Are You Embattled or Challenged at Church?

What is the difference between a church leader who is embattled, and one who is challenged? From one perspective, nothing is different. Circumstances may look exactly the same: A big budget deficit. Members up in arms. A media frenzy. A staff crisis. And yet. And can see the difference in the leader's eyes. Embattled leaders are frantic. They turn from one possible solution to the next one, unable to make a choice. Or they withdraw, hiding away like the captain of the Titanic or Ken Lay of Enron.

Leaders who are challenged look different. They stand on two feet. They are ready for anything that comes their way. They take responsibility. Harry Truman is the archetypal example of a challenged leader, with his well-known desk sign, The Buck Stops Here.

Leaders who are embattled can't think clearly, seeing only negative options. By contrast, those who are challenged think:

What information is important, and what should I ignore?

Whom should I pay attention to and whom should I ignore?

What decisions need to be made now, and how can I think clearly about them?

None of this is easy. No leader in a tough spot can avoid moments of feeling embattled, of feeling the familiar rise of panic. But the difference has to do with the ability to manage oneself, to make choices rather than reacting blindly and automatically.

Antarctic explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, early in the last century, offer examples of these two kinds of leaders. Scott embarked on a race to be the first at the South Pole. His autocratic style, rigid leadership and poor planning led him into crisis. He became embattled because of his own poor judgment. He continued to make panic-driven decisions, which led to his death on the return journey from the Pole, after losing the race to Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

Shackleton undertook a journey to cross the Antarctic continent, which may have been as ill-advised as Scott's earlier trip. Shackleton ran into as much danger as Scott did when the ship froze into the ice and ultimately broke to pieces. He and his crew camped out on the ice, and then took a dangerous journey in lifeboats. Shackleton's response to the crisis was very different from Scott's. He faced this as a challenge, never panicked, and brought back all his men safely.

Some leaders have a natural ability to stay calm in a crisis. But all leaders can work on their ability to manage themselves, to stay calm, to seek out those who keep them cool, to think about options. They can breathe deeply, pray daily, laugh at themselves and take breaks from the crisis. The results will be less stress, and most likely a better outcome for everyone. No guarantees of course. But clear thinking can make a difference in the Antarctic, and at church.

Get the free mini-course, "Five Ways to Avoid Burnout in Ministry" at