The Hospitable Leader

Published April 11, 2019

As the lead pastor of The Life Christian Church in New Jersey, Terry A. Smith’s congregation is known for its vibrant diversity and robust leadership culture. He credits his ability to reach diverse people to his practice of radical hospitality, outlined in his new book The Hospitable Leader. We recently sat down with Terry to learn more.

GLN: You said The Hospitable Leader is an invitation to be part of the movement. Can you describe this movement and why you think leaders should join?

TERRY SMITH: When I talk about hospitable leadership, I’m encouraging leaders to understand how important it is to create an environment of welcome. You cannot influence people who haven’t been welcomed.

Jesus described His kingdom as a feast. I love this idea of a leader thinking about their leadership as a feast for their followers. What would it be like if all leaders had that idea?

But we fight against the pull of increasing polarization, which by definition is inhospitable. We feel it around every significant issue in our society. I think the answer is to shift the conversation. If we view leadership through the lens of hospitality, then we can sit at the table with all kinds of people to build bridges and accomplish amazing things together.

GLN: How can leaders diagnose a hospitality problem in their organizations?

SMITH: Here’s how I define hospitable leadership: A hospitable leader creates environments of welcome where moral leadership can more effectively influence an ever-expanding diversity of people. This definition gets at the importance of a hospitable environment. A hospitable environment is the precursor to the exercise of every kind of moral leadership. And the key metric to assess effectiveness is to ask yourself if you are influencing an ever-expanding diversity of people.

A hospitable leader creates environments of welcome where moral leadership can more effectively influence an ever-expanding diversity of people.

There are two key questions to diagnose your hospitality: 1) Is moral leadership occurring? 2) Is there an ever-expanding diversity in the types of people we are influencing?

GLN: Hospitable leadership has helped you successfully navigate through some potentially polarizing issues. What practice has helped you succeed?

SMITH: We always start with our values—and one of our values is hospitality. We love to welcome strangers. A key verse for us is Hebrews 13:1-2: Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. The Greek word in verse 1 is philadelphia, which means brotherly love. But the Greek word in verse 2 is philoxenia, which means the love of strangers. It is the opposite of xenophobia.

In culture today, we talk a lot about practicing philadelphia—loving people who are like us. But we can’t stay in philadelphia. We have to move to philoxenia and learn how to love strangers. Many of us settle for the low standard of tolerance—but this is not philoxenia. We need to encourage people to really do life with people who are not like themselves.

We practice this value in the way we do everything. I couldn’t imagine how small my life would be if I hung out with people who are just like me every day. We hold up this value and encourage people to get excited about being with people who aren’t like them. It’s just so expanding.

GLN: You argue that hospitality requires inclusivity, but it also requires the need to speak truth. Talk about how you have succeeded in this challenging balance.

SMITH: The best communicators start by identifying the things they have in common with their audience. But they are also great listeners. Assume that your audience is smarter than you, and that you have something to learn from them. Talk carefully, always listening, even as you speak. It doesn’t mean you say what they want to hear. That wouldn’t be leadership. But you’re saying it in a way that they want to hear it.

A few years ago, we had a guest at our church who worked on a late-night show that makes fun of people who have a Christian worldview. It just happened that my message that day dealt with a couple of societal issues that are very divisive. I addressed these issues carefully, yet at the same time did not compromise what I believed to be true according to scripture. After the service, this guy walked up to me and said, “I just want you to know I disagree with everything you said today, but I loved the way you said it. We’ll be back.” That was three years ago and they’re still coming to our church, listening to me speak and experiencing transformation in their lives.

GLN: How do you facilitate reciprocal candor in your organization?

SMITH: I’m a big fan of Jack Welch’s book Winning and one of his ideas is the importance of candor. I bought that book after hearing him speak at The Global Leadership Summit in 2010. Personally, I don’t have a problem speaking the truth in love to my staff to help them grow. However, they didn’t feel comfortable coming to me with the truth.

We went to work on the idea of reciprocal candor, where we hold up the value of the importance of truth, especially in a relationship where one person has more power.

Recently, I sat down with a new direct report for our first one-on-one. I said, “Do you feel comfortable telling me the truth? Sometimes people say they are intimidated by me. What can I do to make this easier for you? Help me create an environment in our relationship where you can practice candor with me and feel comfortable doing it and know that I will celebrate it. Our relationship won’t work if you don’t tell me the truth.”

GLN: Talk about why a hospitable culture actually can help people achieve their dreams.

SMITH: This is one of my favorite things in the whole world! The mission of our church is to inspire people to the life God dreams for them as we spread His love in ever-widening circles. A hospitable leader cares deeply about the dreams of their followers.

Inhospitable leadership is about helping the leader’s dreams come true. Hospitable leadership is about helping the followers’ dreams come true. If the dreams of their followers come first, and they sense the leader is behind them, then they will work harder to make the dreams of the leader or the organization come true.

Inhospitable leadership is about helping the leader’s dreams come true. Hospitable leadership is about helping the followers’ dreams come true.

I frequently say to my congregation, “I get up every day to help your dreams come true.”

People want to know why our church attracts so many high capacity leaders. Well, if our congregation believes my first priority as a leader is to serve them, it’s amazing the kind of people who want to be in that kind of environment.

To learn more about Terry Smith’s vision for Hospitable Leadership, check out his insightful book, The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People and Dreams Flourish.

About the Author
This is the author headshot of Terry Smith.

Terry A. Smith

Co-founder; Lead Pastor

The New York City Leadership Center; The Life Christian Church

Terry A. Smith is co-founder of The New York City Leadership Center and has served as Lead Pastor of The Life Christian Church for twenty-seven years. TLCC is known for its vibrant diversity and robust leadership culture, with people from more than 132 distinct communities in the New York City Metro area participating in the life of the church. A gifted communicator, Terry speaks in a variety of venues nationally and internationally. His books include Live Ten: Jump-Start the Best Version of Your Life and The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People and Dreams Flourish.

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