Defending My “Gay” View of Leadership

Remember my last post. We (Stephen Johnson and myself) were called out for proposing a view of leadership that this person said would be deemed “weak” or “gay” by the people with whom he worked. For him, leadership meant stating a direction and managing outcomes. He wanted to know if we realized how strange our proposals related to communal, spiritual discernment sounded.

We granted that we did know that we were working against the grain of cultural expectations. We’ve heard this before. It takes too much time. There aren’t enough early wins. We can’t tell people where we’re going or what the outcomes will be. Now, none of these complaints are actually true unless you have preset ideas of what counts as a win or how long cultural change takes or what counts as an outcome. Still, we’ve heard it before and a big part of what we do is help people reflect on these kinds of issues.

So here’s how I responded to him in our meeting a few weeks ago.

1) Direction and control theories of leadership work in certain circumstances. Namely, they work in environments where prediction is possible. This would require both a stable cultural environment and high degrees of accountability. If you’ve got that, then you might have some success with “managing” outcomes.

2) Churches have low degrees of accountability. They are volunteer organizations that welcome everyone regardless of their ability to contribute to a project. You can’t fire church members. And you can’t say that the only important persons around here are the ones who get things done. More, congregations have poor attention spans. Every congregation I know has a 20 year old church growth plan in a file cabinet somewhere with two of ten things checked off of the list of steps to take.

3) We are in a season of rapid cultural change. The reason why congregations come to us in the first place is that they are doing everything they know to do, better than they’ve ever done it before and with less than predictable outcomes. The relationship between action and outcomes is increasingly complex. We are not operating in a stable environment that allows us simply to direct and control.

4) We are pursuing God. We are not simply pursing becoming a bigger church or having an inspiring worship service. We are pursuing God, and measures of control are counter-productive related to that task. Now, I could say a lot here. Certainly, we want to begin with God’s holiness and the problems of idolatry in the church when we associate our plans with God’s will. But I also want to say something about the nature of the Kingdom of God. It is always coming. Therefore, we don’t look at the future simply as the predictable and inevitable outcomes of the past, or as the outcomes of our human potentialities. The coming Kingdom of God, present in the movement of the Holy Spirit, bears the possibility, even the desirability of surprise. The last thing you want in a system of direction and control is a surprise. In the Kingdom of God, it is the thing to which you pay most attention.

I would have also added a fifth if I had had the presence of mind in the moment, which is pretty much all the stuff I said in yesterday’s post. We are producing something. We are putting a particular form of power into play so that we can both recognize and embody the Kingdom of the Crucified One.

Finally, a sixth. None of the current literature on organizational change says that you get change through strategic planning. And if you don’t get change, you die. That’s so 80’s. Strategic planning as an imagination about leadership only makes sense if you think of your organization as a closed system, and there simply is no such thing. I’ve worked in strategic planning environments. I’ve done enough five year plans to know that they are poor predictors. They are helpful exercises, but they should not be confused for leading.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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9 Responses to Defending My “Gay” View of Leadership

  1. John Wolfgang says:

    Had to chuckle at “that’s so 80’s”. And also, can you remind me which filing cabinet holds our 20 year plan?
    Seriously, I have to say it is so good to have you writing again. Good, good, stuff.

    BTW- about the “gay” remark? Please tell me that something was said.

  2. Sean says:

    What was the room’s temperature on “gay” being used as a derogatory?

  3. These two articles were a great read. We have found truth in what you say at our Church, we have been criticized, and been critical of our selves for not having a traditional leadership. However, when we step back and reflect we find nearly all our leadership needs are being met, and oddly enough most of them flow through our children. I know we have a unique situation, but God is up to something in our midst despite the occasional “rudderless” feeling we may have.

  4. Agree with you, Mark, and to add another point: along with the “volunteer organization in rapid cultural change,” many churches are multi-ethnic, e.g. ours is a Canadian transition-urban church with a Sunday morning attendance of 150 with people of some 20 languages.

    With all this first-and second-generation diversity it’s unwise to assume that the people in our congregations will share the same cultural pre-suppositions about many things – especially issues like planning, strategy, execution, policy, etc. which are saturated in an American business worldview.

    If an 80’s management style hinders communal discernment and the pursuit of God in a homogeneous environment where everyone’s supposed to be on the same cultural page, how much more in an urban multi-ethnic church!

    A movement which seeks to restore a more Biblically primitive style of faith and mission might do well to seek a style of church community that can transcend and embrace “Easterner & Westerner, southern and northern” (“Jew, Greek, barbarian, Scythian”), etc. The kind of model that you’re proposing seems not only to be more Biblically sound, but also seems to work better in our environment.

    • Mark says:

      Great point, and one that will be experienced increasingly by most congregations. This is certainly a major feature of the rapidly changing cultural context in which we find ourselves.

  5. Robby Wells says:

    Mark, I really appreciate you article. It was a helpful reminder for me, as I struggle constantly with feeling insecure worrisome about my role as a “leader”. Part of it is the visceral hold that forms of direction, management and control have on my own heart. I felt like your article helped articulate a lot of the tensions that I live with on a daily basis.

    I would like to hear more about your comments about strategy. I agree that in an environment of cultural instability, rapid change and open systems is not optimal for the strategist – I’m assuming that when you say “strategist” you simply mean a predictor and manager of outcomes. But my question is this: for the person in a church who is a gifted strategist, what can they contribute to a missional church? I’m assuming that a strategist can do more than just predict outcomes and manage systems of accountability. Maybe they can discern potential challenges that the missional church might face and help equip the body to face them? I imagine the challenge for a strategist is always going to be “being open to surprise”. But my question is for people who are leaders in the church who are gifted in in looking to the future and discerning potential challenges. How might they function as mission leaders in this kind of system? How can they be empowered and equipped to do so within the discipline of discernment?

  6. Mark says:

    Robby, still lots of room for a “strategist.” You’re right that the strategist needs to work within a system that is open to surprise. Beyond that, however, it is undeniable that some actions and choices are better than others even if you can’t fully predict outcomes. I would also distinguish the approach I am affirming from a direction/control approach that begins with a strategic plan, precisely in relation to where the strategic occurs. I think it is important at some point for a congregation to decide and learn from its deciding. To do this, it has to manage its attention and focus its work for a season. But this shouldn’t come first. The “strategic” should come later in the process of discernment.

  7. Ryan Porche says:

    Mark, thanks for articulating these thoughts so well. It’s going to take some time for me to unpack the implications here. Good stuff. I hope you are well.

  8. Ryan Porche says:

    Ha! I’m working really hard to figure out why Gailyn’s face is associated with my email!

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