Skip to content

10 Ways To Tell If You Are An Organizational Or Relational Leader

So are you an organizational leader, or are you more of a relational leader—a shepherd?

It’s an interesting question, and a highly polarizing one in the church today. Ditto for this blog. Just check out the impassioned comments on this post, where I argue the church today needs more entrepreneurial leaders, not more shepherds.

Why does this matter?

Well, it matters for a few reasons.

First, if a church is ever going to reach more than 200 people in their weekend services, that church will require leaders who are skilled in organizational leadership, not just relational leadership. 85% of all churches never break that barrier.

Second, many church leaders grow frustrated because they want to reach more people but can’t understand why that proves so difficult.

Third, sometimes congregations expect leaders to behave relationally when what’s required to fulfill the mission is a more organizational style of leadership.

Finally, many leaders get frustrated when they are asked to lead in a way that’s different than their natural style. When an organizational leader tries to lead like a relational leader (and vice versa), frustration erupts.

When an organizational leader tries to lead like a relational leader, frustration erupts. Click To Tweet

Some Clarity

Some of us are organizational leaders, and some are more relational leaders.

You might be able to push your number higher through skill acquisition and hard work, but can a relational leader with a capacity of 100 really lead an organization of 10,000? Probably not. We might be able to double our number (from 200 to 400), but to stretch far beyond it might be too much for most of us. And it might never have been God’s plan for us in the first place.

Before you dismiss this as some kind of corporate leadership idea opposed to faith, think through it.

Moses embraced this kind of distinction between leaders when he reorganized a nation around leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. And, I suppose he was the leader of hundreds of thousands.  You could argue Jesus followed a similar instinct when he organized disciples into groups of 70, 12, 3 and ultimately 1 (Peter).

Your Problem (And Mine)

Your problem (and mine) happens when a relational leader tries to fill the role of an organizational leader. And to a similar extent, when an organizational leader tries to fill a relational role.

The culture we live in raises the tension because:

We assume that bigger is better

The conferences we attend and books we read are written by leaders of large movements and organizations

We’re caught up in constant comparison and feel inadequate if we’re not moving toward the ‘next stage’

Add to that the outward thrust of the mission of the church and many leaders find themselves in a position where they are trying to lead in a way that pushes past their natural number.

You may dream of leading a big organization, but your wiring keeps pulling you back to a small one.

So…what are you? A relational leader or an organizational leader?

Relational Leaders:

Here are some characteristics of relational leaders I’ve observed. Relational leaders:

1. Are Fueled By Direct Contact With People

If a day behind the computer screen or in meetings drains you, it might be a sign that you’re a relational leader.

You don’t care who you’re meeting with as long as you’re meeting with someone.

Relational leaders don't care who they're meeting with, as long as they're meeting with someone. Click To Tweet

2. Hate Not Knowing Who’s In The Room

A relational leader feels an innate sense of panic if they don’t know everyone in the room.

They want to find out who’s who, catch up, and make sure they’re ‘known’ by everyone in their organization.

3. Stay Up To Date On The Details In People’s Lives

Because of the desire to know everyone, relational leaders will often want to know all the details at play in people’s lives.

Who got a new job.

Who’s sick and who’s healing.

Who’s in love.

Who got accepted to which college.

Who’s thinking of moving or a new job.

Who’s expecting.

They just want to know. They can’t help it. And they care. Deeply.

4. Think Systems Drain Energy Out Of A Great Community

There’s a world of difference between bureaucracy and systems, but a true relational leader struggles with systems.

They can’t imagine an organization where they don’t know most people, and the idea that ‘systems’ can care for people chafes at their core.

5. Struggle To Develop Other Leaders

Because of a relational leader’s desire to be known and to know others, relational leaders always struggle with developing other leaders.

Some might see other leaders as a threat. But some simply can’t imagine the idea of being in an organization larger than their personal span of care.

For this reason, most relational leaders will never lead an organization larger than 200 people. (I also wrote about this from several other angles in this post on 8 Reasons Why Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark

An exceptionally gifted relational leader might be able to grow an organization or ministry area to 400 or even 500, but after that, they burn out and the span of care breaks down. This isn’t bad; it’s just true. You end up trying to be someone you’re not.

I’d love to hear from some relational leaders on the tension, struggle or blessing you feel from being a relational leader. Leave a comment! As you may have guessed, that’s not my style. I’m wired more as an organizational leader.

Organizational Leaders:

By contrast, here is how organizational leaders think and operate. Organizational leaders:

1. Are Fueled By Systems That Help People

An organizational leader doesn’t have to care for people directly; he or she is content that people are being cared for well (by others). They think about how the system or organization can be improved to care for more people.

Again, it is very easy to characterize relational leadership as ‘Christian’ and systems as ‘non-Christian’, but that’s just not true. Read Acts 6 for more on how systems expanded the early church’s capacity to care for more people. No side can claim the moral high ground here. 🙂

2. Have No Deep Desire To Know Everyone In The Room

An organizational leader realizes by instinct that if the mission is going to grow, it’s going to mean their personal span of care is limited.

They are more excited that people are being reached by the mission than they are energized by knowing the people who are being reached personally. That doesn’t mean they don’t care, it just means they realize that a system that is going to reach hundreds or thousands demands that they not play a personal role in every aspect.

Organizational leaders realize if they need to know, their church won’t grow.

Organizational leaders realize if they need to know, their church won't grow. Click To Tweet

3. Track Closely With People Within Their Direct Circle

Instead of trying to know a lot of people, an organizational leader will go deep with a few.

Strong organizational leaders will have an excellent relationship with 5-12 people who report to them or to whom they report. They are not people who simply sit behind a keyboard all day, because any great organization (even large ones) are always driven by people and healthy relationships.

Rather than being there for everyone, organizational leaders are there for the hospital visits, life celebrations and everyday moments of a few of their closest and highest capacity leaders.

It doesn’t mean they never step outside that span of care to help others, it just means that the inner circle of their closest leaders receive 80-95%% of their relational focus.

4. Are Comfortable With The Reality That Systems Are Key To A Growing Community

Organizational leaders have a heart for scale and systems because they believe that effective systems create the capacity to care for even more people.

While being ‘organic’ and ‘authentic’ and ‘decentralized’ sounds more romantic, the truth is the most effective organizations that change the most lives (even for good) are the result of careful systems. The reason the device on which you’re reading this post works (or doesn’t work) is directly dependent on the system that produced it.

Ditto for the quality of your Disney vacation, or the organic food you’re eating for dinner tonight (assuming you didn’t pull it all from your garden today…and even if you did, you would need a minimal system to ensure it didn’t rot and the rabbits didn’t eat it all.)

5. Love Developing Other Leaders

Organizational leaders realize that as the organization grows, they have to develop and release more and more leaders. So they develop and deploy them.

Although in some respect that creates more distance between them and others in the organization (and sometimes that’s sad even for the leader), they understand it’s part of how growing systems work on this side of heaven.

Furthermore, they find considerable pleasure in watching other people develop their God-given gifts and leading areas that they themselves used to lead.

While there can be a tendency to think releasing others to do what you used to do can make you less valuable to your church, ironically it makes you more valuable.

Releasing other leaders to lead doesn't make you less valuable, it makes you more valuable. Click To Tweet

Practical Tips To Help Your Church Grow (No Matter What Style Of Leader You Are…)

Whether you are a relational or organizational leader, getting a stuck church growing or helping a church that’s reaching new people grow even further can seem daunting.

It doesn’t have to be.

Whether you’re a church that isn’t growing, has plateaued, or whether you wish your church was growing faster than it is, I’d love to help you break through. That’s why I created the Church Growth Masterclass.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

Naturally, I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow.

You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The 5 keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
  • How to increase church attendance by increasing engagement.

The Masterclass includes a complete set of videos that you can play with your team, board or staff, PDF workbooks that will help you tackle the issues you’re facing, and bonus materials that will help you navigate the most pressing issues facing churches that want to reach their cities today.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

Anything to Add?

Those are some key difference I see between relational and organizational leaders.

I hope this helps you figure out which you might be and where you might best fit within an organization. At least, I hope it helps you address a tension many of us face when we try to figure out why things aren’t growing as fast as we had maybe hoped (again…not that growth is a goal for every leader…it just is for me and many others given the mission we’re on).

What do you see? Leave a comment!

21 Comments

  1. Leslie Rowell on July 11, 2019 at 5:30 pm

    At our church, we were heavy on relational and thin on organizational for many years until it caught up with us. We finally embraced change when we realized that our lack of organization was hurting our people and our ministry. Since then, we have intentionally hired staff who are strong in those skills, made time in our calendar to re-organize and even though it feels like slogging through mud at times, change is happening! As a direct result of better organization, we saw 33 people come to Christ in the past 6 weeks. Better follow up, better informational classes, better outreach to youth and children opened the door for that growth. We can’t do it alone! We need to lean on and to celebrate each other’s giftedness – and the humility to admit that we can’t do it all. Isn’t that what the Body of Christ is all about?

  2. Mulenzi John on July 11, 2019 at 3:38 am

    Great insights. I am definitely more relational and trying to be organisational may not come natural to me and may be more frustrating. What, again, was your advise for a guy like me who wants to grow beyond his relational capacity?

  3. Tomekia Williams on July 10, 2019 at 7:19 pm

    I am a woman on the leadership team at my church. We are a thriving congregation, but I feel we have more capacity. Would you say having a mixture on the team of relational and organizational styles leading is beneficial and where should they be placed on the team?

    Thank You

  4. Steve Trim on July 10, 2019 at 5:03 pm

    What happens if you’re neither relational or organisation, or somewhere in the middle, where a bullet point or two from each category relates to you?

  5. Matt on July 10, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    This has connected some dots for me! It has answered some things I’ve been wrestling with recently and gives me words to express my leadership style better! Thanks

  6. Scott R Hamilton on July 10, 2019 at 10:39 am

    I felt myself bristling as I began reading your thoughts. The internal defense went, “Hey, I’m a relational guy and this dude says I’m not going to be able to lead at a high capacity.” I didn’t see myself as an organizational leader, until that is, I waited to see how you defined each term (see, wisdom is slowly taking hold). I realized that by “organizational” you do not mean someone sans any relational tendencies. Indeed, both take savvy relational skills and wiring.

  7. Bobby on July 10, 2019 at 10:15 am

    This is so insightful and helpful. Question: how do you go about communicating to a more relational church that your style is organizational?

    • Dillon Smith on July 10, 2019 at 10:58 am

      Hey Bobby,

      Dillon here, Carey’s Content Manager. I will do my best to respond for Carey here.

      You will likely have to explain the difference between the 2 types of leaders to them, and then explain which direction you lean. If you are meeting with individuals, it might be a good Idea to ask them which type of leader they think they might be too. This will hopefully help them see that you might have different giftings and thought-processes than them.

      Hope this helps!

      Dillon

  8. Bishop Ed Bilong on July 10, 2019 at 9:49 am

    Pastor Carey, Thank you so much for your dedication and thank you for this post. this is really helping some of us tremendously. The first time I came across your teachings was one morning after I spent time in prayer asking God to help me understand why I never grow a church above 200 people. I have a tremendous vision and I have touched thousands of lives.
    I have literally hundreds of people walking through the doors of my church every year and most of them claim the church is awesome and people who attended my church years later still send me messages thanking me for the quality of teachings they received under my ministry. But my church never grows beyond 200 people! when new people join,some old members leave! This is a mystery to me. So I came across your article: 8 Reasons why some churches cannot break 200 barrier in their growth. I must say I have seen a lot of things that I am doing wrong. Reading this now however, brings up this question: is putting systems in place something that also comes naturally when you are an organizational leader or is it something that you also need to learn? I love systems and I know I can only attain what I would like to see through them; however I do not know quite well how to put systems in place. I have tried a few systems before but it did not work. eg you put several people in charge of a cell groups, they try to get people to attend, but it does not last! so the cell group leader also ends up giving up. how to get people to be stable enough to get the whole thing moving? hoping to hear from you.
    Once again thank you for insightful posts.

  9. John Wilborn on July 10, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Q: How do you suggest this ORGANIZATIONAL guy and our RELATIONAL lead pastor work this out?

    Having just returned a few weeks ago from ReThink Leadership in ATL, I returned to my church really fired up.
    I (Adm P/Organizational Leader) talked in depth with the lead pastor (Relational) with whom I have worked for 3 decades now. Yes. Really. Fantastic relationship.
    He recently read SMALL CHURCH ESSENTIALS (K. Vaters). And, it “released” him from the internal pressures he has placed on himself to grow numerically. He’s “not opposed” to growing. But, he’s not a strategist.
    The issue is that our “new” church – just 2.5 years old now – has plateaued at 100+/- on any given week.

    Oh the struggle: “We are trying to employ ‘big church’ principles in ‘small church’ settings.”

    And the majority of the congregation is 55+.

    In January 2019, we started using THINK ORANGE with our kids/youth and love it. VBS was awesome too!

    John

    • Dillon Smith on July 10, 2019 at 11:09 am

      Hey John,

      Dillon here, Carey’s Content Manager. I would love to help!

      At this point, having an honest conversation about what systems you think could help the church reach more people with relationships centered on Christ might be helpful. If you both work towards the understanding that systems help you reach more people with the Gospel, that could make a big difference. Just my thoughts, take em or leave em’.

      Dillon

      • Scott Button on July 10, 2019 at 9:16 pm

        Hi John,

        I am more organisational detail as the Associate Pastor and my Lead Pastor is more relational and big picture but knows systems are important. Our Church is ~500 though 350 to 400 attend on any weekend. For us it is working together and leveraging our strengths. We complement each other quite well in this regard. I am learning to work with fuzzy edges and he is learning to use my details view on things. As a general principle I think a relational Lead Pastor needs to build teams that include people with organisational strengths. It’s the axiom “lead from strengths and build teams for your weaknesses”.

        Scott Button

  10. Anthony on July 10, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Any there any tips on being a relational leader in a sea of organizational leaders? I feel this tension on a daily basis. Can you become more organizational if you’re clearly relational?

  11. Allan on July 10, 2019 at 8:38 am

    exellent article. however 🙂 – I will say it is a bit more complicated than that.. people are a mosiak of skills, feelings, seasons and circumstances.

  12. Fate Hagood III on July 10, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Ok… I pretty much agree. But what if you’re a little bit of both? Yes I’m definitely wired towards deep care for all but I don’t need to know everything or everyone. I’m pretty gifted in developing organizational strategies and plans but horrible at maintaining them. What should I do?

  13. Gene on July 10, 2019 at 8:33 am

    Maybe we aren’t’ supposed to be a big multi-site church…Maybe that’s why God calls the pastor to be a shepherd and not an organizational leader? Just staying with the Word!

  14. John F. Grunewald on July 10, 2019 at 8:18 am

    Hi, great post as always. I like the term, “Developmental Leader”. I believe that is more who Jesus was. It encompasses both the Relational and Organizational Leader while developing people, not just relating or organizing. Jesus was both a Spiritual person and a Leader. Meaning, he took his primary responsibilities of the Ministry of the Word and Prayer but also was responsible to see that those under him were developed in every way (Discipleship) and he was also responsible for the forward movement of the organization. In this case the beginnings of the church. He delegated aspects of this but he was responsible for the 4 Main Responsibilities of a Spiritual Leader. To often today we see spiritual people and we see leaders but we need the combination to really stand skillfully in the office of a Spiritual Leader (Eph. 4:11) Otherwise we end up with more failed church leadership and churches. Short version.

  15. Jannette on July 10, 2019 at 8:08 am

    Thanks Carey – truly helpful! So what is an organizational style leader to do when their church, which is accustomed to (and expects) relational leadership style (from past leaders)? One is easily branded as uncaring and even ambitious. The resistance can be intense.

  16. Dennis on July 10, 2019 at 7:55 am

    I’m definitely an organizational leader, retired from a large public safety agency, and serving in a smaller, non-profit organization that is led entirely by a small group of relational leaders. The organization as a whole gets the job done, but as you can imagine there are many things about it that drive me nuts. Aside from an initial “orientation” that lasts a couple of hours there is no ongoing training or vision casting that takes place. There are no processes to ensure consistency from day to day and it shows. Volunteers are not empowered to make even the simplest decisions, (perhaps because they have no training?) so all decisions get deferred to “leaders” who suffer greatly from “analysis paralysis” and may take a week or longer to decide something that should (and could) have been decided and acted on immediately. When a unique or unusual situation arises, chaos ensues since no one steps up to lead effectively through it. To an outsider or client, the mission statement is weird religious phraseology that was knitted together to sound spiritually impressive. To us who should be focused on it, it doesn’t really speak to what we do.
    I feel like I’m on the wrong bus serving here, but the actual work done by this non-profit fills a critical need in the community. It just does it in a clunky, inefficient way, so I’m not ready to give up and move on. It could be so much better if there were a few organizational leaders in the mix. But how do I nudge the status quo in a way that seems positive rather than stepping on toes? I’ve tried having one-on-one conversations on “what could be,” suggested reading various content on leadership (including this blog and related podcasts), and even offered to present some informal “lunch and learn” opportunities myself. None of these efforts has gotten any traction. Only polite lip service. “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Let me get back with you on scheduling it.” Then silence. Forever.
    Maybe they don’t want to get better and more capable. Maybe they are overwhelmed and fearful of relinquishing even a small amount of control. Maybe they are simply resistant to change. Whatever the reason for the stagnation, I would sure like to move beyond it.

  17. Joey Autry on July 10, 2019 at 7:20 am

    So helpful and encouraging! Thank you for posting Carey! Needed this 10 years ago but wow, so good and insightful. This will help set a lot of pastors/leaders free.

    • Dustin George on July 10, 2019 at 7:31 am

      Carey,
      This is one of the most encouraging and spot-on things I have read in quite a while. Thank you for the insight!

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.