Why Transactional Leadership Harms the Church


In the business world, people can be treated like commodities. They are hired for their skills, retained only if they provide value, and fired when they fail to meet standards. Many business leaders refer to this mindset as a style of leadership – transactional leadership – and believe that certain business roles benefit from this style.

But whatever the pros and cons of this style in business, we believe that a culture of transactional leadership is fundamentally wrong among church leaders.

Appreciated only for productivity

It wasn’t until after I (Bryce) left vocations ministry that I realized how transactional our church culture was. It had all the appearance of something unique: as church leaders, we went on retreats, entertained each other for meals and prayed together; it seemed like people cared about me as a person. But when I stepped away from church business, I was confronted with the transactional nature of leadership.

Whatever the pros and cons of this style in business, we believe that a culture of transactional leadership is fundamentally wrong in the church.

Four months passed before an elder called me to see how I was doing. There are several reasons why someone might not call. I know they were busy (a sure sign of a transactional team), but it made me wonder if I had ever been taken care of personally or was only valued for my productivity.

After this realization, I cried. As executive pastor in charge of church affairs, I asked about my role in facilitating transactional culture. A performance-oriented team wasn’t what I wanted to promote, but looking back I can see how I was involved in building the machine. I did not insist that we know our members personally. And when I had the opportunity, I didn’t back down from 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 authenticity:

1. Transactional leadership prioritizes results over relationships.

It is normal for churches to track conversions, baptisms, attendance, donations and volunteers. But transactional leadership prioritizes measurable results in a way that diminishes the ownership of people.

In business, visible numbers are defined as outputsbut these are not the results an organization is working towards. There is an important distinction. Pure numbers are never the long-term results an organization most desires.

Church leaders are called to equip the saints, building up the body to grow in unity to full maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). These are the results of the church, and to get there, the ministry must be rooted in a family friendship that leaders share. When a church leadership team is healthy, engaging together in kingdom service creates synergy, lightens a leader’s burden, models a unified community for church members, and fulfills the commandment of Jesus to love.

2. Transactional leadership prioritizes performance over authenticity.

In a healthy church, leaders have honest, real relationships without predetermined outcomes, hidden agendas, or fear of disagreement. They are genuine and open to each other even when directional decisions are hotly contested. With Paul, healthy leaders can say, “We spoke freely. . . and we have opened our hearts to you” (2 Cor. 6:11, NIV).

In business, visible numbers are defined as outputsbut these are not the results an organization is working towards. There is an important distinction.

Paul boasted of his weakness so that Christ could be exalted (2 Cor 12), but transactional leaders are reluctant to admit limits. Only successful leaders are valued. There are few investments to help underperformers grow. If you can’t keep up, you’re out.

This focus on rewards for results produces a fear of failure in both ministry leaders and volunteers who serve in transactional church ministry. You’ll see it when instead of keeping it real, staff and leaders overstate productivity metrics, compete for recognition, live with ongoing anxiety, and eventually burn out.

Is your church transactional?

Does your church have a culture of transactional leadership? Here are some 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 they tried to point out the failures of the culture? If so, your leadership team may be unaware of its transactional reality.

What about when members leave? Do you know – or do you even want to know – why people left? Did you reach out and ask? A transactional culture avoids reporting negative metrics, so often members leave, and no one knows or cares why. The attitude of leaders towards those who have left is “let’s move on”. There is no pause to understand and learn from their departure.

2. Do you focus on shepherding staff and members?

Do your staff and elders meetings focus on shepherding staff and members spiritually, ethically, and relationally? This issue is at the heart of practical 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 members’ needs. Such leaders care more about feeding the sheep than feeding them.

What about staff and leadership? Do you take the time to invest in it, or does the hectic activity and hectic pace of ministry leave little time for the important work of personal development? Do those who are prepared and productive take precedence over mentorship from enthusiastic learners?

3. Do you ignore problems or solve them?

Are we willing and able to deal directly with interpersonal conflicts or character failures, or do we want to move past the mess without having to clean it up? A transactional leadership team doesn’t tackle problems and boundaries because it emphasizes public persona, speaking ability, and quantifiable results rather than attention, presence, and honesty. Unfortunately, when we set aside debilitating limitations and deep character flaws, they wreak havoc in the lives of others.

How to approach a transactional culture?

Transactional cultures are difficult to change. The typical response is to change the structure of a staff, but this move fails because the culture is deeper. Although the scaffolding may seem new, the transactional ethics remain intact. Structural changes leave in place leaders whose hearts and philosophies of ministry are central to the results-based mindset.

Instead, the leaders themselves, having been made aware of the ethos (which is not an easy recognition), must change. It takes listening to what current and former leaders and members have gone through, 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 church loyalty more than “results”.


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