A church leader wrote to me recently with a nagging question generated by the following excerpt:
“To the extent that clergy lead change, there will be no change……… It is counterintuitive, but when clergy function as innovators, they actually foster a culture that shuts down the innovation of others. My observation in working with countless clergy and congregations is that the clergy propose innovations and the members of the congregation either become the worker bees for the innovation or passively (and sometimes passive-aggressively) let them drop. Congregations have been socialized to follow the initiatives of their clergy, looking to them for direction in terms of projects and actions. This is why initiatives last about as long as the particular clergy person’s tenure, then gradually die off or get owned by a small number of people.” • Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time by Alan J. Roxburgh 2015. 104-105
In the words of this leader: “This is uncomfortable for me – I sense Roxburgh may be right, but at the same time I’m not sure what to do about it. He is writing in the context of leading a congregation to listen, discern, experiment, etc – so it makes sense that the clergy shouldn’t do all the innovating… In our case we are trying to create an environment that forms community and disciples – but in the forming of that community how innovative should the leader be? I like the ‘midwife’ or environmentalist kind of language for leadership as it is God that births and we focus on a healthy environment, but sometimes it feels a bit passive, and my sense is that God is inviting me/us to be more intentional in 2016. How do I protect the process of me not leading the innovation too much that it becomes counter productive?”
I can empathise with this. I have led or attempted to lead a number of initiatives in ministry. I think the counter-intuitive claim of Roxburgh’s has to do with inhabiting another kind of imagination, one that diffuses capability and mobilises the giftedness and service of the social body, the church. Its partly about, landing Ephesians 4:11-13 from circling high above the reality on the ground. Roxburgh points out that the social construction of clerical leadership systems instills the wrong kind of deference to leaders and experts, and this disables or creates passivity, which does not fit the calling of the church. This is more nuanced in the New Zealand Presbyterian context. The clerical imagination (deep within our churches and leadership systems) creates unspoken scenarios wherein congregations and church members are depending on the initiatives and actions of ministers to rescue, fix or revive them. This stems from the residues of the heroic solo pastor and set-apart educated preacher located in an earlier era of Presbyterian churchmanship, ingredients for a recipe of concentrating the communal practice of ‘real’ ministry on one person, who has now become the paid professional in a distracted volunteer-poor society. The dynamics of this kind of dependency are not the basis on which to attempt innovation or lead change because as Roxburgh indicates they will not produce the change being sought. The clergy person cannot collude with this imagination or it will lead to frustration and potential recriminations all round. When the outcomes are disappointing, or come unstuck ministers blame congregation, congregation blame minister. The result is more incapacity.
On the other hand I can think of a Presbyterian faith community some of whose elders, we at KCML met recently, where self-mobilising action had been embedded for some time. They had not called an ordained minister for a number of years by choice, and were well engaged in leading sacrificial approaches to mission in the local and struggling bi-cultural community. They had just appointed their first partly stipended minister in this new mode, someone who understood, partly from their Maori identity, the Spirit is amongst the people of God, so you discern and work with this.
So to lead or not to lead is to miss the point. It is rather the social and emotional construction of the relationship between the clergy or professional leader and everyone else. What postures and actions of ordained leadership will break open the possibility of initiative and unwind passivity and dependency? Do we need to re-examine the unspoken assumptions we have attached to ordination and the ways our linguistic and ritual forms reinforce these. Should leaders fill the vacuum of innovation and change with their own agency or is there another way of raising the levels of agency in our congregations? On the positive side of our historical ledger is the understanding that clergy leaders are called to diffuse and mobilise theological interpretation, formation and action amongst the whole people of God. I really like the way Jesus handles the situation when the disciples come to him to try and resolve the feeding of five thousand. (a very practical problem) He turns it into a theological moment to wake his disciples up to God’s agency and time, hands them the keys to participate in what God is doing (through him), and helps them to interpret their discoveries once they have acted as agents in this particular graced experience.
Mark Johnston is the Auckland Coordinator on the KCML Team in the PCANZ. Mark has recently been awarded a DMin, so we might want to call him Dr Mark from now on.