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A New Way of Leading

Len Hjalmarson

In the last of his series on the church in a postmodern world, Len Hjalmarson considers the effects postmodern thinking is likely to have on future patterns of leadership in the church. He explores several alternative models of leadership, opening up some exciting possibilities for all believers to grow stronger together as a community of faith. Are the patterns of our future, in fact, likely to be not so very different from those associated with the earliest forms of Christianity?

The empowerment of the early Christians by the Spirit of God sounded the death knell of the old priesthood. Suddenly all God's people were directly connected to the Head, with unmediated access to God.

"Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant." Phil.2: 5-7

Postmoderns reject authority in position in favour of authority in relationship. They do not buy into hierarchies, and they tend to assign authority only when it is earned. They don't respect leaders who are 'over' but not 'among'. This aligns with the New Testament teaching on the priesthood of believers and Jesus' teaching that "the greatest among you must be the servant of all".

While the modern church echoed Reformation doctrine on 'the priesthood of all believers', priestly functions remained in the province of a specially trained professional class. The old priesthood remained, with a more friendly face, limiting participation to the few rather than equipping and releasing the many. As a consequence, the church as a whole has asked men and women to open their wallets and shut their mouths. Since the medium is the message, and large gatherings tend to be stages for the few, it's no wonder that believers do not feel empowered to reach their world!

Postmoderns may admit that hierarchy grants the illusion of structural efficiency, but they recognise that the model is from the technological world. In the biological world (postmoderns prefer organic metaphors), life loves redundancy. Why not have fifty pastors in a community of two hundred adults? New models of leadership are rising among postmoderns. Peter Senge writes:

"In the knowledge era, we will finally have to surrender the myth of leaders as isolated heroes commanding their organisations from on high. Top-down directives, even when they are implemented, reinforce an environment of fear, distrust and internal competitiveness that reduces collaboration and cooperation. They foster compliance instead of commitment, yet only genuine commitment can bring about the courage, imagination, patience and perseverance necessary in a knowledge-creating organisation. For those reasons, leadership in the future will be distributed among diverse individuals and teams who share responsibility for creating the organisation's future."1

Some are building on the concept of team leadership to look for more open models. Some postmodern leaders like the metaphor of air traffic controller (ATC). An ATC doesn't fly the aeroplanes, he only directs them. The primary function of an ATC is to clear aircraft for takeoff and landing, and ensure they stay on the safe path once airborne. The ATC is almost an invisible part of the process, but his or her role is essential in enabling the flight. Others prefer the metaphor of symphony conductor.

"A good conductor does not merely tell everyone what to do; rather he helps everyone to hear what is so. For this he is not primarily a telling but a listening individual: even while the orchestra is performing loudly he is listening inwardly to silent music. He is not so much commanding as he is obedient.

"The conductor conducts by being conducted. He first hears, feels, loses himself in the silent music; then when he knows what it is he finds a way to help others hear it too. He knows that music is not made by people playing instruments, but rather by music playing people."2

Still others like a metaphor borrowed from the philosophical underpinnings of postmodern thought: the narrator. John O'Keefe of talks about 'the story':

"No matter the story, no matter the ending, truth is in the narrative. All story is valid, all story -- both individual and group -- can add to the collective of the community. When we see life as simply a collection of story, we start to understand both our humanity and God's divinity. The narrative allows for creative, adaptable, non-linear thinking with group input and an interactivity based on transparency and a living worldview. The narrative is, if you will, a new operating system for the church in the new millennium. It is both virtual and non-virtual, and it leads us to the future revitalising of the church. Some may view this style of vision development as 'vision by chaos,' and they would be right. But out of chaos, God creates order."

In this context listen to John's thoughts on the role of leadership:

"Postmodern people are not looking for a CEO, CFO, COO, CIO, or any other 3-letter combinations you can think of starting with the big 'C'. Today, we are looking for the poet, the prophet and the storyteller -- the narrator. We don't 'lead' people as much as listen to the needs of people and guide them along the path of faith. (The community direction is not based on the desires of one person, but grows from the leader's understanding of the collective vision.)"

Furthermore, why use titles and labels that separate people in our community from one another? Why 'pastor Bob' instead of just Bob? Labelling one person by their function damages the wholeness of the relationship, and limits the recognition that many others may be functioning as pastors in their workplace, or in other webs of connection.

At a deeper level there exists the unspoken assumption that leaders have more to give than others, and that those who 'follow' need us more than we need them. In reality, the strong offer one gift, and the weak another. Until we die to the idea that we are somehow 'ahead of' or 'above' the community of faith around us, we will continue to be frustrated in our attempts to have an authentic community that combines real relationships with real discipleship. Jean Vanier writes:

"We do not want two communities -- the helpers and the helped; we want one. That is the theory, but in practice there is a tendency for the assistants to make their own community and be satisfied with that. Truly to make community with the poorest and identify with them is harder and demands a death to self."3

Dorothy vs The Wiz

Brian McLaren, in an article titled "Dorothy on Leadership,"4 challenges the modern assumptions of leadership and the successful pastor as CEO, alpha male, and corporate hero. McLaren describes his own attempt to emulate the Hybels, Warrens and Maxwells of the world, and his discovery that in fact size XXL didn't fit him, just as Saul's armor wasn't designed to fit David.

More to the point, McLaren saw a cultural clash; the models that worked in the modern church no longer function in the postmodern church. Perhaps they were never very good models anyway.

McLaren muses that as he considered the problem a scene in "The Wizard of Oz" came to mind. The scene is when little Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the great Wizard of Oz is a very average guy hiding behind an imposing image. The 1940s world was a world immersed in modernity, a world enamoured with Superman and the Lone Ranger. Yet the film exposes the Wizard as a fraud, expressing a relentless doubt and displaying an early pang of discontent with its dominant model of larger-than-life leadership. Brian wondered what image of leadership would replace the great Wizard.

The answer appeared in the next scene. No, it wasn't the lion, the scarecrow, or the tin man. It was Dorothy.

"At first glance, Dorothy is all wrong as a model of leadership. She is the wrong gender (female) and the wrong age (young). Rather than being a person with all the answers, who knows what's up and where to go and what's what, she is herself lost, a seeker, often bewildered, and vulnerable. These characteristics would disqualify her from modern leadership. But they serve as her best credentials for postmodern leadership."5

McLaren identifies ten Wizardly characteristics of modern church leadership.

1. Bible Analyst: The modern Christian leader dissects the Bible because knowledge is power.

2. Broadcaster: an amplified voice increases perceived power and authority. Being slick, being smooth, being big, being 'on the air' -- that's what makes you a leader.

3. Technician: The organisation (church, ministry, etc.) is a machine, and the leader knows how to work the machine, how to tweak it and maintain it. People become objects, and he's the subject.

4. Warrior/Salesman: Modern leadership is about conquest -- 'winning' souls, launching 'crusades', 'taking' this city or country for Jesus. And it's about marketing, selling (and sometimes selling out).

5. Careerist: The modern leader earns credentials, grasps the bottom rung of the ladder, and climbs, climbs, climbs -- whether he is a stock-boy-who-would-be-CEO or a young preacher on the rise.

6. Problem-Solver: Come to him, and he'll fix you.

7. Apologist: Come to him, and he'll tell you why he's right and your doubt or scepticism is wrong.

8. Threat: One of the most powerful weapons of the modern Christian leader has been the threat of exclusion. Through mocking caricatures and other techniques, a gifted orator can make you fear that if you don't agree with him, you'll be banished -- like the Wizard bellowing threats from behind his curtain.

9. Knower: The modern Christian leader appears supremely confident in his opinions, perspectives, beliefs, systems and formulations. While we have questions, he is the answer-man who knows.

10. Solo Act: There's only room for one in the Wizard's control booth, and there's only room for one at the top of the church org chart.

McLaren compares Dorothy to this modern picture, and the result is completely different. Dorothy is a bit disoriented, and she gathers other needy people in the belief that all their needs can be fulfilled in a common quest. Dorothy doesn't have all the answers and can't solve all the problems, but she believes that somehow they can journey together.

McLaren lists a comparison of this post-Wiz

leadership to the modern leadership model.

1. From Bible analyst to spiritual sage.

2. From Broadcaster to listener.

3. From Technician to spiritual friend.

4. From Warrior/Salesman to dancer.

5. From Careerist to Amateur.

6. From Problem Solver to Co-Quester.

7. From Apologist to Apologiser.

8. From Threat to Includer.

9. From Knower to Seeker.

10. From Solo Act to Team Builder.

Leadership by Wisdom and Example

"The only way to propagate a message is to live it." Jim Wallis

Postmoderns respect love and wisdom, but are quick to reject the connection between knowledge and authority. Since knowledge is always limited and conditional, wisdom has more value. Wisdom always has practical application. As St Francis put it, "Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."

Modernism (and much of what was called 'discipleship') stressed 'getting the right answer' (as if knowing something automatically transfers to lifestyle); postmodernism stresses 'does it work?' It is important to give people space and time, within the context of a community of faith, to journey with us. Thus, a teacher of great worth in postmodern society isn't the one with the right answers, but the one who can ask the right questions, and then walk the road of discovery with others.

The good news is that proclamation and demonstration of the reality of Jesus Christ has always been an integral part of New Testament teaching. Paul did not come proclaiming "persuasive words of wisdom, but with demonstration of the spirit and power".6 If we choose to adapt to postmodern possibilities, we will find ourselves in a unique position to have great effect in the cause of Jesus Christ.

John O'Keefe of relates that the core in the narrative includes the following:

"I think primarily, you don't lead, you example. Notice I did not say, "you lead by example" -- because that is somewhat impossible, and all the time doubtful. To 'example' you simply are you.

"One of the first things we need to do as a postmodern narrator is to let people function, and not just 'give' them a function. This means you need to help people find their calling and gifts and let them develop that call and gift to best serve God, themselves and the community. It requires that you spend time with the people of the community, and not just a select few."

Where modern leaders were often valued for their knowledge and their delivery (read 'sermons and tapes') postmodern leaders tend to be valued for their example. It's tough to argue with this as a more biblical position, since the New Testament values character over gifting.7

Where moderns trust the expert, postmoderns tend to respond or react to a person's energy or person more than to what he or she actually says or does. If postmoderns trust the WHO of someone, the WHAT is negotiable and open to maturation. Postmoderns will go along for the ride and enjoy the process even when the goals are not clear so long as the WHO is trustworthy.

The open-ended question of how we follow Jesus in a postmodern society can best be dealt with in the Hebraic learning tradition, which views the teacher (leader, pastor, narrator or whatever) as a co-traveller with the learner on a shared journey towards truth. For the postmodern person, there is as much value in the question as there is in the answer, so reaching the goal becomes less of an obsession.

An old exercise in the dynamics of leadership goes like this: a group of leaders is asked to (quickly!) write down the titles of the three sermons that most powerfully affected their Christian lives. Then the same group is asked to write down the names of the three people who most powerfully affected their spiritual walk. Guess which list was quick, easy and encouraging, and which list prompted blank looks, head-scratching, and a certain level of anxiety?

"We now know that human transformation does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude", says Walter Brueggemann in Cadences of Home, "but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality."

An axiom of educational and consultant circles is that we learn the least from the 'lecture' method of teaching. Involvement and participation in the learning process has always been far more effective than simply listening. In spite of this, leaders invest inordinate amounts of time preparing sermons that have close to zero impact in growing disciples.

In order for 'acquired or experience-forged wisdom' to be truly accessible, however, there must be ongoing, mutual relationship. Every parent knows that the lecture method of teaching is all but hopeless; on the other hand, children watch us closely and learn by our example. As the saying goes, "More is caught than taught." A similar adage has been variously attributed to either Native American or Chinese wisemen:

"Tell me and I may forget,
Show me and I may remember,
Involve me and I will understand."

Roland Allen, the great missiologist, wrote in The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church that

"Experience leads to learning 'doctrine' and practices; teachable moments; mosaic, not linear learning. Learning without experience equals intellectual theory doomed to fail: not because it is false but because it is not seen as valuable. A person's experience ought to always outstrip their education. This way they know what they don't know, why they need to know it and have an immediate place to apply it. This way motivation to learn and retention rates go way up."8

Leadership (whether called 'pastoring' or not) needs to be seen as a spiritual gift, not a position of power, prestige, or a paycheque. Too often pastors and leaders suffer from the tyranny of the felt pressure to 'grow workers', so that they cannot form genuine relationships with those around them. They feel that the weaker ones don't represent a good 'investment' of time because of the lack of 'return' for the machinery of the church's programmes.

Many pastors are needlessly lonely and isolated because of this, many others experience burnout or the failure of their most intimate relationships, and many believers feel rejected and unwanted because leaders tend to prefer the company of the more 'useful' followers. (Note that Jesus' choice of apostles is stunning from this point of view).

If leadership is seen as less about power and authority (as modelled in the hierarchical, top-down styles of corporations) and more about gift and character, then we all become pilgrims on the same journey.

The modern leader was the CEO, the manager of people and systems. Larry Crabb, in The Safest Place on Earth,9 comments that we have a choice: we can be either managers or mystics. Most of us feel somewhat out of place in community: we don't always feel safe and community itself is a mystery. We prefer structures we can understand and control.

The problem is, God is less interested in predictability and control than we are! Or, from another perspective, he wants to be the one in control, and he doesn't always tell us in advance what he is up to! Or yet again, he may be more interested in the process than the goal; as leaders, we get fixated on goals.

Webs of Connection and Meaning

Some who read this will be thinking, "You are dismantling our old system, but you haven't given us a structure to replace it. How then do we establish order and avoid chaos?"

First, we have to trust that what appears to be chaos may hide an incipient new order. We may not see the new order as it is emerging.

"Our God is a God of beginnings", says Jacques Ellul. "There is in him no redundancy or circularity. Thus, if his church wants to be faithful to his revelation, it will be completely mobile, fluid, renascent, bubbling, creative, inventive, adventurous, and imaginative."10

Second, quantum physics is teaching us that we don't need to understand and control the variables before order emerges, and leadership often arises spontaneously where it isn't expected.

Third, we have envisioned leadership as an individual and lonely pursuit. This worked in the modern world of commerce, and it works for an audience, but the practice is damaging to organic and communal life. Unfortunately, we have built congregations rather than communities, buildings rather than temples of living stones, and audiences rather than families (or communities) of faith. Clay Shirky writes,

"Building a community will require different skills and attitudes than those necessary to build an audience. Many of the expectations you make about the size, composition and behaviour of audiences . . . are actually damaging to community growth. To create an environment conducive to real community, you will have to operate more like a gardener than an architect."11

In his article Clay spells out some of the essential differences between a centrally controlled organisation (what I tend to call 'institution') versus a true community.

"Communities grow, rather than being built. New members of an audience are simply added to the existing pool, but new members of a community must be integrated. One of the most important things you can do to attract community is to give it a fertile environment in which to grow, and one of the most damaging things you can do is to try to force it to grow at a rapid pace or in a preset direction. Small groups can be highly focused on some particular issue or identity, but such groups can't simply be inflated like a balloon, because a large group is a different kind of thing to a small one.

"Real community is a self-creating thing, with some magic spark, easy to recognise after the fact but impossible to produce on demand, that draws people together. Once those people have formed a community, however, they will act in the interests of the community, even if those aren't the leaders' or managers' interests."

If our goal is to be in control, we needn't worry about the growth of community; a hierarchy will do. If our goal is to build a congregation, we only need a few leaders, who will soon burn out with the impossible task of holding it together. Instead, leaders need to see their role as that of providing support. "Leaders are necessary to foster experimentation, to help create connections across the organisation, to feed the system with rich information from multiple sources -- all while helping everyone stay clear on what we agreed we wanted to accomplish and who we wanted to be."12

f our goal is to grow communities and to empower ministry and life, we dare not build a hierarchy or settle for a congregation. We dare not be the saviour or the one with all the answers, or the one who is indispensable. When we no longer see dominance and social influence as the basic activities of leadership, we no longer think of people in terms of leaders and followers. Instead, we can think of leadership as a process in which an entire community is engaged.