The Church Needs Teacher-Leaders

Traditionally, conversations about leadership in the church say little about faith formation and Christian education. To be sure, most conversations about leadership assume that Christian education will be part of the programmatic work done in any given parish. But there is little or no close connection made between effective leaders and effective teachers.

More often than not, education is placed in the hands of an associate or the laity. Worse yet, in many parishes that task is performed with little or no formal preparation late on Saturday night. Nor do the number of resources available necessarily make a difference: The pastors of small congregations complain that they don't have time to devote to teaching; wealthy, well-endowed parishes prefer to explore "more interesting" subject matter.

But any careful attention to what the average layperson has to say about the Christian faith clearly indicates that there are stunning gaps in the understanding of those around us. In just the last week or two, for example, I have heard people make observations that completely misrepresent anything that might be described as mainstream, Christian belief:

  1. One person comforts a friend by reassuring her that the loved one who has died just became the sweetest of angels in God's heaven.
  2. Another person objects that the cross is a symbol of God's desire to torture him.
  3. Still another friend labored under the conviction that her lifelong handicap was imposed upon her by God.

Can we really argue that we are providing effective leadership for the church if people believe things about their faith that so completely misrepresents the Christian faith? I don't think so. We can wrap attendance numbers and programmatic statistics around church life and call it leadership. But if the people in the pew labor under widespread misunderstanding of the Christian faith, it is difficult to argue that we have gathered and moved them in a direction that can be defended as the outcome of effective leadership. Any approach to leadership that neglects this task potentially moves people without ever effectively changing the way in which they understand or live their faith.

Some years ago I introduced the concept of triage theology. Based on years of work with people in spiritual direction and in a variety of other settings, I argued that all of us triage our ideas about God in conversation with life experience and the other impressions that we collect along the way. Intuitively and often without reflecting at length on the process we "tag" some ideas as "deceased" or "gravely wounded," some as "wounded, but reliable," and some as "promising." Depending on the way we evaluate those ideas we dedicate the limited time and resources at our disposal to the handful of ideas we find the most promising or reliable.

That process is necessary, inevitable, and important. If you care about your relationship with God seriously, you will "do" triage theology. But the problem with most triage theology is that it is done in a vacuum without anyone ever acknowledging that we do it and without anyone preparing us to do it. The net result is spread of distorted and distorting theology that goes unexamined and unchecked.

There are many reasons we have failed to grasp this fact: We have assumed that the best models for leadership were "out there" in the business world or in government, neglecting the native wisdom of Christian and ancient Jewish categories for leadership. We have bought into the assumption that the churchy equivalent of the CEO was the real leader and teachers were simply support staff who added to the programmatic activities in a parish.

Truth be told, the task of teaching is also just too hard and lacking in glamour to be attractive in a world of rock-star models of leadership, and some church leaders are either ill-prepared or very poor at the task. It takes far more time behind the scenes to prepare for the task of teaching than it does to actually convey an understanding of the Christian message. Even when the theology of the tradition is properly understood, the process of translating that message in a fashion that is both accessible and engaging requires a completely different order of discipline, time, and attention.

But whatever the reasons, even large mega-churches are beginning to discover it is one thing to fill pews and another to change lives.

The only remedy is leadership that:

  1. takes the task of triage theology seriously,
  2. acknowledges that we all do triage theology,
  3. dedicates time and attention to the task,
  4. structures and supervises the enterprise,
  5. and frames it appropriately and publicly supports it.

Until we pay attention to the task of teaching the faith to others, we shouldn't be surprised to find that the people around us only appear to be following.