by Tim Woodroof
When it comes to congregational leadership, showing up is half the battle.[i]
Leaders should never underestimate the power of simple presence. Most of the time, church members don’t need their leaders to be charismatic, eloquent, brilliant, and wise. They do need their leaders to be there, to be accessible and approachable, to be visible whatever the circumstances, and to walk among them—especially in anxious times.
But simple presence is harder than it may appear. In reality and in the moment, just “showing up” can be a challenge.
- In times of crisis, leaders can be nervous about being with church members, fearful of awkwardness or uncomfortable with raw emotions.
- Leaders often flinch from stepping into hospital rooms or strained homes or tense groups because they “don’t want to intrude” or haven’t developed a personal relationship with the people involved or lack a sense of spiritual authority.
- Introverted leaders may withdraw from public gatherings of members, lacking confidence about their ability to “work the crowd” and unappreciative of the importance of “making an appearance.”
- Some leaders feel the pressure (again, especially in troubled times) to say or do something profoundand, as a result, tend to avoid situations where they might disappoint church members by their “ordinariness.”
- Times of crisis can put leaders into “crisis mode,” meeting behind closed doors and engaging in secret discussions with other leaders—absenting themselves at the very time the church needs to see their faces and feel their touch.
- Some leaders are so conflict-averse, they won’t risk interactions where confrontation is a possibility.
- In every leader’s head is a list of “difficult members” (and, often, a vivid remembrance of past unpleasantness) that provides a powerful incentive to evade such people during difficult seasons.
And so, for many leaders, simple presence in anxious times must be intentional:
- It is always better for leaders to show up than to stay away. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it in the direction of presence rather than absence.
- Whenever you find yourself, as a leader, reaching for reasons to stay away, suspect that those reasons are rooted in personal anxieties rather than situational factors.
- During difficult days for the church as a whole, determine to be at every assembly of the church. Plan to come early and stay late.
- Station yourself where people can “get at you”—the foyer, the back of the auditorium. You want to be available to people, not hidden away in an office or meeting room.
- Don’t allow yourself to be “hi-jacked” by a single member at public gatherings, someone who demands your full attention and will not allow you to attend to others. If necessary, make an appointment to see this person privately, in another venue, but recognize (and point out) the importance of caring for the many rather than the few (or the one).
- In public gatherings, speak to as many people as possible … touch as many people as possible.
- For the duration of a difficult season, make sure there is a representative leadership presence whenever members gather (e.g., classes, small groups, ministry meetings, etc.).
- Recognize that, while meeting with other leaders is necessary when facing crises, meetings don’t take precedence over presence. Don’t plan meetings during times that overlap with gatherings of the church. A Wednesday night elder meeting may be more convenient for the elders, but the people assembling for devotionals or wandering the halls need (and have come for) a shepherding touch.
- Some of our members can be difficult during difficult times. Discipline yourself as a leader to “lean in” to those members rather than avoid them. This does not mean you offer yourself as a sacrificial lamb to a member’s irascibility. There are boundaries to behaviors you can and should insist on. But don’t let your discomfort about boundary violations persuade you to keep certain people at arm’s-length.
Presence is powerful. Presence is foundational.
Remember, the first act of Jesus’ story was not to die on the cross or heal the sick or preach the Sermon on the Mount. It was to show up. To become present. To risk himself, in weakness and vulnerability, by wrapping himself in flesh and stepping into a broken and anxious world.
Before comfort comes presence. Before wisdom comes presence. Before redemption and salvation comes presence. Leadership presence is the manger that makes ministry possible.
[i] Again, let me acknowledge my indebtedness in this series of articles to Peter Steinke and his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.