Dr. Rachael Lawrence

April 14, 2021

An homage to my doctoral advisor, Dr. Sharon F. Rallis, Professor Emerita, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“Schools are conservative, by nature, and few radical approaches have succeeded on a long-term basis” (Rallis & Highsmith, 1986). Sounds familiar, right? If schools are slow to change and adopt new methods, they possibly learned this tendency from their parent organization – the church. This was recently expressed by a pastor on Twitter, quoting Deborah Wright, “I graduated from Seminary thinking I was going to change the world. Then I tried to change the Bulletin.”[i] In schools, principals are charged with navigating the muddy waters between fiscal and human resource management; balancing conservation with demands for innovation; and leading the way for instruction. In churches, these roles are generally relegated to the pastor. In 1986, Rallis and Highsmith posed the following:

An effective principal has always been expected to keep a school running smoothly; now, the literature of effective schools demands that the principal also spend more time as an instructional leader – visiting classrooms and working with teachers. Should one person do both? Can one person do both well? (p. 300)

I invite you to consider the same question for a similarly complex job as school principal in the institution of the church: the pastor.

Rallis and Highsmith identified the key roles of the principal as 1) Developmental Leadership and 2) Maintenance Management. Consider how these same concepts apply to church leadership. “Developmental leadership requires:

  • vision,
  • a willingness to experiment and change,
  • the capacity to tolerate messiness,
  • the ability to take the long-term view, and
  • a willingness to revise systems.” 

They continue, “Maintenance management…requires:

  • oversight,
  • the use of proven methods,
  • orderliness, and
  • daily attention.” (p. 301) 

The roles that a pastor plays on a daily basis are similar. They are called to be visionary; they are asked to keep order and use tried and true formats and materials. They are called to innovate, and they are required to keep the cherished traditions of any individual church alive. They are called to take the long view; and they need to meet the day to day needs of congregants. Can one person do it all? Can that one person do it all well? I suspect we all know the answer to that is “no,” but this does not prevent people from expecting it from someone serving in leadership roles. And, pastors are among those people expecting everything on this list from themselves in their role.

Rallis and Highsmith’s classic article on school leadership, approaching its 35th birthday, remains highly relevant to those in institutional leadership roles today. Since their article, much has been written as attempts to simplify and clarify leadership roles in schools, and yet little has really changed over time. Concepts such as distributive leadership (Spillane, 2005), collective leadership (Leithwood & Mascall, 2008), and transformational leadership (Bass, 1999) may help leaders find ways of coping with the diverse demands of their roles by finding helpful partners to take on pieces of the responsibility. Since this article, extensive work has been done in research and scholarship about instructional leadership as an overt role of leaders – the research that led to the Rallis and Highsmith article was part of the foundation for a growing conversation on this role. Yet, we know that our institutions are conservative and cautious, slow to move when it comes to true and lasting change—which is why the article remains relevant for organizational leaders. 

Pastors are called to be visionary; they are asked to keep order and use tried and true formats and materials. They are called to innovate, and they are required to keep the cherished traditions of any individual church alive. They are called to take the long view; and they need to meet the day to day needs of congregants. Can one person do it all? Can that one person do it all well?

Understanding the seemingly conflicting leadership roles that pastors play, and how the conservative organizational nature of the church interacts with these roles, is essential in a climate in which the church has been, essentially, forced to change. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a time period in which the church and our leaders have had to respond with vision, innovative thinking, and a comfort with revising systems. And yet, the “proven method” and “orderliness” demands of the job persist. Congregations, naturally, want to get back to the normalcy of in-person services in short order – no matter how engaging of innovation has arisen from a church’s COVID response.

In letting go of the Myth of the Great Pastor, perhaps those of us who serve in this role could benefit from reminding ourselves that no matter our vision or skill, most institutions tend toward preservation. Many of us, during the pandemic, have felt as if we have had sole responsibility in helping others preserve relationships and connections; keeping opportunities for socializing and education available; and continuously improving online worship. Some of us have excelled in various aspects of these. However, we may forget that within this, we can’t assume all of the responsibility for success in all aspects of the job.

The pandemic has also highlighted our need to empower laity to join us in the duality of institutional preservation with vision and innovation. While a pastor likely cannot make personal contact with every member of their congregation on a weekly or even monthly basis, a team of laity can. Keeping board and committee meetings running is not the sole responsibility of the pastor as executive – chairs and lay leaders can help take on those responsibilities. The pastor does not have to be sole creator of educational opportunities in the church; rather, laity can surface ideas for engaging with each other to help keep their walks with Christ that they value alive. Like the teacher leadership and coaching models that emerged from the Rallis and Highsmith work (and others), the pandemic has presented an opportunity for lay leaders to step up to the plate and share in the core work of the institution.

The Great Pastor, in the sense that a single person can balance all of the demands of the work perfectly, is as much of a myth as The Great Principal. It is not to say that we cannot or should not strive for excellence, but a recognition by those we serve and ourselves that we cannot (and should not try to) do it all alone. As we emerge from the pandemic, let us all remember to be gentle and patient with our leaders (clergy and laity), as we navigate an environment that will once again demand innovation in preservation.

Rachael Lawrence, PhD, is acting pastor of Second Baptist Church, Suffield, Conn., and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also classical musician.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.


Bass, B. M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European journal of work and organizational psychology, 8(1), 9-32.

Leithwood, K., & Mascall, B. (2008). Collective leadership effects on student achievement. Educational administration quarterly44(4), 529-561.

Rallis, S. F., & Highsmith, M. C. (1986). The myth of the ‘great principal’: Questions of school management and instructional leadership. The Phi Delta Kappan68(4), 300-304.

Spillane, J. P. (2005, June). Distributed leadership. In The educational forum (Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 143-150). Taylor & Francis Group.

[i] https://twitter.com/CarolHoward/status/1360374431655288834


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