Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Tod Bolsinger of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Canoeing the Mountains. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Early in your book you share your epiphany “that your people need you to lead them even more than preach to them” (page 36). If preaching, teaching and the care of souls were at one time seen as the primary tasks of the pastor, what do you see as the primary tasks of the pastor as leader?
Tod: I define leadership as “Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” Therefore, the primary tasks of a leader certainly do include preaching, teaching and pastoral care as what I would call the “on-the-map technical competence” of a leader. Those primary tasks cannot be ignored our overlooked.
But leadership in uncharted territory is more about leading a process of learning and transformation with a group of people so they can carry out the mission to which they are called. Leading that process requires a leader to focus more on how to be, rather than on what to do. Specifically, to adapt a phrase from Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center: “Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”
Because all transformational leadership requires change, and change is experienced as loss, a significant amount of a leader’s work is to help a community determine what will never change (start with conviction) and then prepare to courageously face the necessary losses (stay calm) to keeping together (stay connected) to accomplish their mission (stay the course).
Those experiences of loss tend to cause people to lose their nerve and fall back on quick fixes or platitudes. But the way of leadership is ultimately about helping a people face their losses with courage, commitment and hope believing that God is at work within them and through them—so they can continue the course of change and fruitfulness. As Jesus put it so clearly about his own life and leadership in John 12, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Tim: You describe adaptive capacity, technical competence and relational congruence. Let’s look at relational congruence. How does a clergy leader learn relational congruence?
Tod: Relational congruence is the key to engendering trust in those whom we seek to lead into uncharted territory. While technical competence is learned in the repetitive discharging of our expected duties, relational congruence is both more difficult and requires more transparency.
Relational congruence comes through the intersection of reflection and relationships. Or to flip that on its head, relational congruence comes through relationships with trustworthy, caring and brutally honest people who cause you to engage in deep searching and brutally honest self-reflection. A famous principle that is attributed to educator John Dewey is that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. The key way that we learn to be relationally congruent is to reflect upon the moments of incongruence in our lives. It is to have safe, trusted advisors who will allow us to reflect with them on why we act one way at the church office and another in our neighborhoods, why we preach judgment on some people and some sins and overlook others, and why we act generously to those with whom we identify but withhold from those who are different from us.
Relational congruence comes only as we are able to see ourselves reflected in the eyes of those whom we respect and who love us. When they see us showing up in the same way in every circumstance—and we see them seeing us showing up this way—then we will be trustworthy leaders.
Tim: Your book builds on Ronald Heifetz’s theory of leadership based on understanding the difference between adaptive and technical problems. It is possible to teach this theory. There are as many leadership workshops for clergy on adaptive leadership now as there were on workshops regarding Bowen Family Systems 15 years ago. How do you help clergy live into adaptive leadership and not just understand the theory?
Tod: Leadership is an art, a practice, a way of functioning. It is a skill that is more like conducting an orchestra, guiding an expedition or teaching a cooking class. Leadership is learned in the leading. The problem with most theories of leadership is that they tend to communicate that once someone learns the theory then she is a leader. But learning to be a leader, especially an adaptive leader is something that happens only in real time with space to reflect on, with feedback from others, and with opportunities to try again and correct one’s mistakes.
Learning leadership from a book, a workshop, or a lecture is like learning to cook without entering a kitchen, fly-fish without casting to a trout, or flying a plane using only a video game. The best way for pastors to learn to become adaptive leaders is to secure a leadership coach who both understands adaptive leadership and whom the pastor can trust enough to be vulnerable and reflect on the lessons learned in the leading.
One warning: Don’t assume that because a pastor has been successful that he or she can be a good coach. Coaching is itself a skill and adaptive leadership coaching is not the same thing as either pastor or even leading. My own coach for three years was a brilliant psychologist who not only knew adaptive leadership theory, but was a committed church lay leader. He had never pastored a congregation nor led a company, but was great at asking questions, reflecting back to me, and creating a space for me to learn “on-the-job.”
Tim: What’s one thing you’ve been working on regarding congregations and leadership since you published Canoeing the Mountains?
Tod: I’m currently working on a book that combines my early work in communal spiritual formation with my more recent work in leading change to focus on the practices that form adaptive leaders for the church and mission of God. My working title is Tempered, and it is focused on helping Christian leaders develop the strength and flexibility to lead people they love into the places of pain in the world, in the face of their people’s own resistance.
Tim: You can give first-time clergy three books to read that they probably didn’t read in seminary or whatever education route they took to ministry. What three books do you offer?
Tod: Let me give you one ministry book, one theology book, and one novel:
Thriving through Ministry Conflict by Jim Osterhaus, Joe Jurkowski and Todd Hahn
The Misunderstanding of the Church by Emil Brunner
Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Hayim Herring, consultant, nonprofit organizational futurist and author of Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Thanks to you and your colleague Dr. Teri Elton for introducing us to the phrase “Foresight is 20/20.” In your CRG blog, you link foresight to agility. How far into the future do you think a congregational board can think strategically about programs and purpose?
Hayim: I think at least five years and here are some reasons. The further out we think, the less accurately we’re likely to forecast. Yet, we’re also in an age of accelerating velocity of change. For example, could we imagine how quickly we’re moving from electronic wearable fitness devices to wearable medical devices, like Apple’s newest watch that has an FDA approved heart monitor? Strategic issues that leaders estimate won’t surface until another five years are likely to happen much sooner. And as congregations are often slow at planning and executing on relatively simple changes, it feels like congregations must learn to accustom themselves to look out at least five years. That way, if a change comes sooner leaders will be prepared, and if it takes longer, they will be one of those congregations that will pioneer their desired future.
As a corollary to your question, I’d like to add, “How do we develop leaders who can stay rooted in the past, look deeply into the present, and anticipate and shape the kind of congregational community that they desire?” This is deep cultural change work for a congregation, even beyond compressed strategic planning that happens every three years. It calls for developing a culture that understands that exercising foresight is now a required leadership attribute and one that should also be fostered more broadly in the congregation.
Tim: The Center in Indiana worked with a congregation a few years ago that decided not to set an annual budget. This was during a time when the town, and members of the congregation, were experiencing economic hardships. It wasn’t just that household budgets were tight, people were losing their jobs. The board decided to vote on a budget every quarter, rather than annually because they couldn’t see far enough into the future to make firm plans. They called this flexible implementation. Is something like this what you mean by agility?
Hayim: It’s very easy to play armchair organizational analyst, especially because I am literally sitting in recliner responding and not in a congregation that is making quarterly budget decisions. Clearly, their commitment to meet and review finances reflects their tremendous love and concern for their congregation – this is not work that one volunteers for to receive accolades! But from my vantage point, their approach has the potential to unintentionally accelerate the demise of a congregation. Budgeting on a quarterly basis, especially as a response to financial duress, constrains longer-term creative thinking at the time it’s needed most. It fosters a mindset of the anxiety of existing from one budget quarter to the next and crowds out time to envision a completely different kind of congregational community.
A few alternatives: in a crisis, leaders lock themselves into a room and don’t emerge until they have drafted an emergency plan with milestones that they communicate transparently to the congregation. That plan may contain any number of outcomes. Leaders might determine how to gracefully merge with another congregation or keep the community but sell and lease back the building. They could think about renting other space or meeting in people’s homes. They could seek new sources of revenue through tasteful corporate sponsorships (in the way that corporations advertise on public radio or television). The congregation might repurpose and rent space in the building that stands empty much of the week to struggling startups whose values are consistent with those of a congregation, even if they are not “religious” startups.
This congregation was fiscally responsible and clearly wanted to do right as stewards of congregational funds. But was there was a parallel working group considering out-of-the-box options? I don’t mean impossible to achieve alternatives, but ones that are at least remotely possible. If a group of leaders had been cultivated to anticipate trends, it’s possible that they might have at least mitigated this dire situation. But a congregation under extreme financial duress cannot financially cut its way out of a crisis. Renewed congregational life may happen from seeing and seizing opportunities that add meaning and purpose unavailable from other congregations or organizations, from merging with another congregation or functioning as a semi-autonomous congregation within a larger congregation, or from a bold re-envisioning of the purpose of forming a congregational community.
Tim: Hard trends become future facts. In addition to generational differences and the handling of devices as if they were human (as you note in the blog), what is another hard trend which congregational leaders might want to track?
Hayim: The Pew Research Center recently developed new typologies for categorizing Americans by religion that include provocative categories like “Spiritually Awake,” “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.” It would be very helpful for congregations to use local resources at universities to help them understand the implications of these new typologies and possible impacts that they may have on congregational participation. Another trend is moving into a mobile future, where religious services, rituals, financial payments, and tracking one’s spiritual growth are ripe for development. Returning to a theme from my last blog post, I have many questions about the impact of immersive technologies on congregational life. When individuals can use smartphones to generate a holographic image of a congregation and watch their favorite pastor preach, what will that do to their relationship with physical space and community? Will we find holiness in holograms? Perhaps most important of all, it is no longer acceptable under any circumstance for congregational leaders to enable or to cover up the actions of those who verbally demean, sexually harass, or assault another individual. That obvious religious imperative of treating all individuals as inherently worthy of dignity cannot be taken for granted.
Tim: Many congregational leaders are exploring what innovation means. In your book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, innovation is defined as an act, and entrepreneurship as an organizational state. Many in the religious sphere, and the broader non-profit sphere, are trying to understand innovation. If a group is stuck trying to define innovation, how might a group try to act into, live into innovation?
Hayim: You’re right, congregational groups can become paralyzed even by the thought of becoming innovative. After all, innovations often occur in public and even with the best of planning, there will be some glitches and congregants can sometimes respond harshly to well-intentioned efforts that flop. Here are a few suggestions on how to get “unstuck”:
- Based on years of experience, my mantra on innovation is, “think big, start small, move fast, evaluate/modify, and determine whether to close down our scale up an innovation.” Cultivate a practice of ongoing pilot programs (or betas) that are designed for learning – from success and from failure.
- Don’t go for the “low hanging fruit” because that approach doesn’t satisfy either those who are interested in fundamental innovation, or those who like things as they are, don’t want to innovate, but also want to be good team players and put forth effort for some change that they don’t support in their hearts.
- Also, look toward other places in your local community that have successfully undertaken innovation – another nonprofit, an art museum or symphony that had to engage audiences differently than in the past, or some other organization that had to reinvent all or a part of itself. Don’t only look to other congregations, but outside of the congregational world to those who share similar struggles.
Tim: Give us a glimpse into a way of congregational life which you’d love to be a part.
Hayim: The congregations to which I belong and like to work with share some commonalities. They are places in which people are kind to one another, have a broad concern for their local community, and are much more concerned about their own authenticity than what others who belong elsewhere say about them. They balance spirituality with intellectual challenge. They trust that their members can handle big ideas and grapple with difficult issues. They hold on to a reliable core mission and experiment – although it’s difficult to find congregations that have spiritual incubators to complement their ongoing offerings. I also feel that aesthetics – the thought and attention that go into the flow of services and programs, music, art, and the performance of ritual – are critically important. So much of congregational life is about a reenactment of the past that reawakens the demands of my soul, or the momentary creation of a microcosm of a better reality that motivates me to work with others to make it permanent. That intentionality and forethought of experience are much-appreciated ingredients of a congregational community.