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Leading in Uncharted Territory: The Future of Church Leadership

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One night after a long day of meetings, an older pastor let out a heavy sigh. He was nearing retirement, and we were working together on a project that was supposed to reorganize our entire denomination in order to help our church better minister in a changing world. And that changing world weighed on him.

He remembered well how not that long ago life was different. He swirled his drink and said to me, “You know, when I began my ministry in a church in Alabama, I never worried about church growth or worship attendance or evangelism. Back then, if a man didn’t come to church on Sunday, his boss asked him about it at work on Monday.”

Sociologists and theologians refer to this recently passed period as Christendom, the 1,700-year-long era with Christianity at the privileged center of Western cultural life. Christendom gave us “blue laws” and the Ten Commandments in school. It gave us “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and exhortations to Bible reading in the national newspapers. (I have a copy of the Los Angeles Times from December 1963 that has stories on the Warren Commission, the 9,000-member Hollywood Presbyterian church and a list of daily Bible readings for the upcoming week. Can you even imagine the Los Angeles Times exhorting people to read their Bibles today?) It was the day when every “city father” laid out the town square with the courthouse, the library and a First Church of _______ within the center of the city.

For most of us, these days are long gone. (For some of us, that is good news indeed. Did you notice the reference to “man” in my friend’s statement?)

When cities are now considering using eminent domain laws to replace churches with tax-revenue generating big-box stores, when Sundays are more about soccer and Starbucks than about Sabbath, when Christian student groups are getting derecognized on university campuses, when the fastest-growing religious affiliation among young adults is “none,” when there is no moral consensus built on Christian tradition (even among Christians), when even a funeral in a conservative beach town is more likely to be a Hawaiian style “paddle out” than a gathering in a sanctuary, then Christendom as a marker of society has clearly passed.

Over the last 10 years I have had one church leader after another whisper to me the same frustrated confession: “Seminary didn’t train me for this. I don’t know if I can do it. I just don’t know …”

A couple of years ago I learned that three of my pastor friends around the country had resigned on the same day. There were no affairs, no scandals and no one was renouncing faith. But three good, experienced pastors turned in resignations and walked away. One left church ministry altogether. The details are as different as the pastors themselves, but the common thread is that they finally got worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do. Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges. What all three churches had in common was that they were mostly blaming the pastor for how bad it felt to be so stuck.

“If only you could preach better!”
“If only you were more pastoral and caring!”
“If only our worship was more dynamic!”
“Please, pastor, do something!” (That is what we pay you for, isn’t it?)

And to make matters worse, the pastors don’t know what to do either. As a seminary vice president, I am now charged with confronting this reality head on.

Our graduates were not trained for this day. When I went to seminary, we were trained in the skills that were necessary for supporting faith in Christendom.

When churches functioned primarily as vendors of religious services for a Christian culture, the primary leadership toolbox was …

teaching (for providing Christian education)
liturgics (for leading Christian services)
pastoral care (for offering Christian counsel and support)

In this changing world we need to add a new set of leadership tools. And this applies equally well to Christians serving in leadership beyond the parish.

The challenges of a changing world come even more rapidly in business, education and nonprofit leadership.

When You Discover That You Are the Problem

At the end of our 2006–2007 fiscal year, San Clemente Presbyterian Church (SCPC) had a $100,000 general fund surplus. In 20 years of church work I had never seen anything like it. By all common measures we were doing as well as we could hope. We were in our tenth consecutive year of growth, we had unified around a shared vision, and we had rebuilt our entire campus. We were starting big initiatives to serve our community, including planting a church, starting a community resource center and starting an additional Spanish-language service.

And then we began to notice something. It was subtle, but there was no mistaking that it was there. Right at the moment when we were taking concrete steps to reach out to others for the sake of the gospel, the energy in the church began to wane. We became infected with a kind of malaise, a tangible diminishing of enthusiasm. As the pastor, I was confused. How could we be doing so well and yet feel like something was so wrong?

We brought in a consulting group to take a look under the hood. They led us through an evaluative process and reported back that our scores were really strong; we were among the healthiest churches they had worked with. But they also told us there were some disturbing “early warning signs” that could be traced to an unintended consequence of the past decade’s success.

The success of a unified vision had given birth to an overly centralized institution. The very unity, discipline and alignment needed to bring the church together to rebuild the campus around our vision were now stifling creativity, passion and energy. In an entrepreneurial culture like that of south Orange County, California, we had become too corporate. And less people were interested in being part of supporting what they saw was a growing religious institution.

When our consultant, Kevin Graham Ford, laid this out before me, I grimaced.

“So what’s causing this? What’s at the heart of the problem? What do we need to change?” I asked.

That’s when he said the word that changed my life: “You.”

I felt a little queasy.

Kevin continued,

Tod, don’t get me wrong. These people love and respect you. They appreciate your preaching and they trust you. In fact, we have never had a church talk more about a senior pastor than this church talks about you. And that is the problem. It’s not your problem, at least not yet. Nobody thinks that you are trying to build the church around you, but that is in fact what is happening.

Unconsciously, the message going out is that everybody here thinks it is their job to support the ministry that you are having here. And that model of leadership is out of date. It’s a model from the past that is unsustainable in a changing world, and is slowly sapping the passion from the church.

Kevin gave me three hard options: (1) Do nothing and trust that the church would bounce back, (2) resign and let the church have a new leader, or (3) I could learn to lead differently.

I chose option 3. I loved my church and wanted to remain their pastor, and yet I knew something needed to change. Relearning how to lead wasn’t easy.

And even now in my role with Fuller Seminary, I have been relearning what it means to lead ever since.

My story is not unique. For the past decade I have consulted with leaders in a wide variety of contexts: once great urban churches who are now close to closing their doors, small town congregations who are becoming older and smaller, growing immigrant congregations who are struggling with growing pains, denominational leaders facing one rapid-fire crisis after another, nonprofit boards struggling to stay afloat and find new funding, seminary leaders facing questions about whether they are even relevant anymore.

What we all have in common is that our old strategies no longer work.

Leadership for a Changing World

Today’s leaders are facing complex challenges that have no clear-cut solutions. These challenges are more systemic in nature and require broad, widespread learning. They can’t be solved through a conference, a video series or a program. Even more complicated, these problems are very often the result of yesterday’s solutions. They are what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive challenges.”

Adaptive challenges are the true tests of leadership. They are challenges that go beyond the technical solutions of resident experts or best practices, or even the organization’s current knowledge. They arise when the world around us has changed but we continue to live on the successes of the past. They are challenges that cannot be solved through compromise or win-win scenarios, or by adding another ministry or staff person to the team. They demand that leaders make hard choices about what to preserve and to let go. They are challenges that require people to learn and to change, that require leaders to experience and navigate profound loss.

Today, I consult, coach and am on the senior leadership of a seminary dedicated to forming leaders for this changing world. But for me it all began almost 10 years ago with understanding that for our church mission to win, I had to lose. The changing world around us and even the success we had experienced had brought us to a new place where we would need a new strategy. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “What got us here wouldn’t take us there.” So, I had to lose some of my status, power and control. I had to lose “say” over certain aspects of the mission, and mostly I had to lose my identity as the resident expert and learn to lead all over again.

The culture is changing, the world is changing rapidly, and churches are facing change on an unprecedented scale. Churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even marginalized. Shared corporate faith is viewed with cynicism at best, downright hostility at worst. The cultural advantage we experienced during the 17 centuries of Christendom has almost completely dissipated. Seminary training for the Christendom world is inadequate to this immensely challenging—transformation-demanding—moment in history.

We have to learn to lead all over again.

But the church is also at an exciting crossroads. We are entering a new day, new terrain and a new adventure. We are not alone. The Spirit of God goes before us. The mission of Christ will not fail. A day will come when the “kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

The next steps are going to be demanding. More than anything, this moment requires those of us in positions of authority (and even most of us who are not) to embrace an adventure-or-die mindset, and find the courage and develop the capacity for a new day. We are heading into uncharted territory and are given the charge to lead a mission where the future is nothing like the past.

Taken from Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger. Copyright (c) 2015 by Tod Bolsinger. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com

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