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10.5 Tips for new —or renewing — congregational leaders

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We have visited and interviewed several thousand leaders of religious congregations in New York City. We have run across some things that might help new leaders – or those who want to renew their vocation.

Undoubtedly, you have your own tips. Send them to us and we will share with Journey’s audience!

  1. Follow your leaders.

Spend time with each of your leaders to learn of their hopes, worries and strengths. Learn how to serve them as individuals. Read Tony Dungy’s Quiet Strength.



  1. Follow the money.

In other words you need to own the books and the budget. Financial truth is worldly wisdom that makes the spiritual leader wise. Maybe, you would be wise to have a financially savvy person guide you and answer questions.

  1. Define yourself before others do. But be very thoughtful about how to talk about who you are.

You may say things that were okay in San Antonio, Texas but really sound a dull note here in New York City. Really, do New Yorkers really want to know about the University of Texas football team?

Write down your self-description and share it with your leaders and some lay people. You might discover that you need to mature a little bit to tackle the city.

Also, don’t use insider religious language about your “call” or your “mission,” or, gulp, your “crusade.”




  1. Follow the best communicators.

God may “call” you to preaching or teaching but remember that the call is to a craft. Theology doesn’t teach you how to preach. If it did, why are so many good theologians boring to death?

If you are new at preaching or teaching, you should closely analyze someone who is generally acclaimed as great and whose style you like (ditto for liturgy). Try to deliver sermons or talks that are as close in structure, types of examples and gestures as your hero uses.

In our observations it takes about five years for someone to learn how to preach or teach like his or her exemplar. Then, it takes another five years to create your own style on this foundation. Finally, sometime around your fifteenth year, you will be the Jackie Robinson of the pulpit.

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  1. Follow the reporters.

At first you may use first person examples from your life and family as a way of personal introduction. Later, do this only occasionally. After a while, too many of these stories are just evidence that you haven’t done any homework. Good preaching or teaching should be based on constant learning about other people and their works.

For example, don’t preach on “the sheep” and “the shepherd” without talking to a shepherd or a sheep expert. I grew up tending sheep, and I can say that many pastors and lecturers don’t know much about real sheep and their shepherds.

I remember vividly when one of our great preachers did an extended sermon on the shepherd and his sheep. It was a pretty good sermon except he didn’t know much about real shepherds and sheep. He relied on popular images and some theological works by people who also didn’t have first-hand experience with the subject.

In this case it was one of those New York City Woody Allen moments. After the service, I greeted the visitor next to me. She asked me about how did I like the sermon.

After some hemming and hawing, I admitted that “it was a great sermon but I don’t think the pastor knows much about real shepherds and sheep.”

I was surprised then by her reply.

“I was thinking the same thing. I wish my husband was here,” she said. “He is a sheep specialist at Cornell University. He could have helped the pastor out.”

In New York City you get a lot of smart people about just everything. If possible, take advantage of their expertise and experience before you preach or teach on things that you don’t much about. Besides, it will be a journey of exciting exploration for you, and your congregation will catch your excitement and your interest in them.

  1. Clean-up your vocabulary so that you don’t use insider-religious language.

Or if you just can’t resist the temptation to talk theological gobblygook, explain it in common language. Consult TV on the Radio or Sujan Stevens for current cool theological-speak. Read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language.”




  1. Humbleness: your congregation and family are more important than you are

Greet everyone at the door with a two-handed shake (of course, for some spiritualties, this type of touching is a no-no; do the equivalent).  Let your congregation know, physically, that you are one of them. Some congregations appreciate “the hug.”

Don’t stand up at the podium to say “Welcome” and then leave. Go among your flock.

Make special times with your family. Read Peter Scazzero’s The Emotionally Healthy Leader.




  1. Humbleness: dreams and plans have already been laid down before you arrived

Be slow to change many things so that you show thoughtful respect for your leaders and lay people. After you have enthusiastically served others in your congregation, they will have more confidence in your changes. And have more forgiveness if they don’t work out!

  1. Problems and problem people are always with you.

Don’t be fooled by gossip, panicked by plots, and overwhelmed with “urgent” problems. Address each problem one by one, keep your boundaries so that none of the problems suck up all your time, and enjoy dealing with people and messes like they really are.


One Problem at a Time


  1. Follow the example of Pope Francis.

He is an outsider who was brought into the center. So, you know this meant change -- that already has generated resentment and resistance. Keep abreast of his strategy and tactics (for example, he owned the books and budget quite quickly).  Read Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. Ivereigh gives A Journey through NYC religions type of analysis.

The pope’s example is particularly good for understanding the role of “your presence” in the congregation and community. Perhaps, some congregations may emphasize a more “activist” role or need a “counselor” more.


Pope Francis washing the feet of the disabled

Pope Francis washing the feet of the disabled


10.5 Use your yelling tree.

Working on a Texas ranch, I heard of an old custom to have a tree in the backyard at which one can yell to get all the frustration and worry out of one’s system. Evidently, the tree receives complaints with patience, the wisdom of long experience, and an offer of cool shade. Keep calm and go to the yelling tree.

That’s it, ten.five top tips. Send YOUR best tips to:  or to our Facebook page.


Illustrations by Tony Carnes inspired by "Through the Looking Glass," Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


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