When Church Leadership is Broken, chapter 5

(Links to Intro, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four)

CALLING

There’s an old joke about a farmer who is feeling unsettled in his work. A church going man, he feels like God has something more planned for his life than what he’s doing. As he prepares for harvesting his soybean fields he prays to God and asks for a sign about what he should do and suddenly, in the sky above him, God gives him a sign.

Months later he is at Bible College and he’s preparing to become a preacher. But he’s not really enjoying it. He’s struggling with the schoolwork, the discussions and in preaching class he gets uptight, nervous and eventually falls apart before he finishes his sermon. In frustration about the whole situation, he approaches his homiletics professor one day, after class.

They talk and he describes how frustrated he is to the professor, who asks him, “What brought you here in the first place?” The former farmer tells him the story of praying for a sign one day while he was out in his soybean fields. “I looked up into the sky,” he tells the professor, “And God gave me an unmistakable sign, there were only two clouds in the sky above me and they had formed a giant PC right above my head.”

“And what did you make of that?” the professor asked.

“I knew right away that out there in the middle of my soybean fields, as I prayed for new direction, that God was calling me to Preach Christ.”

The professor thought for a second and then said, “Maybe God was just telling you to Plant Corn?”

The people who lead in the Church need to be people of character. Character that looks and feels like Jesus. They also need to be people who have been called by God into a leadership role in the Church. They need to be people who know they are in a story, who know the story they are in, where it’s come from and where it goes from here and have confidence that God has placed them in the story to be leaders who are responsible for the well-being of others and their spiritual formation into the image of Jesus Christ.

Stanley Hauerwas tells us, “It is a story, that is, the story that we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story, it is a story that has at its heart the attempt to make us tyrants of our own lives. But no one is more lonely than tyrants. Since they must always distrust everyone around them, because they know that they want their place, of course, the problem with the story that you should have no story, except the story you chose when you had no story, is you did not choose that story.” The story that there is no story involves individualism and self-determination and being self-made. These three things are essential for creating tyrants but they are hostile to the gospel of Jesus.

Hauerwas goes on to say that, “Abundant life, the life that Jesus offers, is a storied life made possible by a common life that recognizes that before we were, we were storied by a story we did not choose. It is called creation. It is called redemption. And that story, the story of creation, the story of redemption makes possible friendships between strangers, just to the extent we learn that we share a common story that we have not chosen.” Eugene Peterson writes, “Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins.” Hauerwas and Will Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “We are not sure that our clergy know where we are, much less where we ought to be, so how can they be expected to know what they should be doing?” In a review of Peterson’s book for Christianity Today, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “Still, if you spend any time with pastors…it is clear our vocation is facing something of a crisis. Many pastors aren’t sure how to describe their calling or explain why it matters to the rest of the world.”

Detached or ‘narrative deprived’, we are adrift and unable to see the story we are in or, if we sense we are in a story, we cannot see how our story connects to the bigger story of the Church or the world around us.  This has resulted in a crisis of identity for pastors.  They’ve been cast in a play-in-progress but no one has informed them about the part they are playing or what the first four acts have been about.  Anxiety will naturally develop in the midst of such systemic uncertainty. External criticism based on conflicting expectations and ambiguous expectations will create stress.  An inability to measure up to a standard that is inconsistent, hidden or unworkable will create depression.  The loss of a collective narrative creates a vacuum for competing narratives to fill and the song becomes just so much noise.

Vocation fixes us in the story. We are called.

Called by God for a purpose.

Into his story, not our own story.

We have a part to play in the story but we don’t determine the outcomes, we aren’t responsible for the conclusion, we can’t change the ending.

Knowing the ending, our vocation is to do the work God has called us to in the way God has called us to do it – because the way the story gets told IS the story.

The medium, it turns out, really is the message.

Dr. James W. Thompson of Abilene Christian University, in Pastoral Ministry according to Paul, explains the impetus for his book written in 2006: “After years of educating future ministers, my colleagues and I finally took on the task of writing a vision statement to serve as a foundation for our curriculum and to describe the ministry for which we were preparing our students.” This proved problematic for Thompson.  Trying to reach consensus with his colleagues at the university proved to be a challenge.  “We discovered that we work with many unstated and differing assumptions about the nature of the ministry.” The remarkable thing is not their inability to reach a simple consensus; it is not that they all taught at the same university but held different views; rather it was that this revelation occurred to them “after years of educating future ministers.”

Years.

One can only imagine the fractured image of ministry with which each student was graduating.

Eugene Peterson recalled, “My seminary professors had no idea what pastors were or did.”

It’s inevitable that leadership in the Church will become broken when we can’t agree on the story we are in.

What we’ve been called to.

It’s essential then that a leader in the Church, any leader, has a clear sense of calling to the work that includes some understanding – not a perfect understanding – just some understanding – of the story we are in, what it means to shepherd the flock of God of which they are a part. Of course, this means having at least enough of an understanding that they are able to articulate for themselves and others, the story we are in, so there is clarity on where the story is going and how leaders in the story are called to lead.

Because it’s not their story.

And misleading people about the story by the way they live it, tell it or perhaps sell it, can land them in a great deal of trouble with the author who, we have been told, can be harsh with people who twist his story.

When those preparing people for their pastoral vocation struggle to define that vocation, it should not surprise us to find pastors and churches struggling with their sense of identity.  Ministry becomes a Rorschach test in that what comes to mind when you picture a pastor probably says more about you and the culture that has shaped you than it does about the objective role or vocation of a pastor.

In the introduction to Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson suggests, light-heartedly, that he has been planning a new money-making approach to pastoral formation. “For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation.”  He outlines the curriculum that consists of only four courses: Creative Plagiarism, Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling, Efficient Office Management, and Image Projection.  He would include a week long refresher course each year to “introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends…”  Ultimately his joke lost its humor when he began to see this curriculum being offered, albeit with slightly different titles but the same content, all over the country.  Peterson says the content was the kind, “…that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion.” The absence of a coherent, connected story will create pressure for a pastor or “pastor in formation,” which is a healthier and more accurate way to view each other.  This pressure, to be relieved, can lead us to adopt or coopt nearly any other story that we come across that promises the outcomes we would like to achieve or they have been told they should achieve.

Knowing your vocation is leadership in the Church, and knowing the story we are in is the story of Jesus, we find the narrative of Jesus reshapes and repurposes our lives, and brings us into the church to lead, feed and protect fellow Jesus followers in the ongoing story of God’s Kingdom.

Knowing your vocation is leadership in the Church in the Jesus story, leaders learn to describe their story in the context of the multi-faceted story God is telling with a rich variety of characters through whom it is being told.  Leaders who live out of their sense of vocation feel no compulsion internally or externally to coopt someone else’s story because they can see that their own story is rich enough, textured enough and interesting enough to form and fill their lives. 

Leaders who live out of their sense of vocation do not have to forge a new identity because the story itself provides identity.  They no longer feel compelled to prove their value through accomplishment or status because they have discovered that their participation in the story itself provides meaning and value to his or her life. The ultimate questions for the “storied” leader then are simple, “Am I improvising my own part in the story faithful to what has already been told before me?” and “Am I improvising my own part in the story in a way that is in obvious unity with the conclusion our story has always been moving towards?”

A leader who leads from their sense of calling understands that the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that is coming.

A leader who leads from vocation mines the stories that have come before us for gold with which the future can be built. The daily work of the “storied” leader engages with other contemporary stories in a collaborative effort, not as independent characters passing through one another’s stories but as interconnected stories that are part of a greater narrative. Ultimately, the “storied” leader’s primary role is to live out an alternative story to the dominant story that has shaped the consciousness around them: subversive storytelling.

When you know the story you are in, you have the necessary “thickness” to withstand the pressures that will come from within and without to live out of a different narrative – the Entrepreneur, the CEO, the Multi-level marketer, the Benevolent Tyrant, the Franchisee, the Hired Hand, or the King of Israel.

LEADERSHIP IN COMMUNITY

A friend likes to say to me, “If you think of yourself as a leader and you turn around and no one is following you, you’re just out for a walk.”

Sometimes leadership in the Church gets broken – not because the leaders don’t have a sense of their vocation – but because the Church itself has lost the plot. Churches are made of people who, as Hauerwas says, believe that their story is “the story that you should have no story, other than the story you chose when you had no story.” We have entire congregations of people who are living a story that is similar to the story of Jesus and his kingdom but are more closely aligned to the story of American exceptionalism or Religious Nationalism or White Supremacy or Big Box Consumerism or the Customer Is Always Right Capitalism or some other familiar story with just enough Jesus in it to control people and assure outcomes.

Hauerwas and Willimon write, “The Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with God.  Scripture is an account of human existence as told by God.  In scripture, we see that God is taking the disconnected elements of our lives and pulling them together into a coherent story that means something.  When we lack such a truthful, coherent account, life is likely to be perceived as disconnected, ad hoc.  In trying to make sense of life, when we lack a coherent narrative, life is little more than a lurch to the left, a lurch to the right…No wonder modern humanity, even as it loudly proclaims its freedom and power to choose, is really an impotent herd driven this way and that, paralyzed by the disconnectedness of         it all.  It’s just one damn thing after another.”

One of the primary tasks of leadership in the Church then is embodying the story we find ourselves in. It is impossible for the Church to hear the story we are telling with our words if the way we are living keeps getting in the way. And sometimes Church leaders act the way they do because the rest of us want them to or the rest of us let them.

Because this post is already longer than anyone wants to read, let me break these two down in broad terms.

Sometimes we get the leaders we deserve instead of the leaders that we need. Collectively we are embodying one of these alternative stories and we end up with a Saul or a Solomon or a Jeroboam. We seek out people who will make us successful in ways that don’t look anything like the kingdom but count on a scoreboard or look good in an annual report for a shareholders meeting. We want leaders who will make us great again – and we’re all for it until it costs us more than we were willing to pay – usually this involves a very personal cost – and we find ourselves on the fringe rather than the center of the success.

John Wimber said that we’ll vote with our feet. That when bad shepherds come along and abuse the sheep, we’ll all get up and move on and that will end their story of tyranny.

Only, John was wrong. Abused people will hang in there a long time with the one or the ones who abuse them. They can be conditioned to do so. Or it can just be the way in which Church tends to enmesh our lives with each other, our history, our future, our families, our friendships, our service and tearing apart all this enmeshment can be more traumatic – or seem like it would be more traumatic – than actually putting up with the bad behavior of abusive people.

So we stay.

Longer than we should.

Shall we recite together the names of all the Churches we know of in the last decade in which this has played out?

Sometimes we’re a bunch of cantankerous consumers who have built our iron throne and by God, we will have a king like all the other nations. Taller than the rest of us, barrel chested, a man we all want to be or a man we all want, a man who takes charge and has a vision. And that’s just what we get and when he behaves just like he would, we fain surprise and talk treason.

Sometimes we enable bullies, sometimes we endure bullying, sometimes because we get trapped, and sometimes because we’ve convinced ourselves it is for the greater good.

What we need is an unwillingness to settle for any story but the story Jesus is telling and for leaders in the Church who have demonstrated a clear vocation to the kind of leadership that the story of Jesus shapes and empowers that will not fulfill the American dream but will keep us embedded in the story of Jesus and the spiritual formation that story promises to fulfill.

So…what’s your story?

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

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