Transparency in Church Leadership: Choosing not to lead with our fear or our anxiety

(My thoughts here are a work in progress….)

In my early years of priesthood I read every book and article I could find on the qualities of good leadership. I gobbled up books from the Alban Institute: Peter Steinke, Roy Oswald, and Susan Beaumont. I read Diana Butler Bass as if her words were candy, sweetening the leadership tool bag with sociological data on the changing religious landscape. I read Rob Voyle and learned about Appreciative Inquiry and, with my masters in Social Work, I value his emphasis on building on strengths. I took workshops with and read books by Kennon Callahan on the twelve steps to effective church leadership.  I read Ronald Heifetz’s books “Leadership on the Line” and “Leadership without Easy Answers” and underlined something on almost every page. Not one of those resources from the early 2000’s makes any reference to “transparency” as a requirement in leadership. Managing conflict, being adaptive, having a sense of purpose, delegating effectively, listening to those in relationship with the leadership, determining the strengths of the church/congregation, taking care of one’s self to avoid burn-out, and navigating the reality that church leadership is not the same as corporate leadership – despite some similarities – are some of the topics discussed. Transparency it seems is a very current topic and subject of leadership.


Decades of abuse and corruption in corporate, institutional church, and politics are the impetus of for this cry for transparency. People are rightly skeptical of all voices of authority. Transparency is the corrective measure, with the hope that if all is revealed then trust can be fostered.


An extensive Google search revealed that transparency in church leadership essentially means the ability of the Pastor to be vulnerable from the pulpit. This level of transparency, of sharing life stories, makes the Pastor human, opens up conversation points, and builds trust. Transparency of finances is also a highly discussed topic as is the transparency needed whenever misconduct has occurred. However the nature and level of transparency that needs to be rendered by leadership teams who are navigating ordinary transitions in congregational life have not been adequately discussed. There is a tendency to think that transparency means that every aspect of every step of managing the church must be fully revealed as it is happening. This is one of the impacts of the digital age.


Paul D. Meyer, CAE ( writes about transparency on a corporate level but offers some concepts that may help in understanding transparency for the Church. He writes:


“Like most children, my five-year old son is extremely transparent. For example, he enjoys playing card games, especially Uno, but requires all players to keep their cards exposed. You might say we play a transparent game. From my son’s perspective, he cannot see playing the game any other way. If we attempt to hide our cards and play the game correctly, he assumes that we are cheating and holding back information. On the other hand, since all cards are exposed, he has learned how to manipulate the plays and direct the players’ activities. Playing this way takes a bit longer, but in the end someone wins, often my son.”


Transparency has its strengths and its limitations. Organizational transparency helps to foster trust and communicate discussions and actions. Keeping people informed invites greater participation, more ideas are generated. However Meyer states that transparency does not guarantee that the right decisions will be made nor will it prevent information from being misconstrued and manipulated.


There are at least five areas of concern regarding transparency in church leadership: financial, mission, day to day congregational life, personnel/staff, and pastoral.


Transparency in finances is simply good business practice and another effort to avoid fraud. Transparency in mission development is a good idea because the mission of a church is the mission of the people. In both these cases, communicate, communicate, communicate. Transparency in the ordinary daily organizational aspect of the church is usually pretty basic – but often ends up as part of the in-crowd knowledge. Helping people understand how to navigate the normal every day aspects of church life is crucial to gaining new members and growing the mission. Again, communication is crucial, especially communication that does not use “code” words known only to the particular community (narthex? Undercroft? Nave…for example). Transparency in personnel and pastoral concerns is trickier. Most pastoral concerns are managed behind closed doors and are confidential. How these issues are shared requires careful discernment, unless of course, there is abuse, and then it needs to be shared wisely and openly.


There are times when transparency needs to be managed carefully. Sometimes the timing in which transparency occurs happens after decisions have been made, not as decisions are being made.  There are situations when the leadership team needs to make some important decisions regarding staffing or particular aspects of mission which require significant discernment in order to form a consensus and a organize a direction.


Sometimes a situation is delicate; it involves real people and real job positions and confidentiality must be agreed upon in order to protect people from misinformation. Confidentiality is important too! Transparency in some situations can lead to increased anxiety, increased misinformation, and increased manipulation of the outcome. The leadership team needs time to consider the questions, ponder the options, look at the pros and cons of each option, and formulate a consensus. This is particularly true when the issue being considered is contentious or has the potential for conflict. The leadership team needs time to organize itself and then help the congregation do the same. If the situation is something people know about, then transparency in this case means that the leadership team assures the congregation that they are working on it and will present their understandings as soon as possible. When the team reveals their work to the congregation they reveal all aspects of it – the problem, the question, the options considered, the pros and cons, the end result, and why. Opportunities for the congregation to comment are made available even if the congregation’s responses will not alter the outcome.


Transparency does not mean that people are invited into every level of every discussion. Rather it means that people are provided with information that helps them understand what decisions have been made and what discussion took place in the decision making process. This information includes: what was the question being considered? What issues were discussed as the question was considered? What options were considered? What were the advantages and disadvantages of the options? What decision was finally made and why. Convey the information in a simple bullet point summary of the decision.


When and how leaders and leadership teams decide to be transparent does not guarantee that the outcome will be the best outcome. Life is always in flux, there are always many variables at play. There will always be anxious people who want to manipulate the outcome to meet their agenda. Effective leadership happens when the leaders themselves are not led by anxiety or fear but by a clear sense of purpose.





About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
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