What Makes a Great Leader?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,
I was just commissioned as a pastor here in Nigeria. I want to become a better leader for my congregation. What should a church leader be like?
Thank you,

Dear Theetso,
I am so glad that you asked you asked this question. I believe that one of the greatest needs in the church is solid, biblical leadership. In fact, when Jesus talked about “sheep without a shepherd,” He was talking about the need for good leadership.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

What Characteristics Are People Looking for in Their Leaders?

In “The Leadership Challenge,” by authors Kouzes and Posner, we can see four characteristics people are looking for in good leadership. Followers want leaders who are: honestcompetentvisionary, and inspirational. I have found the same to be true in over fifty years of pastoring.

Those four traits are what good leaders ARE. They’re also the foundation of what great leaders DO.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)


1. Great Christian Leaders Have a Passionate Desire to Know God

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:10-12)

“Christianity Today” Magazine surveyed 100 pastors of large American churches. They found that these pastors demonstrated a passionate desire to grow a large church; but, sadly, not a corresponding desire to know God. Obviously, this is one of the reasons why Christianity is declining in America.

2. Great Christian Leaders Are in Touch with Where People Are and Lead Accordingly

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” – John 10:14-15

Studies reveal that in the average church, 10% of the people do 90% of the work. We call these people the “pillars” of the congregation. On the flip side, this means that 90% of the church members do very little or nothing. I call these attendees the “caterpillars” because they crawl in and around the pillars.

Church leaders—pillars—respond to commitment. When the pastor is greeting guests at the end of the worship service, a church leader comes by and says: “Good sermon today! I love how you pushed hard for the non-money givers to start tithing. They need to feel guilty.”

On the other hand, attendees (caterpillars) are more likely to respond to compassion and understanding. As Andrew McLaren said: “Please be kind to everyone you meet because everyone is fighting a battle.” Most Christians come to Christ because someone compassionately loved them into the kingdom. In other words, most people respond better to compassion than they do to commitment.

3. Great Christian Leaders Are Willing to Take Risks

Think about the risk Mary took. Read Luke 1 carefully, and you’ll discover that Gabriel gave her a choice. She did not have to say “yes.” She must’ve thought about all the ridicule, mocking, and, smearing comments about her having a child out of wedlock. She considered the risk and said, “Be it unto me as you said.” God said to Jeremiah, “So you want to be my Prophet? If so, the people will beat you mercilessly, throw you in stocks, toss you in cisterns, and never believe a word you say. Do you still want the job?” Jeremiah took the risk.

God said to Isaiah, “Take off your clothes and walk down the streets of Jerusalem naked.” Talk about a risk! Isaiah walked naked for the next three years (Isaiah 20) in order to deliver God’s message to Egypt and Cush. He took the risk. God uses leaders who will take risks when He calls.

4. Great Christian Leaders Model Christian Living

Follow my example as I follow Christ.” – See 1 Corinthians 11:1

My seven-year-old brother, my dad, and I were walking through hot-burning beach sand in the middle of the afternoon. My father turned around to see my brother and me carefully placing our feet in his footprints.

“Why,” he asked.
“Because it doesn’t burn as much in the places where you have already stepped.”

Leaders set an example for others to follow. They put up signposts when people feel unsure of where to go or how to get there. Like it or not, church leaders are also held to higher standards. I carefully counted my change at the checkout line at the grocery store. I realized that the cashier had given me five dollars too much. I said to her, “You gave me five dollars too much.”

She said, “I know. I was in your church service this morning, and I was just testing you.”

5. Great Christian Leaders Develop an Inspired Vision

Without a vision, the people perish.” –Proverbs 29:18

Great Christian leaders envision the future and create an inspired idea of what the church or organization can become. A new vision often creates change. Many people do not handle change well. They will fight to preserve the status quo at any price. Then, when change occurs, about 10% are the early adapters are pioneers who immediately support the change without question. Then studies have shown that about 80% of the group will accept the change if they are properly cultivated. 10% of the people will resist strongly.

Don’t be discouraged by that last 10%! God gives His leaders a vision and calls us to action.

6. Great Leaders Set People Free to Act

Thomas Jefferson said: “There are two kinds of leaders. Those who trust people and those who fear the people.”

Some churches or businesses don’t trust their people. Their attitude seems to be, “Give them an inch, and they will take a mile.” That translates into the belief that people must be watched very carefully and micromanaged to be certain that they are not slacking off. Very few of these churches and businesses accomplish much—their people don’t respond with loyalty or motivation. On the other hand, good leaders believe that they can trust people. They don’t need to look over their shoulders. They stay out of the way and let them do their jobs. If you do the same, you will come out far ahead with your workers or church congregation.

My dad advised, “Don’t ever push down the people around you to make yourself look better. Instead, lavish great praise on the people around you, and in time, they will lift you up on their shoulders.” He was a great leader.

7. Great Leaders Encourage the Heart

Good leaders recognize the contributions that individuals make and share them publicly. They celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes. Many years ago, I decided that I would try to say a word of encouragement to at least three people a day. It’s amazing how even strangers will smile when you take a moment to say something that builds them up. One day a staff member said, “Roger, do you know what you do best for us?”
“What you do best is encourage us.”
Mission accomplished.

8. Good Leaders Develop a ‘Catalytic’ Leadership Style

People often ask, “Which is more important?”, meeting the needs of the people or building up the structure of the organization? Most people immediately answer, “The needs of the people.” This is the ENCOURAGER style of leadership. Barnabas mentored John Mark, who was such a disappointment to Paul. But at the end of his life, Paul asked for Mark to come and visit him in prison because, said Paul, “Mark is a profitable man for the ministry.” Paul could only say this because Barnabas mentored John Mark to maturity. Encouragers are people-centered. They promote love and unity.

David was a COMMANDER. This is the EFFICIENT style of leadership. This leader is more concerned about building a strong organization than about caring for the people who are part of it. Commanders usually have narrow agendas, are rigid and efficient, create conflicts and pressure, and leave a trail of broken and bleeding people in their wake. David built a great empire and ruined his family. You would not have wanted to be one of David’s children.

The CATALYST is the most EFFECTIVE style. Nehemiah is the best biblical example of a CATALYST. He recognized that when the people returned from Babylon, it was important both to build up the walls of the city and to meet the needs of the people. Catalysts balance building up the people with building up the organization. They understand that building a wall—or a strong organization—is one of the best ways to care for the people. On the other hand, people who are well-cared for are loyal and motivated to build the wall.

9. Great Leaders Understand the Distinction between Management and Leadership

Management is getting other people to do something. Leadership is getting other people to want to do it.

Well, Theetso,
I hope that these principles are helpful to you. I will pray that God will develop you into a great leader that people love to follow.
Love, Roger

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