Recently, I spent some time with a church in the South.  Their pastor of 21 years left in April and they used the Congregation Assessment Tool to come up with a pastoral profile as they go through a transition period.  This congregation has a long and illustrious history in the community but their attendance has been dropping for some time. Three years ago their average Sunday attendance was 326 people, at last count they had 261 in attendance.  The data tells me over and over again that something has been going on for awhile.

When interpreting a Vital Signs report, it is always important to note the relationship between the Conflict Management Index and the Governance Index.  Often, if the congregation has a higher index on Conflict Management, signaling that conflict to some degree is being managed, than Governance, we are looking at a congregation where trouble is brewing.  If the Governance index is higher than the Conflict Management index, then the congregation is coming out of conflict with a leadership that can leverage their trust from their congregation to help.

The None of the Above Scenarios

But sometimes there is more than these two scenarios – it goes deeper.

Here we have a congregation that has average Conflict Management scores but very low Governance scores.  When we see this kind of Governance score the data tells us a story and that story comes from a possible three scenarios: there is a leadership vacuum created by a strong leader; a personnel decision had to be made and the leadership could not share the details with the congregation; or there is a decision that was made on some large issue that has caused distrust.

For this congregation, the previous Pastor was a strong leader, who made most of the decisions and when he didn’t make the decisions he was involved in the decision making process.  On the one hand, this can be good. Decisions can be made fast – the group of me, myself, and I can come to a consensus fairly quickly.  But what happens to the rest of the leadership?

This kind of literal single-minded decision making can be crippling for leadership.  There is no room to develop and grow as leaders. It is a marriage without balance or accountability. It leaves the congregation feeling like the leaders are not showing genuine concern in what others are thinking when decisions are made.  But, in fact, the leaders are not making decisions. This role of sitting, listening  and waiting often leaves those in leadership feeling powerless and ineffective. Meanwhile, the congregation can’t understand why there is so much shoulder shrugging and it is frustrating.

What can we say to these leaders? 

Leadership can be a thankless job. It is time consuming, overwhelming and involves a delicate balance of listening and acting.  For a leadership 557ef22a7dd3b107f4bb3cb4304fc9dethat is being told that their trust from the congregation is so low, they need to hear truth but they also need to hear hope.

As interpreters in this situation, we need to say the following:

  1. You have been faithful.
  2. This feeling of powerlessness and this lack of trust from the congregation will not last forever.
  3. Understand, you are in a vulnerable position and any issue that comes along that has any element of conflict could be risky.
  4. You will need to begin making clear, consistent, transparent decisions.
  5. You will need to communicate those clear, consistent, transparent decisions in a way that reaches the congregation.
  6. It is time to begin healing.
  7. It is time to lead.

When I went through this with the leadership of this particular congregation, they were able to move past feeling deflated and wondering why they were viewed this way.  They began asking questions about how to start leading with this report.   The discussion became focused on transparency and what steps were needed to get there. They started leading.

I always say to those I work with “I know your data but I don’t know your story.”  It is our job to help the data become a part of the congregation’s story.  By working through this conversation with the leadership, we can help them own their story and start writing it themselves.


Emily Swanson
President of Holy Cow! Consulting




6 thoughts on “The Leadership Vacuum

  1. We are hoping to continue talking about these kinds of things on this blog. But as you all have conversations about this I would love to hear your thoughts. I think the best way for us all to learn is to share our findings as we go. I look forward to hearing what you all are seeing as you do interpretations.


  2. Emily, thanks for your prompt and helpful reply. The situation–and your interpretation of it–brings out something that we (Jim Hanna, Barry Frey and I) have talked about. that is, running some additional cross references from the data, Conflict Management/Governance being one of them. Another cross reference we thought about is Priorities/Critical Success factors. I would love to look at other ways to “work the data” which may be helpful when doing interpretations.–Just a thought

  3. Hi David! Yes. My main concern here was to make sure my time with these folks was fruitful and not just news that was hard to hear. The drivers did not help me determine the reason for the leadership numbers – they were all a moderate degree of focus and mostly about ministry and interpersonal relationships. So I spent some time figuring out which of the above scenarios from the data was the case and then got a little more information.
    Honestly, I think without that further information the conversation would not have been as useful for them and I would have felt less prepared to answer questions.

    Does this answer your question? Are there other times you are seeing a need for further information before an interpretation?


  4. It seems like the key to seeing beneath the surface in the situation described was gaining a little knowledge of the retiring minister. would it make sense, particularly when a long-term leader has left and no clergy profile of that leader is done, to ask a few questions about leadership style before doing the interpretation?

    BTW–very helpful piece. Thank you.

  5. Emily and Robyn, excellent article. Thanks!

    I am hoping I can be assisting you with some interpretations of the CAT—starting in 2016.

    Blessings, Blair (; cell: 612-207-1151)

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