I’m often asked, “Why are you a pastor?” Or, “What’s it like being a young(er) pastor?” Or I simply get intrigued looks when strangers discover my profession. These reactions reveal stereotypes about pastors and church leaders that many people hold, as those people assume they know who I should be or how I should act.
But what happens if I and many other new leaders don’t fit the stereotype? Is there really a church leadership crisis? Or is church leadership simply changing?
I believe leadership has and will remain a vital part of God’s people living faithfully in the world, but in a diversity of forms and individuals.
To be honest, my reaction to being a leader in the church is mixed. I find it both exciting and daunting. I’m excited by the opportunity to help shape the church’s role in the world. It’s a joy to explore cultural engagement and respond creatively to God’s timeless call to love him and others.
I enjoy hearing stories of leaders and churches who are able to re-imagine God’s call for them without getting trapped by the stereotypes of others. From church plants, to skateboard ministries, to artistic projects, to intellectual engagement with culture and faith through media and technology, I’m inspired by the creativity of many leaders in the church. As new leaders respond to Jesus’ call to “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) and discover, like Paul, how to “become all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22), the diversity is exciting. I have hope for the future of the church!
Some may be saying, “Yeah, wait a few years. You’re still an idealistic young leader.” Well, yes, in a way I am. But I’m not totally naive in my excitement. I also hold some uncertainty. How will I handle the expectations and stereotypes that inevitably come with ministry leadership? How will I handle failure and the danger of burnout that so many other pastors have navigated and been shaped by?
How will I handle success, particularly in a denomination that stresses covenant community and the priesthood of all believers? Can I let go of my ego long enough to realize leadership isn’t about me? Hearing stories of frustration and disappointment from experienced leaders, I wonder, when is it my turn? These are just a few questions that make embarking on the journey of church leadership a daunting prospect.
Leadership in my view, then, requires a sort of hesitant anticipation. If this feeling resonates with other leaders – leaders of all ages – an open discussion of leadership in the context of opportunity and danger is extremely important.
As I’ve developed as a leader amid this tension, two descriptions of the church have helped me formulate a concept of leadership for our times: collaboration and faithfulness.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12–14).
This passage is my favourite description of the church. A friend recently reflected on her church experience and these words from Paul, and described the community of faith as simply “living life together.” The phrase implies a need for church leadership to focus on collaboration – a return to our Anabaptist roots as a covenant community.
Recent informal studies in B.C. show a need and desire for intergenerational relationships between leaders – a.k.a. mentoring. New leaders desire mentoring that will adjust to the complex situations they face, but also focus on mutual empowerment instead of expert-to-student advice only.
For new leaders, this means adopting a position of humility and willingness to learn from those who have come before. Arrogance has no place in collaboration. Likewise, seasoned leaders need to patiently share their wisdom, while also learning from the perspectives of a younger generation.
This sort of collaborative mentoring in the description of mutual accountability is found in our MB Confession of Faith: “[Members] love, care, and pray for each other, share each other’s joys and burdens, admonish and correct one another” (Article 6). What an excellent glimpse into how mutual mentoring can be formed!
Beyond the relationship between leaders, collaboration reinforces our belief that the whole church is a covenant community. As Stanley Hauerwas stated in a recent interview, “Leadership cannot be abstracted from the communities that make it possible.” Leaders aren’t above the community, nor do they simply provide guidance for the community.
Leaders, rather, are a living part of the community, and are given a role within the community to help people live faithfully. We must remember leadership is a gift we’re given, not a right we possess.
This has proven true in my own journey. My most memorable leadership development moments are when others have empowered me to lead. Again, it’s not about me, but the community.
A word of advice to leaders seeking collaboration. Experienced leaders, consider giving permission for novices to fail, even if you have a better idea (which you likely do). The process of development – with all its ups and downs – is crucial.
New leaders, lose the chip on your shoulder against the church and older leaders. I don’t mean stop being creative in exploring faithfulness at the fringes of society, but stop assuming older leaders have it out for you, or are simply archaic in their ways. Enthusiasm and innovation will never replace the wisdom of experience. Listening by all will go a long way in creating a collaborative leadership environment.
By itself, collaboration is incomplete. It must be rooted in another hallmark of our Anabaptist beliefs: common faith in Jesus Christ and the desire to faithfully follow his call on our lives. As a leader in the church, my favourite question to ask is how can we be faithful to God’s call for us as a community of faith in our particular context? Leading collaboratively, then, is rooted in our journey together, as we seek to answer this question of faithfulness.
In my previous church, the leaders and congregation spent a considerable amount of time re-visioning. During the process, we discovered the many challenges of discerning God’s call for our particular church. Everyone had a certain idea of what faithfulness looked like. Such variety in vision made the process toward consensus quite difficult.
Yet I was struck by how our common desire for faithfulness to God’s call was a uniting factor in the whole process. It forced us to hold our own ideas loosely, and risk imagining what God was calling us to together, even if it made us feel uncomfortable.
I came to appreciate words like organic, innovation, risk, adaptation, and journey to describe how leaders and churches navigate the process of discerning God’s specific call for them. Unfortunately, as missiologists Conn and Ortiz explain in their book Urban Ministry, too often we “develop a concept of leadership that makes no reference to the context to which it is meant to apply, whether suburban or urban, this culture or that culture. While the Bible’s direction for leaders is truly transcultural, the way we apply it practically must vary from one cultural context to another.” The more situations I encounter as a leader, the more I realize faithfulness is a dynamic, often unpredictable, process.
Collaboration and faithfulness must go together. Collaborative faithfulness creates space for leaders to be shaped by the call of God both biblically and in the specific contexts in which we find ourselves.
In seeking collaborative faithfulness, one leadership virtue is key: hopeful patience. It feels like the church in the 21st century is transitioning. But it’s still unclear where that transition is headed. How do we measure the success of a dynamic community as diverse as the global church, the Mennonite Brethren, or even our local community of faith? I don’t know.
I do know, however, that hopeful patience reorients leaders away from themselves toward participation in the work of God in the world. Returning to Hauerwas, “Hope disciplined by patience…is able to create the time and space necessary for us to be faithful to the story of God.”
Leadership is an exciting and daunting journey. But as I experience the collaborative faithfulness of the people of God, I have hope for the church and the future of Christian leadership.
David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C. He blogs at www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com.