Leaders as Interpreters and Builders of Bridges

What is the difference between management and leadership?

Rev. Dr. Gilbert Rendle, vice president for program at The Alban Institute, addressed this question as the keynote speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's)  Continental Conference for Large Churches in November in Portland, OR. His answer, like many of his comments about congregational change, apply to congregations of any size.

Rendle says leadership trumps management. "Management is what we do to make the organization run smoothly," he said. "The primary question we are trying to answer is 'Are we doing things right?' Leadership answers a different question, which is, 'Are we doing right things?' Leaders often get rewarded for doing management things, keeping people happy. But leadership is what is required.

Studies of faith communities show that increasingly there are two types of members, Rendle says—those who have been in the congregation twenty years or more and those who have been there ten years or less. In between, often, there is a much smaller group. The two types of members generally like each other, he says, but they have different values. Congregational leaders need to learn new ways to work with both groups, he said.

The long-term members, whether they're thirty or seventy, tend to prefer forming a team to fix what's wrong, believe in deferred gratification and saving money, and regard the church as the most spiritual place they know.

The short-term members, says Rendle, often grew up in a world in which individuality was encouraged. They want to spend money because "it's worth more today than it will be tomorrow." The church is not the only spiritual place they know.

The long-term members may become leaders at church because leadership opportunities, especially for women, were less open in the rest of the culture in earlier decades. For short term members, leadership roles are available in many places—at work, at home, and in the community. "If you are a short-tenure person the last thing you want is another place to exercise your leadership," says Rendle. Short-term members may also attend Sunday services less frequently than longtimers.

"When both groups try to control what goes on," Rendle says, "it is like riding in a car with two different steering wheels."

Rendle offered the following advice:

  • Congregations tend to have short attention spans. It's the job of leadership to keep them focused.
  • Keep people informed. "Surprised people behave badly."
  • Change comes from the edges of the congregation, not the center.
  • Model civility for others. Help people to express themselves in the meeting, not the parking lot.
  • Be descriptive rather than evaluative in talking to people. Describe a situation rather than evaluating what was wrong with it. "If you give someone an evaluation it closes the door. You keep people in the conversation if you use descriptive language rather than evaluative."
  • Leaders, especially ministers, cannot be nurtured by the congregations they're trying to lead. Get nurturing from a colleague or someone else outside the church.


The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge, by Rev. Gilbert Rendle (The Alban Institute, 2001) $18. The Alban Institute is an ecumenical, interfaith organization founded in 1974 that supports congregations through consulting services, research, book publishing, and educational seminars.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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