The Supportive Leader

Applying Rensis Likert’s research, the Center for Parish Development has identified a church’s organizational climate is shaped by the way leaders exercises the leadership role.  This research bears out the premise that when a church’s climate is basically a collabora­tive, mutually supportive, group-participatory approach to church organizational concerns, it will generate the most productive work as well as the greatest sense of personal fulfill­ment on the part of the members.

Six leadership causal factors, or components of leader behavior which affect the life of the organization have been identified and tested in the Center’s model-building work with churches and church systems.  They are: supportiveness, receptivity, goal emphasis, team building, work facilitation, and participatory decision-making.  This essay describes various ways in which a supportive leader relates to the members of his/her administrative team, such as a pastor with the nominating committee, or a lay chairperson with the Administrative Board, Council on Ministries, Parish Council or other groups. Use these to reflect on your leadership behavior and what leadership looks like in your context. Can you begin to imagine the difference these practices might make in your church?

1.  Supportiveness and Listening.  The supportive behavior of the leader toward group members carries the message that they are seen as important persons who make a worthwhile contribution to the group.  In particular, a supportive leader is one who is perceived as approachable by members and who will listen to them sympathetically, non-judgmentally, and non-defensively.

a. Sympathetic listening.  The leader takes seriously the problems or concerns as stated by the member(s).  Whether or not the leader agrees with the statements being offered, s/he gives evidence of truly hearing the concerns and shows a willingness to assist in finding a satisfactory solution.

b. Non-judgmental listening.  The leader responds to members’ statements of problems and concerns in such a way that the one who names the problem does not get blamed for it.  The focus of attention is upon appropriate solutions, not whom to blame.

c. Non-defensive listening.  Leader does not automatically view statements of problems or even criticisms of the group as an attack upon the leader.  S/he will assist the group to formulate the criticism or 

problem in such a way that it can be resolved by the use of effective problem-solving methods.  Even if a member or sub-group does make an obvious attack upon the leader, a skillful leader will attempt to enlist the group in formulating the issue in such a way that it is susceptible to problem-solving.  In that manner, the leader and members can move from a win/lose to a win/win style.

2. Supportiveness and Interpersonal Dynamics.  Supportiveness by the pastor or other team leader will be felt by members both because of what happens through the leader’s listening ability and in other interactions as well.

a. Personalized meetings.  The leader arrives early to insure that the room setting is conductive to personal interaction, with the leader’s chair within  the group (in a circle, or around a common table grouping).  The leader greets each person individually as s/he arrives and spends a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting in some form of non-threatening interpersonal sharing to build a warm and comfortable climate.

b. Between-meetings contacts.  When members or sub-group leaders accept a task, the leader checks with them in between meetings.  This is not for “policing” but to express appreciation for their work, to see if things are going well, and to ascertain if help is needed.

c. Non-task recognition.  The leader takes note of special situations in members’ lives outside the church group responsibilities: family celebrations or crises, community or employment honors or recognition, etc.  The leader initiates contact with such members, offering personal support in the joy or pain.

d. Celebrating victories and defeats.  The leader watches for opportunities to help the group celebrate successes or achievements.  Conversely, the leader helps the group to deal constructively with its failures or setbacks. By keeping a future-oriented, problem-solving style, the leader can help the group explore such questions as “What did we learn?”  “How might we improve on such an effort another time?”  “Are there any benefits from the experience although our goal was not reached?”

3. Impact of Leader’s Example.

a. Leader’s behavior is reflected in the behavior of others.  Research indicates that the example of the leader tends to “trickle down” or to be “mirrored” in the quality of group life.  If the leader displays supportive attitudes and behavior toward the group and its members, s/he is likely to get support in return.  Sub-group leaders and other members are apt to behave in mutually supportive ways with each other, and to those outside the church membership.  Then the total climate of the church begins to take on more of the qualities of a genuine caring community.

b. Supportiveness, not manipulation.  The above observations and suggestions are not intended as formulas for “manipulating” persons and groups by insincere, shallow or false gestures of affirmation or support.  Many life-diminishing cultural habits and norms inhibit the free and open expressions of caring and concern among persons.  Instead of yielding to such constraining cultural norms, it is important for church leaders to provide an example of freer expressions of mutual support. 

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. As a church leader, do I give sufficient attention to supportive behavior with the members of the groups?

2. To what extent do I intentionally try to listen sympathetically, non-judgmentally, and non-defensively?  What methods do I use to assess my abilities in this area? 

3. To what extent am I comfortable with openly expressing caring and concern, and with encouraging a climate which fosters such expressions?  How and when do I practice this behavior?
4. How is the practice of supportive relationships an expression of Christian faith?