In the business world, people can be treated like commodities. They’re hired for skills, retained only if they bring value, and let go when they don’t perform to standards. Many business leaders see this mindset as a style of leadership—transactional leadership—and believe certain business roles benefit from the style.
But whatever the pros and cons of this style in business, we believe a transactional leadership culture is fundamentally wrong among leaders in the church.
Only Valued for Productivity
Only after I (Bryce) left vocational ministry did I realize how transactional our church culture was. It had all the appearances of something unique: as church leaders, we went on retreats, hosted one another for meals, and prayed together; it seemed like people cared for me as a person. But when I stepped away from the business of the church, I was confronted by the leadership’s transactional nature.
Whatever the pros and cons of this style in business, we believe a transactional leadership culture is fundamentally wrong in the church.
Four months went by before an elder called to see how I was doing. There are many reasons someone might not call. I know they were busy (a sure sign of a transactional team), but it left me wondering if I’d ever been cared for personally, or if I was only valued for my productivity.
After this realization, I grieved. As the executive pastor tasked with the church’s business, I asked questions about my role in facilitating the transactional culture. A performance-driven team wasn’t what I wanted to promote, but looking back, I can see how I participated in building the machine. I didn’t insist we know our members personally. And when I had the opportunity, I didn’t push back against growth for growth’s sake.
What’s Wrong with Transactional Leadership?
A transactional church leadership culture has two fundamental problems. This culture prioritizes results and performance over relationships and genuineness:
1. Transactional leadership prioritizes results over relationships.
It’s normal for churches to track conversions, baptisms, attendance, giving, and volunteers. But transactional leadership prioritizes measurable results in a way that diminishes the care of people.
In the business world, visible numbers are defined as outputs, but they’re not the outcomes an organization works toward. There’s an important distinction. Pure numbers are never the long-term outcomes an organization most desires.
Church leaders are called to equip the saints, building up the body so that it grows in unity toward full maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–13). Those are the church’s outcomes, and to get there, ministry should be rooted in a familial friendship the leaders share. When a church leadership team is healthy, engaging in kingdom service together creates synergy, lessens the burden on any one leader, models unified community for church members, and fulfills Jesus’s command to love.
2. Transactional leadership values performance over genuineness.
In a healthy church, leaders relate to one another in an honest and real manner without predetermined outcomes, hidden agendas, or fear of disagreement. They are authentic and open with one another even when directional decisions are hotly contested. With Paul, healthy leaders can say, “We have spoken freely . . . and opened wide our hearts to you” (2 Cor. 6:11, NIV).
In the business world, visible numbers are defined as outputs, but they are not the outcomes an organization works toward. There’s an important distinction.
Paul boasted in his weakness so Christ might be exalted (2 Cor. 12), but transactional leaders shy away from admitting limits. It’s high-performing leaders alone they appreciate. There’s little investment to help those who underperform to grow. If you can’t keep up, you’re sidelined.
This emphasis on rewards for results produces a fear of failure in both ministry leaders and in volunteers who serve in a transactional church’s ministry. You’ll see it when instead of keeping it real, staff and leaders overreport productivity metrics, compete for recognition, live with ongoing anxiety, and eventually burn out.
Is Your Church Transactional?
Does your church have a transactional leadership culture? Here are a few diagnostic questions for leaders.
1. Are you losing healthy leaders and members?
When leaders leave, what do they say about their leadership experience? Were they ostracized when trying to point out failures of the culture? If so, your leadership team may be ignoring its transactional reality.
What about when members leave? Do you know—or even want to know—why people have left? Have you reached out and asked? A transactional culture avoids reporting negative metrics, so often members leave, and no one knows or cares why. The leaders’ attitude toward those who’ve left is “let’s move on.” There’s no pause to understand and learn from their leaving.
2. Do you focus on shepherding staff and members?
Do your staff and elder meetings focus on shepherding staff and members spiritually, ethically, and relationally? This question gets at the heart of concrete care and concern for member discipleship. Transactional leaders exploit members for their gifts—what they can get out of them—rather than seeking to serve and meet the members’ needs. Such leaders care more about feeding on sheep than feeding them.
What about staff and leaders? Are you taking time to invest in them, or has the feverish activity and frenetic pace of ministry left little time for the important work of personal development? Do those who are prepared and productive take precedence over mentoring eager learners?
3. Do you ignore problems or address them?
Are we eager and able to deal forthrightly with interpersonal conflict or character failures, or do we want to move beyond the mess without having to clean it up? A transactional leadership team doesn’t address problems and limitations, because they’re emphasizing public persona, speaking ability, and quantifiable results more than care, presence, and honesty. Sadly, when we let debilitating limitations and deep character flaws go, they wreak havoc in others’ lives.
How Do We Address a Transactional Culture?
Transactional cultures are difficult to change. The typical response is to modify a staff’s structure, but this move fails because culture is deeper. While the scaffolding may look new, the transactional ethos remains untouched. Structural changes leave leaders in place whose hearts and ministry philosophies are at the core of the results-driven mindset.
Instead, leaders themselves, after being made aware of the ethos (not an easy recognition), must change. It takes listening to what current and former leaders and members have experienced and then adopting new habits and practices that prioritize people over performance. The good news is that Christ invites leaders to be transformed. Because he loves us, we have nothing to prove. We can embrace transparency, and value faithfulness to the church more than “results.”