A man standing on the shore of a lake at sunset.

The difference between leaders and managers

In Church Leadership by Russ Olmon

Every church requires both leadership and management — the challenge is in gaining the right balance of each. Most small church leaders do too much of the technical work in the church and manage the work of the church too little; but even if they are managing enough, almost all church leaders lead too little.

To develop your church into an effective, thriving entity you need to make the transition first from being a worker to being a manager, and then to the higher level of being a leader. You will always have management functions that you must carry out, but you cannot remain just a manager.

A church can fail just as easily from lack of management as from lack of leadership. They are both necessary. A church can last a long time if it’s well managed and if the church environment doesn’t change too much, but unless it’s well led it will never thrive.

Management is the process by which systems are maintained. Leadership is the process by which systems are created and surpassed. The effective church leader will balance the two. This means there will be times of risk and expansion when innovation is needed and there will be times of maintenance and systemization after changes are implemented.

To operate with management systems alone means a manager sticks to the status quo. They perpetuate the past, following policies and procedures that have always been followed. They tell people what to do and how to do it. They minimize risk and focus on control. They stress coordination and control of resources. They attempt to achieve the maximum results from existing functions and systems. They operate with caution from a structured and detailed platform, allocating and controlling the resources necessary to do every function.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. It’s certainly better than doing all of the work yourself or having unmanaged workers who are in chaos. But management systems without leadership won’t take you to your ideal vision for your church – or your life.

The main difference between managing and leading is that managing has to do with sustaining and gradually developing systems while leading has to do with creating whole new opportunities and significantly improving existing systems. The effective leader creates management systems that enable the church to achieve predictable results. At the same time, they lead the church forward, casting a vision that inspires people to constantly improve the systems they have implemented to create even greater results.

Leaders have vision and are willing to take risks to create the future they see. They share that vision with others, expanding it, making it larger and more encompassing. It becomes a community vision, a common purpose among the entire church. Leaders go on to help develop other people who share their vision. They help others recognize why things need to be done and involve them in coming up with solutions. They give others a sense of meaning in their work so they can value its importance. Leaders stress values, commitment and relationships with others; they see to the emotional and spiritual needs of the church. Leaders not only embrace change, they produce change.

Managers’ choices and actions are usually guided by the tried-and-true best practices of a church. Leaders’ choices and actions are guided by values, vision, and future plans.

Balancing management and leadership allows you to deliver on short-term objectives, while holding a consistent direction that is flexible enough for change but will ultimately achieve your long-term vision.