William Vanderbloemen is the President/CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group where he helps faith-based organizations build great teams. We had a chance to speak with William about the difficulties involved with staffing a church, and learned what makes a pastor a good leader.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to create a church staffing organization?
After having the chance to serve the church as a senior pastor for many years, I went into the corporate world for a brief stint. I worked for a great company, but the job just wasn’t a good fit. However, during my time there I saw how quickly and effectively this large corporation had been at finding top talent by using an executive search firm.
Churches move much, much slower and less effectively. I began to wonder, “Could we build a solution for the Church that is as good as what’s in the business world?” That started a long, amazing journey from quitting my job (newly married, in 2008) and starting a business on a card table with what little savings we had to a fun team of about 35 people serving the Church worldwide.
What are some of the significant differences between trying to fill a pastoral or similar church leadership position and trying to fill an executive leadership position at a company?
There are a whole lot of similarities, but I would say two factors stand out in the church world that are unique:
(1) Nuance. Every church we work with is unique. It’s part of why our logo looks a bit like a snowflake. From theology to family systems to change tolerance, the list of criteria for understanding a church goes on and on. In my experience, that’s even more complex than figuring out a company culture.
(2) Soft Skills. People skills matter everywhere, but particularly in volunteer organizations like churches. No matter how good a leader or how riveting a preacher, if a candidate lacks the people skills to navigate change, drama, and highs and lows, then they will fail. That is very different from in a corporation.
Finish this sentence: “The biggest challenge facing a person charged with overseeing the operation of a church is…”
Pace. Unfortunately, if you read about a high-profile pastor who has fallen from grace, burned out, or been fired, it’s likely we have known about it and may well be helping the church pick up the pieces. Frankly, it seems to be more of a problem than ever. As we study the “why” behind this epidemic, we’re seeing the pace of life/work/ministry as a common denominator. Show me a “fallen” pastor, and I bet I can draw a straight line back to a tired pastor. There aren’t many (if any) occupations that consume your professional, family, relational, and spiritual life. In an über-connected world with very high growth in the large Church, pace matters more than ever.
Are there any reasons why a well-qualified pastor candidate would not perform well at a particular church?
Yes: a lack of fit.
I know fit matters in every work setting, but placing a pastor in a church is similar to doing a heart transplant. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but when we are asked to find a new pastor, we are essentially asked to go outside a local body (congregation), and find someone foreign to the body to come in and run the major systems of the church. Unlike some corporate settings where a new leader can mandate change, pastors are limited in their ability to reset the table. Just as a heart cannot change a body, pastors have to fit. And any good transplant doctor will tell you that you can put a healthy heart into a healthy body, but if the tissues don’t match, the result is fatal.
In your experience, are pastors more or less likely to be skilled leaders than a typical person?
In some ways, they are better at servant leadership than many corporate executives I know. But in other ways, like thinking about a P&L, investing the donations of the church to provide the most effective return on investment, and running the business of the church, pastors have some learning to do. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I was outside the church and having to figure out how to build a business (which I’m still figuring out).
What types of leadership skills are lacking in many church leaders or managers today?
All leaders need to grow. But in the pastoral world, there is a gap between what is taught in Bible college or seminary and what is needed to run a church. I went to one of the best seminaries I know (Princeton) and I didn’t receive one class on running a budget, leading a staff or board meeting, or developing a strategic plan. Fortunately, I’m seeing huge interest and growth in continuing education by and for pastors in these areas, and I’ll bet they improve in years to come.
What types of leadership styles tend to work best when managing and operating a church? Which styles usually don’t work well at all?
There’s an entire book in that question, but in short, “command and control” just doesn’t work in churches. Even the strongest of speakers has to be able to lead people without coercion. Much like the corporate world, which is dealing with the rise of the millennial generation, collaboration and flattened organizations are on the rise and very common among the most effective churches we see.
Should a pastor take one leadership approach toward leading a congregation and a different approach toward leading a church board and/or the church staff?
Authenticity is key to pastoral leadership. There can be no “on stage” pastor and a separate “board room” pastor. No matter the style of leadership, if it’s not authentic in church, it won’t attract new people – and it will repel existing members. Former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney once said, “Success is when the people who know you the best love and respect you the most.” I think if pastors can focus on that goal, the rest of leadership will fall into place.
Do you anticipate that there will be enough qualified pastors to lead all of the American congregations in the future?
The numbers don’t look good. Baby boomers are retiring in record numbers, and the succession crisis we have been writing about for years is becoming very real. But despite the numbers, the God I know and trust is one who provides when there seems to be no other way. I’m seeing that provision in the way churches are planning and training for the future, and it leaves me hopeful.
Do you have the right leadership skills that are necessary to succeed in your company or industry? Let John help you hone your skills with his leadership coaching services.