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Leading the CongregationCaring for Yourself While Serving the People
By Norman Shawchuck
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Dangers of Leading
The church exists in North America. It is a historical reality. Its rich diversity of traditions, beliefs, and experiences has accumulated over centuries, and there is no way to erase the board and start over. Any effort to develop a missional ecclesiology for the North American context needs to take seriously the church as it presently exists. Such an ecclesiology must address the new initiatives required to move the church forward. It must also identify the principles and processes required for rethinking churches' identities and renewing their lives. Darrell L. Guder Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs and shoals, fueling the engines, watching the radar screen, noting weather reports radioed in from shore. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship's officers, and all the ship's crew.... The wind seems to be picking up. Annie Dillard
Leading a congregation has never been easy. There are new challenges and opportunities for each generation of leaders and for their congregations. The wind has picked up significantly, and churches and their leaders have already begun to feel the sustaining impact of this gale force. The above metaphor describing the church as deck passengers has limitations, and it certainly belies the fruitful work of countless congregations and leaders who are making a difference. The metaphor also speaks to a harsher reality—a time of serious attrition in church attendance, a time when the church is publicly known more for its controversy, hypocrisy, and scandal than for its sacrificial service, a time when generational differences produce questions and complexities, and a time when individual interests in spirituality have replaced denominational loyalty and commitment to institutionalized religion.
The mosaic of church patterns in North America is diverse, bright, worn, and tattered; some of the older patterns in this mosaic of church life will pass away, previous forms will reappear, existing patterns will mutate, and new approaches will emerge. The mosaic ranges from storefronts to megacampus congregations, from denominational churches—large and small, declining and tenacious—to simple house churches. Some congregations have learned how to attract unprecedented numbers of followers by utilizing effectual technologies and by implementing ministries that produce a greater quality of service than most denominations can provide, and with the help of media, their global reach extends far beyond the local community. Congregations are learning how to reinvent themselves—some radically and others perceptible with time. Emerging congregations are reintroducing ancient Christian spirituality and liturgy while connecting their mission with culture in highly creative ways. Australian missiologists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch suggest that a latent apostolic imagination is awakening leaders and their congregations "to courageous missional engagement for our time—living out the gospel within its cultural context rather than perpetuating an institutional commitment apart from its cultural setting." But not enough congregations have moved outside their own sanctuary walls.
During an era that is exciting as well as perilous, church leaders in our time must not answer their call half-heartedly. There is too much at stake. Annie Dillard, drawing on poignant metaphors, describes the current crises in the church:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Expanding church metaphors to include catacombs, TNT, crash helmets, and signal flares must seem abrupt, especially for those sipping coffee on deck of the cruise ship. Annie Dillard's images confront the North American church leaders who—refusing to remain in denial about the true condition of their obsolescent congregations—will embrace the potential dangers of moving into uncharted waters of change and missional engagement.
Many metaphors identified thus far convince us that there is no safe place for church leaders to hide, or to run. They also reveal how far we have strayed from the biblical images that portray a deeper spiritual authenticity, communal commitment, and missional engagement, such as vine and branches, family of God, body of Christ, salt and light, harvest, journey, and colony of heaven. The nature of these images reinforces the seamless blend of life together with God for the sake of others. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, expanding on the colony of heaven metaphor, view the church as an alternative "island" of one culture located in another culture. Therefore, "The church doesn't have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy." The values expressed in the above metaphors, though they may be deeply cherished and alarmingly simple, are not easily applied within Christian communities as people attempt to faithfully embrace and live them out—daily.
The mission of Jesus is life giving—making known the good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, release for those imprisoned, and recovery of sight to the blind, and proclaiming the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19). Declaring a message of liberation and hope, amidst suffering, alienation, and brokenness, is the church as a faithful witness in extending the mission of Jesus. This is what Christ asked of his disciples, and of us.
Leaders who embrace deeply cherished values of the kingdom, and who accept the challenges of mission in an increasingly complex culture, are engaged in a steep learning curve—what worked in the past or in a neighboring community is no longer helpful. Easy solutions evade well-meaning intentions and desired results. Thus, the church is a prime contender among other organizations to raise up a special quality of leaders who, according to theorists Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linksy, will put their "leadership on the line while staying alive through the dangers of leading." The dangers for today's religious leaders are multiple; by way of introduction in this chapter we have identified three of them: (1) serving sacrificially, (2) preserving the institution for its own sake, and (3) leading others through change.
The Danger of Serving Sacrificially
Jesus accepted the risks that are involved with serving others. After telling his disciples that his mission would lead to betrayal and death, they simply could not understand what Jesus meant until after his crucifixion. They were afraid to ask, and at one point they argued who among them would occupy the greatest position in a kingdom. Jesus explained to James and John that "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35b). Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright explains further: "For Mark, Jesus becomes King when he is crucified, publicly placarded as 'King of the Jews'. And on his right and his left there hang two brigands, two insurrectionists. No wonder Jesus told James and John they didn't know what they were asking for."
Following in the surrendered footsteps of the Lamb of God is fraught with grave dangers and little safety—it is a venture with no guarantee of success. At the same time, those considering ministry as a vocation should ponder whether not answering God's call to ministry carries with it more risk, perhaps for different reasons. Regardless of the dangers, however, God still calls women and men for the purpose of proclaiming the good news that is authenticated primarily through sacrificial service.
Of all the stories in the New Testament, we have more details about Paul's sacrificial consequences in accepting his call to follow Christ. Paul writes:
as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10)
Paul's list is too familiar to those in the world who have suffered peril because of their faith, but it is not exhaustive for most leaders today, nor is it the same for most of us, thankfully. Nonetheless, it remains difficult for us to say with Paul, "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:11b-13).
Though we live in a much different time and place from that of the early apostles, the dangers of serving sacrificially are real and constant. Leaders in today's turbulent environment may be confronted with a choice that places them at great risk. Great leaders distinguish themselves from the ordinary when they become willing to risk the cause as paramount, and themselves as servants of it. Regardless of diminutive notoriety, we know many leaders from different generations in our contemporary world who have risked comfort, security, popularity, and even life itself in pursuit of their God-given vision. This is what Jesus did; ultimately he died for his vision. His death-filled sacrifice may seem preposterous, but there may be no other way for some to follow in his footsteps. The journey can be exhilarating—and ultimately terribly dangerous.
The sacrificial examples of King, Romero, and Day serve as reminders that religious leaders are not immune to the burdens of leadership. Such sacrifice runs parallel not only to Jesus' ministry, but also to that of Old Testament prophets, who lived and prophesied in great tension between obedience to God and the rebellious fury of those to whom they were called to prophesy. Selfless suffering was commonplace for those called to do God's bidding.
The present generation of American religious leaders finds itself in uniquely complex and often confusing conditions, which is a sobering commentary on the social context in which religious leaders live and work. Societal values impose tremendous pressures upon the ideas and behaviors of clergy. Even as the clergy seek to influence society, in turn, society also seeks to lull clergy into a certain complacency that ultimately domesticates them to the extent that they become ineffective witnesses. For leaders, the society is no longer a safe haven, and perhaps it never was—at least not for its greatest leaders, such as Jesus, Paul, and Peter, who met their own death in the first century, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others who continue to die for a cause greater than themselves.
People still desire leaders who inspire them to express their passion and gifts toward a collective effort and to grow in grace against all odds. Such leadership requires vision, strategy, and a tenacious spirit, while maintaining the courage to lead the congregation toward the realization of a vision—even when the way is uncertain.
For leaders who have decided to give ministry their best effort every day, the temptations and struggles are plentiful. And for this, the forces of evil—at times ever so subtle—unleash their relentless furies and alluring temptations upon these leaders, day after day. The struggles described in the accounts of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness continue to this day in the lives of women and men who daily go forth to meet the fray.
In the sixteenth century, Saint John of the Cross aptly described the journey of the soul through a dark night toward the divine light of perfect union with God. He explains: "The darknesses and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them." According to St. John of the Cross, the dark night of the senses—different from the rare dark night of the soul—is a normal spiritual dryness when intellect and previous affections for spiritual matters no longer nourish our walk with God. The state of dryness and distaste for spiritual things points toward a paradoxical reality of God inviting us more deeply into intimacy with God. Thus, the meaning of these storms and trials is sent to those who are on a "journey along the road of the spirit, which ... is referred to as the illuminative way or the way of infused contemplation, in which God Himself pastures and refreshes the soul without any of its own discursive meditation or active help."
But there are also dangers of serving of our own choosing. Besides the "cold sins," which chill the spirit and dull the senses, some among us have succumbed to the "warm sins," which excite the passions, such as adultery, grasping for power, and craving excessive material comforts. Urban Holmes observes: "What we fail to realize is that the pastor or priest who succumbs to the sins of passion is fallen in the same manner as a fallen soldier. These are the demons that threaten anyone who sets upon the path through chaos. Some will lose."
In keeping with this, many of our colleagues in ministry are not faring well in this milieu. Religious leaders are hurting enough, almost as reflections of the hurt and confusion in the social context to which they wish to bring hope. In our time, many of the forces that imprison clergy come from within themselves, reflecting the realities of ministry pressures and private failure. To survive in ministry unscathed without some crisis seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
However, perhaps some of us do not hurt enough; we can easily coast along to manage the status quo of ministries and subtly lose our passion for the pure religion that James, the brother of Jesus, described as caring "for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27b). Like King David—though perhaps for different reasons—we stay at home, letting others go to war while the battles rage and the troops wait for a leader. Those who remain on the sidelines rarely take risks, seldom ask for help, find it difficult to possess a vision worth the sacrifice, and sidestep the courage to take the unpopular stand. Remaining too long on the sidelines of ministry, we can easily become distracted and find ourselves progressing toward a second danger that plagues religious leaders: preserving the institution for its own sake.
The Danger of Preserving the Institution for Its Own Sake
Jesus minced no words when confronting hypocrisy. He said: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!" (Matt 23:23-24). The temptation is to concentrate on what we can manage with least difficulty, which often turns out to be the neglect of the most important matters. The religious leaders of Jesus' day are not alone.
Excerpted from Leading the Congregation by Norman Shawchuck Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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