The 5 Kinds of Church Leaders We’re Seeing Right Now (And their Future Prospects)

So you’re trying to make the best decisions you can in a deeply confusing, stressful time, and you’re tired.

I get it.

I know when I get tired, it’s hard to think straight, let alone sense where the decisions I’m making are taking us long term.

How do you know how you’re doing…whether the kind of decisions you’re making are pointing your church in the right direction?

So today, to help, I’m sharing five kinds of leaders I’m seeing right now. You can make up your own categories if you want, but getting a sense of the overall approach you’ve embraced to decision making can help you get a handle on whether this is where you want to be ore not.

The categories below reflect the overall approach leaders are taking to the insane amount of uncertainty, change and disruption that is leadership right now.

Each of the five approaches has a probable destination—a prospect for the future that, while not inevitable, is likely.

Note: you may toggle through different leadership styles on different days (or even hour to hour), and in some cases you may embrace one approach in one area you’re leading, and reflect a different style in another area.

With all that in mind, here are 5 kinds of church leaders right now and the future prospects associated with each.

1. Deniers

Denial has always been a part of human nature.

Despite what you’re eating and what you see on the scale, it’s easy to deny you have health problems until you visit the doctor or end up in the ER.

It’s easy to deny that your relationship is in trouble until one morning she tells you she’s done and walks out.

But we live in this strange moment where denial is happening everywhere. Many leaders right now still deny that the virus is real, that’s the situation is real, that there’s any threat or that this is a disruption (rather than an interruption).

And regardless of what you think, when you deny the depth of change taking place, you set your organization up for failure.

Denial is a terrible leadership strategy. Denying the truth doesn’t change the truth.

Just think about all the people who denied they had financial problems until they filed for bankruptcy. Or the angry leader who swore his team was with him until, one by one, they all left. Or the leader in an affair who thought he’d never get caught until…

Even when you don’t like it, the truth (this is wrong/things really aren’t great/you can’t keep doing this) is your friend. Trust me, I don’t always like the truth either.

Leaders who change when they see the truth always fare better than leaders who try to change the truth by denying it.

If you want to lead a healthy team that embraces the truth, I’d love to help.

Leaders who change when they see the truth always fare better than leaders who try to change the truth by denying it. Click To Tweet

2. Reverters

The reverters are the leaders who are actively trying to recreate or restore the past. They want to revert to the way things were, to get back to the familiar, to what they know, even to what they were trained to do and programmed to do.

I have some sympathy for reverters. Nobody signed up for this.

But reverting to the past only works if the past is coming back. The longer this disruption continues, the less likely it is that things will go back to the way they were.

It’s hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared.

It's hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared. Click To Tweet

I’ve written quite extensively on why I believe the longing to go back to normal, while natural, is a big leadership mistake.

Why Going Back to Normal Church Seems So Compelling, and Can Be So Dangerous

Avoid This Big Mistake: Stepping Back Into the Past When You Step Back Into Your Building

The Original 2020 is History: 7 NEW Disruptive Church Trends Every Leader Should Watch

Reverting back is a wonderful strategy if the challenges you’re facing are an interruption. Someone turned off the light, you turned it back on, and you just pick up where you left off.

A disruption is different. Things are changing far more deeply and profoundly, and as a result, you need a new approach.

Old strategies applied to a new day produce diminishing returns. And as we’ve seen already in the low return to church numbers, that rarely turns out well.

Old strategies applied to a new day produce diminishing returns. Click To Tweet

3. Resigners

I’m guessing there are a lot of leaders in this category.

As much as you want to believe this is not a disruption, you admit to yourself that it is. You know that things aren’t going back to normal, even though you wish they were. And you’re not denying or even resisting the truth that you’re living in a deeply chaotic, disruptive time.

It’s just you haven’t got the energy for what’s ahead.  You’re resigned to a different future, you just haven’t got the strength to embrace it.

Can I just say I get it?

I have led from a place of zero energy. The thought of more change or ONE MORE THING GOING WRONG just about killed me more than once.

I also realize, as you do, that this isn’t a place you want to stay in long. You can’t stay in this place long and still lead.

Perhaps the remedy for leaders who feel resigned to the change ahead is to get yourself healthy, to build up reserves that can help you embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead. And trust me, there are opportunities.

Here are a few posts and resources that can help.

11 Signs You’re More Than Just Tired, You’re Burning Out

How I Recovered From Burnout: 12 Keys to Getting Back

The High Impact Leader: How to Get Time, Energy And Priorities Working In Your Favor

Being resigned to change doesn’t prepare you for the future nearly as well as embracing change does.

Being resigned to change doesn't prepare you for the future nearly as well as embracing change does. Click To Tweet

4. Adapters

Adapters understand that they are leading through large scale change. They’re not denying it, resigned to it and not really reverting back.

But—and this is a critical distinction—they’re not innovating either. They’re adapting.

One of the key differences between innovation and adaptation is that innovation is voluntary. Adaptation is not.

One of the key differences between innovation and adaptation is that innovation is voluntary. Adaptation is not. Click To Tweet

Most of the change that churches and businesses have adopted in the disruption to date isn’t really innovation. It’s adaptation.

Adaption is forced on you. Remote work for the most part has been adaptation. So has church online. You didn’t really have a choice.

Crisis isn’t the only disruptor at work in culture. Many industries have been disrupted in the last 20 years without a virus: think about transportation (thanks to ride-share services), photography (thanks to smart phones and Instagram) or hospitality (thanks to Airbnb).

In an era of rapid change, adaptation might help you survive, but it rarely helps you thrive.

You can make it into the future, but usually, as a shadow of what you used to be or what you could be.

Most of the change that churches and businesses have adopted in the disruption to date isn't really innovation. It's adaptation. Click To Tweet

5. Innovators

They say necessity is the mother of invention, so, churches, this is a great time to invent.

The long term trends around church attendance weren’t promising even before a virus hit.

The good news is the mission of the church is eternal. The methods change from generation to generation. Leaders who reinvent the methods ultimately become those who preserve the mission. Just study the Apostle Paul, or the Reformers.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, so, churches, this is a great time to invent. Click To Tweet

This could be a season where the lack of traction you’re getting using old methods can spawn you to try new things.

So what does it take to innovate? A lot of it, believe it or not, is attitude and willingness to take risks.

If you study innovators, you’ll learn that they’re usually curious, passionate, resilient and willing to fail.

They have a voracious appetite for learning—often outside their disciplines.

Innovators leverage the strength of their team to generate new ideas and iterations, and they’re not overly sensitive to criticism, knowing that divergent views simply make their future approaches better.

So the question becomes, where are you innovating? Adapting is one thing. Innovating is quite another.

Today belongs to the adapters. Tomorrow belongs to the innovators.

Today belongs to the adapters. Tomorrow belongs to the innovators. Click To Tweet

Any Other Styles You See?

I hope this helps frame this moment and get you on track with where you want to be.

I’m curious, any other styles you see? Anything you’d add to help leaders make it through this challenging era?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The 5 Kinds of Church Leaders We’re Seeing Right Now (And their Future Prospects)


  1. Kevin Segner on August 16, 2021 at 7:29 am

    From my experiences as a music leader, it seems like “number counters” live in the midst of all five levels of church leadership. The unfortunate side-effect is that their favorite tool is inertia. It often seemed that if a new effort or direction did not immediately provide a 25% increase in attendance, then it was sent to the graveyard. Unfortunately, this attitude also emanated from people who seldom supported new programs. This is the “people just stopped coming” crowd who seldom say “we didn’t do anything to make them feel welcome.”

  2. Tom on August 15, 2021 at 9:05 pm

    Carey, I recently retired as a military chaplain. We work outside the walls of the church during the week largely among the unchurched or dechurched. The congregations we lead on the weekend are primarily retirees unless you are overseas. The big problem is that many of these peopleare liturgicals with dreams of that style being popular again their evangelism strategy is to wait until this new generation likes old fashioned church again. I will let you guess how that is going!

    Some of my chaplain peers were also of this mindset. They are not just deniers, they are resisters. Resisters don’t just apathetically ride as things slowly change, they ardently fight change and advocate for imposing the past. Their preferences (be it from the pew or pulpit) come before the good of the church. They would prefer to die than give up their preferred style. In the military imposing your style can be an option depending on your rank. These congregation are dying faster than ever with the COVID disruption. I believe God is purging the church right now. It will emerge smaller, but also a leaner, stronger church for the work of modern evangelism. In history it is always the times of hardship and persecution that sees the church move forward, while times of ease cause us to get fat and comfortable. The old saying “the blood of the saints is the seed of the church” applies here. I pray God gives us courage to fight and endure for the souls of the masses depend on it. I pray he gives us the innovators to lead and the pureified congregations to support and work.

  3. Joyce Fields on August 15, 2021 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for sharing the leadership styles. Based on the information provided, I’m an Adapter-Innovator (smiling). While praying to become a stronger or more effective and efficient Innovator, please share with us some innovation suggestions.

  4. Chuck Congram on August 15, 2021 at 8:19 am

    Carey-I retired from my full-time congregational ministry leadership position in 2007. However, since that time, I have enthusiastically embraced multiple ministry opportunities that have come my way. However, these days I’m feeling like I’m done! I think your comment to Alan-“A new decentralized church is emerging” sparked a small glimmer of hope for me. At the same time I acutely aware that congregations with extensive denominational heritage-as well as the hierarchy of the denomination-will be both unwilling and unable to embrace such a concept. From the day I first met you up until this very moment in this article you have been a bringer of insight into my life and leadership. Thank you!

    • Okiemute OKPURHE-OBIRE on August 15, 2021 at 8:51 am

      Dear Chuck,

      Thanks for sharing your experience in navigating multiple windows of Ministries engagement since Retirement. I also share similar passion as narrated in my response to Nicholas below a few minutes ago.

      God bless you in all you do for the Kingdom.

  5. Kenneth M Hendrix on August 15, 2021 at 7:42 am

    stages of grief…actually.
    thanks for the insight and challenge.
    greatest challenge – don’t get stuck.

  6. Ray / Brisbane, Australia on September 2, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    This article was timely and very mic drop moment! Thank you Carey for the reminder and challenge!

  7. Paul Hennings on September 1, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks Carey for the insight. We used this at my church in a staff meeting to identify what ministry looks like under each leadership type (imagine five columns and sticky notes added to each). One thing we noted was for someone to live as an “innovator”, and in some ways even “adapter”, there needs to be healthy rhythms of work and rest and an absolute willingness to say “no” to things that we do out of denial, reverting or resignation. It was very helpful. Thanks!

  8. Gary Jones on September 1, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Thanks for the post. Insightful as usual. While I totally agree with the types of leaders you have identified there is a type that I think should nTo be overlooked…Survivor. This type might be all of the above, but they are simply hanging by a thread. Too many reasons to articles as to why, but I think you understand my point. Thanks for the daily good words. Blessings

    • Gary Jones on September 1, 2020 at 8:25 am

      Sorry for the autocorrect…and typos. Not to be overlooked… articulate not articles. I trying to survive.

  9. Kathleen on August 31, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    I am ripping off the bandaid and have met a wall of complaint. Leaders in the church are upset with my proposed change. I think I am in the area of innovation. I agree with the types outlined and the resistance is great. This can be exhausting but we can move forward with a sustained pressure of change is required or as a church we die. I have support of a supervisor and trust it’s in God’s hands and may I discern the spirt of God as it is reveagy ughIt NYU

  10. Alan Jenkins on August 31, 2020 at 10:08 am

    I wish I had the great new innovation to add to our efforts to reach people. Can you share innovations that others have found that work?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 31, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      Alan, I’m asking that question a lot. It gets pretty quiet looking for answers.

      I think churches that are embracing home as the new hub for ministry are ahead. Those doing more than just the one hour stream are making progress. I and I think those thinking and acting beyond the building are going to embrace the future better. The idea that ministry can only happen in a building is dying quickly. A new, decentralized church is emerging.

  11. Jeffrey Stachmus on August 31, 2020 at 9:28 am

    Sharing this with my staff for us to discuss at meeting this week. I see myself floating between several of these any given week.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 31, 2020 at 12:39 pm

      Thanks Jeffrey. Hope it helps and I think we’ve all been all five. 🙂

    • Nicholas on September 1, 2020 at 6:22 am

      This deep reflections of different leadership styles. I pray that God by His Spirit will make me an innovator.

      • olayiwola louis lawal on September 6, 2020 at 9:26 am

        This is quite informative and so helpful to personally mirror who you are as a leader in this disruptive period and to adjust where necessary. Thanks for sharing.

      • Okiemute OKPURHE-OBIRE on August 15, 2021 at 8:38 am

        Dear Nicholas,

        This is a very deep Reflection of different Leadership Style. And thanks to Carey for this insightful analysis of the (5) kinds of Church Leaders in the content of current realities and future prospect in Church Visionary Leadership.

        Very frankly certain Church Leaders and personalities have experientially moved along the realities of these (5) different ladders, from Denier to Innovator in growing their organization, advance their careers and launch new venture.

        Personally as a Trained Forensic and Investigations Officer, my years of field experience in Inspirations has helped me a great deal in our Church Mission Outreach Ministries Program in the last (5) years. Most importantly been able to apply different strategies in meeting the needs of each Mission Field.

        With the Outbreaks of Covid19 there are likelihood that a little modification may be needful in Discipleship Program and Mission focus in reaching out to people in the Mission Field while putting in place adequate measures and KPI to monitor growth periodically.

        • Okiemute OKPURHE-OBIRE on August 15, 2021 at 8:56 am

          * my years of field experience in Inspections has helped me a great deal in our Church Mission Outreach Ministries Program in the last (5) years

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