Transactional or Transformational Church Leadership?

Sam Rainer

August 13, 2008

In 1978 James MacGregor Burns published his seminal work, Leadership. This book shifted and shaped the paradigm on leadership studies. As a result of his work, researchers and biographers discussed less the character traits of leaders and focused more on the engagement of leaders with their followers for a common goal. Burns’ book focused primarily on the political sphere, but his leadership theories struck a chord with many. Other experts in the field quickly picked up Burns’ mantle, empirically measuring and validating the theory of what became transformational leadership that is popular today.

The main idea that Burns proposed was a differentiation between transactional and transformational leaders.

Transactional leaders utilize a social exchange to accomplish their goals. The example of politics is used frequently: you vote for me and I’ll do this for you. These leaders use a quid pro quo to lead. In the financial world, this exchange can take the form of incentives for productivity or disincentives for a lack of productivity. Those with the authority are able to offer something in exchange for a following. And they can take away things when followers don’t follow well.

Transformational leaders operate much differently. These leaders inspire people to reach for a common goal. They develop, train, and mentor future talent. They empower people to accomplish tasks. Creativity, transparency, and authenticity are valued. Leaders and followers alike know what the goal is and how to achieve it. These leaders show everyone the big picture and why it’s important.

For the most part, leaders should act in a transformational capacity. There are times for transactional leadership – a Sergeant under fire in a foxhole needs to use his authority without explaining the “big picture” to everyone. In general, however, the idea is to motivate people with a common purpose and not press them in a certain direction with power-wielding authority.

Unfortunately, I see too much transactional leadership in the church. It can take a couple of forms: autocratic pastors or power-hungry parishioners letting everyone know who pays the bills. Clearly, these two examples are polar extremes, but they do emerge in lesser degrees. The greater problem that occurs in many churches is the level of comfort derived from a transactional environment. A group of people give to the church; the pastor mollycoddles them. Faithful stewardship and caring for a flock are biblical, but an exchange for the two is not healthy.

Christ obviously exemplifies the best leadership practices. He is a servant-leader. His model is the one to follow. He is the one to follow. As servant-leaders, however, we can act in a transformational way. How can people within the church become more transformational? What helps create a transformational environment in the church? I’ve listed below a few examples.

Become a champion of the mission statement. Almost every church has a mission/purpose/values/vision statement. It may be several paragraphs long, but it is the rallying point for all ministries in the church. It may need some refining, but it is the common goal for the church. Run with it. Champion it. Memorize it. Tactfully show everyone how the ministries of the church fall under it. And use it as a means of making Christ-followers.

Celebrate conversions. What a great way to show everyone the “big picture” by throwing a huge party for anyone that comes to know Christ through the ministries of the church

Recognize publicly. Recognize people publicly when they do something creative or accomplish a significant goal. Most people like to be recognized when they accomplish something. Pastors and leaders should find a tactful way to let the church know when someone accomplishes a significant goal. This recognition will remind everyone what they are working for and encourage them to keep moving forward as a church.

Be a vocal supporter. Some of my favorite people within the church are the “quiet” supporters – those who send notes in the mail or place cards discretely on my desk while I’m not there. I cherish the joyful surprises of reading them. As much as church leadership needs quiet supporters, however, leaders also need vocal supporters. People willing to stand up in business meeting and say they are proud of the direction of the church. Members prepared to put their own neck on the line for the pastors and other leaders. And people who squelch backbiting when they hear it in Bible study classrooms or at church dinners.

What do you guys say? Any other suggestions for a transformational church environment?

18 comments on “Transactional or Transformational Church Leadership?”

  1. kdb1411 says:

    I wish that all church leaders would read this post. Great stuff. BTW, I read Essential Church. It is one incredible work. Thanks for the great research. You can tell your dad thanks too since he probably did a small part of the work.

  2. BJ says:

    This is a very good article . I enjoyed it .
    I have been to many churches  with the characteristics of both styles of leadership. In a Transactional church there are alot of politics. Sadly this is also the type of church leadership that causes splits and hard feelings within the church family. No one person or group should have the power to make the decisions for the church based on what they do for the church,how much they give to the church or how long they have been a member. Two questions to ask these people or groups are “who do you serve; meaning is this serving Jesus Christ and the church, or yourself”. And, “how will this effect the whole church; as the body of the church we all need each other, not one before the other.” These questions may get a strange look or a few choice words from them but they should be asked.
    A Senior Pastor in a Transformational church should do what he is hired to do. He is hired to “Lead” the church. A Senior Pastor is to guide the members to a better relationship with God and his Son Jesus Christ. He is to preach the gospel from the pulpit and live as he preaches setting an example for the members of the church. He is to set presidence through the mission statement so the church members know exactly what is expected of them. His purpose is to “tranform” the people into better Christian people,equiped with God’s Word so that they want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with thier neighbors and the people of the world !

  3. kdb1411 says:

    Those are two very good questions BJ. Thanks for the additional input.

  4. Sam Rainer says:

    kdb – Thanks for reading the book! And I’ll pass the word on to my father.

  5. Sam Rainer says:

    BJ – Thanks so much for your comments. Your heart and passion for the church are evident. I know your pastor is blessed to have someone like you in the congregation.

  6. Curt says:

    Great post. In my first church I was told by the former/retired minister that I just needed to accept the fact that there were a lot of politics involved in leading the church (definitely the transactional approach). I spent the better part of 6 years slowly drowning in a system that couldn’t and I don’t think wanted to do things any other way. Obviously that wasn’t the mentality of everyone but it was the mentality of the people “in charge”.

    In regards to the book — I haven’t read it yet but I’m looking forward to it. It sounds and looks like you’ve laid out a very simple, precise approach to help people understand the role and importance of the church in their lives.

  7. Dave says:

    I have enjoyed reading your thoughts. I find myself in a Transactional church that is ingrained with the idea that “we shall not be moved” mental state. I have been here over 5 years and had some but little success inmovingn the church forward. Don’t get me wrong we have made some progress in reching our community (simply by my families personal involvement and engaging the community) however most of my church members of the mindset: we pay you to the “work of the church” These are good people with good hearts, but with no motivation or intention to do anything at all for the Kingdom. I approached a mission statement / vision statment idea several years ago – but was in polite but firm terms told we have one the Great Commission and thats all we need. I responded with “well what are you doign about it?” No Answer or reply … I had spent some “credit” as they say and got noting in return. Not even the Pastor Search Committee (PSC)is supportative of trying to change things. They (PSC) had lofty dreams and high hopes but have failed to produce, because the ideas – gols and dreams of the PSC were far different than of those that really hold the “power” … I am tryig to be a Tranformational Pastor, but get weary in doing so. And on top of all that: a select group of “friends” have been trying for about 4 yrs to find me a “new place of ministry” by checking out the “pastor search sites” and submitting my name to various churches as a possible individual interested in their open Sr. Pastor position … this one of the dangers of the Internet these days, it use to be threatening letters “under the door – and unsigned” decades ago. What is this world coming to? Oh well … I enjoy following your thougths as well as a few others… Maybe someday – there will be a time when the Church “gets it together” and understands that all we are trying to do is lead them into a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ, exalting Him and leading them to reach the lost and dying of this earth, before its too late!…. Oh and BTW – that area of Indiana is great – I grew up in southern Indiana … Have a great day!

  8. 6th and Chestnut says:

    Great information. And I agree with kdb1411. Essential Church is really a good book. I am using it my church to help us shape the future. Thanks for your work.

  9. Its feels great to be in a trnasformational church a church among peoles feliings.Thanks for the great work may the Lord renew hyour strength.

  10. Hai thanks for the good work Last year i was blessed to be in a congregation back here in Kampala which was sturdying transformation.i woiuld like to encourage you its the way forward thanks alot and may the Lord bless you aboundantly

  11. Hallo I want to thank God for using people like you who have a massage which doesn’t divid the body of Christ. I’m in a church that is encouraging members to practice different gifts we have its been a grate experience for me to learn to serve other people instead of sitting and complaining and waiting to be Served. I wish all churches practice the same experience.

  12. Hallo I want to thank God for using people like you who have a massage which doesn’t divide the body of Christ. I’m in a church that is encouraging members to practice different gifts we have its been a grate experience for me to learn to serve other people instead of sitting and complaining and waiting to be Served. I wish all churches practice the same experience.

  13. Hai Sam,it’s been a while since we last communicated. The Lord is good the massage of transformation is a great one it’s human nature to resist change.hang on there there is light at the end of the turnal. God bless you.

  14. The way forward for the church in my country is ti embrace a paradigm shift and accept transformation

  15. Hey Sam,

    I realize this is an old post, don’t know if you will get this. I was asked recently to provide biblical examples of Transformational, Transactional, Avoidant (Bass) leadership. Avoidant and transformational are easy (Eli & Nehemiah are a couple of good examples), but thinking about Transactional. Thoughts?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Perhaps Israel’s push to have Saul crowned as king would fit loosely into transactional leadership. There was a clear social exchange as the people looked to human leadership instead of God’s leadership.

      1. Jim Culbertson says:

        Thanks Sam! That is a helpful consideration. Gideon may be another as he certainly approached things transactionally with God “if, then.” Perhaps Uzziah at the end of his life, Ahab and his prophets. Of course several dynastic leaders like Pharoah, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod. Next to nothing written about the transactional piece from a biblical characters perspective, either positive or negative. When I wrote, I was stuck. Thanks so much!

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