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

Working with clergy over the years and preparing students studying at both the masters and doctoral level for parish leadership, I have seen all three things happen and endless variations in between.

At one level, however, all three failings share one thing in common: a failure to recognize that what is at stake is not the role or influence of any one stakeholder, but the larger well being of the church and the promise of that congregation's future. More often than not, the failure to see this is, to one degree or another, rooted in some kind of fear. A fear that someone will lose control or power or a fear that things will change.

But in a truly catalytic environment no one is completely in charge (or can be) and change is inevitable. Like the chemicals in an experiment, without trusting the process, all the elements in the process remain inert. The difference, of course, in the context of church leadership, is that the elements involved don't simply remain inert, awaiting use in a later experiment. Eventually they are lost and the future is lost right along with them.

So, how do we effect change, rather than suffer as its victims? Four broad observations:

One: Right now, however, far too much of what happens at both the parish and denominational level is largely accidental. Operating in co-dependent modes, it is easy for clergy, lay people, and denominational leaders to assume that somehow the bureaucracy will carry us all into the future. Even if that was ever a safe assumption to make--and I doubt that it was--it is now clear that it is no longer safe to assume. The shrinking attendance and resources of Protestant congregations make it clear we cannot trust denominational structures simply to carry us along. They will persist for sometime to come--those structures fail long before they disappear. But we shouldn't confuse one with the other.

Two: We should also avoid assuming that retrenchment is the same thing as a solution. Some measure of consolidation and restructuring might make sense, but in the absence of strong, strategic, and catalytic leadership that doesn't simply evade the consequences of the future, but shapes them, consolidation and restructuring is little more than a battle of attrition.

Three: Denominational leaders will do well to remember too that all church is local. An effort to focus anew on that reality would do a lot to ground conversations about the future that is grounded in specific needs and ministries.

Until, at every level, we ask ourselves what are the catalytic initiatives we can choose that take Protestantism deeply into the twenty-first century, we cannot survive. To accomplish that task will require a concerted, catalytic approach to leadership that the church has not had to provide for a long time and we will need to provide it in a climate that is constrained by lingering dependence upon failing bureaucratic structures and persistent in-fighting. Where those are not the prevailing dynamics a third and more disturbing trend is setting in. A growing number of younger leaders who are abandoning the church and an increasing number of older leaders who are quietly waiting to retire, hoping that whatever shrinkage mainline denominations suffer, it will not imperil their retirement.

The leaders who are likely to take us into a better future will create a space that is free of those dynamics, mindful of the essentials, and ready to foster change.

Note: My friend David Dunbar notes that the one limitation to the image of a catalyst is that in chemical reactions, catalysts precipitate change, but are, themselves, unchanged. Good leaders are changed by this process and should recognize that to be deeply invested in the life of the church entails sharing that journey. It is not a matter of standing outside of it.

7/29/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: