by Andrew Gerns
The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Chuch has wrapped up a few weeks ago and we have seen some remarkable work done in some remarkable ways. In the midst of the usual parliamentary processes, the Episcopal Church’s main leadership council has made set a course towards evangelism and mission in an interconnected world. Underneath a convention that was both more technologically connected (and the Pads and balloting handhelds were only the beginning) and more networked (as with the work from the Acts 8 Moment, the convention media hub, and the House of Deputies daily news portal), I saw a convention that told us both to “Go!” as Bishop Curry said in his closing sermon, to “Innovate!”
As we go into the world, we are being charged to experiment in Christian communities that look and act differently for the sake of Christ’s mission. We are putting serious money towards trying out ways of being the church that breaks out of the buildings we’ve grown up in. We are being encouraged to use our resources and facilities in new ways. Even from across the country peering at the convention through a live stream and Twitter, I think that I was not alone in believing that God is egging us on towards something new in the Episcopal Church
But while the convention was charging us to go in one way, there were signs that we have serious signs of dislocation that threaten to keep us stuck in spiral of institutional struggle and scarcity thinking. These signs were at the edges, but nonetheless present. The bad news was that we came very close to presenting a budget that would not fund our vision for evangelism, proclamation, and mission innovation. The good news is that both Houses found a way to push pass the objections and take a calculated risk for mission. As Bishop Douglas Hahn said in the House of Bishops on voting for the budget amendment for evangelism, “I’d rather not be part of a church with a growing endowment and declining membership.”
Other signs of leadership stress were only slightly present in the halls of the convention.
The crisis at General Seminary was only talked about briefly in hearings and on the floors of the two houses. The final version of the resolution directs that a committee will only look at the relationship between the Seminary and General Convention. This departs from the original version, which asked for a more focused investigation into what happened in the last year on Chelsea Square.
While Convention was going on, the Diocese of Los Angeles was busy closing, clearing out, and selling St. James’ Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California. The congregation, loyal to the Episcopal Church and who was attempting to rebuild their parish’s ministry after years of lawsuits and conflict between the congregation’s former leadership, who broke away from the Episcopal Church. Apparently, the sale of the property will help pay for the millions of dollars that was spent in the protracted legal struggle as well as add much needed principal to the diocesan endowment which will, presumably, be used for mission. Parish’s close or are merged all the time. What made news was that this parish in a wealthy community, which was making strides in rebuilding that many churches that many other parishes would envy, was being closed for reasons of redundancy in the aftermath of an expensive legal battle and the size of the sale price: $17 million.
Like the conflict in New York, this move has been seen a vocal—but ultimately helpless—constituency lose their church and their ministry against a hierarchy that is determined, has the law and levers of power on their side, and speaks very little to their constituencies about what is going on. In both instances, the critics are written off as people resistant to change and unable to manage their anxieties. Significantly, both the leaders and the alienated constituencies fundamentally agree on the mission and the means to get to there. So what went wrong?
Both situations indicate a leadership style that is at once hard-headed, realistic, and clear. The leaders at both the General Seminary and the Diocese of Los Angeles claim that they are doing what it must do to move the church into the future. While these leaders may be very adept at moving the levers of institutional power towards their desired short-term goals, there is profound absence of generosity and imagination in their pastoral leadership without which the Church cannot move into a hope-filled future.
If we are really going to move into a future where we grow the Church not only in numbers but in mission, we must look carefully at the kind of leadership we will need to move in the direction God is calling us. What is the way that will move us as a body towards God’s future? I believe that way forward—the way that is consistent with the Gospel and will meet the challenges of re-orienting the Church towards mission—is found in calling out a leadership grounded in God’s abundant generosity.
We tend to think of generosity only when it comes to money—how freely does a person give or spend their dollars. But generosity is a spiritual quality that trusts that God has given us the people we need, in the situation we have to do God’s work with energy and hope. Generous leadership is a kind of leadership that is particularly well-suited to the church because in it we assume that our greatest asset for ministry is also our product: the people of God in our communities. It is a leadership that both calls out and relies upon the vision of the people of God in community. And it is a style that is grounded in the very qualities we wish to develop in our congregations and our members.
The kind of managerial leadership that grew up in the church in the last 20th century—the kind that formed me as a priest—assumed that the person in charge, whether it was the parish priest or the diocesan bishop, was the one to hold the vision for the community. In this approach, the job of the leader was to impart the vision and to shepherd the group—be it the team in a company, a congregation or a diocese—towards the desired direction. This approach tempts us to think of the person in charge as also being the expert, with the effect that leader isolates him or herself from the community being led. We are tempted to believe that all wisdom exists among people in the inner circle and that the people are only there to receive what we have to offer.
At the same time, we took on a notion of the church as a family system and began to use that as an organizational theory rather than as a way of understanding the temperament of the leader. So when a priest, bishop, or seminary dean, runs into resistance in the context of making change, then it becomes the problem of the people who are protesting. And when vestry members or diocesan clergy or laity differ, the problem becomes their anxiety. In becoming an organization theory, family systems thinking stops being a tool to understand the functioning of the leader, but has become a way to pathologize the congregation.
These two approaches—the idea that vision and wisdom only comes from the top, and that the organization is fundamentally made up of anxious, reactive people—moves us towards a leadership style that keeps decision-making tightly within a very small circle, and consequently very opaque to the people who must live with the decisions this one person or small group makes.
So when conflict happens—and it will—this form of leadership poorly positions us to address the problem at its source. It makes everyone’s life much harder. When we are the keepers of the vision leading a group of people who are fundamentally anxious, then when trouble comes we will be less likely to look at our process as a board or leadership team because we will be afraid of looking weak or of “losing.” We certainly cannot trust the group we are entrusted with to give us good information because they do not “know what we know” and, besides, they are anxious and reactive. We don’t want to appear to have succumbed to a “failure of nerve.” We will tend to write off the concerns of our congregations, clergy, or faculties as nothing more than unmanaged anxiety coming from people who are resistant to change in the first place.
In short, we are tempted to approach the very people we are entrusted to lead with mistrust and suspicion.
In a networked, portable world, where the church exists in a marketplace of ideas, leadership that communicates that the church is a top-down organization, that neither trusts nor nurtures its members will not forward the Gospel. It gets in the way of bringing the Gospel message to people desperately in need of hope, life, and purpose. I believe that this is why, despite the fact that that he hasn’t changed the teaching of his church one iota, Pope Francis is a more effective and challenging leader than Pope Benedict XVI was. (And to Benedict’s credit, he appears to have realized that in and then acted on it…in itself a generous act.) Francis communicates that the everyday Catholic layperson is competent to be an effective Christian, while his predecessor showed in his style and preaching that he did not trust his flock to act correctly.
Make no mistake, we Episcopalians have some very tough changes ahead! Just look at the numbers! Congregations are shrinking and some will have to close—if for no other reason than to place our resources where people are instead of where they were. Congregations in smaller communities will have to change how they do ministry. Parishes—even dioceses—will have to learn how to share resources and do ministry together. I believe that we need to re-think how we organize our common life and our ideas of “parish” and “diocese” will have to change will have along with it. We will have to learn how to work with people of other traditions rather than compete with them. Seminary education will have to adapt to all this while at the same time cope with the fact that the way people learn, work, interact, and worship has changed. How we think of dioceses will have to change. How people get their employment, their relationships, their education and their religion is different, and our infrastructure is barely adapted to the automobile let alone the internet. So we’d better get to work!
The question is what kind of leadership will work for us as we move forward. We are not just talking about the future…what kind of leadership will help us know, respond, and minister in the present?
Leadership that relies on command-and-control, that is based on winning-and-losing, and is only good at manipulating existing levers will, sooner or later, stop serving God’s mission and God’s people.
I believe that the leadership that succeeds—that best puts our resources together with our mission—must be situational (it must allow for the fact that groups grow and mature in their competence) and it must be generous. That means that we must do everything we can to raise competent and confident lay and ordained leaders who are close to the communities they minister in, and they must be generous, trusting that the people and communities we are in have what we need to flourish and grow in the Gospel.
Lately, I have been taken by the concept of generous leadership as a practical and effective alternative to the managerial or family systems models that we have tended to rely on as the century turned. It is well-suited to the experience of the church, and I believe it shows up in congregations and communities that are “on-fire” for the Gospel and effective in their ministries.
In 2002, Tim Sanders wrote a little business book called Love is the Killer App. That year, he wrote in Fast Company:
Now more than ever. The most profound transformation in business — a transformation made more urgent, not less so, by the calamitous events in New York and Washington, DC — is the downfall of the barracudas, sharks, and piranhas and the ascendancy of nice, smart people with a passion for what they do. Forget about the Internet for a moment. Forget about Wall Street and the Fed. What’s really different about the economy is that lousy guys finish last.
There are two tough-minded reasons for this soft-hearted reality. The first is the abundance of choice in business — choice of products, schools, media, and career paths. Choice spells doom for villains. At a time when more of us have more options than ever, there’s no need to put up with a product or service that doesn’t deliver, a company that we don’t like, or a boss whom we don’t respect. The second reason is what I call the “new telegraph.” It’s almost impossible for a shoddy product, a noxious company, or a crummy person to keep its, his, or her sad reality a secret anymore. There are too many highly opinionated and well-informed people with access to email, instant messaging, and the Web.
The bottom line: If you don’t like certain people, it’s easier than ever to escape them. If you are a lousy person, it’s harder than ever to keep people around you. Hence, the power of love.
The last thing we need to be is a lousy church! The front page machinations in my Seminary and in Newport Beach reinforce the notions of church reinforced over a decade of child abuse scandals and angry preachers (and it doesn’t matter if it was our tradition that made the front pages or not). I believe that we hold the life-changing, life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and that the world is as spiritually hungry as ever…but we won’t effectively communicate that Good News by being smug know-it-alls.
Instead, a generous leader is generous with her or his time, energy, attention, knowledge, and vision. The generous leader trusts the people with whom he or she is working. Erika Andership, writing in Forbes, says:
The generous leader gives people what they truly want: knowledge, power, information, credit, praise, responsibility and authority. Perhaps most importantly, the generous leader gives faith; assumes that his or her people want to succeed and do good work. The generous leader assumes positive intent.
Hear that? Here is a business writer writing in a business magazine about…faith. In the Church, generous leadership that God has given us, right here, right now, all the people, resources, energy, and money we need to succeed. It assumes that our Christian formation is not merely there to make people more knowledgeable but also more competent and confident to live out the Gospel where they live.
Tim Stephens, writing in Fast Company, says that generous leaders:
- Want their people to succeed.
- Are not competitive with their team.
- Have an open-door policy (generous with their time).
- Would rather err on the side of grace than be just or strict with policies.
- Have an open hand.
- Freely share what they are learning.
- Love to give away credit to others even when they could rightly keep it for themselves.
- Care about their team. They know about each team member’s goals and dreams, and diligently try to help them fulfill those desires.
How might that look in the Episcopal Church? We want our people to succeed: we want them to effective, joyous followers of Jesus Christ; to be strong in prayer, rich in mercy, and effective in witness.
So the assumption that we know more than the people we lead must go. And the models that set up dioceses and diocesan leadership as competitors with parishes and their leadership for limited resources must also go. This will mean that we must stop thinking of our dioceses as separate institutions or management entities that congregations support. Neither are the congregations “franchise holders” of the larger diocese. Instead, we are in ministry together looking for God to be at work in all of us.
Our pastoral leadership must become a shepherding style that is open to ideas and innovation, aware of the power of tradition to ground us, and taking a stance that is gracious, light hearted, and open to the stories of the people God has given to us. We don’t need credit but love to tell the stories of other people’s successes, no matter how small or trivial they may seem. When we are attentive to what the people in our communities care about and help them find the resources to live them out, then we unleash people’s imagination for mission where they live.
Generous leadership is both imaginative and it is safe. When people in congregations, dioceses, and seminaries know that their leaders are trustworthy and “have their back” then they will do extraordinary ministry in the name of Jesus through those communities. If not, they will at best hold back, but more likely just walk away. When people experience their imaginations being activated and their contributions, no matter how modest, appreciated, then they will begin to see the abundant generosity of God.
This is the kind of leadership the Episcopal Church needs for the tasks before us today and tomorrow. We have tons of competence. Barrels of talent. We have knowledge in abundance. We have vision galore. To bring it all together, we must have generous, hope-filled leadership that activates our imagination for the Gospel. We must “go!” We must innovate. And on the way, we must be generous.
Andrew Gerns is the Rector of Trinity Church in Easton, PA and is a staff member of Episcopal Cafe. He blogs at Fun ‘n Games in the Kingdom of God, where this essay originally appeared.