27
May
09

A Personal Journey in Leadership

The attitudes about leadership that I brought into my first church assignment as an administrator were saturated with bias, largely because I equated leading with managing. In retrospect, I had witnessed very few examples of leadership, as I now understand it. I had, however, been privy to and used many management styles, most of which were based on the manipulation of people and situations to satisfy corporate and/or self-interest.

Eventually, I resigned from the business arena because I couldn’t reconcile my role, or generally accepted management practices, with a newly developing worldview after becoming a Christian. After a semi-reclusive period spent building furniture and helping develop small group ministries at my church, I re-entered the public world as a church employee, only to encounter the same management attitudes that had repulsed me in the business environment. On the first night of a class on church leadership some years ago, we listed words describing leadership. If I remember correctly, my only contribution to that original list of words was ‘manipulative’.

Any description of my leadership style will be somewhat nebulous, as I am still processing the significance of concepts contained in various books and discussions and, most importantly, experiences from life in church. This will not be an exercise that ends with my last call.

One of the leadership qualities I embrace is the concern for social justice and, due to my history, this requires a continuing process of personal soul-searching. A sense of justice requires most of the qualities I have read about – integrity, courage, and concern for all stakeholders, to name but a few. While I acknowledge that I may be my own worst critic, I believe I have displayed little regard for these attributes in the past, giving in instead to self-interest and ego.

Finding trust and comfort with who I have become, and how I continue to develop, will be paramount to continuing to refine my own leadership style. I realize this may seem egocentric, but on the journey from what and where I have been to who I will eventually be, I am at a point where I still find it necessary to occasionally wrestle the ‘demons’ of my past – real or imagined.   

In the process of making deep change, Robert Quinn described the necessity to begin with self-transformation as “surrender[ing] our present selves…step[ping] outside our old paradigms”[i]. He also describes, “Change is hell. Yet not to change…is also hell. The difference is that the hell of change is a hero’s journey”[ii]. Being predisposed to act in heroic proportions, I had to wrestle with my attraction to Quinn’s intense and sometimes melodramatic language, in order to find some realistic value in his statements.

I have become increasingly comfortable with the process of personal change, and agree that it is definitely a precursor to accepting the mantle of leadership. I find personal reconstruction far from being the hell described by Quinn. While sometimes difficult, this process is now like an old friend who’ll honestly tell me what he sees, because he loves me and recognizes that I will be a better person for having dealt with my personal issues.

I still find, however, the description of the hero’s journey disquieting. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I am making my changes in response to Christ, who took the hero’s journey, thereby removing much of the risk for me. I need to remain aware that if I were to accept the accolades of a hero I would be venturing back into old paradigms, being far too willing to shoulder the ‘burden’ of glory. Christ is the hero who gives me the encouragement to continue the journey I need to take.

While probably seeming paradoxical in light of the preceding paragraph, I now view myself as having integrity. Paraphrasing Lovett Weems, integrity is having absolutely no distinction between what you believe and the manner in which you live and act.[iii] While I question their judgment, integrity is a quality that has been ascribed to me by many people from my past. At best, I believe I displayed integrity in some aspects of my life, but certainly not in all.

I was an idealist about helping people develop to their full potential, fitting with Theological World Three[iv]. I would use any resources to encourage, prod or manipulate employees and clients to improve their skills and, therefore, their future marketability and profitability. I was truly intent on their development while, at the same time, happy to receive their adoration and financial reward for my effort.

During that same period of time, however, I lent a large sum of money to a supplier with the full intent of leveraging that debt for the unilateral benefit of my company and, of course, myself. As expected, the supplier couldn’t service the debt and we bought his company for a pittance. I certainly displayed no integrity in that situation.

In contrast, I will now go back to a store to return even a small amount of additional change given by mistake. I now find the thought of leverage, coercion or one-sided transactions unconscionable. Personal integrity is, has been and will continue to be critical to my personal ‘recovery’. 

Leadership requires a developed value system, based on faith or some form of ethical belief, with which to weigh the integrity of actions. This represents, I believe, the single most significant personal change I have experienced.

Prior to accepting Christ, I was essentially narcissistic. With rare exceptions, my actions were based on self-interest and satisfaction of ego needs. The values and ethics of scripture have filled an almost tangible void in my psyche. Ethical behavior, however, also represents the chief area for my fears of participating in ministry. I have witnessed the effects of a pastor who, lacking integrity and a sense of values, uses his church and congregation for self-interest. While I have trouble imagining myself stepping back into this particular old pattern of behavior, I have constantly wrestled with the fear of accepting the risk.

Reading the words of John Chrysostom[v] mitigated my anxiety in the area of morality. He had the same fears, which he constantly battled, but became known primarily for his treatises on ethics. Like John, my own comfort would require some method of maintaining accountability to the true ministry and ethics of the church.

While sessions and presbyteries are designed to provide this function, I have seen how the ideal processes can be circumvented. In a new position of leadership, I would likely seek an empowered committee, or participate in a small group, designed to provide me with grounding and accountability.

Many of the books I’ve read spoke of servant leadership, but I found the most interesting call to servanthood in the pages of a book about the Rule of St. Benedict – “Function as if the entire community has claim on the merit of our daily actions”[vi]. Being a servant can be misconstrued as serving the whims and desires of a master, although hopefully not by someone familiar with the ministry of Christ. Submitting to domination would be unhealthy, but Benedict’s words paint a vision of servanthood as acting to bring benefit to the community, whether it is a church congregation, the stakeholders of a company, or society in general.

This concept of serving also suggests the inclusion of our own needs in the equation. Personal care and boundaries would be required in order to remain capable of bringing benefit to the larger entity. Ignoring personal needs would result in a diminished capacity to bring merit to the community, causing an inability to serve.

Serving others requires the ability to listen. Someone who is unable to listen is unable to give; someone who is unable to give is unable to serve. Despite all my flaws, I have historically been a good listener. When someone needed to talk I would make myself available and begin the ‘session’ with a question, “Is this conversation confidential?” I was known to be trustworthy whenever the answer was “yes”. For me, the element of trust is critical to listening with an open heart.

Another aspect of listening is fulfilling the requirement of communication. Communication is not simply saying what is meant or hearing what is said. Completing the process necessitates hearing what is meant. Caring enough to ask clarifying questions demonstrates concern and cements trust.

In a position of leadership listening also has “something to do with being willing to change ourselves and change our world”.[vii] It exhibits a willingness to hear concerns and criticisms without personalizing them or reacting to them, and shows that the speaker and his or her opinion is respected and valued. Leadership includes listening to the realities of God through the Scriptures, prayer, one another and the world around us.

Visioning requires listening and sharing – conversation. Gilbert R. Rendle wrote, “As visions are sought, leaders are the ones who keep the conversation alive and active in the congregation, allowing the vision to be shaped by past history, current practice, and future opportunities and call.”[viii]

An integral part of the visioning process for churches is the use of stories, especially the stories in scripture[ix].  Vision for a church has to be consistent with, and subordinate to, the vision contained within the Gospels. Christ laid out a vision for our lives, and the lives of our churches, within the Gospels that any vision we possess can be measured against. This gospel life of a community is, “…Not an individual enterprise of private whim and flights of personal fancy but a conscious gathering of the wisdom of others who can encourage us and help us scrutinize our own choices [or vision] for their value and valor”[x].

The process of visioning a better future depends on the existence of all the other qualities of leadership. Visions are tainted or flawed if they lack integrity, honesty or courage, are developed without communication, or are designed to serve self-interest as opposed to encouraging servanthood.      

An integral part of any vision should be the desire, individually and corporately, to live a life noticeably different than the world around us. Christ was a remarkable figure because of the contrast to the world he came to serve. Jesus wasn’t haughty or self-righteous, but in love simply lived life as an example of perfect leadership through humility.

Christ was also an open book. All aspects of the affairs of a church should be above even the perception of impropriety or secrecy. Christ’s example is impossible to exactly mimic on this earth, but the goal of church leadership should be to make every possible effort to try. This attempt, of course, would also require disclosure when it falls short.

A description of my personal leadership style, besides being a summary of all the above, would begin with the terms ‘mostly unwitting’ and ‘occasionally unwilling’. At the risk of sounding egotistical, I have to say that some people have, and still do, gravitate toward me as a leading figure. In situations like the development of small group ministries and the attempt to restructure the session, and its nominating process, at my church the parties involved sought my participation and counsel, eventually expressing the opinion that I should lead the effort. Obviously integrity, honesty and an ability to communicate have become recognized as traits I possess, but I think others identify in me qualities I have been reluctant, or possibly afraid, to ascribe to myself.

I now understand others’ perception that I lead by serving. Over the last few years I had not noticed this change in my demeanor, or even its significance. I now look at the people who wish to be led as those I need to serve, and as the beneficiaries of my efforts.

An example would be that I am fanatically responsible with someone else’s money, as in a church or committee, to the point of being able to account for literally every penny, while I’m still well less than organized with my own funds. I never assume that the corporate assets are my own or, in any way whatsoever, that they exist to accrue any benefit to myself.

I also think that people recognize in me a willingness to be an advocate, which may really be just a need to be viewed as heroic. Being approached by a group who considers itself an underdog, or in some way victimized, I will almost always take up its banner.

Once in a position of leadership I now tend to work towards finding common purpose and vision, as opposed to the relatively autocratic attitude I possessed in the past. I immediately suspect my own motives and will actively seek the input of other participants. Many people view me, however, as a visionary. I see it, rather, as the product of being a good communicator.

I am also recognized for having a firm foundation in scripture and ethics, while I see myself as a work in progress on both counts. Most are amused when I try to convince them that they are wrong to credit me with these qualities. I see myself as tending to vacillate between being falsely humble and truly cognizant that my gifts are God-given.

Either way, self-deprecation has become part of my leadership style, as with my humor. Lastly, I sincerely try to encourage people and affirm their efforts. Since I am working to the benefit of those being led, I don’t see this affirmation as empowering their work, but simply reinforcing the understanding of its worth in the collective effort.

Now comes the question of my potential shortcomings in leadership. As stated earlier, my personal transformation is ongoing, as I hope it always will be. I believe the challenge I would face in leadership can be summed up in one word – balance.

I have a propensity to function in the extremes. I’ve managed, with God’s help, to find the balance between the farthest points of some aspects of my personality and, as long as I maintain that equilibrium, I function healthily. I am at once very emotional and very logical or analytical (emphasis intended), and constant conflict arose from the opposing traits. I have learned, rather than to suppress emotion as I was taught, to walk with one foot in each world.

Most of the time each facet seems inextricably connected to the other – I can’t think without feeling, I can’t feel without thinking. Conflict or depression can now arise if I spend too much time using one side of my brain. Over time, I’ve developed the tools to recognize the symptoms and to re-center myself. I suspect that this is a perfectly normal aspect of most people’s lives but, being ‘bred’ to discourage any reliance whatsoever on emotion, I had to learn this balance late in life.

The same pattern could easily exist with respect to other aspects of my personality, however. My fears of falling back into old patterns may prove to be healthy if they simply encourage a constant awareness. If the fear becomes dominant I could face inertia, while I risk returning to self-serving behavior if I neglect the need to be held accountable.

Likewise, I am prone to addiction – most recently exhibited in the inclination towards workaholism. Balance is needed between work and refreshment or renewal. Being a little insecure creates the possibility of responding to ego stroking, necessitating the frequent reflection on God being the source of worldly gifts as well as spiritual.

Straddling the line between being extroverted and introverted (although tending a little more to the latter) begs for balance between public and private time. Possibly the biggest danger arises out of my need to remain self-aware. It seems easily conceivable that this may promote self-absorption. In all of these possible situations, the input of trusted friends and the keeping of an ear cocked in God’s direction will likely continue to be my best preventative measures.

My personal leadership definition:  Functioning for the benefit of those electing to be led, in a manner that reflects trustworthiness, honesty, encouragement, sound decision-making grounded on value-based judgment and communication, and integrity with regard to personal style and gifts, and the individual and collective value system.


[i] Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change – Discovering the Leader Within, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. p. 45

[ii] Ibid. p. 78

[iii] Lovett H. Weems, Jr, Church Leadership – Vision, Team, Culture and Integrity, Nashville: Abindon Press, 1993. p. 123

[iv] W. Paul Jones, Worlds Within a Congregation – Dealing with Theological Diversity, Nashville: Abindon Press, 2000.              

[v] Graham Neville – translator, SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM Six Books on the Priesthood, Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996.

[vi] Joan Chittister, OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, New York: HarperCollins, 1991. p.11

[vii] Ibid. p.19

[viii] Gilbert R. Rendle, Leading Change in the Congregation, Washington D.C.: Alban Institute, 1998. p.17

[ix] Charles M. Olsen, Transforming Church Boards, Washington D.C.: Alban Institute, 1995

[x] Chittister, p.11

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... or, preaching from both ends

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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