In his raw, painful, but finally redemptive memoir, The Night of the Gun (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2008), the late journalist David Carr describes his fits-and-starts, zig-zagging journey from more than a decade of drug addiction, broken relationships, and personal shame to sobriety, a stable and loving family life, a successful career, and a feeling of contented happiness. He’s unsparingly honest about his failures and regrets, and he’s realistically hopeful about the possibility of new beginnings. He says: “The answer to life is learning to live” (p. 190); and, from his struggles he offers us hard-won lessons about how to live and, surprisingly, about how to lead.

Even when mired most deeply in the muck of his troubles, Carr managed to work intermittently as a journalist. Editors and colleagues recognized the dogged determination he brought to investigating cases of public corruption, and they respected his way with words: direct, tough and aphoristic.

As Carr slowly gained more freedom from the power of his addictions, his career found greater traction.  He became editor of the Twin Cities Reader and, eventually, of the Washington City Paper.  He says of his leadership-style: “I was a parody of a boss, someone who knew how to motivate people to take a hill, but not that great at picking hills” (308).

Both capacities are important for effective leaders, including church leaders: motivating people to take a hill and discerning which hills to take.

Strictly speaking, of course, leaders can’t actually motivate other people; lasting motivation always originates from within. People motivate themselves as they respond to the possibilities and responsibilities they have. Sources of motivation vary and are most often mixed; among them are duty, habit, a sense of grateful stewardship, eagerness to learn, the fulfillment of using one’s gifts and talents, delight over an exciting opportunity, the joy of seeing others grow, and the satisfaction of working alongside people who share a common commitment.

While leaders can’t directly motivate others, we can create a climate in which people are more likely to discover and develop their own motivation. It’s a relational climate in which people respect, enjoy, and care for one another.  It includes genuine enthusiasm, authentic celebration, abundant gratitude, generous affirmation, and worthwhile challenges. In my own development as a leader, I regret that it took me longer than I wish it had taken to learn about the contagious and positive motivational energy of laughter and playfulness. Our work is serious, but serious is vastly different from somber.

Pervading a motivational climate is a sense that something wonderful, crucial, or transformational is at stake. By the example of our own passionate commitment, leaders communicate that the kind of faith-community we are attempting to be and the ministries we are doing together matter, and they matter for kingdom-of-God-reasons.

Leaders need the capacity and skills to motivate people to take a hill, and we also need the ability and practices to help congregations discern which hills to take. We often say of pastors that we want them to “have a vision,” by which we mean that we want them to see the future of the church, articulate that vision with compelling words and images, and guide the church, strategy-by-strategy and goal-by-goal, to turn that vision into reality.

It’s wiser to expect “visionary” pastors to have the capacity to see with insight and foresight and a commitment to value and encourage the seeing of others.  The best kind of vision comes, not from a solitary individual, but from a “visionary community”: a church in which people with a shared commitment to God’s purposes pray, study, discuss, debate, and yield to the insight-giving Spirit in order to discern God’s present work in, and future call of, their congregation.

Leaders of visionary communities will need to nurture their own capacity for vision by taking time to reflect prayerfully and thoughtfully on the voices they hear and images they see in their minds and hearts, because those voices might be whispers and those images might be glimpses of God’s unfolding call to them as leaders. They will also invite other participants in the congregation to take time and space to allow their own perceptions of God’s presence and purpose to emerge. When we’ve been individually attentive to the movement of the Spirit, we are more prepared for meaningful conversations about the opportunities and needs we face together.

Pastors in visionary communities also need to teach and model the skills of listening vulnerably to one another and to the Spirit and of speaking honestly about one’s own understanding of God’s call. Such open listening and hospitable speaking make it more likely that the hills we take—our visions and dreams—will be the higher ground of faith, hope, and love.

Guy Sayles
Guy Sayles is a consultant after a 13-year pastorate at First Baptist, Asheville NC. Along with his other interests of teaching, preaching and writing, Guy will work with CHC to foster congregational health and depth. He is a consultant for CHC.