Leadership conferences abound. It's all the rage. Haven't you heard?
We shouldn't be surprised, then, to hear that what is wrong with the church - what accounts for decline in membership and average Sunday attendance - is 'leadership'.
If we just had better leaders, the argument goes, we'd be a healthier church.
Indeed, some, like Katherine Tyler Scott, say we have a "Leadership Crisis in The Episcopal Church." She asserts:
The mainline churches are finding themselves on the margins, declining in membership and donations. Some are in the grip of unresolved conflicts and divisions; others are locked in scandal. The main mission is hostage to a host of distracting issues. In short, the church is experiencing a crisis of leadership.Wait. Not so fast.
She also notes this:
The top-down authoritarian model of trachurch is no longer effective in a world of new seekers, whose access to information is on par with the leader and where the experience of community is in cyberspace. What will distinguish effective leadership in the church is not just the dissemination of information; it will be the ability to communicate meaning and to translate that meaning into responsible, ethical actions that serve the greater good. Like other sectors, the church is being challenged to lead in new ways that are inclusive and require meaningful involvement, shared authority, a redistribution of power and new forms of community.I agree with Scott, but find myself wanting to raise a question about the assumptions and traditional definitions of what it means to be a 'leader'.
See the above "inspirational" poster with the slogan: "The leader always sets the trail for others to follow."
If the leader does this, if the old community organizing slogan - "A leader without a following is just a person out for a walk" - is true, then what are the "new ways that are "inclusive"? How does one "redistribute power" and "share authority" and remain the identified "leader"? What does that "new form of community" look like once power is redistributed and authority shared?
I want to say that the leader in this "new form of community" doesn't fit the traditional definition of leadership. Indeed, I think part of what's wrong with Scott's essay is that she's quick to critique, but the imagination and creativity required to find solutions to the identified problems are painfully absent.
What is lacking in discussions I've heard or read or been part of is the emergence of a new image and definition of leader.
We seem to want to pour new wine into old wine skins. Alas, it has ever been thus.
I've been allowing my imagination and creativity to play with what that new definition and new image of leader sounds and looks like.
Actually, you know, it looks an awful lot like Jesus.
I know. I know. He said, "Follow me." Sounds like a leader, right?
Wait. Not so fast.
The behaviors He wanted us to follow don't look anything at all like the religious leadership we have today. All of His behaviors were about service - healing, teaching, raising up and empowering people to do the same work.
Far as I can tell, he didn't have his own office or even his own Temple. He met people where they are. He didn't tell them what they needed to know. Didn't have a program in a handy-dandy three-ring binder for every problem he encountered.
He let the people come to him and listened to them. He didn't give them what they wanted, necessarily, but instead, gave them what they needed - whether they wanted it or not.
And, where He led was not to a corner office in a high rise complex in a pricey zip code. If you follow Jesus, you're going to go through some pretty rough neighborhoods, then onto Gethsemane and end up at Calvary.
So, I've been wondering about how the church might look- and what leadership might look like - if we followed the teaching of Jesus a little more nearly.
I have two images.
The first is to wonder what might happen if the church looked more like a 12-Step Program. The way I understand that it works is that there is no identified 'leader'. There is a coordinator - someone who makes sure there's a place for the group to meet, that someone makes the coffee and sets up the chairs, and that the literature is out.
The group gathers in a circle. First names only are used. Anonymity, I understand, is an important element in a 12-Step Program.
What would it look like if, at the start of every service, someone stood up and said, "Hi, my name is John, and I'm a Christian"? I don't think I've heard too many people in too many churches identify themselves in that way. Is it any wonder, then, that not too many church people actually behave like Christians?
No advertisement is allowed in the 12-Step Program. There are no marketing strategies, no 'self promotion'. The group relies on word of mouth. You know. Just like back in the day in Jerusalem. And Corinth. And Rome. And Ephesis. And . . . well, you get the idea.
Sometimes, the group session begins with a reading of the 12-Steps of Recovery.
What if a church session began with the reading of the 10 Commandments? Or, the lectionary selections for that day or week? Or followed a specific gospel or epistle?
Then, people take turns telling their stories, in light of the 12-Steps.
What if people in church did that? The sermon or homily becomes not just the theological musings of someone with a collar around their neck. Rather, it becomes the personal witness of individual people who are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, whom they name as their "higher power".
Everyone in a 12-Step Program has a "sponsor" with whom they meet on a regular basis to go over their progress on the steps.
What if people in church had to meet once a week with their "sponsor" - someone who kept them accountable to the 10 Commandments or the Gospel message for that week.?
People in recovery programs are expected to attend at least one meeting a week. In the early phases of recovery, the rule of thumb is "30 meetings in 30 days". Folks I have been privileged to know in 12-Step Programs often go to an "Open Meeting" followed by a "Step Meeting" - where a smaller group of people gather to work specifically on a particular step.
Can you imagine Christians going to church more than once a week - much less working one additional church session on a particular facet of their spiritual discipline? How would the church change if that were to happen?
Okay, so there is the issue of The Eucharist, but that could happen after the "service of the word" - just as it does now. What if Christians met in small groups all over the church and then gathered together for Eucharist around a common table? What might that look like?
And, what would that do to our present understanding of the role of the ordained leader?
That's just one idea - one wild imagining that has sprung forth from the deep recesses of the creative centers around my brain.
Here's another I learned about just this morning. It's called St. Lydia's Church, on the lower East Side of Manhattan.
Here's what they say about themselves:
St. Lydia’s is a Dinner Church! We gather each week to cook and share a sacred meal, just as the first followers of Jesus did. We sing simple unaccompanied music, explore scripture, offer prayers, and feed one another.Their "leadership" includes a Pastoral Minister and a Community Coordinator. No rector. No wardens. A minister who "wants to create a place where God and God’s people sit down and have dinner," and a coordinator who "is a mover between worlds".
We are located in New York City and meet on the Lower East Side every Sunday evening.
St. Lydia’s is a progressive congregation that grows out of the Lutheran and Episcopal traditions. Everyone is welcome at the Table.
St. Lydia’s is a new experiment in what the Church might be when the meal we share is at the very center of our life together. We’re building this together – come and join us!
Sounds like servant leadership to me.
I imagine Jesus smiling broadly.
You can take a guided tour of the place here. They say:
St. Lydia’s looks and feels different from most churches. We gather each week to cook a big, delicious meal together. Our worship occurs around that meal -- we eat together, read scripture, pray and sing around the table. We do this because this is what worship looked like in the earliest days of the church. We also do this because we believe that Communion is made as we sit down at a table together to share food and share ourselves. Our meal is a sacred way of tying us together and tying us to God. We consecrate it with a Eucharistic prayer called the Didache drawn from the second century.But, this is my favorite part:
When you arrive at St. Lydia’s, you’ll see that you’re put straight to work preparing dinner, setting tables, or putting out candles. We’ve noticed that it’s easy to get to know one another when we work together. We’ve also noticed that working together draws us together as a community, and draws us closer to God. St. Lydia’s is a homemade churchPut straight to work, getting to know one another in a 'homemade church' . . .
Wait. Not so fast.
We're awfully quick to play 'shoot the leader' when what we really need to do is 'rethink leadership'.
I think what we really need to do is go back in order to find the future of the church - which, to my mind, is not so much about 'leadership' as it is Servant Leadership.