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3 Principles Church Leaders Can Learn from Machiavelli

Leaders with our churches are facing several challenges in the 21st century.

Our society is growing increasingly more secular, and religious belief has become privatized.

It seems like every week new information is released that shows that local churches are decreasing in size and influence.

For churches that aren’t decreasing in size, there are internal challenges, such as who is going to be in charge, that make it hard for them to effectively focus on fulfilling the Great Commission.

Leaders are also not happy, healthy or satisfied. The practice of leadership is not all that they thought it would be cracked up to be.

Where can leaders find sound advice on how to navigate the maze of challenges they face on a daily basis?

I believe they can find adequate words of wisdom from the philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli.

Machiavelli was an Italian statesman who made his living by writing books that dealt with political and social philosophy.

Many of his writings were geared toward instructing kings and princes on how to operate in hostile environments and rule their kingdoms effectively.

Much of his advice was controversial, self-centered, divisive and manipulative.

In spite of Machiavelli’s personal flaws, he had the best interests of leaders in mind when he wrote. His goal was to get leaders to operate in reality and not fantasy.

He wanted them to lead their groups, countries and organizations in the reality of “the is” and not “the ought.”

He wanted leaders to make decisions based on the social and political realities of the times and not on what they hoped or wished life was like.

When he used the terms “is” and “ought,” he was referring to knowing and understanding the inherent differences between the perceptions and realities that follow any attempts to serve the spiritual and physical needs of people. Machiavelli knew that serving people is not always easy.

In his book, “The Prince,” he offers a comprehensive plan on how to lead organizations through times of transition and challenge.

I think three of his recommendations are especially relevant to leaders within the local church.

1. Leaders should be willing to learn from the experiences of others.

Leaders, regardless of titles, are not all knowing. They should seek out ways to learn from the experiences of other people.

When leaders take the time to learn from the successes and failures of others, they gain the ability to see the situations and circumstances that they face in a different light and realize that there are many options for them to choose from in order to solve problems.

2. Leaders should prepare for the various challenges that come from implementing change.

People and systems don’t always respond positively when new initiatives are implemented.

When leaders are willing to have the mindset that challenges are opportunities to improve themselves and their organizations, they are able to face them head on without wasting precious time or resources.

3. Leaders should surround themselves with a diverse capable staff and to let them use their gifts and abilities for the benefit of the organization.

When leaders surround themselves with co-workers who are astute as they are, they all are challenged to improve themselves, and by default they improve the performance of their organization.

The organization also benefits from the accumulated history and experience of a staff that, due to diversity of experience, can handle most situations that will arise.

These three suggestions are not a cure-all for everything that ails our churches and para-church organizations, but they are the beginning of a positive plan that can help move them in the right direction.

Terrell Carter is a staff member for Central Baptist Theological Seminary and an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He is the author of “Walking the Blue Line: A Police Officer Turned Community Activist Provides Solutions to the Racial Divide” and “Machiavellian Ministry: What Faith-Filled Leaders Can Learn from a Faithless Politician.” A version of this column first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. Carter’s writings can also be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.