Leadership for These Times

District B of the Sierra Pacific Synod
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Granite Bay
September 18, 2010

It is very gratifying to be invited to address a group like this about leadership. More often in my experience, I have come from the seminary to ask folks like you what kind of leaders you need. How can we do a better job preparing the pastors you are hoping will come to serve your congregation? Much of what I know comes from listening to people and pastors and bishops.

We have heard more and more over that last 20 years that congregations are looking for their pastors to be leaders—unless, of course, they are leading you somewhere you don’t want to go. Then it is quite a different story. It may seem self-evident to us now that pastors should be leaders, but this hasn’t always been so explicit. The focus on leadership was not necessary for centuries upon centuries when it was simply assumed that the pastor set the course for the congregation by virtue of his (and I do mean his) office and the stature accorded him by the community and the wider society. Pastors didn’t have to think so much about leading, when it was assumed that the pastor was in charge and people were in the habit of following.

In the mid-twentieth century, we reacted against the Herr Pastor model and tried to empower the laity to take their rightful place in leadership in the church. We didn’t talk so much about the pastor as leader, but more as enabler of the ministry of the congregation, as provider of pastoral care and counseling, as teacher and theologian in residence, as spiritual guide and model for the Godly life. And of course all of those are important roles for the pastor.

But in these times, we look for leadership potential and seek to develop that potential in candidates for ordination. There used to be campaigns to recruit Men for the Ministry. Now we are more likely to say: Raising up Leaders for the Church. The mission statement of PLTS—and many other seminaries—begins with lines something like this: PLTS prepares leaders for the Church by deepening faith, challenging minds, expanding hearts, and energizing for mission.

There are at least three reasons for this change.

1. We use the language of leaders now because it is more inclusive. Not everyone who leads in the church is a minister in the traditional sense, let alone a clergyman. Leaders has become a convenient shorthand for all the professional church workers—including pastors, associates in ministry, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, and volunteers with gifts to lead.

2. We are talking more about leadership now because pastors and authorities in general just don’t get the automatic respect they once did. Pastors cannot just assume they will get their way. Pastors now have to be leaders among leaders. This kind of leadership has to be more of an intentional art.

3. Last, and most profound, we are talking more about leadership now because the world has changed. The contemporary church is not the dominant church of Christendom. Mainline churches have experienced gradual loss of members and personnel and the capacity do things the way we used to. These times require massive, adaptive change in the church. Change requires leadership. You don’t have to be a leader to maintain the status quo. It will take powerful, innovative, artful leaders to reshape our congregations so that they can do their job of communicating the Gospel to new generations in this more secular, culturally diverse, pluralistic society.

What kind of leaders does the church need? What are the qualities we need to cultivate in seminary? What are the essential components of leadership for these times? You will notice that I have put my responses to these questions in dialectical terms. Any of these taken to extreme or regarded as absolute becomes problematic. They all have built in checks.

Power…bent toward service.

Power is the capacity to have intentional influence on others. That is a simple, sociological definition. Power is neutral. It can be used for good or for evil. In Christian ministry power is to be used for service, diakonia. In the church of Jesus Christ, some are given authority to be pastors or bishops or apostles or teachers or administrators. That conferral of authority is always for the explicit purpose of building up the community. It is not for serving your own self interest or ego needs. It is for others, for service.

In the great passage from Mark 10, the disciples are arguing about who will sit at his right hand in glory, and Jesus says: You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. Power bent to service.

In some times—and with some people—you really need to lean hard on the service side of the equation. But in these times we really need leaders who are not afraid of power, not afraid to use it for good, who are not in denial about the very real need to exert influence on others to make way for change. If someone wants to be a pastor in the church today, it is not enough to say I just want to care for people one on one. Maybe if you are a chaplain. But our congregations need leaders.

The key is being honest and explicit about power. The most dangerous leaders are those who exert influence, but do not take responsibility for it. The person who claims to be innocent of power is in great danger either of abusing it or of missing the opportunity to do something really important.

Vision…with an eye to actually making it happen

Much is made of vision these days. Everyone wants a visionary leader. Of course. We are in a kind of bad patch as the church and as a society. It is important for leaders to lift our spirits beyond the present conundrums and help us envision some preferred future. I don’t know whether you can equate vision with hope, but they are close cousins.

I was introduced as a visionary leader. I got the job as President of PLTS because I could help the community see its way into a future that was Abundant, Bold, and Connected, at a time when it was feeling pretty poor and anxious and unglued. Vision is very important—especially in these times. But it is not enough.

I am tired of people getting put in positions of leadership because of their vision when they have no notion of how to move themselves and the whole community closer to that vision. I don’t want to hear any more about great visionary leaders who are going to need an army of people around them to actually make change. Of course we all need a team. No one moves a community from one place to another all by themselves. And some people are always going to be better at the big picture stuff and others gifted at details. But vision without implementation is finally destructive. It leads to cynicism, which is the last thing of which we need more in these times.

For most of my ministry, I have served in institutions that were short on resources. I haven’t had the luxury of hiring someone else to implement my visions. But I have become more and more convinced that even in very large and wealthy institutions, the leader has a very important role in actually making things happen beyond casting a vision. Most often the movement toward the goal comes as the leader gives sustained attention to the issue, keeps the people focused on the change process, holds the vision up before people in season and out, and asks good questions about how it might be realized.

Love…that does not leak

Leaders are lovers. That is a bold statement, but I believe it is true. It is true at least in the church. Jean Lipman-Blumen makes the case that for the importance of love—or something like it…in the business world too in her very important book: The Connective Edge; Leading in an Interdependent World.

When I was on a bishop’s staff many years ago, I spent lots of time dealing with congregational conflicts. When the pastor was in trouble, dollars to donuts it would eventually come out that the people didn’t feel like the pastor loved them. And usually the reverse was true too. I know in my own leadership at the seminary, when I get in trouble it is usually because I have neglected or gotten distant from someone or some part of the community. Applying more attention, more love, usually helps.

So that is about getting along. What about leading change? Doesn’t love get in the way? No. Leaders are lovers. Change agents are lovers. One great church leader in a communist country back in the 60s said this when he was accused of being too soft: To love the world as it is is to begin to change it. Love is a powerful thing. It is very hard to for people to follow you to a new, changed place, if they don’t think you love them.

Of course love can also get you in trouble. We’ve learned a lot from Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke and others about the importance of being non-anxious, differentiated leaders. Don’t let yourself get so enmeshed in the emotional life of the group that you can’t stand outside of it and call them to a new place. Of course, love is always best when you don’t blur the boundaries.

We’ve also learned the dangers of confusing the power of office with sexual gratification. I don’t know if you even call that love. We have gotten a lot clearer about boundaries. And that is a good thing. I worry sometimes that we have been so focused on the boundaries that we’ve neglected the need to cultivate the bonds. Bonds and boundaries. We need them both.

Trust…that goes both ways

Leadership depends on trust just as surely as life depends on oxygen. And trust is in short supply in this cynical age. Time was when people followed the pastor, any pastor, because they trusted in the office itself. They acknowledged the legitimate authority of the established leader. It has become harder to be a leader. You have to earn that trust. And you earn it by demonstrating competence. The proof is in the pudding. People want results. You earn trust over time also through showing up—consistently. You earn it by telling the truth and doing what you say. You earn it by actually believing and living what you preach. It may take years of faithful service for people to trust you enough to let you take them to a new place.

It begins of course by trusting yourself. Knowing who you are and living with integrity. Trusting your sense of direction and standing up for what you believe in. It extends to trusting others and allowing them to bring their gifts and their visions. If it all works, trust is reciprocal—like love. And finally it is rooted in a deep and abiding trust in God, who is utterly dependable and trustworthy.

Perhaps the most important word on leadership in the church is this passage from I Corinthians 4: Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. There you’ve got power bent toward service. Stewards of the very mysteries of God and also servants. It continues: Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.

Gift…crowned with gratitude

Finally—all leadership in the church is a gift. We say that ministry is charismatic, from the Greek word for gift, charisma. Leadership today requires many gifts. You have to be smart. You have to have stamina. You have to have a way with people. You have to have a deep theological rudder. You have to have a capacity to see a future beyond the present limitations. You have to have more faith than you ever knew there was. Sometimes it helps if you can sing or tell jokes. These multiple gifts allow you to lead. And they inspire confidence in others—so that they dare to follow.

And the call to leadership in the church—that too is a gift. 2 Corinthians 4: Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

Leaders need to claim their gifts: the jobs they are called to do and the talents that enable to do them with joy and power. They also need to remember that these gifts are just that: gifts, gifts from God. They are not your personal possession. They are not virtues that you have earned. They are not a sign that you are really more important than other people. They are gifts pure and simple. You should not take them too seriously. They are gifts freely given to you, so that you can give them away.

The life of a leader overflows with gratitude—for the privilege of leading, for the abilities to pull it off on a good day, and for the wonderful people all around you who help move the whole thing forward. As a leader in these challenging times, I find that most of all, I need to write a whole lot of thank you notes.

Ten thousand, thousand precious gifts my daily thanks employ,
And not the least a cheerful heart that tastes each gift with joy

Phyllis Anderson, President
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary