February 6, 2013

I’ve had some pretty terrible leaders. I’ve served under leaders who were burned out, on power trips, coddling a secret life of sin and corruption. I’ve had leaders who were living illustrations of The Peter Principle, and others who got their training in the Benito Mussolini School of Management.

A good, long look in the mirror shows me the face of someone who has been a terrible leader, too. Left to my own devices, I tend to make fast, unilateral decisions – which can alternately frustate or terrify teammates. That style works well for me as a self-employed writer and communications consultant. But I need to give myself an occasional Mussolini-style speech when I am working with others, reminding myself to rein it in, listen and give others an opportunity to contribute.

Because I do lead teams or projects from time to time, I want to learn to lead better – with an asterisk. Too many Leader Culture books say the same thing, and some who drink too much of that Kool-Aid can buy the lie that manipulation plus good intentions equals leadership. I recently reviewed two very different books on the subject of leadership, and both gave me some new food for thought on the topic of what it means to lead and follow well.


Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice For Leadership Groups (IVP, 2012), is the kind of book that will change the way a church leadership team or not-for-profit board functions – for the better. Instead of using business principles, Roberts’ Rules Of Order and bookends of perfunctory prayer to run meetings and make decisions, Haley Barton describes an entirely different paradigm. Instead of decision-making, she suggests that these groups need to learn to discern God’s will together. Discernment requires all members on a team to commit to attend to their own individual spiritual lives, pursue spiritual community among themselves, learn to listen to God together, learn to listen to one another together, and commit, preferably in a covenanted relationship, to a process that is rooted in the character of God.

She explains why the dominant style of leadership in our culture does not translate well to church or faith-based nonprofit settings: “Gifted leaders – Christian or otherwise – can function effectively for a while on the basis of natural gifting and knowing how to maneuver in the business world. This does not necessarily qualify them for spiritual leadership. The destructive results of a lack of self-knowledge may not become evident until the person has been in leadership long enough for the public persona to fray around the edges when the pressure is on. When pushed against the wall, such leaders will capitulate to old unresolved patterns.”

As I read, I reflected on some of the teams of which I’ve been a part and tried to imagine what it would have been like to function via shared discernment instead of the ways we made decisions (by crisis, by voting, by steamrolling, by passive-agressive avoidance). Shared discernment comes at a cost of time and ego, but reeks in the most beautifully fragrant sort of way, of flourishing, abundant life together.

imgres-1Dr. James Galvin, a seasoned organizational consultant, addresses the effects of leaders’ misspent time and ego issues in his book I’ve Got Your Back: A Leadership Parable. He contends that “follower abuse” is everywhere. (Show of hands if you agree.) Without intentional and pro-active response on the part of followers as they deal with abusive leaders, they are doomed to either repeat the pattern or abdicate, taking their gifts and growth potential with them. To that end, Galvin offers a fictitious story of the ongoing interchange between four young adults stuck in various confusing and dysfunctional work or ministry situation and an older, wiser mentor. A number of charts and graphs  sprinkled throughout the book offer quick visual support for the coaching Galvin’s mentor character, Jack, offers to mentees Brad, Randall, Lynn and Valerie.

The story portion of the book is didactic in nature; it is comprised of a series of instructional conversations. The dilemmas each young person faces is entirely believable, though the the conversations tend to be more positive and character tensions resolve more quickly than a true work of fiction would allow. This is a parable, however, meant to teach, and Galvin packs a lot of practical advice into this story about learning to follow well even when the leader is not holding up his or her end of the bargain. After he wraps up the parable portion of I’ve Got Your Back, Galvin offers up a short theology of follower-ship that is a wonderful summary of the conversation in the first two-thirds of the book. He writes, “Even with all the research and books available to us, leadership is still messed up. When managers or politicians or pastors dominate in meetings, demand their own way, treat people as objects or abuse followers, we typically call them ‘strong’ leaders. Harsh leaders would be a better descriptor. Clumsy would work…Why do we put up with it and call them ‘strong’ leaders as if what they’re doing is acceptable? As followers, our mental model of leadership must be messed up, too.”

In no way does he advocate a doormat-like acceptance of this abuse. Rather, he encourages readers to be proactive in pursuing their own growth and the good of others around and over them, which I’d say is a pretty decent leadership training program.

What is your favorite book on leadership? Why? 

October 19, 2011

I have been witness to some pretty explosive displays of spiritual freedom over the years. During our time in fundamentalist churches, the fireworks came most often when someone reported an instantaneous deliverance from tobacco addiction. While attending charismatic congregations, I saw that the signs and wonders demonstrating God’s supernatural liberation came in lots of shapes and sizes: physical and emotional healings, freedom from spiritual oppression and all kinds of addictions, and the courage to go and do in the name of Jesus.

In every variety of church, I have witnessed abuse of this promise of freedom, usually from the presumptuous over-promising of what God is guaranteed to do for someone in need “…if only the person has enough faith”. But I have also seen God do the humanly impossible enough times to know the truth of Jesus’ proclamation to the gang at his hometown synagogue s couple of months or so after he was baptized:

…and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,  because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:16-21)

When many of us think of deliverance, we think of Fourth of July fireworks: instantaneous explosions of eternity, heaven invading earth. Sight to the blind. Prison doors swinging open. Hungry people being seated at a banquet table.

Recently, a dear friend penned these words:

I always thought healing would come like prison doors flying open and me running free. But it seems to be coming slowly, link by link of my chains being broken, and sometimes I don’t even notice it until several links are gone.

The fireworks she describes are the sparks created from the fire and light of a master welder at work, disconnecting each link of the chain with precision.

Jesus’ words in Luke 4 are the certainty of both fireworks (recovery of sight to the blind) and the blinding light of a precision arc welder reforging a broken world (proclamation of the Lord’s favor). Fireworks are celebratory. If they happened every single day, they’d cease to grab our attention. We notice them because they are rare and awe-inspiring.

A welder, on the other hand, is an everyday hero – on the job working hard to create items of usefulness and beauty out of raw materials and other-worldly power.

Jesus announced the kingdom using both fireworks and an arc welder. My friend’s words have helped me look down and notice the broken links laying on the ground at my feet.

Thank you, Jesus, for setting me free, link by link.


September 14, 2010

Last week, my husband and I visited a congregation we’d first attended nearly thirty years ago. We didn’t see many familiar faces – not that we even would have recognized any of them. Thirty years is a long time, and people change. It is quite possible that a few of those folks from the days from when Flock Of Seagulls songs were in heavy rotation on the radio might have been there during last week’s visit. The large majority of the people there were our age (middle-age) and older. The congregation had flowered during the Jesus movement that swept through the boomer generation 30-40 years ago.

This wasn’t the church we visited, but the pic sure tells the story.

It was sobering to see so much gray hair, and so few little kids. (I mentioned another small congregation with a similar demographic in a blog post here.) These congregations have a “use by” date stamped on their doors, it seems. They’ve not been able to transmit their DNA to a new generation.

A lot of the children of these boomer++ parents have exited the church. Many still profess love for Jesus, but have a bitter taste towards the institution that claims to represent him. We can list the many painful reasons why: politics, marketing, crappy leaders, hypocrisy, abuse (verbal and sexual), irrelevance, nowhere to share the gifts they’ve been given…and on it goes. My sympathies are definitely with them, though I am not convinced that foregoing any sort of corporate gathering is the only alternative for de-churched young people. (Or de-churched boomers, for that matter.) It’s not easy out there, but finding a few others to prod you onward is at the heart of what spiritual community is meant to be.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:23-25

This Scripture passage is usually used to chide (or shame) non-attenders into re-upping. But after visiting the graying, non-reproducing congregation last week, I realize that it is entirely possible to give up meeting together even when you show up for a church service week after week. Somehow, the spurring toward love and good deeds fades to a gentle poke, then a just a memory. The memory of loving and doing is so real to a sundowning congregation that it feels like action, when it is simply history.  The congregation goes gray and its story fades to black.

I would rather burn out than fade away.

Have you ever been a part of a sundowning congregation? What was it like? What attempts were made to turn things around? Did these attempts work?

May 7, 2010

Most of us know a few bits about horse-and-buggy driving, technology-shunning Amish and conservative Mennonites. But unless we’ve grown up in the Dakotas or on the Canadian prairie, it is unlikely that we know much about their Anabaptist cousins, the Hutterites. The Hutterites share a common spiritual heritage, but are distinguished by their distinctive communal lifestyle.

Canadian author Mary-Ann Kirkby’s memoir of her experience growing up Hutterite – and then leaving the community at age ten in order to join the “English” (non-Hutterite) world is a fascinating look into a world closed to outsiders. Ann-Marie’s childhood impressions of the nurture and familial warmth of the community were at odds with the power politics and dysfunction that her parents were experiencing. When they uprooted their seven children in 1969 with no warning (but as much advance, adult preparation as they could muster under the watchful gaze of the tight-knit community), the entire family had to learn a new way of living. Compounding this, they left the colony with nothing, as Hutterite communities share a common purse. This translated into lots of awkward growing pains for the poverty-stricken family:

“Mother had never made school lunches before. Now she had to make five of them every night while I tried to explain to her what the English kids were eating. We were complete sandwich novices. On the colony we ate full-course meals daily, and only on special occasions, such as weddings or funerals, were ham sandwiches served as a night snack…the only luncheon meat we could afford was bologna that was weeks past its ‘best before’ date and mottled with mold. Mother trimmed the green edges from the meat with a knife and tucked an uneven piece between two slices of stale white bread.”

Kirkby describes her experiences as a teen learning to fit in to the English world while clinging to the cloistered Hutterite family community she loved. She also tells the story of her parents’ and grandfather’s attempts to forgive leaders who’d abused their power. Though it is not explicitly stated in the book, it appears that both her parents and grandfather became born again, and eventually found the freedom they longed for the day they moved away from the colony.

I Am Hutterite (Nelson, 2010) is compelling reading not only for those interested in religious communities, but for anyone who finds themselves living in the confusing world that exists between two different cultures.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

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