After a year of this I found a way to be transferred out of this group, and it was the best career more I ever made. New opportunities then opened up to me and the next 30 years of my working life were wonderful and very rewarding.

  • jimpemberton says:

    Sounds like a church in need of revitalization. Some people are built to handle these kinds of churches, others aren't. This is the kind of church where changes need to be made, but you haven't gained the trust and leverage necessary to make those changes. It takes time, preaching, teaching, evangelism, patience, long-term commitment, and non-stop prayer to get past this stage – but it can be done. Many pastors who are strong leaders don't have the patience. Those kind of pastors need a healthy church to follow them faithfully (with the resources to handle their messes until they mature). Many young pastors have too much idealism and not enough realism to come into this kind of church and not be utterly defeated when disillusionment finally hits. These pastors instead need a good associate position with a seasoned pastor to help them mature. A hard church looking for the pastor to serve as hired help while it iron-fists itself into oblivion needs to be vetted by potential pastors so that they don't walk into the church unaware of the difficult, uphill road they face with the church. In fact, a pastor needs to research a potential church as much as possible and not be afraid to ask some hard questions in the interview process. A good church will appreciate a prospective pastor who asks wise questions: kind of like the ones you have written about before.

    (Okay, I know I look like a plant here referencing other articles you have written, but you have some good ones and have been impressively consistent.)

  • Been there done that. When I was a young pastor (I believe I'm as old or older than you… 🙂 ) i was told I knew nothing until i was 30. 30 was a magic number when all of a sudden in seemed like maturity kicked in and I was an "expert" in things. I do sympathize with that young man but also would suggest several things: 1) Be cautious making suggestions. Choose the right person and time to make them. Find an ally and slowly "leak" your thoughts. 2) Go with the flow. I know it is frustrating but take the time to grow yourself spiritually, mentally and professionally. Learn about leadership. Learn humility. Take time to spend time with God. 3) Learn from them. If nothing else, learn what not to do or become. 4) Treat the leaders/people with respect. Don't badmouth them. 4) Spend a lot of time in Proverbs learning from the master of getting along with people. 5) Find other pastors whom you can spend time with. 6) Exercise. I cycle and lift weights. It saved my life many times. You need to find a physical outlet for the frustration/anger/fit-to-be-tied feeling. 7) Stay open to God's leading. He may move you. He may keep you there for various reasons. I am 63 y/o. The past 10 years have been the best of my ministry. I am loving it more than ever. I love these people more than I have loved anyone. i think a lot of it comes from having 'been there/done that." Sorry the comment is so long Ron. As you can tell I feel passionate about this.

  • Becky says:

    I shared this article with my husband who just left a church for this reason. He was lead pastor of a church that had dwindled down to 12 people when he got hired. I realized that the board hired him because he was young, but also so they could "mold" him. I knew the situation was going to be difficult once I heard that. My husband resigned 2 months ago and He now only preaches once a week for a retirement community, but he is finding himself in the same predicament, however I feel it's a little different in that he isn't called to grow a church, but just to preach at it. I am praying for guidance for my husband.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Praying for your husband. This season will prove valuable in his character-building if he learns from it.

  • Makena says:

    Really struggling right now, been looking for answers and praying a lot. I was asked to be on staff about a year ago in a relatively new place for me and my family. Now that we've been at the church over a year my husband and I are convinced the pastor has no leadership abilities. The church continues to gain and loose momentum, he continues to delegate and never leads. Many are burnt out, we've talked to him, expressed our concerns, even have asked him to show us what his vision for our church is. He doesn't seem to have a clear sense of anything. When we mention structure, basic protocol on things, improvements, it s as if it falls on deaf ears. Please pray for me. I am in a leadership role in this church and feel like there's no leader. He asks us to rally people up for events, almost every task is delegated, there is no ownership on his part. I am trying to stay positive, and my husband is becoming increasingly aggravated by the inadequecies of the pastoral leadership. I don't want to cause division , but who do I turn to? I've been praying so much about it, I feat if I go to the board it will cause problems, but our church is suffering because of this issue.

  • Karrie Cowee says:

    Hey There. I discovered your blog the usage of msn. That is a really well written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and come back to learn more of your helpful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

  • Brent says:

    Good topic Ron! I once had a position in a non-profit where much was expected of me, but I had to ask permission to do anything or spend anything. It was the classic case of reponsibility without authority. I left the job after a short amount of time and it proved to be the right decision.

  • Reminds of young Timothy: "Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity." I TIM 4:12

  • charles hill says:

    That is why I am a church planter! No one to fight with except my wife and kids over power! Great thoughts my man.

  • To some extent, this is why I am now where I am. The time had come for some things to change in order for the church to move to the next level. However, knowing it would be a "painful" process for the church, I settled in my mind ahead of time that I would present the case, cast the vision and ask the lay leadership to buy in. If they refused to do so, I would not force it. Instead, I would step back and evaluate where I needed to go from there. Although I was committed to stay and continue the ministry, God opened a door I had not expected that exactly fit the criteria of the direction my heart and God's leadership had taken me.

    The former church continues to grow and thrive under new leadership and I am growing and thriving in a place that is receptive of my vision and gifting. Amazing how God knows exactly what He is doing when we only see the surface facts. 🙂

  • Chris says:

    I am in a VERY similar circumstance right now. It is so difficult when there is a warped view of leadership in the church and personal preferences are not set aside for the advancement of the Gospel. Very difficult…

    and exhausting.

  • ronedmondson says:

    Great insight. Personal stories always connect. Thanks

  • Matt

    I had been in a similar situation for a while. It eventually got better but not until I was already pretty drained. I wish I would have had this post earlier!

  • revtrev says:

    My first church was this situation. I was surrounded by leaders in church, parachurch, business and ministry and was given the title of "Lead Elder" at the age of 25.

    I learned the best way to lead was to let them think it was there idea. It took time and patience and honor. I simply dropped pebbles in the pool and when the waves came back to me, I knew it was time to lead.

    Only once I remember bringing out the big stick. Once I had buried enough people and married enough people and cried with enough people I had some chips to play with. Starting with small successes helped build those chips. Working through difficult situations earned me more. There was something we needed to do and the church leadership was balking. "It was going to cost too much money. Can't we just do it ourselves?"

    I knew if we did it ourselves we wouldn't change the problem, just feel better about putting a bandaid on it. So I reacted more forcibly than I ever had before. I went "all-in" with my chips.

    The leadership let me have my own way. What we did ended up changing the culture of the church. The church stopped pushing people away. I gained way more chips for the future.

  • guest says:

    What if you are the leader and not the pastor? What options do you have then?

    • ronedmondson says:

      That's a great question. I think you have to work in conjunction with the pastor, provided the pastor is the God-called person to shepherd the church. I think leading with rather than managing the pastor would be in order in this situation.

  • guest says:

    Thanks for the post. Very insightful and sadly confirming my own situation. I wonder if you have written, or could write on what happens when the lead pastor does not seem to want to take the lead and you feel that you are constantly leading up. I recently found myself in this position – being a relatively strong leader working with a leader who had the same if not more leadership strength than me, but who chose a leadership style that was more inclusive but lacked momentum. It felt like the team was leading the leader all the time, except when the final decision had to be made the leader made it – and not always in the direction that the team would have chosen. Any insights into dealing with a situation like this?

    • ronedmondson says:

      This is a great scenario. I will think on it and consider another post. Some pastors are not cut out to be leaders. I did do a post on "leading up". Perhaps it will help:

      I do see this as a specific issue, so let me think about it. I write more for pastor/leaders, but I understand the dilemma.