The Lord used Nehemiah to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and Nehemiah is often recognized for being a strong and focused leader. It is important to note that he did not merely show up in Jerusalem, after arriving from serving under the Persian king in captivity, and declare a direction. Before he articulated a vision to the people of Israel—“Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem”—he walked around at night and surveyed the situation (Nehemiah 2:11-16). He spent three days assessing his ministry context, understanding the challenges, and sensing the struggles and the opportunities.
Wise leaders understand they are leading people, and people are in a specific context. Thus, it is foolish for leaders to arrive in a ministry context with a pre-packaged plan of how everything will look and feel. Of course, there are foundational aspects of ministry that must not change from context to context, but the practical implications of ministry should be unique from context to context. And when leaders fail to first understand their ministry context, they are not really leading the ministry the Lord has given them but a ministry of their own imagination.
While assessing your ministry context is broad in scope (understanding the local community, sensing the needs and idols of the culture, knowing the history of the church you are serving, etc.), one aspect of assessing your context is to understand the phase the ministry is in.
There is not a lot written on this subject for ministry leaders, but I find the insights in the book The First 90 Days to be a helpful framework to start your thinking. It surely should not be the trump card or the final word, but it is helpful to spark some thinking and diagnosis. In the book, Michael Watkins articulates that all organizations are in one of four phases:
- Start-up: the early phases of an organization
- Sustaining-success: the phase when an organization experiences growth
- Realignment: the phase where drift occurs because of added complexity
- Turnaround: the phase where the organization needs new direction
Watkins then challenges leaders to match their leadership style to the situation, the season the organization is in. Someone who is leading an organization that is in a period of sustaining success should lead differently than someone who is leading an organization through a season of a necessary turnaround. Watkins states, “Start-ups and turnarounds call for hunters, people who can move fast and take chances. The skills that contribute to success in realignment and sustaining-success, by contrast, are more akin to farming than hunting…skilled farmers painstakingly cultivate awareness of the need for change.”
You have likely seen ministry leaders approach a healthy church (sustaining-success) or one that needs some re-focusing (realignment) with a hunter mentality. Instead of appreciating where the church is and has been, they approach the ministry with a turnaround approach and woefully mismatch their leadership to their actual context.
When you diagnose your ministry context, of course diagnose the community where the ministry is located. Learn the history, the narrative, the struggles, and the pain. But also diagnose the season the ministry is in, and adjust your leadership accordingly. Don’t go into a ministry context that needs turnaround leadership with the slow and methodical approach necessary for a different context. And don’t go into a healthy context with a turnaround mentality. Be sure the ministry context in your mind matches the actual ministry context you are in.
Eric Geiger is a Vice President at Lifeway, leading the Resources Division. He has authored several books including the bestselling church leadership book, Simple Church.