I wrote this article for
Feb 10, 2012
I spent last week in Minnesota at Luther Seminary (my alma matter) for their annual Mid-Winter Convocation. The theme was “Leadership in a Time of Change.” I haven’t been to Luther Seminary for a few years having worked on another degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. It has changed. There are new professors. The active ones from my days (I graduated almost ten years ago) are a little grayer and wiser, and some of my favorites are long retired. There is a new coffee shop on campus, the bookstore has been remodeled, and if I am not mistaken the student body looks really young (I was too of course, when I started as a student at Luther in 1998).
Diana Butler Bass and Andrew Root gave excellent presentations. I plan on using much of their material from this conference along with the people I serve here in Southwest Connecticut. I won’t steal their thunder either – Diana Butler Bass has a new book she presented that will be available soon titled, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of New Spiritual Awakening. Andrew Root has a book that has been out for a couple of years titled, The Promise of Despair. If you want to glean their insights directly, I recommend these books. They both make compelling cases for church and leadership renewal.
Change is scary. We resent it because we don’t like it. We would rather stay with the familiar, things we can count on to be true rather than venture out into the unknown. I’ve heard plenty of people say, “I hate change.” (I am sure you have too.) I don’t know if I’ve ever said it like that (maybe you have), but I sure have thought it before. It seems in our dynamic, fast paced, ever-growing digital world we can’t avoid change. Look at church demographics and the urgency to face change seems even more critical. Hence a conference titled, “Leadership in a Time of Change.”
While I sat there taking notes from speakers, chatting with colleagues and attending break-out sessions I felt like I was on sensory overload (conferences can be that way), but in thinking more about both the subject matter and the content now that I have been back in Connecticut for a week, there is a broader insight that I took with me from a conference titled, “Leadership in a Time of Change.”
Change is not an enemy. Change is not an ally. Change is not to be feared, embraced, capitulated to, or fought. Change is not to be ignored or consume every breath of our being, thinking, planning and doing. Change just is. Of course things change. We get older. We die. Things come and go. Seasons shift. Change is. Deal with it.
But that is not the only point to be made. While we should come to expect change as a natural part of our lives, leadership is not a given. Leadership requires time, energy, effort, vision, planning, follow-through, shining the spotlight on things other than yourself, articulating things over and over, articulating things over and over, listening to others, learning from others, recruiting others, training others, equipping others, while trying to utilizing your gifts as much as possible and using a variety of strategies for overcoming your deficiencies.
Change is. Leadership isn’t always.
Perhaps our focus in the “constantly changing world around us” should not be “the constantly changing world around us.” Perhaps our focus should be on our leadership within our churches and beyond them. One can certainly inform the other, but unless we are serious about being proactive, taking people out of what is comfortable, and trusting that God is ultimately the one at work beyond our abilities to discern, plan and carry out what we think is important than maybe we really are kidding ourselves about what we think good news is and how we are part of it.
It seems to me that a thrust of the whole story of scripture is “leadership in a time of change.” God is constantly calling people out of one way of life and into another – whether it is Adam and Eve, Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Pharaoh, the people in the wilderness, the people and the land, kings and prophets, people in exile and people rebuilding. Many people heard God’s call in a constantly changing world, and many did not. Some dug in to their way of being, living, leading, while others looked on the horizon. Some worried only about themselves and what they might lose, while others like John the Baptist pointed ahead to what was coming. Some led. Some followed. Some stayed on the sideline. We do all these things too.
When Jesus enters the scene – he challenges not only power, the status quo, and our thoughts about God, he also challenges us to rethink what it means to be leaders within our life together. If we as the church, truly are part of his body; a crucified and risen one at that, then the focus of our mission in the world has to be more than our own survival. In fact Jesus claims that if we truly want to save our life, we must first lose it. This has always been a tremendous challenge and a comforting gospel. Perhaps what we could use most in the church is neither an aspiration to be more relevant nor building up of our own leadership techniques, but a giving away of ourselves so that we might be found amidst an indifferent world in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Henri Nouwen put it this way:
“The question is not: how many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Do you love Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred. It is a heart that wants only to give love and receive love in response. It is a heart that suffers immensely because it sees the magnitude of human pain and the great resistance to trusting the heart of God who wants to offer consolation and hope. The Christian leader of the future is one who truly knows the heart of God as it has ‘become flesh’ in Jesus.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. [New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989], 37-38.)
I am thankful for a chance to be back at seminary among those constantly thinking about the question, “How do we support ministries and leaders in our current world?” I am thankful for the expertise such leaders bring to such a question. I am grateful that they keep the conversation going in a way that I can bring it back home. I am grateful to be a leader in such a community they hope to support. I hope they continue to inspire and grow in wisdom, and I pray that all of us grow more fully into our new life in Christ. As I get back to the community that calls me “pastor” I am more certain than ever in this climate of constant change – in Christ is both change and leadership we can trust…always.