Sorry for the delay between posts. It’s been a busy few weeks, including the loss of my laptop for a few days. But here we go.
Anything that passes for missional leadership must find its focus in the life of God. Because God’s life is expressed as mission, both in its sent nature and in its openness to the other (including sinful creation), mission is a participation in the life of God. Mission, then, is essentially theological, not merely strategic. In mission we learn to act like God in the world. In the same way, missional leadership proceeds from the very life of God. It has particular rhythms and activities that might not apply to leadership in other realms, like coaching a basketball team or running a small business.
So what? Well to begin with, the movement of leadership is different. As I said in my last post, Christian leaders are constantly in pursuit of the living God, which keeps the church in a responsive posture. The first movement, then is not goal setting or deciding what good things could be done. Rather, leaders help all in the church to be attentive to their various environments for signs of what God might be calling the entire church to. This work is ongoing, even after decisions have been made and directions charted.
Because the church can never fully claim to know God or respond purely to God’s calling, it is always testing its judgements, refining its understandings of God’s leading, altering its plans as new data comes in. It holds, in other words, its notions of God’s specific calling on its life provisionally, testing as it goes, what Luke Johnson calls being “modest before the mystery.”
One more word here from Luke Johnson: while everyone has the task of making sense of their lives in the presence of God, some have the ability to take these various stories and make them a common story. Johnson marks two critical movements in leadership: 1) encouraging and attending to the stories of the members of the congregation, and 2) putting these various stories into a meaningful congregational narrative. Without the second, I don’t know what you’re calling leadership. Without the first, you’ve likely mistaken your own (or your small groups) preferences for God’s.
Of course, all of this assumes that the congregation is being encouraged to attend to their lives in relation to a living God. My mentor, Pat Keifert, suggests that most church members are functional atheists. By this, he doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that God exists. Rather he means that that belief does very little to influence their practical activity from day-to-day. So, missional leadership begins with calling members to headlong pursuit of the living God in relation to their own and modeling the skills and habits central to that work.
When I talk to congregational leaders about this kind of leading, they develop an anxious countenance. Two reasons: first, they do little to attend to their own life in this way. How can they teach others? Second, they’re anxious about what loose canon is about to be given permission to “testify” all over everyone. I get the second one. It will happen. But if we never do this work, we’ll never get better at it, leaving the “God talk” to a few in the congregation, including a few kooks. (Yes, every church has them).
So, we’ve already put leadership on a different footing. My experience is that most church leaders are much more concerned with doing things than with being a certain way.
Once the field of endeavor has been defined, however, than many of the typical traits of successful leaders across endeavors become important. Notably, the ability to articulate clearly and as succinctly as possible the implications of directions being charted, including what opportunities and dangers lie in this path. Organizing and structuring the work also becomes important. Giving people access to what they need to participate in this work, I think, is an act of hospitality, and, therefore, of grace.
Next post, I’ll talk about the rhythm of leadership that begins with pursuit of the living God.