Empowering Leadership over Empowered Leadership

Years ago I went to a conference on Multi-site churches. Most of those who had mega-multisite churches were Independents— not part of a denomination. But one of the main speakers did have a very large church that was multi-site and was part of a denomination. During the Q&A time, an acquaintance of mine and from my denomination, asked this pastor a very relevant question. It was, “As a megachurch leader but also a member of a denomination, what would you like for your denomination leadership do to help you be more effective in your doing your ministry?” Since the acquaintance of mine was in denominational leadership, it seemed an especially relevant question.

The megachurch pastor said at first, “Stay out of our way.” But then he laughed and said he should give a better answer than that. He then said, to the effect,

The difficulty that denominations have is that they are led by pastors. It makes sense that the leaders of groups of churches should have previously been leaders of churches. But there is a problem with this. You see, pastors are “vision-people.” That is, they embrace the role of guiding the church in the way it should go. They gain a vision of where the church should go and then try to instill that same vision in the membership of the church. That is fine, but when they move into denominational leadership, this tendency doesn’t go away. They still seek to be the visionary people. Now, however, they start to see the various churches in their denomination as the tools to carry out their vision.

But this is the problem, because churches already have visionary leaders and have their own vision which is appropriate to their own “Church-DNA” and setting. What is needed is denominational structures and leaders who do not see individual churches as the tools to carry out their own denominational vision. Rather they need denominational leadership that identify and affirm the visions of individual churches and embrace the idea that the denominational structures and leadership are tasked to help empower individual churches to execute their own visions.

At the time I thought that was a pretty insightful image… and I still do. I also think it is somewhat unrealistic. If the ministry as a vocation promotes visionary people (we tend to think the religious leaders SHOULD be visionary)… and ministry has a hierachical structure, it is hard to imagine a system that promotes vision up to a certain level, and then supports empowerers above that level. It is like expecting politicians to actually be “servants of the people” when the finances and process of move to higher levels politically require being a servant to political and financial allies.

But imagine for a moment if a system could be developed in missions that follows the ideas of the quote above.

Imagine a mission agency that seeks to support the vision of missionaries within their organization rather than seeing them as pawns to be mobilized for their own vision?

Again, these may be a bit unrealistic. However, I think that at least there is a possibility of some modest changes that can be done so that hierarchies can empower rather than disempower and embrace vision from others rather than crush it.

  • Set up a structure that embraces training, and supporting the troops on the ground to carry out their task. Reject a military war model of a group of generals far removed from the front lines moving around troops.
  • Seek top-level leaders whose vision is more about empowering others rather than being empowered by others.
  • Seek to establish patterns that affirm empowering leadership at the lower levels so that at the higher levels the pattern and process doesn’t have to change.

On this last point— Imagine a missionary who seeks to work with local leaders by empowering them to do what God has called them to do.  This would be quite different than the more common method of a missionary coming in with a clear vision of what he or she wants to do and seeks to find local allies who can be brought in to serve the missionary’s vision.  Imagine a church pastor who sees himself as one who as an empowering leader seeing the church as a priesthood of believers, and works with the church rather than rules over the church.

Who knows…. it just might work.

Loving Gridlock in Government and Ministry

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A political election is coming up in the US this November. They are a challenge for me because my friends come from a wide variety of perspectives. I sometimes find myself siding with one side and sometimes with the other, but never consistently with either side. The reason for this is that “I Love Gridlock.” I suppose it depends on how one defines it. One definition comes your friend and mine, Wikipedia. It says,

In politics, gridlock or deadlock or political stalemate refers to a situation when there is difficulty passing laws that satisfy the needs of the people. … Gridlock can occur when two legislative houses, or the executive branch and the legislature are controlled by different political parties, or otherwise cannot agree.
As an American myself, my friends almost universally hate gridlock. This is strange since it seems pretty evident that the US Constitution was designed to encourage gridlock, as opposed to the classic parliamentary system.
So why would I like gridlock? I like it in government and in ministry for several reasons.
1.  It slows things down. I have been part of groups… in fact I have led groups… where decisions were made fast or even “on the fly.” I often loved that. However, over time I realized that issues that were struggled over were often resolved better than ones that were thoughtlessly approved, or “railroaded” through.
2.  It encourages negotiation. When there is one or more people with all of the power, there is little discussion. Things just happen. I have been in church or religious organizations that were led by one visionary person who made all of the decisions. I have never seen that work out well. No one is right all of the time. Most are not right half of the time.   Proverbs 11:14 says, “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.” However, when the advisers are more than simply “idea guys” but have a vote in the process, they are likely to have better thought-out decisions, and the leadership can’t simply ignore such advice and act on personal whims.
3.  It allows all parties to feel empowered, or at least jointly disempowered. Solomon may have been the “wisest man” (in terms of governance at least), and made some really awesome decisions for the short-term prosperity of Israel. However, he also made some decisions that were KEY to civil war and moral breakdown of his country. It is interesting that one of the things he did was to crush gridlock by establishing a structure for governance that undermined tribal leadership. It is hardly surprising that when Solomon’s untrained son took over, the tribal leadership that had their interests steamrolled in the past, flexed their political muscles and split the nation.
4.  It lessens groups from acting on their baser instincts. In some countries, when one political party or political leader gains ascendancy, they quickly seek to consolidate power by outlawing or at least hobbling all dissent. Even where this is not done legally, laws are commonly passed that give more power to the majority and stick it to the minority— or benefit their primary (financial) supporters.
5.  It shares power. People in government and in ministry commonly don’t handle power well.  Although it has almost become a cliche, John Dalberg-Acton’s words are still true: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Diffusion of power is better than its localization.
So does that mean that I actually like the phenomenon where lawmaking slows to almost a standstill because of power struggle and rivalries? Somewhat. Laws and plans should be slow… and probably should be developed slower than anyone is particularly comfortable with. However, my main reason for supporting gridlock is that it shares power, and provides impetus for negotiation, compromise, and consensus-building. If those involved cannot “play nicely together in the same sandbox” and work together for the common good of the organization or nation, they simply need to be replaced. That seems like that should be obvious. We don’t vote for ideologues or demagogues but with people moral vision and the humility to understand that they must work together with others, even people they disagree with.
Hoping you will have the opportunity to experience gridlock in your own ministry or organization (whether you like it or not).
I will end this post with a wonderful quote on power and leadership from Monty Python. Enjoy.
We would like to apologise for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent, nor to imply at any stage that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today. Nor indeed do we intend that viewers should consider them as crabby ulcerous little self seeking vermin with furry legs and an excessive addiction to alcohol and certain explicit sexual practices which some people might find offensive. We are sorry if this impression has come across.

Doubts About “Vision”

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Over the years, I have been having more and more doubts with regards to the concept of “vision” as it is used in the Christian Leadership culture. This may come out as more like a laundry list of concerns… and I am not at a point of resolution… but I think writing them down will help me think them through a bit better.

A.   “The Vision Thing.” My first doubts on vision and leadership occurred when I was taking “Ministerial Leadership” in seminary (not including a plethora of doubts on leadership in general that go back to my admittedly awkward days as an officer in the United States Navy).  I was in class in seminary when our professor made a statement to the effect that, “The pastor is the vision person in the church.” This statement is a bit innocuous, but at the time it struck me as quite strange. You see, I was working with a ministry where the pastor/leader considered himself to be a very visionary person. However, from my perspective, he seemed to be almost exactly the opposite. He parroted the  opinions of a couple of other people. I have a hard time seeing that fit anyone’s idea of vision.

Frankly, I saw this over and over again over the years. Pastors and other religious leaders who read a book or go to a seminar and come back with “vision.” Truthfully, pretty much no good ideas come out of nowhere, so the fact that a person gets some inspiration from an outside source, or someone else, is not a problem. But since anyone can read a book or attend a seminar as easily as a religious leader can, it is a bit disingenuous to say that vision is a “leader thing.” Ideas should stand on their own merit, rather than gain a certain credence because they were repeated by a specific member within the church.

Many leaders are quite obviously not “vision people.” I am not sure that that is necessarily bad. I know years ago US President George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton due to the perception that he lacked vision. That may or may not be true, but if true, it is not clear that that made him less competent as a leader than “visionary” Bill Clinton. It seems like in the Bible, a good leader has good moral character, chooses good advisers, and filters the best advice from the nonsense, and acts courageously.

B.  Who has Vision?  I was reading “Courageous Church Leadership: Conversations with Effective Practitioners” by John Chandler (a good book to read). One of the interviews was with David Chadwick, the pastor of a successful church in North Carolina. I very much liked the interview, and found much of what he said to be quite insightful. But there was one statement that seemed odd to me:

“Some would say, how audacious to think that you are the only person in the church who gets vision. But where, in the Bible, does God give vision to a group of people? Number one, God gives vision to the leader.  I’m not arrogant; people know that. But this is what I think we’re really supposed to do.”

That got me thinking… I certainly have no reason to think this person is arrogant, he presumably is repeating what he learned in seminary (or somewhere else). But is it correct that in the Bible, God doesn’t give vision to a group of people? It took me about 30 seconds to come up with things that question this. Joel 2 speaks of God giving dreams and visions to a broad number of people (we will deal with how the term “vision” is used in the next point.). It doesn’t seem possible to interpret the passage as referring to single individuals associated with individual congregations of believers. Related to Joel 2, one should add Acts 2, not only because the passage explicitly links to Joel 2, but because it seems as if the ability to speak in foreign tongues was linked with a clearly divine/prophetic message to the 120 members of the group. One could also add Matthew 28 where Jesus (God’s son) gave his vision (Great Commission) to a group of disciples. And while we are at it, may as well add Acts 13:1-3 where God gave the vision to send out Barnabas and Paul on a mission journey, to a group, not to an individual. I suppose there are more, but these are a few passages that cast doubt on who God gives vision to, and who not. An interesting final thought in this area would be in Acts 19 and 20 where Paul believes he has a vision from God to go to Jerusalem, while brethren in Tyre believe they receive a message from the Spirit that he should not go. Paul ignores the group vision and acts on his own. The reason why this is interesting is that since the next several years of his ministry were relatively ineffective, one wonders if he improperly ignored sound guidance. Perhaps, sometimes, God is heard more clearly by a group (the “God of the gathering” as some people put it) than by an individual.

But taking it further, if vision is viewed as being a specific counsel from God, the Bible shows that such vision very often did not go to leaders. Prophets were rarely leaders. Even in the New Testament, prophets and prophetesses did not appear to normally serve as leaders in the church. In fact, the term “prophet” in the early church seems to usually apply to traveling ministers who spoke to different churches, providing guidance to members, but having no direct authority over them. So, based on the Bible, I would have to say that vision commonly goes to a group, and not just one person, and vision commonly comes to one who is not the designated leader.

3.  What is Vision Anyway? The two previous points identify a potential problem with the ambiguity of the term “vision” as it is used in Christian leadership. One way the term “vision” is used has to do with “strategic thinking.” Gary McIntosh, for example, would say that a pastor of a larger church should be visionary– meaning either that he (or she) is able to think strategically as far as the church’s direction, or is good at developing a team around him (or her) who has such strategic thinking. Vision here is tied to keeping the mission of the church in view– the big picture as it connects also to the details. It can be seen as desired or preferred vision or image of what the church should be in the future. If one uses this sort of definition for vision, it would appear to be correct that the senior pastor (or perhaps the board of elders) is responsible for the overall vision of the church, but that everyone is responsible for the input into that vision. After all, everyone really should have some sort of preferred view of the church in the future. Not all are correct, but all should be heard. Post-modernism accepts that each perspective has validity. But one does not have to embrace post-modernism to recognize that no perspective is entirely right or entirely wrong– so embracing one perspective only is simply unwise.

Of course another view would see vision in terms of a special revelation from God. As such, determining the difference between good vision and bad vision is not just a matter of common wisdom, but of spiritual discernment. If vision follows the more business-model understanding, there are good visions, better visions, and poorer visions. But with the more revelatory understanding of vision, there are true visions and false visions.

A lot of problems seem to come from waffling between a business model understanding of vision, and a spiritualistic revelatory understanding. Frankly though, regardless of one’s definition, no one should be granted innerancy. No one is God or entirely speaks for God.

4.  Does it matter? I believe it does.

  • The church is a mutually accountable organism. If a member is seen as being the only one to receive “vision” (regardless of how one is using the term) from God, it removes a great deal of needed accountability and insight from the membership. That is a great potential loss. Additionally, it sets up the unnecessary (and even sinful) burden of suggesting that questioning a leader means questioning God. The Bible (both Old and New Testament) as well as many of the Church Fathers point to the need to test both prophets on prophecies, as well as “spirits.” That suggests some level of competency outside of a single leader to identify good versus bad (or better versus worse) vision.
  • Leaders are at their best when they do not identify themselves as “the visionary.” Frankly, when the leader (pastor) of the church assumes the roles of visionary and mediator, he (or she) has taking on the roles of Prophet, Priest, and King. I think that is too much power for most people to handle. That is why I really don’t think God normally sets things up that way. In the Old Testament, the priestly role was clearly separated from normal prophetic and kingly roles almost from the start. With Moses, Prophetic and Kingly roles were united, but with the transition to the period of the judges, the prophetic role was often separated from that of ruler. With the Kings of Israel, the separation was complete. Three different roles… four if you accept Wise counsel of the sages as being separate from prophetic vision of the prophets. I see no evidence that they are united in the New Testament, except in the parousia of Christ (and then only in Christ).
  • Leaders are myopic. Liberation Theology (regardless of one’s view of its merits or lack thereof) at least recognizes that the powerless have a perspective that is commonly hidden from those in power. There is not a large leap from saying only leaders have vision to saying that those who are powerless have no valuable input into the overall vision and mission of the church. Leaders need the perspectives of a wide variety of people in the church (and, frankly, those outside of the church), and those perspectives must be taken seriously with the possibility that God has given some measure of real vision to even the least within the church.

For me, the issue of vision takes me back to Ezekiel 34, where God challenges the religious and civil leadership of Israel. I believe there are two challenges built into the parable:

First, the leaders are guilty of acting on a self-serving vision rather than one truly accountable to God. In a sense, they are also guilty of not being accountable to the people as well, since they turned a deaf ear to the cries of injustice from the people.

Second, the leaders seemed to think that they were uniquely above the people (as a shepherd is uniquely different from and above the sheep). But God makes it clear later in the parable, that leaders are also sheep, just as the people.

If leaders recognize themselves as responsible to God and mutually indebted to the people as fellow members, I think we may be able to embrace a healthier, more theologically sound understanding of vision in the church.