After more than 50 years of ministerial service in Baptist churches, I am learning to be a layperson again and to see things from the perspective of the pew.
Our church is currently seeking a new pastor. Though I am not involved in that process, I have been reviewing the qualities of pastoral leadership pertinent to our present age of confusion, doubt and suspicion of authority figures.
“What today’s churches need – to borrow an analogy from the Atlantic article – is a new vessel with a new kind of crew.”
I have discovered some helpful material from secular sources. The Atlantic, for example, recently published an article by Jerry Useem entitled “At Work Expertise is Falling Out of Favor.” Useem describes the U.S. Navy’s work on a new combat vessel built to adapt quickly to rapidly changing situations, enabling it to function as a submarine hunter, minesweeper or surface combatant. Along with the flexibility of the new type of vessel is a new kind of crew – “hybrid sailors” who are smart, flexible, adaptable and curious, with an ability to acquire new skills rapidly.
These sailors are prepared to perform a number of tasks without a strong top-down command. This allows for a much smaller crew than has been the traditional pattern for over 200 years.
For me, three key points apply to the challenges of pastoral leadership today:
Leadership in this model is systemic. The ship, the crew and the mission are viewed as an integrated unit. Leadership emerges as the situation demands.
The operative concept is “minimal manning.” Useem notes, “The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.”
A primary requisite for sailors is “fluid intelligence” or “openness to new experience.” According to Zachary Hambrick, psychology professor at Michigan State University, “We wanted to identify characteristics of people who could flexibly shift.” These leaders are strong in self-confidence and able to learn from their mistakes.
Given the rapidity of change in our world, this way of thinking and planning calls for “life-long learning.” Even those who want to be specialists need this quality in order to adapt to new conditions and new demands in their work. Useem points out that the sailors “regarded every minute on board as a chance to learn something new.”
Laszlo Bock, founder of Google, calls this quality “mental agility.” In my view, a corollary to new concepts of leadership required in this age of change is a commitment to teamwork, collaborative problem-solving and shared responsibilities.
Useem acknowledges that the Navy’s new style of leadership has some limitations. Specialization will always be needed and rewarded. In fields like sports, medicine, music, teaching, scientific research, aviation and others, mastery of particular skills is essential. Likewise, within every organization there is a need for accountability for decisions and results.
In many fields, however, the way forward calls for leadership that is more like that described above. In football terms, think of an effective quarterback who must be able to perform multiple tasks in addition to serving as the coordinator and motivator of his teammates on the field.
“As for us laity, we too must be willing to adopt those qualities we expect of our pastors, for we are the real crew on this vessel of faith we call the Church.”
Against this backdrop I received a phone call from a retired colleague in pastoral ministry. We talk from time to time about the old days when churches were filled, programs were working and money was flowing into the coffers. Typically success was measured by growth in buildings, baptisms and budgets (and the flurry of activity that sometimes wore us pastors out). Now, looking back at the period between 1950 and 2000 when we were “in charge of things,” we recognize a sad reality: hundreds, if not thousands, of church facilities occupying acres of prime real estate while accommodating small and dwindling congregations of primarily elderly people (like ourselves).
Many of these formerly robust churches will not survive another decade. (I confess that my friend and I agreed that we are grateful not to be among those who are beginning their pastoral careers in these circumstances.) What today’s churches need – to borrow an analogy from the Atlantic article – is a new vessel with a new kind of crew.
Given the New Testament image of the Church as a functioning body with many gifted and inter-related parts, the concept of a strategically-designed vessel with “minimal manning” may be relevant. In this model, key considerations for an effective pastoral leader may include a person who is:
- a generalist who can shift quickly from one task to another as the situation demands;
- well-grounded in biblical studies and contemporary theology (in the vein of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, N.T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, et al.);
- following Jesus’ example of team-building as the basis for functional leadership that includes viewing the laity as an integral part of the team;
- adept in using a range of media without being addicted to the technology;
- fearless in terms of experimentation and having the courage to make and learn from mistakes;
- focused on measuring success in terms of changed lives, improved relationships and the renewal of the whole world order – in its social, environmental and economic condition – for all people to enjoy; and
- very certain that they are fully engaged in becoming what God intends.
If this seems a tall order, it is. A pastor’s role in today’s world will be like that of our Lord himself who began his movement with the flexibility of a new type of vessel, a small crew and the vision of a new creation based on the pattern of heaven.
As for us laity, we too must be willing to adopt those qualities we expect of our pastors, for we are the real crew on this vessel of faith we call the Church.