A number of years ago, I was very close to a young married couple with a small child who I knew from my church. I thoroughly enjoyed their company, and we spent practically every waking hour of the weekends together. We would make plans to go to museums, the zoo, air shows, shopping, and everything else that three adults and a toddler can do. It was a lot of fun—for about a year. I was finding that, as fond of them as I truly was, I also dreaded the Thursday night conversation after choir practice of ‘what are we doing on Saturday?’ I sometimes wanted a Saturday to do things that single women in their thirties might want to do (including just slobbing out with a book or cleaning my apartment).
In the course of a conversation with another single friend in her late forties, this concern came up, and she gave me an image that I found helpful. She said that a jar needs a lid, but sometimes, in the course of time, the rim and the lid can get clogged with stuff that makes it difficult to put them together correctly. You need to separate the jar from the lid, clean the screw-threads, let it air dry, and only then can they go together again as they were meant to do. This metaphor helped me understand that as important as my time with this family was, I also needed to separate from them on occasion, and by doing that it would help rather than hinder the positive relationship I had with my married-with-children friends.
I’m experiencing the same uncomfortable, clogged-up relationship lately with the word ‘leadership’, especially when it applies to the church. It was triggered yesterday, when this (admittedly very good) blog post was shared on two separate Facebook pages: http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/03/why-we-need-more-entrepreneurial-church-leaders-not-more-shepherds/ . I am in agreement with what Nieuwhof says about pastors being responsible for small groups of people (usually ‘local churches’), and that there is a need for people who can think beyond the local. I’d add that it needs to extend beyond just launching a bunch of new communities, but to do some serious work on the inter-relatedness and distinctiveness of various types of communities (such as my interest in the differences of dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, or the question of identity for Anglicans whose first language is not English, such as the Francophone Network of the Anglican Communion). It needs not just to seek opportunities for bringing new people in, but to create spaces for reflection which leads to more considered action. And it needs not to be limited to the ordained.
My own Facebook status reflects my discomfort with the terminology of ‘leadership’ itself, more than any disagreement with Nieuwhof. I wrote:
The Church does not need any more ‘leaders’, and should stop training ‘leaders’. Because ‘leader’ implies ‘followers’, and that means ‘leaders’ are by nature backward-looking to see who is behind them. What the Church needs are people who are passionate about doing what needs to be done, and are ready to welcome people to join *alongside* them, so that together they will get all the things that need to be done, DONE.
I did not quite anticipate having as lively a discussion as my admittedly bad-mood status update sparked, and I did not realize how aggravated I have become, over the past few years, at the language of ‘leadership’.
The church, from where I sit (which is mostly on the outside these days) does not need one more ‘leader’. We have all the Leader we need in the person of Jesus—and that is the only person who should, in the church, have ‘followers’. Human leadership, even in the church, is a matter of looking backwards, to see who is behind, who is following, and how many of them. The focus is on the success of the ‘leader’—how effectively s/he can get people to follow. When you have to keep looking over your shoulder at who’s behind you, it diminishes your capacity to look at the road ahead. Furthermore, few people can authentically ‘follow’ more than one ‘leader’—there is little or no overlap, and therefore, it can only be measured or described in ways that are inappropriately competitive.
I got a bit of pushback, with one of the conversation partners calling it ‘servant leadership’. Jesus might have displayed this, but I have yet to see it in any local church or higher institution. The term has become a two-edged sword, and we should put it down immediately. The edges are, I think, less whether we are talking about clergy/laity, but who is doing the talking about whom. If I say about myself ‘I am a servant leader’, at some level (intended or not), I am saying ‘I am doing you a great SERVICE, and thus your task is to follow me and do as I say.’ If I tell you ‘Yours is a servant leadership’, what I am likely saying (at least in part) is that your God-designated place in the grand scheme is to serve (me) and set an example that others will follow.
In the first instance (“I see myself as a servant leader”), it is what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls (in her book, The Argument Culture) ‘getting the lower hand’–it obligates someone to you because you are (falsely) putting yourself in a one-down position in relation to them. By doing this, you take control of the relationship, while falsely asserting that the other person is really in the driving seat.
In the second instance, by praising someone else’s ‘servant leadership’, we get a double-win: we say something ‘nice’, while keeping that person firmly in his/her place.
All of this is problematic, whether we are, in Nieuwhof’s terms, ‘pastors’ or ‘entrepreneurs’. “Leadership” , using my friend’s metaphor, is a jar that is so full of junk that it needs to be unscrewed, cleaned out, let to air for a good long time—and only then can we put it back together and use it well.
What would I rather see? First, I do not think we need a new terminology for the same old problem. Calling something by the more modern name of ‘tuberculosis’ when our ancestors used to call it ‘consumption’ does not change what the problem really is. We need a remedy, not a new name.
Secondly, although we may not need more pastors, we probably don’t need fewer, either. There will always be a need for people who are very good at caring for the local church, identifying the needs of the ‘little flocks’ and making sure those needs are met. After all, it is most likely that people who flourish in the local church are the ones who can emerge as the entrepreneurs that Nieuwhof wants to see more of.
I agree, however, that we need more than pastors. Entrepreneurs is perhaps one category that we do need, but we need more than that, too. We need people who are committed to a complementary endeavor to entrepreneurial action—we also need people who are passionate about reflection on experience, because completing the action/reflection cycle is more effective than either action or reflection alone.
I don’t have a ‘catchy’ term for this. The best I can do is to say that the church, in my experience and observation, needs quite a few passionate accountable visionaries. There may be some overlap into the categories of pastor and entrepreneur, but it is an area that needs to be developed—and it may need more well-qualified lay practitioners than ordained ones. The passionate accountable visionary is a person who sees a bigger picture than local congregations, is concerned with quality of Christian life together (not just in the congregation, but across wide areas of the Communion of Saints), and makes imaginative connections between realities and aspirations. A passionate accountable visionary has is grounded in theology as well as practical knowledge, and is capable of making a theological analysis of what s/he observes and experiences.
The ‘passionate’ and ‘visionary’ elements are fairly obvious—it’s the ‘accountable’ that needs to be teased out a bit more. This person is resourced by the church: laborers deserve their pay, and if someone has equipped himself for this kind of work, the church must be prepared to compensate him for performing it, whether he is lay or ordained. It is a dedicated life of study and sharing, which is far beyond what can be sustained in off-hours from a full-time job. It needs frequent contact with other visionaries, for stimulus and for sharing across communities.
Those who wish to support the passionate visionary’s work are not followers, so much as backers, very much in the sense that this word is used in a business context—they invest in a person’s passion and knowledge, expecting a return for their churches, whether local churches or a wider association. They have a right, even a responsibility, to ask for regular communications from whoever they support, and any backer could support a number of visionary thinkers.
This, obviously is very different from the leader/follower model: a visionary might be supported by a number of people, who in turn support others (and ideally, there could be a great amount of overlap between the ‘support system’ of passionate visionaries). The passionate accountable visionary is in ‘front’, not to attract attention or to ‘lead’, but to see what is needed for the future of the church. The ‘backers’ are behind—not to follow, but to encourage, and to create energy, and to maintain accountability.
The effect would be much like an ecclesiastical version of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank — the return on investment not measured in monetary terms, but the advancement of the gracious reign of God.
This article is being publish concurrently on the LayAnglicana blog.