a missional/leadership fable

Here is must reading about pastoral leadership and becoming a misisonal church. It is taken from Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk’s book The Misisonal Leader (pp143-45). They lay out two leadership narratives that illustrate some ramifications of trying to apply old paradigms of leadership in our context of discontinuous change. I tip my hat to these authors!

In his early forties, Bill came into the call process with great energy, vigor, and vision. The board and congregation were ready for his energy and thrilled with his sense of command and direction. With Bill, they felt they had found a new lease on life. Within a few months he shared with the board his vision for reaching the growing number of young families moving into the old, established neighborhood around the church. The vision would require planning and change that involved remodeling parts of the church complex, reshaping the two worship services, and taking a new approach to advertising and marketing. Bill detailed a strategy for growth as a series of stages to be phased in over a two-year period. He became more excited and confident as the plans were laid out with the board and discussed with the congregation. It was clear he could communicate with passion, clarity, and energy. He was also an efficient manager who got things done. By this point, he had already aligned the staff with the new vision for growth and hired several new people into family ministry positions.

After a church vote, it looked like a green light to move ahead with the initial phases of the growth strategy, including significant adjustment to the two worship services as well as renovation of some space in the complex. Ten months later, however, almost 20 percent of the members had left the church, and there were undercurrents swirling around, questioning Bill’s leadership. People were taking sides, and Bill was painfully confused by the turn of events. He wondered if he should tender his resignation and look for another church.

Bill’s story is not unusual. A highly skilled leader with a lot of personal character somehow runs afoul of a congregation even after a vote on the pastor’s strategies for change.

Another story may highlight what is happening in Bill’s situation. Mark moved to another city to take up a seminary teaching post. With his Japanese American wife, Nina, and their two boys, they joined a Japanese congregation near their home. When Mark and his family arrived, the congregation consisted mainly of aging members with some young families sprinkled among them. Over a period of time, Mark and Nina contributed to the life of the congregation by participating in events and helping with worship services. It was clear, though, that this congregation with such a long history in the community was failing. It had lost touch with any sense of being able to create a different future despite having hope that mark, as a seminary professor, and his wife, as a professional in business, could assist in turning the church around.

As in Bill’s case, the congregation was optimistic that this couple’s energy and skills would bring strategies to improve the situation. Mark and Nina, however, took a different approach from Bill’s. Instead of presenting a vision and a plan, they began listening to the members’ stories. This took time because initially people were reluctant to tell their stories. But after a time, the stories began to emerge. Those stories told of the pathos of the past as well as dreams of the future. Over a period of several years, the people of this congregation rediscovered the stories that had once given them life. Out of these engagements they began to discern experiments that they could attempt in finding renewed hope and energy within themselves. Mark and Nina had not come to these people, as was expected, with a bold vision or a four-year plan. Instead, they came with a commitment to know and love these people where they were and to use their skills to cultivate a new sense of hope and energy.

In our experience, it is common to find leaders like Bill. They have high trust in terms of character and excel in articulating a vision for a desired future. But they often lack the skill and capacity to know how to cultivate and form the people themselves. It seems that people like Bill have been trained to believe if they have the right vision and enough energy, people will follow them. This has been true in the past, but in a time of major change it is no longer the norm. Bill needs to discover what Mark and Nina learned in other settings: the key to innovating new life and mission in a congregation is not so much a strategy for growth as it is cultivation of people themselves. It is from among the people that the energy and vision for missional life emerge.

Leaders enable formation of a missional church to the extent they are able to cultivate this process in others. For too long, church leaders have been obsessed with the search for the program, tactic, or strategic plan that delineates a goal, sets out a path, and aligns people in moving toward and realizing a predetermined future. Behind this obsession lurks the continued belief that leadership is not only about defining and shaping a preferred future but also making such a planned future happen. In this sense, no matter what words are used in regard to serving or nurturing, leadership turns into methods of controlling and manipulating others to achieve predetermined ends. In the end, people are ends to a leader’s goals.

Leaders in discontinuous change recognize that they cannot determine the future…The world we once inhabited as a church is largely gone. Many of the habits and skills needed in the past are less functional today. As we move through this transition, we cannot define or predict what the church will look like down the road. How do you lead in this context? God’s future is not in a plan or strategy that you introduce; it is among the people of God. God brings the future toward us. God’s future is already being cultivated in the church among the ordinariness of one another.



One thought on “a missional/leadership fable

  1. Todd, surveying your website a bit more. These examples clearly articulate your thinking with the Fall plan to listen to the people on Saturdays at Ebenezer. The stories you’ll likely hear will be a love of their church, a desire to reach the community and to be discipled themselves. Will the century old place be living a century from now? Only God knows how that will eventually look. I’m observing Ebenezer from a high vantage point about 15 minutes before worship. Steady streams of people are walking the sidewalks, strolling around corners towards the church on the corner of 41st and Cedar. As they approach a half block from the church, conversations are happening as neighbors are greeting each other on the way to worship. As they come within a hundred feet of the building, they can hear music playing and the singing is ringing out from the building. As people enter, they are greeted by long term members and new attenders who are talking about what time small group is meeting that evening. A group of twenty people emerges from the Fireside Room who have been praying about the worship service and they say to one another, “let’s meet a little earlier next Sunday” We start late because the first service went a little over time, and there were so many people gathering together in conversation that the second service attenders did not get seeted early enough.

    Jim Soholt

    Posted by Jim | August 14, 2007, 6:29 pm

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