Leading from the 2nd Chair


Situational Leadership: It Depends!


Situational Leadership: It Depends!

I’m a practitioner. From my early days as a local church youth pastor, through twenty-one years in Nazarene higher education in both administrative roles and in teaching Christian education/youth ministry/church leadership, and now back in a staff associate role, ministry always meant doing, and “does it work?” has been an ever-present question. Yet even achievers like me recognize the importance of being formed in Christ as a requisite and ongoing reality for ministry, and the foundation that theory provides to help clarify and guide “why we do what we do when we do it.”

One of my favorite courses to teach focused on pastoral staff ministry, and the “nuts and bolts” section connected well to students preparing for that role. As we covered what a job interview might entail, one question I would always prepare them for was, “What is your leadership style?” Churches want to know how you will lead them, and rightfully so. Imagine their surprise when I told them the best answer they could give would be, “It depends!”  After years of listening in on a wide array of leadership workshops, I am convinced that most leaders struggle because they take a standard set of traits and behaviors prescribed for good leadership into every situation, believing “this is who good leaders are and what they do,” and wonder why the list doesn’t work for them when it worked so well in their last church or the church down the street!

Over my years in ministry, I’ve found that a basic understanding of organizational theory goes a long way toward helping make for effective leadership. Early on I ran across situational leadership theory, pioneered by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey1 in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, who proposed adapting leadership behaviors to the people you're leading and the situation in which leadership occurs. Leadership behaviors center on tasks and relationships, both important aspects of group life and thus tools for influencing members toward achieving their goals. Just think Mary and Martha in Luke 10, one focusing in on the task at hand and another on the relational aspect of the situation, neither of them wrong (fixing lunch is a good thing!) but one definitely more effective in that situation.

Situational leadership affirms that every group/leadership situation (in our case, church) is different, and effective leadership will be different as well. Hersey and Blanchard viewed the primary difference in the group as maturity level: how capable and willing/committed the group/individuals are to take on tasks or responsibilities related to their purpose/mission. Some groups are, as a whole, both unable and unwilling; others are unable but willing; still others are able but unwilling; and the rest are able and willing. The maturity level may vary according to task and among groups within a larger body. The effective leader will consider these factors and shape his/her task-focused and relationship-focused actions accordingly:

  • When the group has low capability and low willingness/commitment, a directive (or telling) style has the highest probability of being effective – high task behavior and low relationship behavior;
  • When members are unable but willing/committed, a coaching (or selling) style will respond to willingness by coaching followers to “buy into” desired actions, offering direction while also supporting and affirming positive results - high task behavior and high relationship behavior;
  • When people are able but unwilling/committed, a human relations (or participating) style overcomes reluctance with communication/active listening and support - low task behavior and high relationship behavior;
  • When followers are both able and willing/committed, effective leaders use an empowering (or delegating) style, investing responsibility and decision-making while focusing elsewhere - low task behavior and low relationship behavior.

Applying these principles to the church, strong direction is best when deficiencies exist in ability and motivation. As a church (or group within it) begins to mature, the need for control decreases while reinforcement and socio-emotional support increases. Finally, even the need for supportive affirmation wanes, as skill and commitment strengthen to the point that a lay leader can operate with complete confidence and trust of the pastor-leader, so that the latter can focus on other needs and issues.

If you have a natural penchant toward one of the four leadership styles above (and I think we all do), it may take sensitivity and discipline to shape your situational leadership. Unfortunately, naturally directive leaders can often micro-manage capable staff or laypersons to the point of frustration; likewise naturally empowering leaders can leave inexperienced or insecure members feeling lost. A coaching style can waste group energy and breed discontent when the issues are relational and not task-oriented; likewise a human relations style can make everyone feel good about group chemistry but eat away at their purpose when nothing ever seems to get done!

As you lead and equip God’s people for service, are you responding with the right tools for the right situations in your church? If not, I have a sneaky feeling someone may be thinking that “only one thing is necessary” --- a wise choice of leadership styles --- and I pray that you, like Mary, “choose what is better!” (Luke 10: 38-42).

1Blanchard, Ken and Hersey, Paul, Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1982, 4th edition (newer editions available). 


Bruce Oldham, Ed. D., is a former youth pastor, university administrator, and ministry professor, currently serving as Senior Associate Pastor at Nashville (TN) First Church of the Nazarene.