On Church Leadership
In a healthy system, leaders are recruited, trained, supported and held accountable. Those who aspire to leadership are screened, not simply handed the reins of authority. Training doesn't seek to perpetuate the status quo, but rather to affirm identity and values and to nurture healthy norms, such as welcoming change.
Challenge for Churches
Leadership might be the greatest challenge facing churches. Churches tend to treat good leadership as an accident, not as a requirement that they work hard to achieve. By not saying No to unqualified persons who present themselves for leadership, congregations risk hurting morale among capable leaders, as well as suboptimal performance. By not recruiting leaders, churches encourage self-replicating and closed leadership circles, which lead, in turn, to stale ideas and resistance to change.
Moreover, by removing clergy from the leadership recruitment and training processes, churches encourage an antagonism-based view of lay leadership -- "our job is to keep the clergy in line" -- and they disempower the one person who tends to know all members, including newcomers, and to have a broad perspective on congregational needs.
A better way
Engage clergy directly in the leadership development process, with a direct role in identifying promising leaders, recruiting them and training them.
Require all leaders to participate in training programs that are appropriate to their duties and to their level of responsibility.
Hold leaders accountable for performance of their duties, according to agreed-upon standards.
Ground leaders in an awareness that, for a church, transformation of persons matters more than continuity of institution; and that change and conflict aren't mistakes to be avoided, but necessary attributes of health.
Seek leaders who function effectively in non-hierarchical systems, in which autonomy and individual creativity are valued more than conservation, where leaders give permission and preserve freedom, rather than exercise control. .
Efforts to improve leadership structures and expectations will provoke stiff resistance. Many people keep God "small" by keeping their clergy small. They avoid a deep and life-transforming encounter with God by keeping their churches off-balance. They avoid Jesus' teachings on wealth and power by fighting over wealth and power. Dysfunctional systems work hard to preserve their dysfunctional behaviors and to punish those who promote health. They resist change and encourage weak leadership.
In many churches, clergy are isolated. Any move to end that isolation - by encouraging clergy-lay partnership, or by involving clergy in recruiting lay leaders - will be perceived as threatening.
Many laity, especially long-time members, view leadership as an entitlement, not as a ministry to which certain persons are called.
These are systemic issues of long standing. They can be changed, but only with a significant commitment to seeking best practices and to letting go of self-destructive ways.
Healthy leadership will require a commitment to openness, accountability, network-building and lay-clergy partnering that will be new to most congregations and profoundly disturbing to some. It will be work for the entire congregation, not a process where a few go to a leadership seminar and then try to pass on fresh ideas.
1. Network-based, non-hierarchical, leadership
Healthy organizations are "flattening" the org chart to encourage teamwork, free-flowing relationships and individual creativity. Even traditionally pyramidal organizations like the military and corporations find that teams perform well when allowed freedom in decision-making and responding to changed circumstances.
This is new behavior, requiring new attitudes toward power, control and accountability, as well as heightened trust in people to function responsibly outside command-and-control structures.
Basic principles (as outlined by Fred Burnham, of the Institute for Servant Leadership, in his paper "Network Theory & Church Leadership"):
A healthy church needs to show "environmental sensitivity," that is, an ability to identify contextual changes promptly and to respond to them. A hierarchical or bureaucratic structure discourages such sensitivity by its tendency to assign blame, rather than learn from the unexpected; by self-protective .behavior at every level; and by slowness of response. Teams and individuals "close to the ground" see more and respond better.
A healthy church avoids "centralized control," because centralized control slows communication, discourages the taking of initiative, and hampers healthy relationships. Instead, the healthy church encourages an open system, where information and ideas flow freely and rapidly, and people organize themselves to deal with needs.
A healthy church values "individual agency," that is, individuals functioning beyond rules and boundaries to do what they do well.
A healthy church encourages "self-organization," in which "enterprising individuals begin to select gifted teammates to work with them," Burnham writes.
Open and transparent communication, which Burnham calls "Scale-Free Communication," generates more and better information, enables the network to adapt effectively, and avoids secrets or "in-crowd" knowledge.
Even though homogeneity might feel more comfortable, "Diversity" yields richer information and problem-solving. Leadership circles must mirror the diversity of the larger congregation.
A healthy church values "Innovation and Adaptation," as opposed to resisting change.
2. Leaders understand and value network-based leadership
As they envision and carry out their work in church, leaders will resist the tendency to emulate hierarchies they know at work or prior church experience. Instead, starting with the leadership cadre itself, they will model open, free-flowing, decentralized and spontaneous functioning.
A critical starting point will be transparency and abundant information. Leaders will tell others what they are doing, will share information widely, even when negative news, and will encourage feedback.
Leaders will listen to groups and individuals, rather than tell them what to do. Leaders will identify problems, rather than compel specific solutions. Leaders will maintain appropriate boundaries and not fill every vacuum. Leaders will self-regulate to discourage "take charge" behavior, whether born in frustration or enthusiasm or a need for control.
3. Leaders see their roles as network-support, not running things
Jesus formed circles of friends, not a hierarchical institution concerned with allocating power. Jesus saw leaders as servants, nurturing those circles, not as managers running an institution.
Whether circles form intentionally or spontaneously, they benefit from an environment of freedom and healthy norms. Leaders establish and protect that environment and affirm healthy norms.
For example, networks depend on effective tools of communications, not facilities. Leaders will affirm a norm of open flows of information, and will provide open access to communication tools.
To promote diversity and self-organization, leaders will establish a norm of inclusiveness and will monitor networks for signs of closed doors. Leaders will monitor formation of groups and, if necessary, will assist in their formation, so that members unaccustomed to network-based participation can learn to trust it and function effectively in it.
Leaders need training for the church context
In some ways, churches are like other institutions. Like a business, they deal with property, budget, personnel, and customer service. Like the academy, they deal with knowledge, teaching, and curricula. Like a social set, they deal with belonging, volunteering, manners, and privilege. Like a family, they deal with emotions, deep connectedness and continuity.
Leaders in those institutions often assume that their leadership skills are transferable to church. That is rarely the case. The church is unique and requires unique leadership skills - skills that sometimes are exactly the opposite of what a business or university needs.
The one exception are entrepreneurs, who are constantly re-inventing their businesses and their roles in them. They are highly motivated to analyze and to change. Some of the most pertinent reading for church systems is coming out of the entrepreneurial world, especially the Internet and franchising. Books like "The E-Myth Revisited" (Michael Gerber), "Creating Customer Evangelists" (Ben McConnell & Jackie Huba) and "Permission Marketing" (Seth Godin) are highly relevant.
On top of all this, churches are changing.
Some are in various stages of decline, ranging from gradual loss of membership to severe shrinkage. Some are growing and feeling new pressures on space, staff, ministry focus and familiarity.
Some face changes in their immediate context and are having to decide whether to adapt. Some see new constituencies changing the shape of the fellowship.
Some feel a need to serve people in different ways or to have a different role in the larger community. Some, in response to changing political and economic forces, find that business-as-usual no longer seems adequate.