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A children's ministry leader wearing an apron speaking animatedly into a microphone.
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8 Critical Principles Every Person in Leadership Should Know

Much of learning seems to happen through trial and error, and that’s true of learning to be a leader. We know when something hasn’t gone well, but often we aren’t sure why. Let’s peek into new children’s ministry director Sarah’s first years in leadership to glean the principles she learns along the way.

Leadership Principle #1: People commit to plans they help make—so plan with people, not for people.

Sarah recruited a team of 10 volunteer leaders to help her. They all attended her first two meetings, where she enthusiastically told them about her plans for the children’s ministry program. They listened quietly and left at the end of the meeting. At her third meeting, only two volunteers showed up. Sarah was disappointed as she had even more new ideas to tell them about. What happened?

Leadership Principle #2: Volunteers aren’t paidnot because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.

Sarah had never been involved with volunteers before and was unsure of just how to work with unpaid people. She talked to other church staff members and heard these comments: “Volunteers are nice but not necessary.” “Volunteers are more work than they’re worth. They are unreliable.”

The comments influenced her attitude and therefore her behavior toward her volunteers. And her attitude had a dramatic effect on how volunteers felt about working with her.

Leadership Principle #3: The key to wise leadership is effective delegation. The key to delegation is getting the right person in the right job (based on interests, skills, and passions).

Sarah is an energetic and enthusiastic person who tends to just jump in and get things done. She knows she should call on her volunteers to take on more responsibility, but she finds herself thinking, It’s quicker and easier to do it myself. No one does it as well as I do. In the time it takes to train a volunteer I could have the job done, and It’s my job. After all, I’m paid, and they’re not. If Sarah continues as a Lone Ranger, she’ll quickly burn out (which is one of the major reasons church staff leave their jobs).

Sarah (and you) can use these tips for effective delegation.

  1. Choose appropriate people for assignments by interviewing and placing paid and volunteer staff carefully, maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses. Actively seek out someone who knows more than you do when you need help; then let this person do the job, and be glad when they succeed.
  2. Define clearly and creatively the responsibilities delegated to each person.
  3. Delegate segments, not bits and pieces.
  4. Mutually set goals and standards of performance so you clearly define expectations.
  5. Agree on checkpoints and a system for reporting progress and any problems.
  6. Give accurate and honest feedback.
  7. Support those you lead by sharing knowledge, information, and plans.
  8. Provide necessary orientations, training, and recognition.
  9. Give those who are responsible for carrying out significant portions of the program a voice in the decision making.
  10. Really delegate. Most responsible people, when given a project, don’t appreciate someone looking over their shoulder. Learn to let go!

Leadership Principle #4: Leaders don’t create motivation; they unlock it.

As Sarah watched the initial excitement and commitment of her volunteers wane, she thought, I wish I knew more about motivating people.

Motivation lies within a person and is released when you match the person with the right opportunity and then manage him or her effectively.

An example of good motivation was a project distributing flyers announcing vacation Bible school. Her first year, Sarah recruited a couple of mothers by telling them she was “desperate for help.” The mothers grudgingly distributed the flyers. But this year Sarah applied some things she’d learned about motivation. She knew that being desperate for help is never an effective way to recruit volunteers. She invited several volunteers to help her with a VBS mailing. Over coffee, she told them how important this task was to the children’s ministry mission and how grateful she was for their help. As the volunteers worked, they brainstormed several creative ideas for reaching out to unchurched kids in their neighborhood.

One of my favorite quotations about this important leadership challenge of casting the vision comes from a plaque on the wall of an old English church: “A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the hope of the world.”

Leadership Principle #5: Mission motivates; maintenance does not.

As Sarah got more effective in recruiting volunteers by inviting them to help achieve the exciting mission of children’s ministry (versus arm twisting, desperate appeals, guilt, and so on), she turned her attention to building an effective children’s ministry team. She observed other ministry areas in her church and identified three distinct types of teams:

  • Parasitic (1+1=less than 2): These teams were competitive and seemed to waste people’s time and energy over turf battles and egos.
  • Symbiotic (1+1=2): These teams seemed to cooperate and communicate with each other and thus got much more accomplished.
  • Synergistic (1+1=4): These rare but outstanding teams had learned the art of collaboration. They were, therefore, better together than anyone could be alone. People had fun and accomplished miracles.

Sarah admired the synergistic teams and longed for her team to be like that.

Leadership Principle #6: The keys to collaborative team-building are Truth, Trust, and Clear Expectations.

More tips for team leaders:

1. Hold people accountable for what they’ve said yes to.

That’s why job descriptions and action plans are so important. Do not rescue.

2. Two questions to ask your key leaders:

  • What do you need from me that you’re not getting?
  • What do you wish you knew that you don’t to help you feel better about your ministry?

3. If the job isn’t getting done, find out why as quickly as possible and take appropriate action.

The three most common reasons jobs aren’t completed (and what to do about each one):

  • Lack of Aptitude (bad placement)
    • Change the person to another job,
    • Change the job to fit the person, or
    • Put someone with the person to co-lead.
  • Lack of Skill: Provide training!
  • Lack of Motivation
    • Your leadership style may be the problem.
    • Conflict in the group could be the demotivator.
    • A family or personal problem could’ve occurred.
    • People may just need to be reminded that what they do is important and others count on them.

Leadership Principle #7: People are as important as programs!

Since one of the major reasons church leaders leave is burnout, this principle is super important for Sarah and other new leaders.

Leadership Principle #8: You can’t help others if you don’t stay well yourself…so take care of you!

Maya Angelou once said that better than surviving is “to thrive with passion, compassion, and style.”

Angelou also gives us a helpful image: “Everyone is a house with four rooms—a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time. But unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.”

What a vivid metaphor for health and wholeness! If we’re serious about staying well, we’ll find time to:

  • Do the necessary housecleaning to rid our rooms of clutter. “Never stumble on anything behind you” is the advice of a quadriplegic friend of mine.
  • Know our own needs and be able to name them. Don’t expect others to guess what they are. Your needs aren’t more important than other people’s, but they’re as important.
  • One last thing about our personal houses. Be sure to not only visit each room every day and houseclean but slowly and lovingly furnish your rooms with things that nourish and replenish you and give you joy. Ask God to guide you in your choices.

My hope for new Christian leaders, like Sarah, is that they’ll rise to their challenges with a clear vision and that these principles will help guide you, as they have guided me, along the way. To be a good leader, you need the courage of pioneers, the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, the enthusiasm and fearlessness of 5-year-olds, the dedication and compassion of volunteers, the wisdom of Solomon, and the faith that nothing worthwhile is ever impossible with the help of God.

Leadership Styles

One of the most critical decisions leaders must make is to choose a style of leadership. Most leaders fit into one of these categories:

  • Boss: The maker of all significant decisions. “I’ll decide and tell you what to do.”
  • Expert: The knower of all significant things. People look to this leader for all the answers. If the leader thinks they know it all, it’s even worse.
  • Doer: The doer of all significant things leads directly to burnout. The chairperson is the committee and doesn’t involve others. So there’s no chance for others to learn and grow.
  • Hero/Martyr: It feels good to feel so bad. These leaders are a pain to work with because they’re very verbal about their problems.
  • Abdicrat: This leader retires without leaving and carries the job title but has stopped doing the job.
  • Enabler/Servant Leader: This is the most effective style. Characteristics of this style include:
    • Gets program goals met with and through other people.
    • Enables others to succeed.
    • Sees jobs in doable parts, finds the right people for the right jobs, and then provides support, information, recognition, and training to help those people succeed.
    • Concentrates on people.

Marlene Wilson is an author, speaker, and recognized expert in leadership and volunteer management.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

One thought on “8 Critical Principles Every Person in Leadership Should Know

  1. Frances Ebunoluwa

    Great. It is really necessary to spend time alone with The Lord after discharging so much in a sensitive ministry as this. God bless you for touching lives.

    Lagos, Nigeria

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