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


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Recognizing Ourselves

When we start shooting one another or even vilifying one another by categories, it is time to go back to original things. The creation account in Genesis asserts that every human being is made in the image of God.  We are all kin to one another; there should be a deep resonance among us. If we don’t recognize ourselves in others—however different they might be, then we are not seeing other people as God sees them.

I arrived at a community meeting about rehabbing a block of vacant houses and found that I was an hour early.  I was walking back to my car to listen to the radio and wait.  I was preoccupied contemplating the amount of time I had wasted, how I could have enjoyed a more leisurely dinner if I had paid better attention to the phone message.

Just as I walked under the light of a street lamp, a young black man stepped out of the shadows of the building.  He startled me, and I yelped.  He too drew back a bit, not expecting me to be there.  We stood there face to face, less than two feet apart, looking into one another’s eyes.  He blurted out:  “It’s O.K., I was just lighting a cigarette out of the wind.”  I responded:  “No problem, you just startled me.”  We stood there with our eyes locked continuing to assure one another that all was good.
A whole other conversation took place through our faces.  This was not a block to be avoided at night, but there were blocks close by that were not so peaceful.  Considerations of safety and harmony were always on people’s minds. We both lived in a society that said I, as a white guy, should be a bit leery young black urban males; he was certainly aware of this.  Society often told him that I did not have his best interest at heart.  It was within this context that we stood face to face under a pool of light on a dark city street.

I wanted to communicate to him that he had simply surprised me.  I reacted without thinking or even clearly seeing who he was.  I wanted him to know that I did not see him as my enemy.  I sensed from his eyes that he wanted to communicate to me that he was not threat.  There was nothing I had that he wanted.  He was just trying to light a cigarette on a windy street.  This is what I sensed passing between us, both of us feeling awkward.  I was aware of our common humanity and vulnerability in that moment.  I felt our shared need to be understood and accepted.  Both of us were simply trying live our lives in peace.
There is so much in our society that tries to set us against one another, to say for one group to get ahead another group must be diminished.  The creation account denies this lie.  It teaches that we are all kin to one another.  For any of us to live fully into God’s plan for our life, our neighbor must have that same opportunity.  At the core of our being we are kin to one another.
White folks and black folks, protestors and police officers, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, we are all in this together. If we choose sides and build walls, we are each damaging a piece of who were created by God to be; we are less than whole human beings.  Human beings are not the natural enemies of other human beings.  This is an aberration we introduce into creation because we fail to see the image of God in that other person.  Sometimes that image is, admittedly, buried pretty deeply and a bit malformed; but it is there.  The Bible says so.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, July 15, 2016

Trust Must be Built

She sat in my office, clearly having something to say; I had been at the church about six months.  She said:  “Dr. Kelsey, I will support you.  I will follow you, but I will never trust.” Life had taught her that ministers were not trustworthy; too often she had felt disappointed and betrayed.  I determined that day that I would earn her trust.
A part of my job is listening to churches and pastors talk about their relationship with one another.  Sometimes it is going very well, other times—not so well.  I have come to believe that the critical element in a healthy productive partnership between pastor and people is trust.
If there is trust, then failures and disagreements, challenges and setbacks, poor sermons and belt tightening can all be endured.  If there is not trust, then even the smallest issue can escalate into a major problem.
This is why pastoral misconduct is so devastating to a congregation. It undermines that most basic foundation of a shared ministry: trust.  We see ministers as “safe” people, people who will care for us and advocate for us.  So we open ourselves up to them.  Then when they betray our trust, the wounds are deep; and we find it difficult to trust the next one.
Trust that is destroyed must be deliberately rebuilt through a candid facing of what has happened and discussion with those affected.  Burying it simply magnifies the power of the hurt.
Trust can be built through honest conversations about sometimes uncomfortable topics.  Trust is built by making sure the other person understands us.  It is often forged less by the words we speak than by the tone and what it reveals about us and our intentions.  Transparency and vulnerability and goodwill speak louder than any words we might say.
Pastors must often earn trust from congregants, and sometimes congregations must earn the trust of a pastor.  Congregants are not the only ones who have been hurt.  This process is moved along by living honestly, patiently, and transparently before one another.  Yes, that can be risky; but it is the path to wholeness.
I did earn that woman’s trust.  I finally walked with her through a devastating personal tragedy; that tipped the scales in my favor.  It was not easy, but it was deliberate.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State