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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: Building A Supportive Climate

December 7, 2015


Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

This blog post is 3rd of 4 presentations given by Paul M. Dietterich at the July, 2015, Convocation sponsored by the Center for Parish Development. Paul shares the fruits of 34 years of research demonstrating how the climate of a church shapes the life and witness of that church.


One of the most important things a pastor or other church leader can do is help build a supportive climate in a congregation. The Christian faith teaches us that the church is called by God to be an exemplary community. Preaching is not enough. Doing good deeds is not enough. The common life of each congregation is, as Lesslie Newbigin has said, “to be recognizable as a foretaste of the blessing which God intends for the whole human family.” What is needed is a quality of life within each congregation that actually demonstrates life that will be experienced more fully in the kingdom of God.This quality of life may only be glimpsed now and then, but the glimpses are powerful.

brokenWe live in a world of broken relationships. Our world is characterized by fear, violence, pride, self-defense, greed, power-seeking, domination of the many by the few. People are defined by their wealth, status, race, gender, position, rank. On a daily basis and in many different ways our society shouts at us, “You are not important!”

The Old Testament describes how God called the people of Israel to be God’s own people. As God’s called people, they were to represent God in the encounter God intends with a sinful and broken world. Old Testament stories tell us how they struggled to be faithful, and how often they failed.  The New Testament tells us that, finally, in the fullness of time, and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God actually entered this world and, through Jesus, called disciples into a startlingly different community. This community was unstained by pride, station, self-defense.

One Anothering.

As the church grew and spread, the apostle Paul and other early church writers invited people into this strikingly different community…

to live as “members of one another” (Eph. 4:25),
to“encourage one another and build up one another” (1 Thess. 5:11),
“care for one another”(I Cor. 12:25),
“love one another” (1Thess. 3:12, 4:9),
“pursue one another’s good” (1 Thess. 5:15),
hearthands“bear with each other and forgive one another” (Col. 3:13),
“bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2),
“be kind and compassionate to one another”
(Eph. 4:31),
“submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21),
“honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10),
be “devoted to one another in love” (Rom. 12:10),
“live in harmony with one another”
(Rom. 12:16),
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:16).

Each Christian congregation is to practice these “one another” behaviors. Each congregation will thereby show the world by the quality of its common life that there is a different way to be a society; that this extraordinarily different society is what God intends for everyone.

Therefore each congregation today needs to ask itself, “Are we the kind of community that will startle the world by the quality of our relationships?” “Are we the city on a hill to which a distraught world will turn for guidance and help?” “Are we in the world but not of the world?” These questions challenge thoughtful church leaders and members to examine the quality of the common life of their congregations, the organizational climate of their church.

A Supportive Climate.

Organizational climate research tells us that people react favorably to experiences which they feel are supportive and contribute to their sense of dignity and giftedness. Similarly, persons react unfavorably to experiences which are threatening and decrease or minimize their sense of dignity and giftedness. All people want appreciation, recognition, influence, a feeling of accomplishment, and a feeling that people who are important to us believe in us and respect us. We want to feel that we have a place in the world.This reaction pattern appears to be universal. It can be the basis for a general principle to be practiced by pastors and other church leaders in developing the common life of their congregations. People will participate more fully and creatively in the life of a church when they feel that others are supportive of their sense of dignity and giftedness.

supportiveA second factor must be taken into account. A church member’s reaction to any situation is always a function not of the absolute character of the interaction, but of that member’s perception of it. It is how the member sees things that counts, not objective reality. Consequently, a church member will always interpret an interaction between himself or herself and the congregation in terms of his or her background and culture, his or her experience and expectations, his or her formation as a member of the body of Christ. Therefore for an interaction to be viewed as supportive, it is essential that it be of such a character that the individual member, in light of his or her experience, expectations, and formation, sees it as supportive.This provides the basis for stating a general principle of supportive relationships in the church:

The leadership and other processes of the church will ensure that in all interactions with the congregation, members will, in light of their background and their formation as part of the body of Christ, experience the church as a community that cultivates, supports, and maintains their sense of dignity and giftedness.

This principle points to a dimension essential for any church to be faithful and fruitful, namely that the guiding vision and mission of the congregation be seen by its members as genuinely important. For members to be highly motivated, they must feel that the congregation’s goals are significant and that their own particular responsibilities in the congregation contribute in important ways to achieving these goals.

Supportive Leadership.

To help the congregation develop a supportive (and therefore motivating) climate, the pastor and other key leaders must be experienced as supportive. Practicing support is the most important behavior a pastor and other key leader can express. Experiences and relationships are considered to be supportive when members see the experience, in light of their background and formation as members of the body of Christ, as contributing to or maintaining their sense of dignity and giftedness.

shape_friendshipThis principle of supportive relationships contains with it an important clue to its effective use. A pastor and other church leader must take into consideration each member’s experience, background, and level of formation as a member of the body of Christ. The leader cannot rely only on his or her observations and impressions. It helps each pastor and other leader to seek accurate information on how his or her behavior is actually seen by each member. Does each member perceive the pastor (or other leader) as supportive?

There are two major ways to obtain this important information. One is the use of a church-focused survey-guided development process. (The Center provides the Likert Profile of a Church questionnaires to help pastors and other church leaders gain this information. Contact Ray Schulte – or Dale Ziemer – for more information.)

The other is through the development of work group or team relationships which not only facilitate but actually require, as part of the group building and maintenance functions, candid expressions by group members of their perceptions and reactions to the behavior of others.

The Practice of Receptivity.

Research indicates that one way pastors and other key leaders provide support is by their practice of receptivity.They make themselves available. They announce the hours when they will be in their office. They mingle during coffee hour following or preceding the worship service and at church dinners and other events. They invite people to converse with them.  They do their best to be approachable. When conversing with another, they are “present” to that person, listening intently, making eye contact, paraphrasing back what the person is sharing so that the person knows that he or she is being understood.

ideasIn addition, they intentionally seek and use the ideas of others. Not only do they seek others’ ideas about church life and witness but they make use of those shared ideas. People become confident that if they share an idea with them, that idea will not die or disappear. Even if it is only a partially-formed notion, it will be taken seriously,considered carefully, and in most cases built-upon and developed more fully.

Receptive pastors and other leaders make themselves vulnerable. In group settings they submit their own ideas in a tentative manner for critique, consideration, evaluation, analysis, and even rejection.  They are non-defensive about their ideas while encouraging group solutions. They avoid dominating the discussion in group meetings and do their best to develop a climate that makes people feel that they can safely share their own ideas with the group. They encourage others to share their thoughts and they encourage the group to developing those ideas, giving credit to all who initiate and contribute to building-up and developing the ideas of others.

The Upward Flow of Information.

Classical management theory focused on the downward flow of information from the key leader, clothed in the symbols of rank and power, at the top of the organization, down to the lowly worker at the bottom of the power pyramid. Concern was how to get instructions from the top all the way to the workers at the bottom, and to have those instructions communicated in ways that would not only enable them to be implemented accurately and swiftly but with a good spirit and motivation by the worker. There was less emphasis on the upward flow of information.

In churches, classical management theory was adopted by many. Pastors placed suggestion boxes outside the church office. They announced an “open door” policy, but few people dared to enter that open door. Most members, even most councils, felt that they were expected to “yes” the pastor. Many congregations today still emphasize the downward flow of information by way of bulletins, announcements, mailings, newsletters.But how about the upward flow of information and the lateral flow in the body of Christ?

arrowsMost pastors have graduate degrees from institutions of higher learning. Through their college years and graduate school years they have learned how to be successful in the classroom. They have learned how to introduce and defend ideas, how to judge and evaluate the ideas of others, how to find and point out flaws in the ways others think, and how to argue and debate. Such behavior may lead to success in the classroom but it is devastating and demotivating in a meeting of the church council or other team. The receptive leader will look for the positives in all ideas being presented and will encourage the team to identify those positives, build on them, and develop even the most embryonic idea into something creative and useful for the life of the congregation. And the person who, perhaps timidly and fearfully, gave birth to the embryonic idea, will feel that his or her dignity and giftedness is supported. The “one-anothering” practices of the church will have been demonstrated with positive results.

The pastor or other team leader who is practicing supportive receptivity will take all positive steps to assure that information flows upward from team members to the team head and laterally to other teams. Some pastors have learned to meet regularly in a one-to-one meeting with each team head in the congregation. These meetings allow the pastor and each team head to build work plans for use with the team, to identify challenges facing the team, to recognize progress that is being made, to get roadblocks out of the way so that the team can do its work more fruitfully. Such meetings enable information to flow upward and, since the pastor meets with other team heads, laterally as well. Even more important, such processes contribute to a supportive climate in the congregation.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

    1. Why is the quality of relationships within the church so important?
    2. What are the qualities of a supportive climate?
    3. Where do you see the principle of supportive relationships being lived out in your congregation? Where do you see areas that could be improved?
    4. How can a pastor discover the quality of her or his supportive leadership?
    5. How does the practice of receptivity strengthen supportive leadership?


Paul Dietterich, Th.D.,
Executive Director Emeritus
An ordained minister of the Iowa Conference, The United Methodist Church, Paul has served pastorates in Massachusetts and Iowa. He holds degrees from Ohio Wesleyan University and Boston University School of Theology. (An earned doctorate in the field of planned change in church organizations.) Paul served as Executive Director of the Center from 1976 to 2005 and is a major contributor in the field of practical theology.


Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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