Are You an Organizational Leader or a Shepherd? (10 Easy Ways To Tell)

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. (I’m offering a new course on scaling the 200 barrier this fall. You get on the insider track for that course here.)

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 fulfil 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.

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 an 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.

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.

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 every day 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 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 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.

Further more, 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.

Help For Every Kind of Leader

didn't see it coming

Regardless of the kind of leader you are, every leader gets blindsided by issues that surprise them. Most of us start out in life idealistic and excited for the future only to find a few years in that we’ve grown cynical, become disconnected and often feel empty.

Why is that?

Great question. My new book, Didn’t See It Coming, addresses seven obstacles everyone experiences and nobody expects. The good news is you can see the major issues coming, and you don’t need to fall to the issues that fell far too many leaders.

You can preorder my new book here.

Help for Growing or Plateaued Churches

breaking 200

So many churches that are attracting new people get stuck at 200 in attendance or less.

My instant-access course, Breaking 200 Without Breaking You,  I provides strategies on how to tackle each of 8 key issues churches face as they scale past 200 or even 400 in attendance.

My heart behind the course is to help every church work through the changes you need to make to experience sustained growth well beyond the 200 attendance mark.

So whether your church is 50, 250 or even 500 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break.

Click here to get instant access.

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!

Are You an Organizational Leader or a Shepherd? (10 Easy Ways To Tell)


  1. Leigh on May 5, 2018 at 6:13 pm

    Who would have thought I would be organisational!!! Areas I thought I was failing in all this time are actually indicators of a strength I have in another ‘way of leading’.
    People leave me drained but I know how so very important relationships are and so have strived to expand my limit of deep relationships-I’ve consciously seeked to know everyone in the room and where they’re at and have felt I’ve been failing because I must ‘make myself’ do this and not ‘desire’ to do it. But my closes 8 I could tell you exactly where they’re at without blinking.
    I like knowing how things work- I like improving on existing systems or inventing and implementing new ones. I really enjoy the process of thinking creatively about area and all the needs of the stakeholders and then putting together a plan to best fit. I get excited when I see others take a hold of the plan. Then the reflection of the implementation comes and I can tweek out any kinks – I thought this just meant I was a nerd!
    Then there is the development of other leaders! This is a conflicted area for me. I have never defined myself by my roles so want to hand them on (so I can begin the process again in another area) but I do become concerned that someone else may let the area ‘crash’ if I hand it over too soon. (Likely control issues on my part or this may mean I just need to develop my own teaching/empowering skills to confidently hand on a role).
    Either way, I feel more confident in my leadership strengths after reading this article. Even though as a new 1 year old church, I can see that a relational style of leading is essential and I will endeavour to lead that way at for a time, I can stop ‘beating myself up’ for not ‘desiring’ this as much.
    Thank you.

  2. Nathan on May 5, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Hey Carey

    What if you’re both relational and organizational but lean more towards organizational but can’t seem to break 200 due to constant transition? We grew to 150 then 30 people transitioned into year due to new jobs in another city / state and they all relocated. Im in Los Angeles so it’s quite transient. We grow then experience loss constantly. Thoughts!

  3. Jared Darby on May 5, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Great read, incredible insight. When I read this, my natural inclination who be say I’m BOTH! Reflationary and Organizational! I say that because I want to believe I’m the best of both worlds. Can you help me understand? I would imaganine most leaders would exhibit traits of each style, relational leaders exhibiting some sort of organizational skills and the inverse for leaders who lead organizationally. Would you say there is a clear distinction between the two styles (so would everyone fit in EITHER, OR)?

  4. Greg Trout on May 5, 2018 at 7:35 am

    I always appreciate your insight. I personally tend to be a relational leader who loves systems. I find myself going back and forth between the two. How possible do you think it is that individuals who are mostly relational can begin changing by acquiring the organizational styles when needed?

  5. Roxanne on May 5, 2018 at 7:25 am

    I found this to be very informative and now realize that I am more organizational than relational. I do enjoy getting to know people on a personal level but I don’t need to know all the details of their lives. I do find pleasure in seeing things coming together in harmony and growth. I still need to learn skills but have much experience leading and organizing small groups.

  6. Lawrence W. Wilson on July 10, 2017 at 6:52 am

    Great insight, Carey. I especially like your comment that neither side can claim the moral high ground on caring for people. John Wesley may have been the ultimate systems leader (well, after Paul I guess). I’m a Wesleyan, and I love the systems he created (interlocking groups, for example–large group, small group, accountability group). However, there’s no shame in not being a John Wesley. Every leader has a place.

  7. Andrew Beal on July 7, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Thanks, Carey. This article describes myself and my lead pastor well (he relational and I organizational). I’d be curious to see a follow up article on how these two types of leaders can best grow an organization.

    Our church is hitting our heads on the 400 attendance ceiling. My lead pastor has asked me to move into an executive/strategic role to help us grow past this point, but conflict between the two of us is inevitable not only due to our differing leadership gifting, but generationally as well (he is 30 years older than me). He has grown it to this size largely based on his relational strength alone, but that isn’t enough anymore–and he agrees.

    Any tips on how to have the best “marriage” between these types of leaders going toward the same goal?

    • Ngugi on August 2, 2017 at 7:46 am

      Thanks a lot for the article very insightful. I would love to see an article on how you can marriage this two style. The reason is l believe God doesn’t give us both gift so that we may need each other (community).

  8. Matthew Widman on July 2, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    I would say that I am both. I am definitely relational. I would think most pastors are relational. They care deeply about their people. But, for me, I’ve seen those organizational things grow in me. I still love knowing everyone in the room, but I know being a part of a growing church, I need to be content with knowing my direct reports and team leaders deeply. Training, coaching, and releasing them gives me gratification, and knowing they will reach people I can’t gives me joy. So I wouldn’t say you are either one or the other, I would say from my perspective, most people start as relational, but must learn to become an “organziational relationist.” I don’t think I should ever destroy the relational side of myself, but it definitely could hold myself and my church back if I let it have its way when I need to be organizational.

    Great post, just felt I would chime in. I don’t disagree with anything in the post, just feel its not as you are either or, but you should be a good mix of both to succeed and grow.

    • Robin Carter on July 3, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      I agree with Matthew’s comments re both being important. I think non-relational orgnaizational leaders split churches and do great damage. The primary shift is ‘who we relate to’.

    • Lee Strawhun on May 5, 2018 at 7:51 am

      At least to give the people the view that you care for them over the task. I have learned that different situations call on different aspects of my leadership and find that I have to grow, always, in both areas. But I do believe there are leaders who teeter to one side over the other and having opposites as paid or not around are helpful, necessary and beneficial to the leader and the church.

  9. Greg Crome on July 2, 2017 at 12:23 am

    Most churches are around 80 people, more or less, depending on who’s stats you read. Has anyone asked the question, why has God organised His church in such a way? Perhaps it is his will. And he also gifts some to lead/SHEPHERD much larger churches. Yes, it is definitely good to explore the limits of your gifting, and it would be wonderful to see more Shepherds who can lead large church organisations, but, I doubt whether the stats will change much. Most churches will remain about 80- 100 people. We just need more of them, thousands more. And more larger churches too. I think the article identifies the issues and acknowledges the reality that most churches will be smaller in size and that this is fine and honourable. I think training Shepherds to skill up in organisational leadership is also greatly needed.

  10. Jamé Bolds on July 1, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Brillant. 100% right on task!

  11. Paul Nash on July 1, 2017 at 7:15 am

    I would argue the opposite, the church needs more Shepherds. Even the Apostle Paul asserted that we need the Father heart of God more as a leader than being an instructor deficient in a shepherd’s heart. I think the dichotomy in the title of the article does a disservice to the Office of a Pastor. A Pastor is primarily relational and if not should not be in the office. Jesus was primarily relational, structure and organisation was a second order issue.The problem I have seen evolving over time has been worldly CEO type modelling organisational structures permeating the church. This has meant a gravitating of organisationally minded leaders feeling “called” to the Pastoral office. These leaders are probably more apostolic and entrepreneurial in style and NEED Shepherds working with them. Read Eph 4:10-13. This is where Paul makes the distinction in callings not in the Pastoral office itself.

  12. peter podlas on July 1, 2017 at 6:17 am

    At the end of the day, yes it is good to be “defined” but it needs to be like a marriage, individuals becoming “one”. Knowing who you are but also living the experience ‘death to self” to form the ” one”. Its not one or the other , its both working together. Your point seems to be asking – who submits to whose style of leadership if you want to attain to a certain size of church?

  13. Dan on June 28, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    I’m am a layman who has worked in many churches over the years. In some ways you are describing the relational leader as a leader who is insecure. A pastor who is unwilling to share the responsibilities of the ministry. A pastor who wants everything to be about him. He or she has to be known and has to know everything that is going on in his or her church. Rick Warren has said that the responsibility of a pastor is to give the ministry away. Because of insecurities his or her church won’t grow. They won’t give away the organizational parts of the ministry to a person who has that gift. I agree with John Maxwell and you Carey that in order to really take a church forward you have to be both a relational leader and a organizational leader. And if you are lacking in one or the other you have to be willing to seek others out to fill those gifts you don’t have. If you are not growing and you really want to grow your church than you need to take a look at yourself. As a leader who is leading it starts with you. You have to be able to lead yourself well first, from the inside out.

  14. Kathy Ives on June 28, 2017 at 11:20 am

    I know I am an organizational leader. And although this can be a great thing for growth, I feel like I am failing because I do not know everyone and I am not wired to take care of all the people on my team.
    Its so good to know that I am OK and that my set of skill and gifts do not make me an uncaring and insensitive person but just someone who likes systems.
    Thanks for encouraging all types of people.
    (PS I like to put put shepherds on my team to cover me!)

  15. Mike on June 27, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    Great article, Carey.

    It’s a similar to a tension we face in the hi-tech sector; we use the terms “product-focused” (relational) and “process-focused” (organizational). There is a healthy balance of both to succeed as a company.

    In the church setting, one dynamic I see most challenging has to do with vision. In either relational or organizational leadership, the vision seems to have a locus of focus at the “top” (lead pastor, senior pastor).

    Which style lends itself to better changing the identity of people from orphans trying to please God to sons of God in whom the Father is pleased? Or is the answer both?

  16. Jennifer on June 26, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    Great piece. From my 30 years of experience in ministry it is sometimes difficult to get the relational pastors to understand the importance of an organizational team member. If I could offer advice to the relational pastors out there – align yourself with an organizational person (male or female) and together grow the church. There’s no need to make it a battle. Make your teamwork the catalyst for growing the church and setting the example for other small churches.

  17. Justin G Gravitt on June 26, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    Thought provoking article. Though we each have a default setting, we should move towards maturity so that we are competent in both. Jesus was enormously strategic/organizational and intensely relational. Same with Paul. When we excuse ourselves from developing competence in each area then everyone suffers.

  18. Ron Baker on June 26, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    As I work with rural or sparsely populated areas, the relational leader seems to take precedence. There is no pretence that bigger is better – there seldom is “bigger” to be explored. “Just love us.”

    At the same time, an organizational leader in a sparsely populated area will look ahead and help the church traverse the tricky road that leads to the death of a church (quite literally).

    You can’t do church without all sorts of people (almost sounds biblical).

    Trust is the big thing! When trust is in place, people overlook the faults of each of these leadership styles. To make life work? The relational leader will grow a relationship with a systems person, and release them without restriction. The organizational leader, in this case, must take a step back and develop a vision that is greater than the geographical ministry. They must then be relational enough to convince over coffee.

  19. Curt on June 26, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    I am definitely organizational. The problem that I have encountered is that relational leaders feel that I am unloving (and rude and overbearing).

    However, the greatest act of love I have to give, is putting in place the systems that create the maximum number of high quality disciples of Jesus. These disciples then show Christ-like love in a greater capacity than I could ever by myself.

    From my experience, relational leaders need to allow organizational leaders to do what God has created them to do, and then sit back and enjoy the rewards.

    I promise, we are not trying to turn people against you, or steal your friends or your job. We are just trying to make disciples of Jesus in the most efficient way possible. And we are doing it out of love.

  20. Lee Bailey-Seiler on June 26, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Nice one Carey. One more piece to add.

    I am fortunate to have run across some leaders in my past who have helped me to understand that my strengths and passions have relationship as their foundation. As someone who has seen both types of leaders in many organizations over the years I’ve concluded that organizational disfunction is often a result of leaders who don’t spend enough time or energy serving others in the organization who work or lead from a different foundation. Organizational leaders sometimes assume buy-in of relational leaders when it doesn’t exist and relational leaders can stifle and “discuss” organizational types to the point of frustration or surrender. It’s vital to know each other as much as ourselves.

  21. Bobby Francis on June 26, 2017 at 9:17 am

    Very insightful (as usual!). I just asked a question about this very thing on a old post of yours. Please tell me there will be more where this came from! The dynamic of a pastoral staff with these two needed, yet very different types of leadership in a church is where I believe many struggle!

  22. Linda M-P on June 26, 2017 at 8:30 am

    While I am not in church ministry, you gave a name to the type of leader that i think I am. I have long thought my leadership was lacking because I prefer designing systems to being relational. I, too, prefer to go deep with a few people and feel less comfortable with larger groups.

    I agree with David Henderson. Your post is rich with things to consider. Thank you for the validation.

  23. David Henderson on June 26, 2017 at 7:12 am

    From a relational leader perspective I think your fifth point on both lists is a little bit skewed by your strengths. Organizational leaders like developing leaders but mostly gravitate toward only developing other organizational leaders that fit into the current structure they are leading but rarely have the time, patience and maybe grace required to effectively develop a relational leader. The opposite is also true. As a relational leader, I do a decent job of developing other relational leaders and setting them free to lead but often I don’t surround them with sufficient structure to keep them from getting bogged down. I also struggle with having the humility to listen and trust organizational leaders who I fear will lead us to an “church without a soul, passion or authenticity.”

    Great post. Lots to think about.

  24. Victor Gavino on June 26, 2017 at 7:01 am

    Does it happen that the lines between one and the other are not so clear, that a minister has qualities from “both sides of the aisle?” For example: a minister who appears to have organizational gifts as per the characteristics listed for such, with the exception of never seeming to want to train much less to deploy ministry leaders from among the congregation? And this after 5+ years of incumbency?

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