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How to Cultivate Leadership Reliability

The year my first daughter turned 12 was a doozy.

A lot was changing in her world, and it’s hard moving into adolescence. Not only was she entering into middle school and a new phase of church life by participating in youth group, but she was beginning to experience the changes to body and brain that begin in puberty.

Most of the time — maybe 90% of the time — she was still the sweet, kind girl that we had come to know. 

But that other 10%? 

Whoa, nelly.

That other 10% was like some kind of “body snatchers,” where she was a complete psycho. Big emotional swings, freaking out, and nearly impossible to reason with. Of course, my wife and I didn’t always handle it well, which often raised the temperature in these already heated moments.

Everything that she was experiencing was normal. But it introduced a new dynamic into our previously steady home: unpredictability.

My wife and I would often ask each other, “Which version are we going to get today?” Not a fun way to live.

For most ministry leaders, the changes of puberty are far back in the rearview mirror. 

But, like an adolescent, some leaders remain unpredictable — whether in their emotional regulation or even just their professional conduct. And few things take a toll on followers like constantly wondering, “What version are we going to get today?”

The Importance of Reliability

In his outstanding book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger describes how the task of ministry leadership is getting much more difficult. 

He compares modern ministry to the adventures of Lewis & Clark, men who were looking for the “Northwest Passage,” a river that most people believed would connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, opening up a fast-track for international trade. 

Lewis & Clark were recruited for their water skills and expertise with a canoe. They find themselves hitting the Rocky Mountains, however, where all the canoeing skill in the world won’t make much difference. Their new experiences were “off the map” and unlike what anybody imagined. 

Bolsinger argues that ministry in today’s rapidly changing world is “off the map” leadership. Pastors and leaders have to help people navigate uncharted territory and live faithfully as God’s people in a wildly new world.

Now, according to Bolsinger, here’s the key: 

No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map. Before people will follow you off the map, gain the credibility that comes from demonstrating competence on the map.

In other words, you have to be a reliable leader in the areas people know about if you’ll ever take them into new territory. 

Three Areas to Demonstrate Reliability

1. Basic Ministry Skills. 

Leaders develop credibility and trust through doing the basics well. Every now and then a star athlete will make a spectacular play, bending or twisting their body in some way that nobody has seen before. But what makes that possible is that the star athlete has mastered the fundamentals. Playing consistently over time is crucial.

In ministry, there are some key skills that you must be developing:

  • Preaching & public speaking — almost all ministry leadership eventually requires standing in front of a group of people to teach or preach or cast vision. Develop the skill to be biblically accurate, practically helpful, easy to follow, and engaging. 
  • Asking questions — good shepherds develop the skill of asking questions with curiosity, insight, and active listening. If people experience a leader who frequently asks good questions, they will come to trust the leader.
  • Discipling new believers — all ministry leaders should be able to help establish a new Christian in the basics of the faith. New believers need fundamentals of doctrine, practice, habits, and rhythms of grace, and leaders should be competent in helping them.
  • Answering theology questions — not every pastor needs to be ready to start a “Bible answer man” podcast, but people need to know that they can come to you with tough questions. A leader who can help people navigate their questions is perceived as reliable and trustworthy.
  • Entry-level counseling — one way that many church members experience a pastor is in basic counseling or seeking of spiritual advice. Pastors can and should demonstrate reliability in these moments, offering sound wisdom, communicating clearly, and demonstrating the grace and truth of Jesus.
  • Doing the official “pastor stuff” — the fancy word for this is “sacerdotal functions,” but it’s reliably facilitating worship services, administering sacraments, conducting rituals, offering public prayers, and officiating weddings and funerals. These are the basics of public ministry and we should be competent. 

Now, it’s important to say that you’re not Jesus and you’re not perfect. That’s OK.

None of us need to be world-class in any of these. But we need a passing grade. We need to be reliable.

2. Overall Professionalism

Some may bristle at this, thinking that “professionalism” is about the church operating like a business in the marketplace. That’s not what professionalism is about at all.

People don’t expect the church to be a business. But they do expect their pastor to have at least the basic courtesies and demonstrations of being a grown up that they would experience in their workplace. 

Pastors demonstrate reliability when they are professional about:

  • Email, text, and phone communication — respond in a timely manner. Use good spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Have a voicemail greeting that doesn’t sound like you’re trying to make your middle school buddies laugh.
  • Appropriate dress — this is highly cultural and contextual, but make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the right moments. Running to the grocery store on the weekend? Gym shorts are fine. Having a meeting about the ministry? Try pants. You’ll know it’s appropriate when nobody notices what you’re wearing.
  • Punctuality and organization — nobody likes getting stood up on meetings. Be on time, be organized, and be responsible. Folks who minimize this develop a reputation for being unreliable.  

Be yourself. But be a professional version of yourself.

3. Personal Consistency

A reliable leader is well described by words like “integrity” or “congruence.” These leaders are trustworthy because they are consistent in a variety of spaces, with a variety of people. They are the same person across the board. 

Anyone can “turn it on” for the big moment. But leaders that people follow — especially into the unknown — are leaders who have demonstrated that they are reliably consistent. 

So pay attention to your life (1 Tim 4:16). Notice areas where you’re inconsistent or incongruent with your core personal values. Pay attention to places in life where you’re tempted to fudge the truth or do things that are out of line with your character.

People often act like their lives are a TV dinner, with each aspect of life compartmentalized and not touching the other areas. If the peas go bad, well, just eat the other stuff. But life is really more like a chicken-pot-pie, where every part is interconnected. The peas go bad and, well, it’s all bad and can’t be eaten.

This is why leaders must pursue integrity, character, and personal consistency.


There’s so much at stake in a world that needs Jesus. The church needs us to be reliable leaders, who can be trusted in the ordinary stuff of life and ministry — so that we can be faithful guides on mission into the unknown.

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