When I talk with pastors about the leadership reality of their church, the conversation tends to start with common stats – attendance, budget, staffing, etc.

But when we talk about the strategic leadership reality of what’s happening in their church, I tend to hear pastors move toward one of these two understandings:

1. “Things are fine and we can keep doing what we’re doing.”

Or…

2. “Things aren’t fine but I’m not sure what to do to fix it.”

Of course there’s no absolutes and good leaders generally have a sense of the state of affairs within different domains of oversight. Things might be good financially but their youth ministry is struggling. Or ministries might be growing but finding the right staff to hire is proving to be a challenge.

But I certainly see two typical approaches to strategic challenges and the way pastors approach them in their leadership:

1. More like an ostrich, head in the sand, not willing to admit or engage with the challenges.

Or…

2. The meme dog who sees fire burning around him and clings to some hope that things are fine.

So let’s talk about these two different takes on strategic leadership and why both are wrong.

How can you tell if you’re sticking your head in the sand to avoid what’s going on around you?

And how can you move forward if you realize things aren’t great but you’re not sure what to do?

Let’s investigate both of these.

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Ostrich: “Things are fine and we can keep doing what we’re doing.”

A leader who sticks their head in the sand is someone who is trying to pretend the good news stories they are hearing are the full story of what’s going on around them.

They’re leaders who aren’t willing to do the hard, uncomfortable work of checking out what’s really going on.

They’re leaders who aren’t willing to ask their staff what needs improving because they’re afraid they might have to eat a little humble pie. They’re worried that what they might hear from other leaders in their church will be a bit of an ego check since things aren’t really quite as great as they appear to be.

Now this doesn’t mean that good news is always hiding bad news beneath it. Not at all.

But any leader who believes that everything is running just fine, that every ministry is delivering on expectations, that every leader is fulfilled and challenged in their role is like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

It’s great if you’re hearing good reports from people around you. But we all know good reports can often be used to distract you away from challenges or cover the butts of people who don’t want you to know how things are really going.

So every now and then you need to pop your little ostrich head out of the sand, ask some hard questions, do some of your own digging, become a bit of an investigator, and swallow your own pride to see if there’s more going on than your best people are bringing you in their reports.

The unfortunate reality is that if you’re the one sticking your head in the sand, everyone around you can see it. There are likely lots of people who know how things are really going but you just haven’t invited them to tell you the truth.

Either you haven’t given them the opportunity or they don’t trust you to deliver the hard news.

So step one for this kind of leader is to take some time to discover for yourself how things are really going. Because just believing everything’s fine and you can keep doing what you’re doing is not going to be an effective strategy for very long.

Meme dog: “Things aren’t fine but I’m not sure what to do to fix it.”

The other kind of leader in this situation is one who can smell smoke or maybe even some flames but rather than a fight or flight instinct taking hold, they freeze.

They know things aren’t good with a specific staff member or in a certain ministry but they choose to ignore it or at least not address it directly in hopes things will improve on their own.

It’s the equivalent of the meme dog choosing to say “This is fine” while the flames are burning around him.

These leaders need to understand that, again, everyone around you can see what’s happening and they’re waiting for you to act. They’re looking to you as the leader to lead. Understand things are not perfect, speak up in the right setting, and address the issue with the people responsible.

If it’s a ministry issue with a leader who reports to you, you need to speak with them directly about the issue and hear how they plan to deal with it.

If a staff member is creating a culture issue among your team, you need to gather them together with the person they report to (if that’s not you) and speak openly and candidly about what you see and why it’s not acceptable.

This doesn’t mean you need to become a roving firefighter going and hunting for flames in every situation or sticking your nose in to everyone’s stuff to see what smells like smoke.

But when you know things aren’t good and you choose not to act, you are abdicating your responsibility and calling as a leader. So lead. Believing everything is fine when you see fire around you is not leadership and just like sticking your head in the sand, it’s not an effective leadership strategy.

So how about you?

Do you resonate with either of these strategic leadership postures?

What steps do you need to take to address what’s going on around you?

Let me know how I can help.

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