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April 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 2 · pp. 10–18 

Leadership in the Church: A Sociological Perspective

Henry J. Regehr

Like any other organization, the church flourishes on good leadership. That axiom, I presume, was behind the editorial committee’s decision to devote the major part of the present Direction issue to this topic. That they requested an article from a sociologist implies that a behavioral approach has legitimate contributions to make to an understanding of a church concern. More specifically, it implies that the findings of scientific research regarding leadership can be applied to church leadership even though that research is largely done on non-church organizations.

I will first discuss the sociological conceptualization of leadership and then describe the major modes and functions of leadership as treated in social science literature. All along, I will attempt to draw illustrations from, and make applications to, the church context.


Sociologists do not view leadership as a cluster of qualities residing in a person. They see it as a “behavioral role” that various people engage in now and then in given social settings. In other words, the focus is on leadership behavior, not on the persons as leaders. This means that leadership is both situation-related and reciprocal.

A. Leadership Is Situation-Related

Persons known as leaders only sometimes exercise leadership, because their behavior is not leadership-related. In fact, much of their activity is a response to the leadership given by someone else. The teacher who is expected to exercise leadership in the classroom must obey the directives given to him by his principal, who in turn is {11} obligated to carry out the policies of the school board. Whether the teacher exercises the “leader role” or the “follower role” depends on the situation in which he finds himself.

This viewpoint shifts the focus of attention away from the individual leader to the situational elements that call for the exercise of leadership. Of course this does not eliminate individual leadership qualities, but it focuses on the interaction between such qualities and the setting. Terms such as “born leader” or “self-made leader” represent only part of the truth. They need extensive qualification to be valid.

B. Leadership Is a “Reciprocal” Role

The concept of “role” implies reciprocity. The mother role is non-existent without children; the teacher role is non-existent without students; the leader role is empty without followers. The situational elements referred to above consist for the most part of those “followers” who complete the leader role. Without their appropriate participation in the total act, leadership is vacuous. The participants in a given setting impute leadership to one or more of their members, and these members can then exercise it. A person with leadership qualities may find himself without the imputation from the group, and, consequently, he cannot function as a leader in that situation. On the other hand, an individual who is not particularly conscious of his leadership potential may find himself entrusted with its functions and, to his own surprise and the surprise of those who knew him before, he may then begin to blossom as an effective and competent leader. He learns the leadership role of that social setting through having it thrust upon him. It is of course possible that he does not respond satisfactorily to the trust of leadership and so remains a follower. Leadership qualities in a person and the group’s deferring to him as leader are both essential ingredients of effective leadership.

This means that the followers have an important role in determining the quality and type of leadership they get. Dedicated and responsible followers run the considerable risk of getting leadership they don’t want. Highly critical and unsympathetic followers tend to discourage honest leaders and encourage those who see the leadership role as an opportunity for personal gain to the detriment of the group’s welfare. This also means that no one leader is ultimately indispensable. If a given leader vacates that position, the group will confer leadership functions upon another, propelling him into the leadership position.

For the church, this constitutes a call for active, responsible, and discerning selection of leaders and their “training” through being {12} entrusted with leadership functions. In doing so, the church trusts the Holy Spirit to lead both the individual and the church to kindle a latent gift in the potential leader. It is a sobering thought that the shortage of good leaders in the church may be the fault of the congregation’s neglect of its obligations.


To this point we have dealt mainly with what leadership is. Now we want to turn to some of the different patterns, styles, or modes in which leadership is exercised. Not all leaders exhibit the same traits nor do they conduct their business of leading in the same manner. The very emphasis on situation-related leadership indicates that leadership styles vary with different situations. It may well be that different personalities surface as leaders in different situations. What are some of the dominant modes of leadership?

A. Weber’s Categories of Leadership

In sociological literature leadership is often discussed in terms of Max Weber’s three “ideal types” of leadership: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational. 1 Weber, like most of us, considers these as “ideal types,” meaning that they don’t exist in pure form in reality but are discussed as if they did, for purposes of clarity and comprehension. One of these will be the dominant mode in a given society, organization, or group of people, with residues of the other two modes also present.

1. Charismatic Leadership. As the name indicates, the striking feature of this mode is some person’s seemingly inexplicable “gift” of leadership. Expressions such as “the power of his personality makes him an excellent leader” apply here. He tends to take charge of whatever group he associates with and quickly excites his followers about his leadership. He comes closest to the “born leader” syndrome. Upon closer examination, however, he turns out to have been aided extensively by the nature of the situation in which he found himself.

The charismatic leader typically surfaces in a crisis situation. The existence of a crisis implies that the normal, ordinary response will not suffice to deal adequately with the situation at hand. Something “extraordinary” is required. People have lost confidence in the normal procedure and a new set of procedures cannot be developed instantly. The only alternative is the emergence of a person who exudes confidence in his ability to handle the situation and then inspires confidence and trust from others in himself. He is typically short on specifics regarding the nature of the crisis situation and how to deal with it. He essentially inspires confidence in his personal ability to come to grips with that crisis and find a wholesome way out of it. He {13} can hardly be expected to be specific, since he is moving, and attempting to lead others, in uncharted territory. He can only deal in generalities that nevertheless strike an authentic chord in his followers. A person given to details, to careful and precise planning, and to covering of all possible contingencies in advance is likely to go nowhere in a crisis situation. Who cares about details, or has time for them when ultimate values are at stake?

If such a person successfully deals with the crisis situation, his reputation with his followers is enhanced immeasurably. His analysis of, and recommendation regarding, almost any problem (a minor crisis) is accorded high respect. The fact that he has spoken to “the issue” stills much anxiety in the followers. He can therefore afford to relax the canons of logic, consistency, and accuracy in analysing the problem, and he can freely innovate with regard to solving it—even at the expense of time-honored ethical and practical axioms. His innovations, however, become “routinized” over time and his followers come to view them as the only correct ones.

2. Traditional Leadership. As some would suspect, this mode of leadership prevails in traditional societies, which tend to be socially and culturally homogeneous and which change at a fairly slow pace. Individualism is accorded much less reverence than in modern societies. Leadership in such societies (or such churches, for that matter) is based on the “sameness” in belief, values, and moral convictions among its members. The leader embodies these qualities more forcefully and more perfectly than do the average members of that society. He is obeyed because he comes closer to the ideal that society has of itself. As a result he is relatively immune from criticism and challenge. To criticize the leadership is to call into question the basic value system in which everybody (well, nearly everybody) deeply believes. This value system changes so gradually that the leader does not have to make major adaptations during his lifetime.

While the traditional leader often appears to us to be much like his followers in belief, values, and moral convictions, he actually has a much higher status than do leaders in modern societies. His authority is seldom questioned, his directives seldom challenged, and his honor seldom soiled. Why? The followers’ creed is his creed, their pride is his pride, only more perfectly so. That degree of homogeneity is not present in our modern society nor in our modern churches. In fact, we bristle against homogeneity of such kind in the church. As a result, the traditional, authoritative leadership of a by-gone era is also absent, or at least is becoming so. Along with our society, our churches are reflecting more and more the next type of leadership, the legal-rational.

3. Legal-Rational Leadership. This style of leadership is a {14} concomitant of formal, and particularly bureaucratic, organizational structures. Formal organizations are characterized by their carefully thought-out and deliberately selected objectives and by an organizational structure that is specifically designed to achieve those objectives. The objectives and the organizational chart are usually put in writing. The various positions, with the boundaries for each position’s authority and obligations, are often spelled out in great detail. In short, a formal organization has a written constitution by which it is guided and by which the performance of its functionaries is assessed and rewarded. It is called “legal-rational” because the organizational structure and behavioral roles are devised in accordance with practicality and the subsequent written constitution is given the force of law. Several important consequences accompany this style of leadership.

One, the set of formal rules (the constitution) has more authority than any of the organization’s functionaries. The members of that organization, including its leaders, are subject to the constitution. Exceeding the rights and obligations of one’s position as spelled out by the constitution is viewed as a serious transgression. Leadership in formal organizations then consists of playing by the rules. Because authority is carefully circumscribed, leaders often find themselves restrained by the rules from doing what they consider in the best interests of the organization. Traditional and charismatic leaders have little respect for written constitutions.

Two, the detailed spelling out of the rights and obligations of each department and each position within the larger organization makes for specialization. Each officer knows from the constitution exactly what he is authorized and obligated to do. He is, and can be clearly shown to be, “off limits” when he ventures outside that realm. Hence, the functionaries of formal organizations become specialists in “their own field” with restricted interest and/or competence in related areas. The top leaders of the organization are often expert in only one or none of the numerous substantive interest areas of their organization’s total endeavor. They are, for the most part, “expert coordinators” of numerous semi-autonomous agencies. Consequently, the organization has divided leadership between the various experts and the coordinators. On any substantive issue, the coordinator, though frequently having the highest authority position, is easily upstaged by the specialists. The leaders of a formal organization, therefore, can never have the unswerving confidence of their followers that their traditional and charismatic counterparts generally have.

Three, the tendency for rules and regulations to proliferate discourages the emergence of charismatic leadership. There may be many potentially charismatic leaders in our midst, but the thick layer of rules and regulations circumscribing their actions makes it almost {15} impossible for them to exercise that charisma for any length of time. This partly explains the phenomenon that leaders with some promise of charisma do emerge, but they fade after a short time. In exercising their charisma, they too conspicuously violate many of the formal rules and regulations and fall into disfavor. Legal-rational organizations encourage conformity, not creativity, among its leaders.

Our society is dominated in many spheres by formal organizations and all of us come into contact with them at one time or another. There is a spillover from these experiences, so that we come to view this style of organization and leadership as normal. And it is demonstrably superior to any other known style for purposes of effective, centralized control of a large-scale organization. The organizational structures of our churches (in part) and our conferences resemble the legal-rational style more than any other, while our memories still long (at least sometimes) for the traditional or charismatic style.

B. Leadership Patterns in Small Groups

Weber’s categories of leadership are generally applicable to large social units such as societies, corporations, and bureaucracies, but they lose some of their relevance when applied to small, informal groupings. And yet many of our most satisfying moments are experienced in such small groups. An extensive research tradition has attempted to elucidate for us the inner workings of “group dynamics” as this is often called. 2 It was inevitable that leadership would emerge as an important dimension of this research. What are the leadership dimensions in small group settings? There are of course many, but for the purpose of this paper we will deal with only two major patterns: task-oriented leadership and socio-emotional leadership. 3 What are these and how do they function?

Apart from purely friendship groups, most small groups exist to accomplish something specific. In the church as well as in society there exist many committees, boards, task forces, learning classes, and so on. Since they need to accomplish something visible, it has been found that certain individuals quickly emerge as leaders by successfully directing the group members toward such an accomplishment. Such leaders are particularly adept at delineating the basic issues and at suggesting procedures to deal with those issues. Sometimes they are the formally designated leaders of such committees or boards; sometimes they are not.

In guiding and often pushing the group toward its accomplishment, the task-oriented leaders often step on sensitive toes and provoke disagreement and the subsequent hard feelings which lead {16} members to discredit even the valid suggestions made by task-oriented leaders. That situation calls for, and usually produces, the intervention of socio-emotional leaders, who are much more sensitive to the “feelings” of others. These socio-emotional leaders mediate between the aggressiveness of the task-oriented leaders and the frayed feelings of other group members by showing respect to both. They slow down the pace of the aggressive leaders so that the others can catch up and encourage the rest of the group to consider the basic issues. Group dynamics research has extensively documented that tough, task-oriented activity is almost always followed by a phase of socio-emotional activity to smooth over ruffled feathers and make task-oriented leaders think in terms of people and not only in terms of issues. Otherwise, the group tends to become stalemated, or worse.

These phases can be seen in larger contexts. Within the small group, a meeting of two-hours’ duration will produce several such shifts between task-oriented and socio-emotional activity. After a year of strict information dissemination concerning the Scriptures, the members of a Sunday School class will demand more time for sharing their personal feelings, frustrations, concerns, hurts, and fears. Criticism of the teacher and the class grows if those demands are neglected. But, after a while, “sharing” leads to an empty feeling. So what have we “accomplished” after everyone has spilled his/her latest doubts and frustrations before the whole group? The members then become equally disappointed in the functions of that group.

Within the context of the entire congregation, a task-oriented pastor who brings better organization to the committee structure of the church and institutes effective outreach programs finds himself succeeded (peaceably, we hope) by a socio-emotional pastor who can get close to the people, who can understand and sympathize with the hurts of individual members. Obviously, both types of leadership are needed for the spiritual and mental health of the group or congregation.

The research indicates further that the two types of leadership are typically given by different people. The task-oriented leaders are achievers because they push beyond individual feelings and idiosyncrasies. Socio-emotional leadership then needs to restore those who feel hurt, but they themselves are not likely to push for further tangible accomplishments. That is not their strength. Personal observation, however, indicates that while almost everyone is better at one as compared to the other leadership function, most individuals have some capacity for both. Certainly a pastor requires adeptness at both, and so do most others in leadership positions. But they also need to be reminded that the pattern they favor most may have to be balanced by another sort of leader for the good of the group. {17}

Biblical examples of these functions are Paul and Barnabas. Paul was unquestionably a task-oriented leader who was impatient with those who had misgivings about a major task (note his dispute with Barnabas regarding John Mark) and apparently could carry on his work in the same place for no more than eighteen months at a time. He had by then “accomplished” his primary task of planting a church. Barnabas has much more modest tangible accomplishments to his credit than Paul. Or does he? It was Barnabas, after all, who searched out Paul from oblivion and introduced him to the other Apostles, who in turn set Paul on his course of extensive missionary endeavor. It was Barnabas who stayed with John Mark after Paul rejected him so that John Mark remained a useful worker in the kingdom of God, as even Paul later acknowledged. Task-oriented and socio-emotional leadership complement each other.


The notion of “hidden” leaders comes from the recognition that small, informal groups inevitably emerge within larger organizations. A network of informal associations exists within a local congregation. These informal associations have their informal leaders of opinions, tastes, and knowledge. And these informal group relations are important in influencing people’s behavior. Those to whom deference is accorded within the informal group setting are “hidden” leaders, exercising potent leadership functions within the larger group even though they are not officially recognized. This is perhaps best illustrated when a congregation wants to enthuse its young people for a certain project. If the informal leaders within the adolescent peer group do not favor the project, it will be difficult to excite the rest of the group. The same dynamics occur among any group of friends who interact with each other more frequently than with outsiders.

An illustration of these dynamics can occur when a local congregation takes a position with respect to a conference decision. Since only a few representatives of that congregation were directly involved in the conference decision, the issue has to be faced and resolved again at the local level. Then the recommendations of one or a few respected members who interpret the meaning of the conference decision to the congregation exercise considerable influence over that congregation. Depending on the recommendation of the “hidden” local leaders, the congregation may give enthusiastic endorsement to that decision, reject it, or simply ignore it and treat it as if it has no relevance for them. In short, the conference decision needs the full support of the hidden leaders to be effective; less than full support from these hidden leaders will reduce if not neutralize its effectiveness. The official, formal leaders need to be cognizant of this informal network of hidden but active and potent leadership. {18}

In conclusion: We have described leadership as a product of group activity as much as an individual activity. The group through its active or passive involvement influences, to a considerable extent, the type and quality of leadership it gets. We further claimed that modern societies, and along with them our churches, have gradually shifted leadership styles to the legal-rational approach which distributes limited leadership functions over a larger group of partial leaders. As a consequence, the undisputed, authoritative leader in all spheres of organizational endeavor is a rare if not extinct phenomenon. Task-oriented and socio-emotional leadership were compared and contrasted and the need for both types emphasized. Lastly, attention was drawn to the informal “hidden” leaders whose functions are far-reaching in either implementing or neutralizing organizational objectives.


  1. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: The Free Press, 1947), Part III.
  2. See, for example, D. Cartwright and A. Zander, eds., Group Dynamics: Theory and Research (Row, Peterson and Company, 1953); and P. Hare, E. Borgatta, and R. F. Bales, eds., Small Groups: Studies in Social Interaction (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).
  3. See, for example, R. F. Bales, Interaction Process Analysis (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1950).
Henry J. Regehr teaches sociology at Wilfred Laurier University while continuing to work on his doctoral dissertation. An earlier article of his, “Patterns of Leadership in the Mennonite Brethren Conference,” appeared in Direction 1 (October 1972), 112-121.

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