Monday, July 25, 2016

A Profile in Church Leadership

We hear a lot about leadership these days, particularly during a presidential campaign season.  Many thoughtful people have sifted through secular profiles of leadership and assessed their appropriateness for the church. 

Paul David Lawson, in his book Old Wine in New Wine Skins—Centering Prayer and Systems Theory, gives some guidance as to what qualities we need in our church leaders.  He writes that churches need leaders who are relational. Leaders and members mutually affect one another; they co-create one another in a way.  Therefore, relational skills are more important than great powers of speech or reservoirs of information.  Good leaders take responsibility for their influential role in the community and encourage members to do the same.  I think this is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he describes the church as a body of inter-related parts (1 Cor. 12:12ff.).  

Drawing upon the work of Edwin Friedman, Lawson catalogues some characteristics of good church leaders.  (1) They stay in touch with all the members of the congregation, not just the ones they enjoy or agree with or support them.  (2) Good leaders try to be nonreactive.  They act out of principle with a clear purpose.  Their reactions to others are thought based and not emotional venting.  I think of this as keeping in mind the “long game.” Good leaders ask:
       In what direction will my response push us? 
      What is our organizing goal and how am I contributing to this in a constructive way? 
      How will my action incrementally move us along to where we want to be? 
(3) Good leaders tolerate disagreements and stay focused on the merits of people’s positions and not on the person who takes these positions.

Finally, good leaders need to be prepared for sabotage and handle it in a nonreactive manner while staying in touch with the saboteur.  Good leaders know they will meet with resistance, and they do not take this personally.  They know that resistance is evidence that they are working with a living organization where people care about things.  Good leaders are able to adapt, to negotiate, to bend without breaking.  Lawson gives the following ministry tip:
Don’t care about the results.  [The good leader] can work with a number of different outcomes in any given situation and does not need to be emotionally invested in any particular result. Success ought not to be measured by winning or losing in any particular situation, but rather by the ability [the leader] has to work with any outcome (p. 53).
So why do we find it difficult, especially for pastors, to have this type of flexibility?  It has to do with what is called self-differentiation.  A self-differentiated person is one who knows who they are and maintains their self-image based upon their own assessment of themselves.  They certainly listen to others and process feedback, but finally their self-image is not simply a reflection how others see them.  Leaders need to be self-differentiated from their congregations as well.  They listen, and they process feedback.  But their sense of who they are is not an echo of what others think or say about them.

The scripture is clear: Jesus knew who he was.  In other words, he was well self-differentiated. Therefore he acted deliberately and purposefully and  was not reactive as he made his way through the world.  This gave to him the freedom to lead in a racially different way.
Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that the had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:3-5).
Our congregations need good leaders.  A good leader is not one who has all the answers or can fix everything.  A good leader is one who moves among us in a way that we grow into the people and congregations God wants us to be.  This type of leadership has more to do with who we are than with any portfolio of competencies we might have.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State