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The Priest as Leader-Manager

“The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” – Peter Drucker

Among the long list of unique skills, professional training, highly specialized knowledge and countless trivia and details a parish priest must master, at least two essential functions make all the rest of it work: effective leadership and good management.

In common parlance the terms leader and manager are often used interchangeably. It’s true that they do share some common characteristics but each also has unique features. The leadership element is immediately and visibly apparent in a priest – he wears a uniform! Every week his leadership is on display and under full review: presiding at the liturgy, teacher of the faith and preacher to the faithful. Attired in vestments, a collar and a cross, he stands as eschatological symbol of the ultimate purpose of life – loving and serving God and others. A priest ostensibly also leads through good example and therefore, with moral authority. Though all priests fall short of the ethics of the gospel, still all priests struggle to live according to the gospel.

Though a priest may delegate many managerial responsibilities to a second priest, a deacon, an office manager or a parish administrator, he simply cannot delegate leadership, for if he does this the parish is without the helmsman that they need. Interestingly though, many of the best leader/priests learn to share leadership responsibilities with others – the parish council chairperson, the chair of the strategic planning committee, the chair of the parish council governance committee, heads of organizations, etc.

One of the most significant challenges for a parish priest is to distinguish between leadership and management because he must function well in both modalities – a very difficult task indeed. He needs to be cognizant of which hat he has on and if it is the proper one for the task at hand. Only in larger parishes do we find these functions allocated to at least two different people. There will always be one senior priest but there might be several managers and some managers with partial leadership responsibility.

Leadership and management are complementary and one cannot function effectively without the other. Any effort to completely separate the two would be a mistake. Simply stated, the leader’s job is to inspire and motivate; the manager’s job is to plan, organize and coordinate. Perhaps the comparisons and contrasts found below will assist a priest or parish council to sort out the duties or provide some insight into whom to hire if a manager is sought.

  • The leader innovates; the manager administers.

  • The leader is an original; the manager is a copy.

  • The leader develops; the manager maintains.

  • The leader focuses on people; the manager focuses on systems and structure.

  • The leader inspires trust; the manager relies on control (not in a bad way).

  • The leader has a long-range perspective; the manager has a short-range view.

  • The leader asks what and why; the manager asks how and when.

  • The leader’s eye is on the horizon; the manager has his eye always on the bottom line.

  • The leader originates; the manager imitates.

  • The leader challenges the status quo; the manager accepts it.

  • The leader is his own person; the manager is the classic good soldier.

Though most people are born with some leadership type genes in their DNA, very few actually receive formal training in leadership and are given the opportunity to develop these traits into effective skills.

Experts say that there are two types of people who cannot become leaders no matter how much training and coaching is received – those with low mental capacity because leadership requires the ability to think logically and rationally; and those who are simply lazy – they are unwilling to get up and commit themselves to the work that leadership requires – its far beyond the normal workday.

Leadership means taking initiatives that challenge inertia, complacency and what St. Basil called, “the tyranny of custom.” This means that there will be an emotional price to pay, for effective leadership requires envisioning, creating, innovating, inspiring, challenging, planning and developing. If the emotional (and sometimes physical) “price” of leadership is doubted, check out how people responded to the leadership of Moses, the prophets, Jesus or St. Paul.

The nature of parish life and daily priestly tasks together with the “burden and the blessings” of the centuries of church development inexorably channel priests into a managerial disposition. Combine this with no formal training in leadership and the emotional price that is exacted in facilitating meaningful change and it’s easy to understand why many priests opt for a managerial orientation to parish service or simply fall into it as what priests are expected to do.

In the secular business world leaders’ and managers’ roles have changed remarkably quickly since the age of information. In the industrial age it was possible to clearly separate leaders and managers. A foreman in a factory probably wasn’t required to think much beyond what was being produced or the people that were producing it. His job was to follow orders, organize the work, assign the right people to the necessary tasks, coordinate the results, and ensure the job got done as ordered. The focus was on efficiency. In recent times, however, where value comes increasingly from the knowledge of people, management and leadership are not so easily separated. People look to their managers, not just to assign them a task, but to define for them a purpose. And managers must organize workers, not just to maximize efficiency, but to nurture skills, develop talent and inspire results. In developed countries workers’ primary motivation is less and less about putting food on the table for their family and more and more about personal fulfillment and a purposeful life.

Consider women volunteers in parish life. Though certainly always individuals with unique interests and talents, for many generations they were often defined and involved by function. “The ladies are in the kitchen cooking for the festival.” Today, when there are more women going to college than there are men and in a time when women pursue professional careers almost as frequently as men do, the challenge for both a leader and a manager, whether man or woman, is to find meaningful volunteer opportunities for women and purposeful involvement in parish life. The late management guru Peter Drucker identified the emergence of the “knowledge worker,” and the profound differences that would cause in the way business and nonprofits were organized. With the rise of the knowledge worker, “one does not ‘manage’ people,” Mr. Drucker wrote. “The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

In parish life, leadership is associated with bringing a parish into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully developing those opportunities so that the community – in values, actions, priorities and programs – is more and more closely emulating the life of the church as revealed in the pages of holy scripture and in the lives of the saints – a personal and corporate movement that leads to acquiring more and more of the Holy Spirit.

Leadership is about vision, about people embracing the vision, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing meaningful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behavior. And in an ever-faster-moving world, rapidly secularizing culture, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a parish.

Management is a set of well-known processes, like planning, budgeting, defining volunteer opportunities, staffing, measuring performance and problem-solving. These help a parish to create an environment where the church can dependably do what it knows how to do already very well to sanctify time, space, creation and most of all – people.

Good management helps to deliver services (pastoral care, programs, education, etc.) that have been promised, of consistent quality, on budget, day after day, week after week. This includes sacramental life, good teaching, excellent pastoral care, programs that inspire and motivate, all offered in a spiritually rich, safe and diverse community life. In parishes of any size and complexity, this is an enormously difficult task. We constantly underestimate how complex this managerial task really is. So, management is crucial — but it’s not leadership.

Very likely the priests or executive directors of Orthodox organizations who read this have had ample opportunity to test and explore their leadership quotient. Following is a Manager Self- Assessment exercise providing for them an opportunity to assess their managerial attributes – where they are strong and where they may need some help. Other items in the Library speak to leadership self-assessment.

Manager Attributes Self-Assessment

Look at each of the manager attributes listed below and think about where your attitudes and behavior fall on the five-part scale shown. Circle the score that best indicates your level of development. Then total the scores and compare your score with the comments at the bottom of the page.

Self-evaluation requires complete honesty with yourself. The only right answers are honest answers. Remember, you’re looking for information to guide your own self- improvement.


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