“Leading up requires great courage and determination. We might fear how our superior will respond, we might doubt our right to lead up, but we all carry a responsibility to do what we can when it will make a difference.” Michael Useem, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Your assumption is true. The word, strong, in this case, really means dysfunctional, difficult, or unhealthy. You guessed correctly as you smiled when you read the title.

Executive Pastors often relate to prominent pastoral leaders whose personalities are so dominating that they create “cultural tsunamis” of their own. Let’s face it, some people just have a strong personality—intense, yet perhaps even strong-headed, strong-willed, and strong-armed. Often they aren’t aware of the waves they create as they swim through the normal wake of the church’s ministry. If not confronted and loved by a healthy coworker—i.e. you, the XP—they may create dysfunctions, either sighed or shouted, that disrupt the church’s vision.

Employees in the marketplace also struggle with business employers who create waves of turmoil in their wake. According to a survey from the resource firm, Watson Wyatt:

  • Only 49 percent of employees have “trust and confidence” in their senior managers.
  • Just 55 percent said senior leaders behaved “consistently with their companies’ core values.”

If employees in the marketplace struggle so intently, could we not assume that church employees struggle with the same intensity? If Gallup reported that only five percent of Senior Pastors have a leadership gift, could we not assume that church workers struggle with the same lack of confidence in their senior leaders—perhaps even more?

The answer to the above questions is a resounding yes. When describing the various dysfunctions of leaders in churches and Christian organizations, Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima acknowledged several assumptions, all of which are important for this article:

  1. Every leader suffers from some degree of personal dysfunction varying from extremely mild to extremely acute.
  2. Personal dysfunction, in one form or another, can often serve as the driving force behind an individual’s desire to achieve success as a leader.
  3. Many leaders are not aware of the dark side of their personalities and the personal dysfunctions that drive them.
  4. The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.
    [Later in the book he adds that the dysfunctions of the leader inevitably endanger others and destroy cultures in their organizations, as on page 40f.]

As the writer of this article, I appreciate the honesty of McIntosh and Rima—every leader suffers from some degree of personal dysfunction. After all, every one of us struggles with sin. Yet an alarming reality strikes those of us in upper leadership. Many senior leaders bring some major dysfunction into the church’s leadership culture. Based upon my personal experience and study of healthy/unhealthy leadership, the percentage of crippling dysfunctional leaders in local churches has risen over the years. As well, that percentage rises precipitously as their success/popularity and church size rise. As far back as 1979, Dr. Howard Hendricks soberly observed during my seminary years, “Every well-known pastor in our country has some major problem that would blow you away if you knew what it was.”

Executive Pastors and other associate leaders—often hired for these growing large churches—need to learn to relate to these whirlwind leaders. Your ability to deal with difficult senior leaders will have a significant impact on your ministry. So how do you relate to a tsunami leader in order to lessen the destructive impact on your staff and church?

This article focuses upon principles of healthy relationships with strong personalities, especially with Senior Pastors and key associates. We’ll build some general principles that help us relate to these tsunami leaders, and then focus upon a repertoire of principles for dealing with a few specific strong personalities—the narcissistic pastor, the obsessive-compulsive pastor, and the passive-aggressive pastor.

Let’s get started. How do you relate to a tsunami senior leader in order to lessen the destructive impact on your staff and church?

Begin with Hope and Prayer

Never lose hope for your senior leader. John Townsend, popular psychologist and author, assured those who struggle with tsunami leaders,

Difficult people can and do change, in deep and long-lasting ways, all the time. God has been in the business of changing difficult people for eons. The apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, said that before God transformed him, he himself had been the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:16). There are no guarantees of change, as people always have freedom to choose poorly. But it is good to have the right and full perspective here: your button-pusher can be outgunned. There is a lot you can do, and a lot that God can do through you.

The beginning step in working with difficult senior leaders is to hold hope that your coworker can change. At the least, hold hope that you can make some impact upon the culture.

If there is anything that can change your senior leader, it is God’s power. So commit to praying for him on a regular basis. Assure yourself that you are praying to Christ more than grumbling to yourself. You may discover that God is doing something in you as much as he is doing something in your coworker.

Stay Focused upon Healthy Leadership

Lead in a healthy way just as you would if you were working with other healthy senior leaders. Even if you work in a dysfunctional culture—or just with a dysfunctional senior leader—you must always behave in a healthy way. You will have to add further behaviors to work with a strong personality at the top, but healthy behavior must be your starting point.

Act according to the way you want everyone to be. “You become an example of how love, relationship, responsibility, and freedom all work together for a good result. There is something to be said about your life being so full that empty people desire what you have.”

You should lead in a healthy way in two spheres of life.

  • You should work in healthy ways that promote trust so that you earn the confidence of your senior leader. See Appendix 1 for specific principles dealing with your work partnership.
  • You should relate in healthy ways that open doors for interaction and support with your senior leader. See Appendix 2 for specific principles dealing with general relations with the people around.

If you ignore these two spheres of life, you will struggle when difficult situations arise, even in the best of situations.  If you pursue these two spheres of life, you will earn the confidence of your senior leader, opening the possibility that you can help him, along with the team, walk through difficult situations, even in the worst of situations. There is no guarantee that you can transform a dysfunctional situation. But if you lead in a healthy way on a regular basis, you will give yourself a greater chance to stabilize tsunami situations.

The major point of focusing upon healthy leadership is: Lead in a healthy way just as you would if you were working with other healthy senior leaders. This is the foundation upon which everything else stands. If you fail to operate in a healthy fashion, you become the problem.

Learn to Relate to Unhealthy Senior Leaders

Leaders with strong tsunami personalities come in all sizes and shapes. Difficult people can be found at every level of responsibility in every Christian organization. Some psychologists believe that Christian environments are susceptible to more dysfunctional leaders than the business marketplace. Although no one can accurately test whether that belief is true, it feels true if you have to work with one of these whirlwind leaders.

So let’s develop a repertoire of general principles that help us relate to these tsunami leaders. We will focus upon a few specific strong personalities later. For now, consider the following general principles (in no order of priority):

1. Let’s begin by stating the obvious. At some point in time, you may have to decide whether to stay in your current position with your senior leader. You may have to resign in order to work somewhere else.

You should definitely consider whether to stay in the following situations:

  • If your relationship with the senior leader places you into a compromising position ethically.
  • If your relationship with the senior leader creates such frustration that you burn out professionally.
  • If your relationship with the senior leader creates such stress that you develop physical ailments.

If you decide that you must resign, then do so with great grace and honor. Do not leave while ranting and raving. Leave well—walk away in accordance with your values.

2. Consider your own heart before evaluating your senior leader. Reflect about your own responses—responses that make you vulnerable to the poor behaviors of other people.  As the Scripture says, “Take the log out of your eye before looking at the other person.” John Townsend admonishes leaders in tough situations:

Think about ways you might be enabling or rescuing your difficult person from experiencing the consequences of his actions. Maybe you’re always there for him, or threaten without following through, or encourage without confronting. It is worthwhile to analyze if you might be part of the problem.

You may bring some poor responses to the dysfunctional table.  Perhaps you struggle with your own smaller tsunami, such as:

Denying                                Enabling                    Spiritualizing

Reasoning                            Nagging                     Threatening

Reacting and blasting       Backing off                Being overly responsible

Giving up too soon             Splitting grace and truth

If you respond to tsunamis with one of the above, begin by understanding your reasons for being so vulnerable to his behaviors, and work on yourself first.

3.  Always remember that personal change is a process, a long process. So give your senior leader the grace to walk through his issues, without judging him for having the issues.

4.  Recognize that every dysfunction of your senior leader has added some benefit to his public success. You enjoy some things about working with your Senior Pastor—and those things are often connected to the dysfunctional element of their life. Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima wrote:

For many leaders, entrepreneurs, and successful business people, the dark side has provided the fuel for achievement necessary to set them apart. Though often it can be a painful and debilitating force in their lives, our dark side can also serve as a silent internal mentor, tirelessly coaching us to triumph in the same areas of our lives that helped create it. In virtually every field of endeavor, leaders have knowingly and unknowingly ridden the wave of their dark side to astounding success.

So take it easy on him as you struggle with his dysfunctions. Affirm the good things in working with your senior leader.

5.  Never consider yourself as the counselor of your senior leader. You are a coworker who reports to him for supervision. You can encourage when you have the opportunity, but keep your boundaries about your role.

You can watch, however, for the rare opportunities in which your senior leader asks you to be a friend while in the midst of some distress. Distress often forces the dysfunctional leader to reach the end of his rope. You may have an open door to probe some of his blind behaviors.

Be careful, though, to discern whether it is a real request or a wistful thought. One is true, the other is false. You must first have a deep relationship in which honesty is unthreatening. Consider the following factors:

  • How new is your relationship?
  • What kind of relationship did you have with the senior leader before you filled the second chair?
  • How deep is your relationship?
  • How much difference lies between your ages? The larger the difference between your ages, the less likely your admonishment will be.
  • Does your senior leader have an unfailing confidence in you?
  • How popular is your senior leader with the public/congregation?

Remember that some dysfunctional leaders will never get there, even though they make such melancholic requests. Pray with hope, watch for rare opportunities, but give yourself grace if nothing ever opens.

6.  Strive to clearly understand why your tsunami leader is so difficult, to the best of your ability. Look beyond his behavior to character—discern the reason(s) for his tsunami activities. Your understanding may direct your approach to working with him.

Be cautious, however, with your evaluations because you are not a professional counselor (unless, of course, you are a trained psychologist). Do not make quick evaluations based upon little expertise. In the long run, you must focus on behavior, not just the inward changes, as a coworker. You will not become his counselor, but you will have to relate to him in a healthy way for the sake of your ministry. If you can understand his difficulty, then you can help him and your team. But it is better to not state his problem at all—and focus on just the behavior in your relationship—than to foolishly claim a false prognosis.

7.  Find confidential allies with whom you can confide. Patricia King offered some sage advice:

One thing that can help a great deal … is allies. Not just people who will commiserate with you, not just the people in your department who are your fellow victims, but someone who believes in you and will encourage you to realize your potential. Not just a sympathizer. You need a cheerleader, an ego booster. A sage supporter who has the courage to tell you when your thinking is off base, but also someone with a positive attitude toward you as a person.

8.  When your senior leader reacts in an unhealthy way, approach decisions or problems with a healthy response to sudden storms.

a. Understand first, persuade second. Listen and ask questions, then gently and respectfully suggest other ways to think about the issue. You set the tone of the discussion, no matter how he reacts. Find a respectful way to push back. Basically you are helping him consider other options.

b.  Respond to him with healthy emotions. Keep your cool. Remain calm. Keep your emotions in check.

Your tone and attitude can carry the day in most situations—and if you cannot break into the dysfunctional cycle, your healthy response will again prevail when the current winds die down. Remember that you want to keep your testimony before the senior leader, as well as everyone else. Clarity, tact, and respect are your friends in such conversations.

Writing as a coach for businessmen in fast-track markets, John Baldoni added:

Flying off the handle frightens people and siphons away the sense of authority a leader needs to exert in times of crisis. Keeping it under control, however, does not mean a leader is impervious to the situation. No, it means he is sublimating his natural reaction for the good of others. Leaders in extremis realize that if they lose it, they may lose not only the respect and trust, but also further authority to lead … Furthermore, when leaders lose it, they also damage their credibility, and once that is lost, it takes a near heroic effort to restore it.”

Keep your voice steady.  Again, Baldoni added,

Your voice is the dead giveaway for emotion. When things are easy, your voice is easy going and smooth. But when crises strike, the natural reaction is one of the following: one, stark barking commands; two, speaking in clipped sentences that allow for no rebuttal; three, shifting into shrillness, where every word you utter sounds like you’re hurtling down a rollercoaster. Leaders cannot afford to indulge in such vocal hysterics. Keep your voice low and speak in measured tones. Even though your heart may be racing, speak calmly … and people will respond to the warmth.

c.  Understand the hurt behind the senior leader’s stormy statement, speak to the hurt, and move beyond the hurt to a beneficial solution. Emotion connects to emotion (reason and logic come into play later).

d.  Present the senior leader with healthy input, rather than rehashing the unhealthy culture. Respond to him with healthy information.

If every one of your sentences begins with I, you are generally in trouble. Your sentences should start with you, as in ‘Your goals usually center on efficiency. There may be a way to get these two projects done with less investment of time and energy.’

Give your senior leader what will satisfy him without buying into his current dysfunction. Focus on his goals and interests that you have learned in past conversations, while ignoring the reactionary aspects of his dysfunctional demand. In a related way, give him the type of information that he loves.  If your Senior Pastor is hungry for food, feed him. Give the real data if he loves facts. Give the real stories if he loves life stories. Give the opportunity to talk with people in loving ways if he is relational. Give him what he needs for a healthy response, not an unhealthy response.

e.   Respond to him with healthy decisions. Direct the decisions to something that will edify the church/culture, not destroy it.  You may have to postpone a sudden decision if possible, in order to return to it in the better light of another day.

Be comfortable with ambiguity or uncertainty as the first response from your senior leader. However, leave no room for ambiguity in the final decision. The final decision may be a compromise from the initial proposal, but be clear about all decisions. In the final act, avoid:

  • Shades of gray about ethics or decisions.
  • Confusing expectations for everyone involved, including you, staff, and the senior leader.
  • General descriptions of results or desires.

Record/document all final decisions as quickly as possible. This will affirm ownership and accountability. Then communicate all final decisions to everyone who has a leadership part in the aftermath.

9. Develop radar for potential fires. Know the potential hot spots and learn the best ways to put them out. Watch for flare-ups that may unexpectedly occur—and prepare.

10.  Encourage your senior leader to seek outside peers who can help him, if you have the opportunity to converse.

11.  Develop resilience. Resilience is “the capacity to withstand a setback and recover enough to stay in the game.” Leading in the second chair requires resilience because those in the middle are often thwarted in their efforts to change things or move with momentum. It’s needed when things are tense and not going well.

Let your staff see your resilience.  Don’t broadcast it with your words; let your actions speak for themselves. “In [tough times], you need a leader to rise up, look the odds in the eye, and persevere. This communication does two things: One, it demonstrates strength in the face of adversity; two, it raises confidence in followers …”

12.  Never criticize or slander your senior leader with other staff or volunteer members. If they need to vent about their frustrations with him, do so for a limited period of time only. Then help them understand how to take the next steps with the senior leader. You are not his public relations manager, but you are their mentor.

The major point of learning to relate to unhealthy leaders is:

Respond to your senior leader’s stormy dysfunctions in a way that disengages hurtful emotions and protects the momentum of strategic decisions.

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series