Thursday, November 26, 2009

Challenges of Leadership

I'm picking up some of the themes that I wrote about in my October 5th entries, "Churches Want Pastors Who Have Great Skills."

The other day, I watched a show in the series “Classic Albums” on VH1. This episode concerned Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Early in their career, the band had attempted to compose music for the movie “Zabriskie Point,” but the director was never satisfied with any of their efforts. Band members thought the director couldn’t make up his mind because he wanted to be in control. As it turns out, Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for the movie became, four years later, the moving song “Us and Them” for the “Dark Side” album.

This show made me think about issues of control, empowerment, and leadership. A book that I love is Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). They tell this story on page 189:

“We are at the time of this writing consulting in a congregation of 900 members, with five pastors. The communication between the pastors and the board could hardly be worse. Yet one pastor told us that during his seven years there as a pastor he has been invited to meet with the board only three times. The board complains that this pastor isn’t doing a good job. But how would they know? They have never observed his work firsthand, they have never talked with him about his work, they have never provided him any training in the areas of his suspected weaknesses. So if this pastor is doing a poor job, who is to blame? First, the senior pastor, who doesn’t want any other pastors to attend the board sessions, and who has provided his staff no training. Second, the governing board, who has allowed this foolish waste of human ability to go on year after year without calling the senior pastor to accountability.”

Many organizations in addition to churches have unhelpful structures of power: certain people in authority retain power while expecting others to exercise leadership, in effect setting them up for disapproval and/or failure. It’s a foolish waste of effort and ability, as Shawchuck and Heuser write, but very common. (A biblical example would be Saul and Samuel: Saul was king, but Samuel never trusted and empowered him.) Any leader does well to identify and address these kinds of dynamics---and address them before too much time passes.

Another kind of story from another book that I love, What Ministers Can’t Learn in Seminary: A Survival Manual for the Parish Ministry by R. Robert Cueni (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988). Cueni writes about a married couple, Darryl and Marie, both clergy who came to the same church. They discussed their approach of a “team ministry” with the board, which approved them. “Eight months after their arrival, Darryl and Marie resigned. The congregation was told of a ‘clergy team,’ but many did not understand the significance of the term. Some said they always thought of the minister’s wife as part of the ‘team,’ but they did not understand why she should preach on Sunday morning or conduct funerals.” The congregation had no women in positions of leadership, but the couple mistook this fact as a lack of empowerment, and so Marie preached a sermon on the femininity of God. But the congregation’s women enforced the leadership roles in the congregation, not the men. Marie's well-intentioned and caring efforts were off-putting. The couple misunderstood the power dynamics in the congregation and, unfortunately, had a painfully short pastorate.

Again: the congregation had structures of power, but the couple did not recognize how power was distributed in the congregation. Congregation members exercised power by withholding permission for Marie to lead. Ironically, the couple had sought to empower and give permission to the laity to serve---exactly the goal that church-growth pundits like William Easum espouse (for instance, in his books about permission-giving churches, Dancing with Dinosaurs and Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers). Simply to give people permission to do ministry--to "get out of their [the laity's] way," as one pastor I met put the matter--is not nearly enough, though.

Still another book that I love: R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Sysems Approach to Congregational Leadership (The Alban Institute, 1993). As Stevens and Collins put it, leadership is “L=(L, F, S),” or “leadership equals the function of the leader, the followers, and the situation” (p. 9). Although the pastor exhibits the kind of spiritual authority that gains people’s confidence, the pastor really derives his or her leadership from the congregation.

Not just a pastor but any leader needs to know the organization very well in order to understand where power structures lie. Organizations are complex collections of power issues, old loyalties, people with control needs, traditions, community values, and others. I just read a summary of some ideas from a new book by Marc Brown, Kathy Ashby Merry, and John Briggs, Does Your Church Have a Prayer? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2009). The authors describe different, unhelpful “tribes” that describe congregations: the Tribes of the “Good Old Days” (people are stuck in the past), “Forgetting the Past” (people neglect the church’s history), “Control” (people want to “run” the church), “Spiritual Elitism” (people judge others by their own faith-values), “Business Values” (the church’s health is judged solely or predominantly by economic/business values), and “Apathy” (people are detached and unconcerned). The authors call people to be “remembering encouragers.” Resources like this one can help leaders identify types of organizational behaviors and determine goals towards which to lead the people.

Unfortunately, even very good leaders might struggle in an organizational environment because he or she (either through naivety, inexperience, misinterpreted cues, or a lack of psychic ability) did not grasp the complexity of motivations, traditions, emotions, and values at work in that organization. That is one reason why, I’m sure, even very good leaders shine in some circumstances and not in others. There are famous examples: Winston Churchill comes to mind as one, also President and later Chief Justice William H. Taft.

But…the late Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for "Zabriskie Point" failed to please in one context but transformed into something even greater, later on. Leadership can be like that, too! Not only that, we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit that God brings us to circumstances where the leader and the people truly “sync” and amazing things start to happen.

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