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Leadership: What Matters Most to Congregations?

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

Leadership is always a popular topic -- and not just in business circles, but also within the religious world. A visitor to any religious bookstore will discover myriad books on leadership written by some of religious publishing's most respected authors, such as John Maxwell, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Leonard Sweet, and Bill Easum.

As part of a survey conducted in October and November 2003*, Gallup asked members of U.S. faith communities a series of questions about the leadership of their congregations, and how that leadership influences the practice of their faith. Responses to the four questions, detailed below, indicate that overall, most Americans have a positive view of their faith communities' leadership.

"The leadership of my congregation always treats me with respect."

Respect is an essential prerequisite for effective leadership. And it's a two-way street -- the leader needs the respect of his or her followers, and those followers need to feel that their leader respects them as well. The Gallup survey shows that 72% of congregation members "strongly agree" (providing a score of 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) that the leadership of their congregation treats them with respect.

Additionally, 95% of members who strongly agree with the statement, "In the last month, I have invited someone to participate in my congregation," also strongly agree that they are treated with respect. This is noteworthy -- when members feel that their leaders respect them, they may be more prone to feel good enough about their congregations to invite others.

"The leadership of my congregation makes me enthusiastic about the future."

A key ingredient in effective leadership is the ability to paint a compelling vision of the future. People instinctively want to be led toward a better tomorrow, and effective leaders have the capacity to integrate and give voice to their followers' hopes and dreams. For the most part, this is happening among members of U.S. faith communities: 57% "strongly agree" that the leadership of their congregation makes them enthusiastic about the future.

This enthusiasm appears to be connected with volunteerism. Among members who strongly agree that their leaders make them enthusiastic about the future, the average number of hours per week volunteered in the community is three. In comparison, members who do not strongly agree with this item volunteer an average of one hour per week in their communities. This finding should be interpreted with caution -- it may be that their underlying idealism may make respondents more likely to say yes to both questions. Nevertheless, the potential of religious leaders to stoke that natural idealism should not be underestimated.

"I trust the ethics and integrity of my congregation's leaders."

A breach of trust can be detrimental to any leader, and religious leaders are certainly no exception. It appears that members generally trust the integrity and ethics of their spiritual leaders, as 66% strongly agree with this statement.

"I am confident in my congregation's financial future."

While the "bottom line" for faith communities is spiritual return rather than financial return, members want to know that their congregations' finances are being well managed because their money is supporting the congregation. Again, most members are confident in the financial future of their congregations, with 58% strongly agreeing with this statement.

This confidence seems to affect giving; members with higher confidence in the financial future of their congregations tend to donate more to the congregation. Thirty percent of those who strongly agree that they are confident in the financial futures of their congregations give $3,000 or more to their congregations annually, as do only 17% of members who do not strongly agree with this item.

Next week's story will focus on how a congregation's leadership affects congregational engagement, and vice versa.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 nonmembers, conducted in October and November 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6 percentage points.


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