Lead by Leading

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Lead by leading? Obvious? Perhaps.

But on balance leading by leading isn't faring all that well of late. Instead there are countless counterfeits out there: management, bureaucratic mastery, leading from behind, and consensus building dominate instead. And, if you are looking for the best of all spiritual rationales for evading the task of leading by leading, you can always invoke "servant" leadership.

Each presents itself as an alternative to leading, and they are powerfully attractive seductions because each alternative has whiff of legitimacy about it—in part because leaders who lead do need to manage, shoot the bureaucratic rapids, cajole others into acting, build consensus, and embrace the kind of humility that serves a larger good. But these are components of the leadership task; they are not the task itself.

Leading involves principles, value judgments, strategic assessment, and decision-making, all of which must inexorably and unavoidably result in providing direction. And if direction isn't forthcoming, someone isn't leading.

The absence of authentic leadership is not difficult to explain. But it is difficult to name all of the causes.

Some are circumstantial. Economic malaise, disintegrating social cohesion, growing social and global complexity can and do make leading more difficult.

Others are perennial: fear is a frequent cause—fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, fear of the unknown (and the unknowable), fear of conflict, a fear of being disliked. In other cases the obstacle is a lack of competence: A friend of mine who is a leader pointed out that there are far more leadership positions than there are leaders in the world. In still others the problem is a lack of discipline: It is one thing to achieve a leadership position, another to do the tough work of leading.

For many others, however, the inhibiting factor is an absence of vision. And assuming that one is neither incompetent, nor undisciplined, leaders can fail for this reason alone. Fear, of course, feeds an absence of vision and it is this combination, more than all the other problems that bedevils modern leadership in the modern mainline-progressive church.

  1. Seminaries sell campuses, release faculty, cease to offer degrees, and declare themselves the brave new frontier of theological education.
  2. Judicatories finance aimless agency driven studies that amount to little more than UN-lite.
  3. Conferences, dioceses, and synods announce staff reductions, but dedicate the resources left to the cycle of activities that have already proven irrelevant to building vibrant faith communities
  4. And—on the local level—congregations hide the absence of a vision by promising that they are "seeker-friendly."

To be sure, the last leadership move on this list sounds necessary and important in a world that is spiritual, but not religious. But at best "seeker friendly" is simply a bit of rebranding, offering what the Gospel has always offered when it is accurately represented to the world: an open invitation to be forgiven and loved by One who is "the friend of sinners."

In practice, however, far too often the label really betrays leadership without a vision: The label "seeker friendly" often doesn't signal accessibility. It is, instead, a means of saying, "Bring your questions. We can hear them. We have no answers. We will never dare to lead you anywhere. But we are willing to share our uncertainty."

This might make church a safe place to visit. But it is not a safe place to stay. People who are looking for direction deserve a church and leadership. People who don't want direction need a book club. Churches exist to give an answer, provide direction, and anything that suggests otherwise is an excuse offered up to explain why we are pandering, taking votes, and waiting for permission to lead.

The Book of Proverbs does not say, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." It says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish, but he that keeps the law, happy is he." Vision has content and a context—a sense of life's purpose, convictions about the way it should be lived—lived out in God's presence, in response to God's grace. And, Proverbs argues, if leaders fail to provide that vision, the people can still find it in the instruction God has given the community. That is a very different view of leadership and participation in a faith community from the institutionalized agnosticism that is on offer in so much of the church.

Does that mean that the people who come through our doors need to resolve their struggles, hide their pain, and suppress their questions before they can enter? Of course not. And to imply that we have invented an approach to doing church that is finally (!) open to all of that is self-important nonsense. What it does mean is that when people walk through our doors we owe them the leadership that we have always owed them—one that arises out of the confident announcement, "We have seen the Lord!" Christian communities lead by leading—not because they want to lord it over others and not because they want to assert control. They lead by leading because they are led.