Leadership from the pulpit and from the pews


By Dan Ebener
For The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles by Dan Ebener on leadership in the Catholic Church. They are excerpts from his latest book on leadership, due to be published later this year.)

Lindsay Steele
Sharon Crall, center, pastoral associate and director of Religious Education for parishes in Georgetown and Albia, participates in a faith formation workshop last year at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City. Ann O’Brien, left, is a member of the Albia parish’s RCIA team.

Some people figure that only those with titles and positions can be leaders. With the Great Com­mission (Matt 28:19), Jesus calls all disciples to become apostles. He commissions every one of us to lead.

Pope Francis believes that everyone can be a leader — pastor and deacon, women and men, young and old, parish council and finance council. Throughout his papacy, he has elevated the role of the laity in the mission of the church.


Parishes grow when they rotate people in and out of leadership. When the same people are doing the same thing in the same way for a long time, it is a sign of decline. Vibrant parishes recruit new people into ministry roles and encourage them to take the initiative. These parishes score higher on measures of engagement.

Leading With or Without a Position of Authority

Anyone can lead change in a parish — with or without positional authority. In the same way that Jesus was tempted in the desert to use his formal authority (Matt 4:1-11), everyone in the church who has authority — from pastor to parish council president — will be tempted to use (or abuse) their authority.

The key to leading with authority — which can be done — is to resist the temptation to rely on your positional authority. Paradoxically, if you want to lead when you have authority, you need to learn to influence as if you do not have authority. When you are using your positional authority, in that moment, you might be managing, you might be administering, you might be bullying someone to get what you want, but you are not leading.

Let’s say you are a pastor. Resisting the temptation to rely only upon your positional authority will be your first challenge to leading change. As a pastor, you can command the change you want to see. Sometimes it is hard not to be heavy-handed because it is easier to dictate than to delegate. It is easier to monologue than dialogue. It is easier to impose your will than to discern the will of God and build consensus around the will of the people.

To get leadership results, make the conscious choice to consult, to advise and involve more people in discussing, planning and deciding the future of your parish. Open your heart, your mind and your will to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:27). What you do as pastor can either encourage or discourage the lay people to be engaged or to take the initiative to lead themselves.

Let’s say you are a lay person. You need to resist the notion that only people with formal authority can lead. This is your first challenge. You can lead change without authority. It is your choice whether you lead or not. No one can appoint you a leader. Others can encourage or discourage you. But ultimately it is your choice whether you lead or not.

If you feel passionate about changing something, and you begin to influence others to join you in a change effort, you are leading — with or without authority.

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