Borders Missional Retreat 2013

Border Missional Retreat 2013 6th and 7th September

The paradoxes of congregational leadership

Andrew Rollinson


What I want to do this evening is to reflect with you on both the nature of Christian leadership and, in particular,
on what a Baptist perspective can bring to our understanding of leadership. Is there a distinctively Baptist
way of being a leader?
Let me begin by reading some immensely encouraging words from Isaiah 49:19-24. Here are words of astonishing reversal and hope. Broken Israel is to be rebuilt; exiled, desolate Israel is to be reconstituted. But what is astonishing is that God is not just going to restore (God’s salvation is never just Eden restored) - there is going to be a new ‘spaciousness’, a new dimension, a new inclusiveness, a new richness to restored Israel. ‘I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift my banner to the peoples.’ And for you here, I believe these words are, derivatively, a gracious promise for you. (v.20b) ‘This space is too small for us, give us more space to live in’ The thesis I want to develop tonight is that for us to lead people to a new place there needs to be a new sort of leadership, what I want to call to (picking up the metaphor of this passage) a ‘more spacious leadership’ which is, I believe, what Baptist leadership is about.

And my way into this theme is to use the language of paradox. 

Biblical leadership is not just about the anointed individual hearing from God and then becoming the strong, dynamic, visionary, can-do, directional pioneer. It’s more open, more collegial, more spacious, more paradoxical than that; like the whole of Christian living. We live a life of grace where,paradoxically, God’s power is made perfect in weakness, where, paradoxically, the first is the last; where, paradoxically, only as we lose life do we find it; where, paradoxically, it is often the wounded who become the healers.

So this is the language I want to use - to provoke us to think through some issues. So here’s the first in-built tension.
 

1. ‘Efficient’ leadership begins with ‘wasting time’ with God.
Some of you will know Marva Dawn’s book on worship ‘A royal
waste of time’. For me, the only legitimate starting point when
reflecting on leadership is to consider where, ultimately, we are
leading people. And the answer: we are leading people to God;
we are about creating space for people to meet God, and fall in
love with God, and be bowled over by his indescribable beauty;
space for God’s love to break in, as St Augustine puts it, ‘with
sweet violence’; space for God’s grace to draw people out of selflove and falsehood and darkness into his marvellous light - space to know God and serve God. ‘Humanity was made for
communion with God; and that’s what we are about - and too
often we get in the way!

It follows that it is only as we ourselves walk closely with God, enjoy him and sunbathe in his love that we will
ever be instruments he can use powerfully. The starting point of our calling is not to serve the world but, like
Jesus, to discern what the Father is up to and work in sync with Him. In a world where activism is so
honoured, my first plea, as pastors and leaders, is that we understand that our highest calling is simply to be
attentive to God; to truly listen to God, like the great O.T seers ‘to stand in his counsel’. The paradox has
been called ‘holy inefficiency’.

It was two hundred years ago this year (May 1813) that Robert Murray McCheyne, the godly Free
church Minister in Dundee was born. In many ways McCheyne was not outstanding - a good, but not
great, preacher; a young and inevitably immature leader; scholarly but not outstanding. But what
was unmistakably clear to all who met him was that he had an unself -conscious but striking love for
Jesus Christ. One contemporary said of him ‘It was not what he said, nor even how he said it, but it
was his look- it was so Christ like – the face of one shining from being in the presence of his Lord.’
Now clearly it’s a theme we are all painfully aware of, and a tension we all live with in leadership. It’s all too
easy to say leadership is all about ‘being and not doing’, but somewhere in the week, as pastors, we have to
prepare two sermons, visit ten people, write six letters and chair three meetings; and as lay leaders we have
to somehow squeeze everything into a pressured job and a busy family life! Since coming back into the local
scene the thing that has struck me most is the sheer relentlessness of a typical church leader’s week. And this
paradox has many dimensions. It is the tension between wanting to be professional and yet recognising
ministry is far more than aspiring to excellence. It is the paradox of arguing for competency in ministry and
yet having room for vulnerability. It is about gifted leadership and yet proving God’s power in our weaknesses.
And there is no simple answer to this tension.

 One of the earliest classic texts on pastoral care was written by the C4th Cappadocian Father, Gregory
of Nazianzus. Gregory was educated in Athens but from a young age was deeply attracted to the
monastic life. Along with his great friend, Basil of Caesarea, he wanted to set up his own monastery;
but on Christmas Day 361 he was ordained. However almost immediately he fled to Pontus to escape
his church responsibilities and find a contemplative life. He later recanted and realised he needed to
be with his people and wrote ‘In defence of the flight to Pontus’ his reflections on pastoral life. It’s all
about this paradox, this tension, these two poles - being set apart for quiet before God and being
called to all the busyness of serving God’s people. We may not run away to Pontus, but in our own
way, we all feel it.

Every day and every week we have to fight for time to be alone with God in prayer and in the Scripture, each
day to experience the testimony of Cleopas and his friend on the Road to Emmaus, ‘our hearts burned within
us while he talked with us on the road and opened up the Scriptures’. How can we lead people, lead people to
God , if we have become strangers to Him.

I came across these words in one of Rowan William’s books ‘God looks not for heroes but for lovers,
not for moral athletes but for men and women ready to find their selfhood in the longing for
communion with the eternal ’Other’’.

2. The only way to be an overseer of the whole flock is to be
attentive to the individual sheep.

Space for God – and space for the individual. I have long been
persuaded that one of the most important bibl ical descriptions of the role of a church leade is that of overseer, the episcopos. Our calling is to keep the big picture the big picture; to seek under God to re-shape the church into being more and more a faithful gospel community.

John Webster (formerly of Aberdeen, now St Andrews) puts it like this:

‘overseeing (episcope) is that ministry whose special province is both to gather the believing community
around the Centre, the Living Lord, and in that gathering to
make sure this community is critically aware of itself.’ I think it
is a great definition. And in so many ways we are called to do
this. As pastors, along with other leaders, our role is to
oversee the ministry of the Word, but not to be always
preaching; to oversee the pastoral care of the church but not
to try and do it all; to oversee the mission strategy but by no
means to lead everything. We are called to change the
culture of a church; we are called to safeguard its gospel
values; our calling is to be guarantors, under God, of the
spiritual health of the local church.

But here lurks a danger. We can so focus on our overseeing role that, unless we are particularly vigilant,
we can all too easily slip into a managerial mindset. Unwittingly our legitimate desire to steer, to shape, to organise, to motivate, subtly begins to include manoeuvring and even gently manipulating people. We begin, in Eugene Peterson’s te rms, to start to ‘functionalise people’; to begin treating them as ‘means to an end’ rather as the end itself; to use them and make use of them rather than to love them and serve them. Bonhoeffer’s famous comment puts it very clearly; ‘the community which loves its idea of community more than the individuals within that community will eventually destroy itself.’

For me, a spectacular illustration of this was the fad some years ago called G12, a church growth idea from Columbia involving discipling 12 people who will then all go and lead and disciple 12 others. (The Gate in Dundee has never recovered from it). The fatal flaw, it always seemed to me, (apart from the wild assumption that everyone equally has small group leadership gifts) is that you make everyone essential to your grand plan. It’s all very subtle but actually folk are not just there to be loved and nurtured, but are the means for your next phase of dramatic growth.

The only way I know to stop this perennial danger is never to become so full of our overseeing role that we fail to spend regular, unhurried, unresented, quality time with individuals for their sake. Few of us, of course, fall into this trap overtly and all of us here will say ‘not me’, but I confess I can get quite close to the danger zone at times. Hence my paradox: ‘The only way to oversee the whole flock is to be attentive to the individual’. The shepherd who never leaves the 99 to seek the one lost sheep is not worthy to look after the 99. To offer folk our undivided attention in an unhurried way, to hear out people to their point of pain, to pray with folk for their sake, (people who may contribute nothing - seemingly) to the church is fundamental to our calling. The pastor who is so into leadership that he hasn’t time to give attentive care to the least in his or her congregation has begun to lose the plot.

So here again I introduce the theme of space. In the chapter that you may have read on ‘empowering
others’; I talk about space to grow and space to discover.
Permission is as an important a component of leadership as
persuasion permission to explore possible gifting, permission to
try and fail, permission to discern God’s voice together.
Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, two Canadian Baptists, in an
important book, The Missional Leader, advocate that it is exactly
this skill of ‘creating space’ that it crucial in guiding congregations to a place of effective mission in the context of our rapidly changing society. They argue strongly that the old style of
leadership, devising mission strategies and programmes and then
commending them to the congregation at large, has had its day. Instead, the pressing need is for leaders to (I quote) ‘cultivate an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God’.

But not only space to grow and discover but space to allow diversity and even ambiguity. Over the last few
weeks I’ve been doing a series on Tough Questions, submitted by the congregation. This last week the
question was:‘What does welcome to our church look like for the same-sex couple’?’ And I talked about the
need for a spacious missional community. This is what I said: ‘My prayer is that we create a hospitable,
gracious space for those who come among us who want to belong without feeling they immediately have to
believe or behave, as the core of the church do. It is a prayer for an ability to live with a degree of moral
ambiguity and to act as if this is God’s church and not ours.’ I hardly need to tell you that the more serious we
are about reaching and welcoming the totally unchurched, the more messy and ambiguous church life will be.
Space for God; space for the individual, and thirdly space for the people of God. So here’s my third paradox.

3. The clearest voice of leadership is sometimes located in the weakest member
Here I come to a deeply held Baptist conviction that shapes our understanding of leadership. I have spoken
and written on it often, so I will be brief. Within God’s church
there is only one leader and that leader is called the Lord Jesus
Christ; and in his gracious sovereignty, to confound the wise, He
sometimes delights to choose the most unlikely person through
whom he speaks. I guess I have a personal crusade to say two
things: first, the God-given gift of leadership and communal
discernment are not foes but friends; and second, the church
meeting is not to be viewed as something to endure but
something to savour. It can be the arena of startling energy,
creativity and revelation. For these two things to be realised we
need a huge shift in our theology and in our practice.

I often put it like this: effective leadership does not necessarily need to be visionary; it just needs to have the
wisdom to know where to look for the vision. There are times, it seems to me, when leaders need to cast a
vision and for the congregation to weigh it, test it, hone it and affirm it. But I also think there are times (and I
very rarely hear this talked about) when a wise leadership will deliberately have no opinion on a matter and
deliberately invite the congregation to initiate the vision. Their motivation is not laziness but empowerment.
In other words, the real art of leadership is not about making all the key decisions and then asking the
congregation to offer their assent (that’s relatively easy to do!) but about being able to manage congregation -
wide change towards maturity and mission in a way that preserves unity and energises the Body. And for that
to happen, it seems to me, a leadership team must
constantly be asking the question ‘What can we do to
best help the whole congregation hear God on this
issue? And for this to happen the key is process -
process that takes us away from confrontational
meetings; and finding the right context and the right
format for a congregation to truly hear God (small
groups, for example, discussing and journaling and then
feeding back to a larger group.) The congregation the
more important this becomes. I personally find it
unhelpful when people say that what partly defines
Baptists is the church meeting. What defines us is
communal discernment, not a particular form of it.

Stage One: Framing and Locating – clarifying the issue and plotting who, where and how discernment is to be
sought. I think this is really key and I want to come back to this is a moment.
Stage Two: Focussing and Grounding – an intentional focussing on God in worship and prayer and a
communal exercise in bible study (through teaching and group work)
Stage Three: Shedding and Listening – a significant time in silence to both create a distance from
presupposition and prejudice and to draw close to the Spirit. Some traditions talk about finding a ‘holy
indifference’. Offering ourselves as living sacrifices.
Stage Four: Exploring and Weighing – a time for extended conversation(s) and consultation allowing
creativity, honesty, doubt and assessment. There is no substitute for real conversations.
Stage Five: Closing and Resting – a reaching for agreement and a hearty sense of trusting God as a move
forward is made.

Bishop Stephen Neill, in his autobiography,‘God’s apprentice,’ tells the story
of the founding of the United Church of South India.
‘The man who touched the log and released the jam was not one of the great prelates and leaders, but the quietest of Methodist missionaries, the Rev T.R.Foulger, a man so modest and humble that I cannot remember any other occasion on which his voice was heard on the committee. He spoke very quietly and simply told us that we had talked long enough, and that the time had come for action; we must go back to our churches and tell them that we must say an unequivocal ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the Scheme that had been so carefully prepared and long debated. We knew that day that we were listening to the voice of God, and that we must obey or perish.’

Fourthly space for peace. So here’s a fourth paradox.
4. We are called to be the prophetic leader, the’ agent provocateur’ and yet, at the same time, called to be
the ‘non-anxious presence’ for the church.

Our calling, on the one hand, is that God calls us to be initiators of
change; to be effective transition agents; and yet, on the other hand, one of our primary roles is to be a stabilising influence, a calming and prayerful presence in the midst of change. We are called to be both the captains of the ship taking the vessel into rough seas and at the very same time, the harbour master, creating a safe haven in troubled times. So here we are; advocating ripping out the pews, refocussing our home groups into missional expressions; re-designing the whole way we do worship. We are the forward thinking, radical leaders who shake people up (as Jesus did) but in so doing, we are creating so much corporate angst - annoying traditionalists, fazing the faint-hearted, stressing the already stressed – that all is far from calm. And yet at the same time ‘the God of all peace’ calls us to be the calming, comforting shepherd of a frightened flock. The Emmaus Road story is the story of a couple traumatised by change, who find peace through the very one who caused the change.  And for me, there is only one way through this tension, and it is for ourselves to be enjoying an inner peace born of security in God.  I wonder if you have you heard of St Seraphim of Sarov, an C18th Russian Orthodox priest who became a great latter-day Desert Father. One of his sayings was: ‘be at peace, then thousands around you will find salvation’.

It is all about security in Christ. If our security is found in pleasing people or is a function of how well the church is doing – we are heading for disaster. Pastoral insecurity will lead either to being so afraid of any disturbance that we will never challenge the status quo (however far removed from a biblical church it may be) or alternatively our insecurity will mean, though we may relish introducing change, we will not be able to cope with any criticism (however valid our wonderful ideas.) Only as we are truly rooted and grounded in the love of God are we able to be change agents and peacemakers at the same time. Only by being secure in our calling to do only what the Father is doing and nothing more or less, we will have the freedom both to advocate change and to love everybody without partiality. One of the great skills of change management is to be able to advocate a cause whilst not siding pastorally with one particular lobby group. I find myself increasingly attracted to the old high church idea, espoused by Bishop Lightfoot, that the minister should embody in his or her own live the four ‘classic Reformation marks’ of the church: we are to be
one (integrated, at peace with ourselves), holy (‘icons of a new way of living’), catholic (open to others) and apostolic (mission-focussed.)

We all know it, the only currency which truly counts in change management is trust and trust comes from a perception people have that our only desire is to please and obey God. One leadership guru Warren Bennis says this: ‘Followers need from their leaders three basic qualities: they want direction; they want trust, they want hope; and the most pivotal of the three is the ‘trust factor’. I’ve seen too many leaders who have that formidable combination of competence and ambition but lack integrity and they succeed only in the short term. I call them ‘destructive achievers’ and they are dangerous.’

Paul Chaffee, in a book on accountability and ministry says this: ‘The touchstone of godly leadership is
trustworthiness, not success. The breakdown of godly leadership is betrayal, not failure ’.

5. Missional church leaders are more concerned about the kingdom than about the church
Very briefly, but importantly, a final paradox to end. Space for
the Kingdom.
Some of you may remember Howard Snyder’s book of the 1980’s
‘Liberating the Church’ in which he says this:
‘Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice;
church people often put church work above concerns of justice,
mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people
into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the
church into the world. Church people worry that the world might
change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church
change the world.’

When I arrived at St Andrews I thought I was a reasonably ‘kingdom minded’ leader. I’d served in a 
national role and I could see something of the bigger picture. But what I have found as the number of evangelical churches has grown in St Andrews (it’s a cool place to plant a church!) is a not too attractive competitiveness growing in my heart. Is my central
passion to see St Andrews Baptist church grow and do well (in a way which reflects on me) or – recognising growth is good – is my real passion is to see God’s Kingdom and his glory extended? Of course in the normal course of events the two are not in opposition; but a time will come when God tests whether we are truly Kingdom-minded - giving away our best, as
Antioch did; giving away resources (as the Macedonian church did); submitting to the advice of leaders from other churches as at the Council of Jerusalem. And what we do know, I our better moments, is that as we give space to Gods greater Kingdom purposes, the local is never left unblessed.

Isaiah 49: 20: ‘This place is too small for us; give us more space to live in’ – and, we could add, ‘allow us to be
more spacious leaders’.