bits from bob....
Small Church Leadership
by Robert J. Young
©, 2002, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
The subject of my doctoral research project was leadership. Many options can be considered, especially in the small church--elders, no elders, ministers, deacons, volunteers.... These factors affect all we do. Here are the variaables for our mentality, world view, hiring processes, teamwork, turf issues, church personality....the list is virtually endless.
I take as a text Romans 12:1-2. One of hardest transitions for ambitious, well-trained people who would lead small churches is a mental one. It is hard to view the small church as legitimate, having integrity, and validity, if one conforms to a rational, future oriented, "successful", programmed, quantitative thinking model. This demands that we who would lead small churches must be transformed.
The small church must be understood on its own terms, not society's, not church of Christ terms, not business world's views. This is insightful for understanding an approach to valid leadership in small church.
Based on our text, one definition of ministry and leadership in small church: To participate with God in transforming human beings from present state to full potential of divine destiny.
Understanding leadership as the transformation of human life keeps us on track. The goal of any ministry is not production or running programs. Transformation is God's, it is not scheduled, sought, it is only glimpsed and nurtured. Production can be scheduled, studied. Transformation takes time.
Consider several principles to guide leadership in the small church:
If change is accepted, one of two things occurs: (1) It is not really new, we did about the same thing before, (2) Those who were most opposed becomes the loudest supporters of the change.
- I. JOINING--the leader must get in the water
Picture in family album, boys swimming in pond at their grandparents in Arkansas. We fish in that pond, boat on that pond, swim in that pond. In the rowboat, I push against pond waters with oars. Not much effect on pond, ripples, but no hole where oar was. This pushing moves the boat, keeps it above water, out of the water, but doesn't change much except location of boat. Also swim in pond, get in it, have cleared weeds, raked rocks, made it more inviting. Lesson. One leader can enter the world of the small church from above, sit in the boat, make a few waves, move himself forward (up ladder of success), not make much difference in the pond. Another leader gets his feet wet. Changes the pond, makes it more comfortable, more useful, leads from within, by loving, by giving self to the pond. Invests self.
I know a preacher who moved his church from the back pews to the front rows in one week. Really? Yes, but it took 12 years to build up trust to allow it to happen. God doesn't seem to be in a hurry, if still working to transform humankind after 2000 years, do we really think we can accomplish the whole task in a week, month, or even a year?
The small church is an inertial body, not an intentional one. Goes merrily along in direction it is heading, not necessarily where we think it ought to be going. This inertia makes it difficult to change directions, but is also reason for survival against difficult odds. The small church does not live in rationality and decision making, it lives in habit and heart.
The transformation process begins internally, you have to get in the pond, get your feet wet.
- IDENTIFYING--moving in and out, back and forth, minister or prophet, but not both at the same time
Wise leader must live in and enjoy the small church world and not become trapped by it. Define issues, problems. Put down on paper, black/white, is my analysis wrong? No, but hate to see it so clearly. Like Pogo, we have met the enemy, and it is us. But when church is like family, aware, in heart, in life, where we live, find identity, and we change what we can, never easy to think in detached, clinical, objective way.
In expressing objectively what everyone knows subjectively, one may easily cross the line. Become an outsider. Threatens.
Small church leader must be able to "step out" once in a while, look biblically and objectively at the family, set sights on God's plans and intentions, but then step back into small church world.
God's OT prophets were able to weigh tribes on scales of eternity, found Israel wanting, stepped out but didn't step back in. Literally voices crying in wilderness. Little success in getting anyone to see things their (God's) way.
Faithful small church leader never marches in position of external critic, little true ministry from that position, nor does that one lose sight of eternity. Live with tension most not have to live with. Live inside and outside of small church world simultaneously. The key word is identity.
This matter of identity--being both in and out--helps us understand both the present state and the future potential--where we are and where we're going...eventually.
- ORIENTATION--looking forward and backward, or the case of the sprained neck
Illustration: consider the rear facing seats in older station wagons. I avoid if possible. Disorienting, uncomfortable not seeing where I'm going. Guess that's why the exception is on an airplane. Rather prefer the forward look. But in world of small church, just made major mistake.
Two problems with the forward look for small church leaders. One, that's not how life is lived. Two, small church people especially find that an uncomfortable way to live life. God has created time (as opposed to space) as unidirectional. We can know past, but cannot know with certainty the future. We move forward in time, but don't know where we are going. Plan, prepare, predict, prognosticate, pro-act, but not know whether it's working until we get there. Intention, goals, strategies make desirable outcomes more probably, but still only know where we've been. Only certain of past. Backward is only perspective that handles reality. Forward is an "illusion" based on intention. May create reality, but is not reality.
Not only is what is behind us reality, small church people are comfortable with this reality. The past is their home. Tradition is their method of operation. They hook in the past, the past is personal, functional, remembered, identifying. The past becomes present reality in folk culture. Whatever was, is. The past determines the present. These things flow from the very nature of things. No disposition to reflect upon traditional, past actions and consider them objectively, critically. Behavior in the small church is traditional, spontaneous, uncritical.
Further, the way the past determines the present shapes the future. The past has a moral rightness, moral worth is attached to the customary ways of doing and thinking.
What conclude? Change is very difficult. It will be resisted as alien and immoral. Renewal, adaptation and change do not occur through rational attempts to understand the future. Change occurs as a natural, logical outcome of the past. Change must sound like what we believed all along and it must look like, be consistent with, who we have been all along.
However comfortable this backward look for small church people, it is wholly inadequate for leaders. Effective leadership must be able to look forward. See trends, register changes, be alert to new needs and hurts. But the leader must not expect to persuade anyone in the small church to respond on the basis of such a forward look. The forward look is disorienting. It is a lament, not a call or challenge. The future must come from the past, be rooted, grounded. So the forward look is a function of leadership, not of whole church. After that look, get back in your disorienting seat, see world of history, heritage, memory, tradition, scan landscape of past for values and behaviors which are appropriate for the future. Cultivate, nurture, lead forward by looking back.
Significant enterprise, different than rational planning, different values, different strategies, may never have been taught or thought. Effective small church leader must be willing to live with a sprained neck.
- PROACTIVE--reflexive and reflective
Easier to forget behaviors in small church than to learn new ones. Repertoire of behaviors available in small church decreases over time unless new behaviors are introduced.
Illustration: singing. If only lead songs leader knows, that limits. If only lead songs church knows, that limits. Sing from very narrow band of hymns, never grow. Inertial nature of church leads to diminution. Proactive leadership is both reflexive and reflective.
For change in behavior to be accepted and incorporated, must be experienced. Two strategies emerge: trial periods and increments.
- VISIONING--remember that "seeing is believing"
Thomas wouldn't believe unless he could see and touch the imprints of the nails and spear. Most people in small church are direct descendants of people from Missouri (the "show me" state). They want to see it. Incidentally, people in MO are directly descended from those described in l John 1:1. Believe nothing unless can see it. The present is reality, new things are not believed until they are experienced. In the small church, experience is much more desirable than envisioning.
Church work is filled with illustrations. Consensus is not the Christian method of operating in a small church. Nor will the majority rule. Time is wasted and feelings hurt when we try to persuade people beforehand of the greater good. It is in experience that judgments will be made. After personal involvement evaluation is possible.
Not a slap at anyone when observe that only a very few in small church culture can envision the significant new things that God is calling us to. The "work with God" part of our definition is the most important, but the least apparent. The effective small church leader will not bother with the futility of agreement, but will work with the few who can see what is yet to be. When the vision becomes tangible, others will see, and the body will incorporate it or reject it. Giving birth to programs is an art, killing them takes more skill. After thinking and projecting, experience will be the determinant. The good leader will call the question and let the chips fall where they may.
I don't understand this entirely, but reminds me of hockey goalie who after giving up winning goal, praised his opponent, "He has to be a good player to get one past me." So in the small church, it must have been a pretty good idea to have gotten past those whose sole purpose in the church seems to be to Preserve The Equilibrium (PTE club).
If give person a hammer, amazing what he will find to pound on. The tools at one's disposal, more than needs of situation, determine behavior. The tools of our education, focused on rational, bureaucratic structures, forward looking organizations, are wonderful. But to minister effectively in small church, need another set of tools. The attitude and approach of the small church leader is the most basic tool.
- Join--get in the water.
- Identify--learn to live in both worlds
- Get Oriented--but expect a strained neck
- Use the unique mix of church and leader to be proactive
- See the vision, share the experience, and don't take it personally if everything you start doesn't blossom. Dispose of the duds quickly and decisively. Don't play with them or change them. Kill them! And the quicker the better.
Last updated June 1, 2004.