Rejuvenation Series: To the extent that clergy lead change, there will be no change. Mark Johnston

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.

12 thoughts on “Rejuvenation Series: To the extent that clergy lead change, there will be no change. Mark Johnston

  1. I wonder if this is a symptom of what I see ‘clergy verses lay’ culture. Only way forward is to recognise that we are all differently gifted and abled by the same Lord and the same Holy Spirit. We cannot all be one thing and do one thing. We all are part of the body, but diverse in function and gifts. There seems to be a deeper issue of trust and respect.

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  2. Reblogged this on vision2missionblog and commented:
    This is such a fruitful discussion on the Candour blog at present! I would go so far that my experience is that congregations want to be led and look to their minister to do this … the notion of waiting on God and discerning his call to mission is not something they are comfortable with. Maybe the first role of leadership is to lead the people (back) to God?? Provoking thought!

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    • I agree with this….. it is a time consuming process, though – leading back to God and waiting on God, I mean! If this is what we are about (and I think it is!) it has considerable impact on our approach to parish reviews, mission strategy, buildings and the notion of what leadership in ministry is…. eek.

      Here we are having a great conversation…. and it is a conversation which I imagine might be able to be fruitful across our theological divisions…. are there ways we can move the conversation into the wider life of the church? (Sally Carter)

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  3. Our Moderator, Andrew, has tried hard to motivate congregations to an awareness of community need and move beyond survival motivation. Some of us in the local congregation are trying hard to learn more about family violence and what we in the church, hopefully on an ecumenical basis, can do about it. Most of our members seem to doubt there is a problem but the evidence from community agencies suggests the problem is graeater than we realise. Our minister is supporting the effort. Any suggestions of those of you active in this area would be appreciated.


  4. Interesting, I have been doing door to door work for about four years now which is not so much about evangelism but community ministry. I have a small team of 3 who are involved with me. However the rest of the congregation don’t seem to be at all concerned to get involved.
    There are 2 – 3 reports per month on contacts, needs, outcomes etc.
    In terms of congregational motivation it has not been successful but hundreds of people have been contacted ministered to, prayed for, engaged in loving conversations etc.
    it is definately mission and Minister lead, it is not much, but it is infinitely better than nothing at all which would be the likely outcome should it stop.
    It will almost certainly stop when I retire in a couple of years
    If there is a better way to motivate mission I would sure love to hear it.
    John Invercargill.


  5. Dear Mark and fellow bloggers,

    I hear your pain. There is a real sadness here, and a mourning that the clerical model is not working the way it did in the past. It was a lovely, reassuring model, and it hurts that it no longer fits quite as well as it did. The bad news is that the world has changed. We can’t stop that. The good news is that the world has changed, but God is firmly part of it, and so are we.

    Back in the day- “pre -exile” I guess Roxburgh would call it, we had a different way of being Church. There was a nationally Ordained Clergy-person, enthusiastically funded by a congregation, who made church happen.

    The down side of this landscape is that such churches- particularly in the rural landscape are now smaller and far more widely scattered, far more than a day’s ride apart. Now, in many places there is not Nationally Ordained presence- but there is a team, or a resourcing ministry supporter, or a Christian with a front room big enough to fit a bunch of people in, and certainly big enough for God to squeeze in amongst them. This by the way is not a new model- but a very old one, to be found in detail in Paul’s epistles.

    Perhaps those “special people” Nationally Ordained Ministers might come into their own, training their congregation to be the “bare-foot ministers of the community” and honouring and pastorally supporting their ministry.

    This is the missionary model, it works- but it can be scary! It does not ask how we can continue to manage our churches in the same old way until the shrinking population can no longer fund the clergyperson, and it all falls over.

    The questions are different; “How can we celebrate the presence of Christ in this place?” “How can Christ be known in our midst?” No mention of churches, stipends, or clergypersons, though they may well be involved.

    Can such a model not just survive, but prosper? Of course it can- or you and I would not be delving into the Epistles or having this conversation. I think we as a church must have this conversation and sooner rather than later, because the price is too high not to.

    If we don’t, those Nationally Ordained clergy who remain will be exhausted, burnt out and not replaced as our ordination and training processes will become prohibitively expensive for the few men and women who go through them. Then they, too, will enter Nationally Ordained Ministry to be similarly used and abused.

    How can we break the cycle of this inefficiency, which almost borders on abuse? Perhaps it is time to turn the system on its head and look again at the missionary model, learning from its time honoured processes. Good missionaries were trained, but they were not necessarily Nationally Ordained. They were, for the most part, people of faith who shared their love of God, not from the top down but with a sideways transmission born out of the community, culture and circumstances they found themselves. They were not cut adrift because they didn’t fit the model of how churches worked “back home.” They were supported, resourced, prayed for and appreciated for the work they were doing on the Lord’s- and the sending communities behalf.

    They had a certain freedom to “cut their cloth” in a way that made best use of the resources available, and did not attempt to do- or be everything but to spread the gospel and nurture it- but let us be clear, God belonged to the people, not just to the clergy!

    I know all this sounds a bit radical but I grew up in PNG where the supply lines were more rice, fish and bully beef than chardonnay and latte’s and I really, passionately believe that if we don’t start letting go, and letting God work in the souls and hearts of ordinary men and women, and resourcing that, we are going to lose our church. God will find another way, but we- the Presbyterian Church will lose ours!

    Why should we worry now? Why not go on as long as we have funding, reasoning that the funding will last as long as it takes for the last person to walk out the door and turn out the lights?

    Because right now we have choices. We have a resourcing sweetspot; a vision for the need for change in our sights and the resources to affect it. Down the line, the need for change will still be there, but the resources to fund it will not.

    By funding missionary- hearted, community based models of ministry we are not favouring the urban, populaced regions as many fresh expression ministries are tending to do, we are funding the mission of the church to make Christ known, and the outworking of a loving gospel.

    Lee Kearon


  6. I couldn’t agree more, Mark. There will be people with passion and imagination in every congregation the challenge is to release them. I’d also like to see congregations spending more time in silence with God together and alone to listen to how God might be calling them to respond to their community. As well as creating places where the community can tell their story and open their hearts.

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  7. This strikes a real chord. It’s like turning the ocean liner around though, involving many factors, such as; ageing congregations with expectations of ministers in the more traditional paradigm, shaping ordained ministers skilled in empowering the whole congregation to imagine and lead change – made more difficult when those newly ordained individuals themselves have been nurtured and discipled within a more traditional framework, and enjoyed that experience. On the upside there is a lot to fire prophetic imagination being published and happening on the ground – can we consciously embrace flexible models of leadership that are up to the job?

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  8. As a teaching elder I find it difficult to avoid innovation in one form or other because most weeks I am attending to a Biblical text which seems inherently innovative. I then look for ways of enabling a congregation to be formed by the Word that springs from that text. Similarly, I am facilitating an opportunity for people to experience the mystery of God in prayer, an experience which seems also to propel us beyond our accepted frameworks and inclinations. This reflects the mission identity of God, who takes us to and beyond boundaries and frontiers, a dynamic which is of our essence. So worship seems, among other things, to form us as innovative people and we need to work hard if we are to withstand that Spirit. Another venue for engagement is through the Presbyterian system of elders, the group of people who in being formed by the Word are enabling the congregation to be ordered by the Word. If our God is inherently innovative, which is perhaps another way of expressing God’s mission identity, then the elders will also be inherently innovative. in other words, it is not something at which we work, but which comes, whether we like it or not, by virtue of our openness to God in Bible, in prayer, in worship, among other ways. If God is a mission God, always taking us to and beyond our boundaries, it is difficult to see how we can avoid innovation, given that beyond boundaries requires continual adaptation, responsiveness and fresh imagining. In a Presbyterian Church, I cannot imagine myself innovating apart from the wider body of elders, with whom I am called to discern who God is and what God is doing in order that we can participate in it.

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  9. Have we been tripped up by our own terminology and definitions? Where is the ‘job description’ for a ‘Minister’? Landing in Ephesians 4:11 we see that people with specific callings are gifted to the people of God to equip them for the ministry. These people are not labeled ‘Ministers’; they are labeled Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Teacher and Pastor.

    Where is the Ministry Settlement Board, or better yet Presbytery, that is willing to ask the questions, “What life stage is this congregation in? What set of specific skills are required to equip the saints to be the ministers?”

    Alan Roxburgh’s quote supposes a clergy that all come out of one mould. Perhaps our training institutions do. When will the Church realise that some people are innovative leaders and some congregations need this type of leader to find a new birth?

    Personally I fond Roxburgh’s comment unhelpful in a time when the church requires a new imagination and God uses all sorts of people (including the ordained) to bring imagination to life.

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  10. I could read this in an Anglican context (maybe or maybe not – sorry Anglican friends..!). But not in ours. We have a complex of diverse people ordained for life as pastoral elders, and ministers of word and sacrament taking revolving responsibilities (such as moderator of presbytery), minister of a particular parish, within a wider church enlivened by youth, women’s, southerners, maori and pacific organisations. Our church is not a parish. More and more, seeing the mess elder-led parishes are in, I see the need for the local and personal and parochial point-of view to be in constant dialogue with wider perspectives, professionalism, understanding external accountabilities, and simple community development models that a good minister will have in their kite. Ministers do not do nothing while doing 3-6 years study and years of experience in different Christian contexts. We do not achieve nothing while praying over the scriptures, burying people, talking with them and trying our best to digest these experiences into a meaningful sermon expressing Jesus’ good news into people’s exciting, boring, or horrific lives.
    We have the privilege of developing particular gifts. A fundamental one of these is not developing institutions for ourselves, but for the liberation of others. Elders do not do nothing while living in years of constant dialogue between a secular life and an almost-enclosed spiritual community. They work out the solutions and moderations to the tensions involved. Change comes from dialogue between different perspectives. Leadership comes from faithful commitment to relationships and communities of people all willing to try, and look for others, and look to God.
    Some previous comments, in my perspective, fail to recognise that the most important role of a minister, and a role of an elder is to develop the spiritual welfare of the people. Read the job of a session in the book of order! We are not an American-dogma management board.
    We dare to assist people walking on the boundary between the seen and unseen worlds. Most expressed in preaching the word of God in a way that people recognise in a way that liberates (or ‘saves’) them; and assisting people to recognise Christ’s presence in their own lives – most obviously through the eucharist and baptism.


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