• Is It Better to Be Loved or Feared? Three Lessons from Machiavelli for Church Leaders

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Do you want to be loved as a leader? The Italian thinker Machiavelli long ago asked the question: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. His response is this: “The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.” These words may not sit well with most of us in church leadership, but here are three lessons I find in this challenge from Machiavelli:

1.    Don’t make being loved your primary goal. Sure, people often love their pastors and ministry leaders. But if that is your highest motivation for being in ministry, you’ll find it hard to make progress, and the ministry will suffer.

2.    Keep an appropriate distance from your followers. To be “feared” as a leader doesn’t mean people have to be overtly afraid of you, but they do need to respect you and your position. One of my predecessors in the church I served as pastor took a stand from the pulpit on a controversial issue. Someone stormed up to her afterwards and said, “If you ever do that again, I will take the pulpit and answer you.” “Not from my pulpit you won’t,” she declared. In that instance she was very clear on the boundaries between herself and her followers. In fact, she was also deeply loved by the people of that church—it is possible, sometimes, to accomplish both.

3.    Make necessary decisions. The inability to make a tough decision because it seems “mean” or “cruel” can in fact lead to organizational disorder and chaos that can take years to recover from. My colleague Israel Galindo suggests that the firing of unproductive employees can be a good first step for an incoming leader. He says, “It helps the system know that there's someone in charge and actually, tends to be a favor to the unmotivated worker. The most important benefit, however, is to communicate to the BEST people in the system that you value their work and will not tolerate underachievers.”

If we are driven by the need to be loved, our effectiveness as leaders is compromised. We cannot give people the challenge they need to grow. As delightful as it is to be loved by followers, it must be a secondary goal, as Machiavelli understood centuries ago. It is more important to lead than to be loved.


Rev. Margaret Marcuson works with churches that want to create a ministry that lasts and clergy who want more impact on the people they serve best. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury, 2009). She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts for thirteen years. Get the free mini-course, "Five Ways to Avoid Burnout in Ministry" at http://margaretmarcuson.com/.
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    The three lessons are strongly against my life teachings and serving as a teacher/leader. R. A. Burns, Pastor (retired, but re-fired)
Margaret Marcuson

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Margaret Marcuson
Rev. Margaret Marcuson works with churches that want to create a ministry that lasts and clergy who want more impact on the people they serve best. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury, 2009). She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts for thirteen years.
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