Tube Socks, Cookie Cutters, and Catalysts: Leading the Church Beyond Impasse

Our conversations about church leadership can be a bit like conversations about tube socks and cookie cutters.

In some cases the conversations slip and blur until the task of leadership loses all specificity. We indulge in platitudes and we talk about the church as if all church were universal, not local. Or we borrow business models and jargon. The effect can be a bit like listening to a motivational speaker: We run off eager to accomplish something and absolutely clueless about where to begin. The result is tube sock leadership--an approach that is formless, one size fits all.

When we try to get more specific and theological about the demands of leadership, there are other times when our conversation is all about cookie cutters--rigid ideas about what church should be regardless of where we are. We develop single models for doing church and metrics for measuring our success that at least sound as if they ought to apply universally. Current fears about declining attendance have prompted some bishops, for example, to demand that clergy post their stats and larger, mega-churches are often touted as the standard by which everyone else should measure themselves.

In practice, neither model really prepares clergy for the variety and complexity of the demands they face.

There are, to be sure, central features that from an ecclesiological point of view ought to find expression. It is impossible to talk about church without including elements of worship, Christian formation, and mission. In fact, what probably bedevils a good deal of church life these days is that we do not adhere closely enough to these essentials.

Worship ties us closely to God and one another in an experience that is shaped by a sense of the sacred, an experience that cuts through the distractions around us. It allows for the transcendent in our lives. It reminds us that no matter how much church may look like other human institutions, its purpose is not simply to provide one more way of caring for people or bringing them together. To be sure, it has horizontal expressions, but the church's engagement with the needs of the world means nothing without the vertical and an encounter with God.

Christian formation (not, I would note, simply Christian education) is at the heart of creating and re-creating that community. It makes little sense in Christian categories to talk about an experience of the divine without thinking in terms of a new approach to life. Both the language of Scripture, as well as the language of the Christian tradition makes that clear, whether we talk about realized righteousness, sanctification, or the Christification of the believer.

And no experience of what it means to do church is complete without some sense of mission to those around us. The journey inward leads to a journey outward and together, both journeys capture the whole of what it means to be a Christ-bearer. Churches nurture mission and missionaries, which ought not to be construed in the traditional sense of the word, but should invite us into an ever growing and creative range of efforts to bring the love of Christ to bear on the needs of the world.

But beyond those essentials, the variety of approaches to doing church will vary widely and neither the work we do in seminaries aimed at training leaders, nor the fear that sometimes bedevils denominational leaders should tempt us to force the same cookie cutter down on every community, or fit it with the same tube socks. The history and composition of each community demands a more dynamic approach and in that sense a more accurate image for effective leadership might be a catalyst: An approach to leadership that is attentive to the existing elements that are part of the history and character of a parish, that then adds the element of pastoral leadership that stimulates healthy change and growth.

That approach requires patient listening, a genuine appreciation for the communities in which we serve, the analytical skills to make sense of it all, and the communication skills needed to interpret that picture for the community itself. But catalytic leadership also requires discernment: the ability to identify elements in a community's life that strangles or holds it back and the ability to identify the handful of changes that will stimulate needed growth and transformation.

That kind of leadership is not a solo effort. To lead catalytically requires support from lay leaders who are prepared to set aside their own assumptions about doing church and engage in the same process. It also requires bishops and other denominational leaders who are prepared to back their clergy in those efforts, nurturing a divergent approach that mirrors the same kind of catalytic leadership on a diocesan or conference level--not as an end in itself, but as an aid and a resource to the transformation of individual parishes.

At each level, that is where parish leadership can fail:

  1. Clergy can force a vision on a parish that is alien to a place or they can fail to lead catalytically, telling themselves that they are there to facilitate the lay leadership.
  2. Lay leaders can stubbornly resist change and fail to support it through subterfuge, by pressing for a separate agenda, or by simply dragging their feet.
  3. Denominational leaders can sabotage change on the parish level by allowing themselves to be drawn into triangular behavior or by failing to support their clergy, preferring to burnish their reputation with the laity.